In late 1888, having served a full term of 11 years, Albany Jim Brady was finally released from prison. He quickly hooked up with Sophie Lyons, who had recently left Ned after more than 20 years of marriage. Together Brady and Lyons traveled to Europe, where they were virtually anonymous. Putting their remarkable acting skills to work, they earned a small fortune from various scams, including a Paris heist of $200,000 in diamonds (equal to about $5 million in 2013).
Returning to America in 1889, they visited the Detroit International Exposition & Fair and went right to work. Almost immediately, Jim was arrested, this time using the alias George Woods. After obtaining his release on a claim of habeas corpus (insufficient cause for detention), Jim was again arrested on a charge of “suspicion.” The judge ordered his release and threatened to jail the policeman if he persisted in arresting Brady—which gave a prolific criminal carte blanche to work the city for a nice profit.
The duo was also successful in several surrounding states. According to Sophie, a ruse they pulled in a Peoria bank was discovered, landing Jim in prison for two years. Eventually, she joined with other criminals in the West, and Brady returned to the East with a satchel full of booty—and as a suspect in several robberies, including one in San Francisco. There was simply not enough evidence to detain him.
Back East, his name was linked to a few bank jobs, including one at Utica in 1891. But in 1892, the death of Albany Jim Brady at Cohoes was announced in the Police News and the New York Herald. Both publications were rushing things a bit, for Jim was still quite alive in New Rochelle, New York.
During the next decade, his name surfaced frequently when criminals were arrested and provided information on various crimes, or when old cohorts in the waning years of life began revealing stories from the past. Investigators Byrnes and Pinkerton made note of Brady’s culpability in many of the era’s biggest heists.
In September 1900, Jim’s impending death received widespread newspaper coverage. Age (he was suspected to be 75) and illness had taken a heavy toll, and while out for an extended walk, he fell ill with fever and chills. Suffering from exposure and very near death, he was found by a friend and taken to the local hospital. The headline in the New Rochelle Pioneer proclaimed, The Passing of James Brady; Crawled Into Barn to Die.
He had already been pronounced dead back in 1892, and in similar fashion, the current story was premature. Jim was still alive, and subsequent headlines in city newspapers brought “old business friends” to his bedside for one last chance to say goodbye. Others arrived in neat suits—lawmen who hoped to shed light on unsolved cases by garnering information from either Jim or his visitors.
Although illness had left him tired and weak, Brady was fiercely independent. Even in such poor physical condition, he refused care at the Westchester County Almshouse in White Plains. Instead, he left the hospital and returned to the home of the friend who had earlier found him ill and disoriented. There he would wait for death, arriving more kindly in the open country air than within hospital walls.
A few days later, he again fell seriously ill and was taken this time to the county almshouse. Doctors there gave him at best a fighting chance, and it appeared the end had arrived. But somehow, Jim rallied. His condition improved, and he soon began accepting visitors. Although he wanted to leave, he required constant care. Despite lifetime earnings that far exceeded most people’s wildest dreams, he was now a pauper, and the poorhouse became his home.
Reporters from major newspapers came to visit him in search of a story, and Brady began revealing a past that was previously unknown. Long ago, when a portion of his ill-gotten gains had been invested in New Rochelle real estate, things had worked out quite nicely.
On the downside, it happened that another Jim Brady in the New Rochelle area was a notorious horse thief, and his crimes were often credited to the more famous Albany Jim, who never engaged in “business” in the area where he lived.
To the contrary, New Rochelle had become Brady’s beloved home. His frequent, sometimes lengthy, absences were assumed to be those of a successful businessman, a capitalist who ventured to the big city and reaped a fortune. He returned regularly to his wife and daughters in their large country home on Pelham Road, and was often seen riding the streets of New Rochelle in a buggy drawn by beautiful horses. Children gazed in awe, and Jim sometimes tossed silver dollars and even five-dollar gold pieces their way—undoubtedly booty from his latest heist.
Despite memories that he recalled fondly, those weren’t entirely idyllic times, for his family story hadn’t ended well. During one of his criminal sojourns, this one to Montreal, Jim’s wife sold the property, pocketed the proceeds, and moved with their daughters to New Jersey. Ironically, the smooth operator had himself been snookered—and by an inside job. It was like something right from Jim’s own playbook!
Despite his old age and feeble demeanor, he still had eyes that could quickly convey a message. One interviewer wrote after asking Brady if honesty was the best policy: “… he raised his head in a flash and there was a furtive, defiant look in the old blue eyes. They are wonderfully bright eyes for a man of his years—blue as turquoise, and keen.”
His response to the honesty question? “I made nothing at it. Ten years I’ve been on the level; yes, twelve years and more, and I’m broke. Oh, I had money in my day. I made it. Twelve years it is since I came down (meaning from prison), and I’ve traveled the country ever since with a bag of tools, locksmithing. That was my trade. Why, I could make a watch all by myself.”
Among Jim’s admirers who were present for the interview, one added: “He’s clever even now, shaky as his hands are. Why, Sheriff Molloy made a bet a few days ago that Jim could open a nickel-slot machine in half an hour. Well, he just took a piece of bent wire and fiddled with it a little, and he had the machine open and every nickel out of it in …”
“In less than fifteen minutes,” finished Brady. “Oh, if I only had a good pair of hands!”
Next week, the final installment: Big Jim speaks before his dramatic end.
Photos: New Rochelle Pioneer, 1900; Denver Sunday Post, 1900