After his third prison escape in 14 months, Albany Jim Brady worked extra hard at avoiding lawmen. But he also stayed busy and was a suspect in several additional crimes: the robbery of New York City’s Metropolis Bank in early 1877; a heist of the bank in Keeseville, New York, a short time later; and hitting the Sixth National Bank in April of that year, a job that again smacked of Brady’s boldness: drilling upward into an office, accessing the vaults, and completing the theft during daylight hours.
Perhaps it was such nervy and audacious robberies, year after year, that inevitably led to foolhardiness. Or maybe it was just an average situation that escalated out of control, step by step. Whatever the case, Jim Brady’s life took a sudden turn on an early August afternoon in 1877. The site was Ward’s Furnishing Store on Broadway, where he purchased socks, handkerchiefs, and other items for about $25 and shoplifted a number of the same items.
The store manager took notice and quietly summoned a police officer. Brady, meanwhile, exited the store, strolled across Broadway to Delmonico’s Restaurant, and left via the Fifth Avenue entrance. There he encountered a police officer, who took him back to Ward’s store.
Giving his name as Oscar Peterson, Brady protested his innocence, but the stolen goods were found in his pockets, and he was marched off towards the police station, while commenting to the officer, “This is a mistake, my dear fellow,” or words to that effect. It seemed innocent enough at the time, but a few minutes later, Brady pulled a pistol, put it near the policeman’s head, and fired. The shot grazed the officer’s face, and Brady ran.
On Madison Avenue, he turned and fired again at cops who were in hot pursuit. In all, about a dozen shots were fired. A citizen joining in the chase was hit, and Brady was struck once in the leg. The chase and shootout lasted for several blocks until he was cornered and captured.
Once he was in custody, Brady passed himself off again as Oscar Peterson, a kindly gentleman from Chicago who had foolishly gotten into some trouble after drinking too much. He was incarcerated at The Tombs, where officials and inmates alike were hoodwinked by his charm and feigned drunken demeanor.
Top city detectives, in the meantime, were aware of the wild shootout that had occurred in broad daylight. Suspicions focused on why a petty crook stealing less than $30 worth of goods would engage in a shootout with police rather than surrender and pay a small fine.
Those suspicions heightened dramatically when it was found that so-called Oscar Peterson had in his possession nearly $1400, several oddly shaped keys, and other unusual items. For the psychologist in everyone, it begged the question: Why? With so much money in his pocket, why steal a few dollars worth of clothing?
While Peterson waited in The Tombs, hoping to be released quickly, several city detectives from New York’s Central Office paid the jail’s newest prisoner a visit. But when they arrived, no one at The Tombs matched the description of the suspect—a nattily dressed gentleman sporting a beard, mustache, and sideburns. It was eventually determined that upon arrival, the new prisoner had requested a complete shave and had donned a common man’s wardrobe. With the ruse now uncovered, detectives soon found they had struck gold: one of the most wanted men in America was now under lock and key.
For days, newspapers across the country carried headlines similar to those featured in the New York Sun: Albany Jim Caught Again; The Elegant Mr. Peterson’s Antecedents and Exploits; One of the Most Slippery Bank Burglars in the Country; Half A Dozen Prisons Yawning for Him; Some of His Crimes and Escapes. Stories of his capture referred to “one of the most desperate rascals in the country.… He has been engaged in some of the most gigantic bank and bond robberies which have ever occurred in this country.… Jim Brady has often been called King of the Bank Burglars.”
During his trial, Brady maintained that his name was Oscar Peterson. He also claimed that a police bullet, and not one from his own gun, had struck the injured citizen. In his favor, most of the eyewitnesses were unable to identify him since he had become clean-shaven. The media portrayed him as America’s Jack Sheppard, the legendary British daredevil bank robber and jailbreaker, noting that “Brady’s dashing and handsome appearance is only equaled by his boldness.”
Rumors circulated that a deal had been struck between Brady and the district attorney’s office, raising hopes that his sentence would be light. However, for shooting a citizen (Edward Bromfield), Jim was found guilty of felonious assault with intent to injure. The jury had met for only an hour before reaching a verdict, prompting Brady to reconsider his options.
Six days later, he entered a plea of guilty on two other charges. The court, addressing him as Oscar D. Peterson, accepted the plea changes and passed sentence: five years for shooting Bromfield, and three years on each of the other two charges, for a total of 11 years in prison.
Additionally, he was re-sentenced to six years and six months of prison time that had gone unserved due to his escapes from Auburn and Sing Sing. Because no state facility had been able to hold him, Brady was sent north to Clinton Prison in Dannemora. He later managed to obtain a transfer to Auburn, where he was assigned as a waiter.
Within a year of his imprisonment, one of the most famous robberies in American history occurred at the Manhattan Savings Bank. The nation’s top detective, Thomas Byrnes, stated that only six men were capable of the job, and he counted Brady among them. Jim was in prison at the time, but it was later discovered that before his capture in New York, he was an original designer of the Manhattan job.
Brady was monitored closely at Auburn, and there would be no escape this time around. The state had recently instituted a parole system, and at the end of eight years, Jim was expecting to be released. The governor visited Auburn Prison in late 1885 and spoke with ten inmates, including Brady, but at year’s end, he remained in the lockup despite being eligible for parole.
Brady’s vocal protest led to a stunning response from prison officials: his punishment had hardly begun. They explained that he was sentenced to Auburn in 1871 as Jim Brady, and escaped; he was sentenced to Sing Sing in 1873 as James Morrison, and escaped; and was sentenced in 1877 as Oscar D. Peterson. Thus, he would be required to complete the sentences of all three men.
Brady countered with his own convoluted claim—that as Oscar Peterson, his sentence had been served, and that Peterson could not legally be punished for the crimes of Morrison and Brady. He even sent written threats to prison officials, warning that they should cooperate. Slick as ever, he used a technicality to avoid prosecution, sending the missives by Express. The law specified that using US Mail for such purposes was illegal, but made no mention of Express service.
The ploy didn’t work, and while he was still at Auburn in 1886, a young inmate named George Lyons died. Brady and others offered to pay for the funeral, but the prison denied their request. George was the child of two famous criminals, Ned and Sophie Lyons, friends of Brady’s. Sophie, long impressed by Jim’s suave manner and handsome looks, expressed her appreciation for his kind gesture.
Next week, Part 4: Pronounced dead, but refusing to leave.
Photos: Cincinnati Gazette, 1877; New York Sun, 1877; New York Daily Tribune, 1877