James “Old Jimmy” Hope was one of the most successful and sought after bank robbers in the United States during the 19th-century. He was also a burglar and underworld figure in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City and was known as a skilled escape artist for his repeated breakouts from prison.
James Hope was born to poor Irish immigrant parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1836. When he grew up, he worked as a machinist, eventually married, and started a family. But that was seemingly not enough for him, because he turned to a life of crime in 1869.
On April 6, 1869, a well-dressed man went into the Kensington Savings Bank in Philadelphia and asked for a private interview with the president of the bank, which was immediately granted. The stranger then told the president that he was a detective and had been sent by the Chief of Police to inform him that reliable information had been received to the effect that a gang would attempt to rob the bank that night and that three or four policemen in uniform would be secreted in the banking rooms before the bank closed. After pledging the president to secrecy, the “detective” left.
About 2:50 p.m. the uniformed “policemen” appeared and the two porters were instructed to stand guard with them. Early in the evening one of the porters was sent after beer, and as soon as he left, the “policemen,” who in reality were Jimmy Hope’s gang of safe robbers in disguise, overpowered and gagged the lone porter. When the other porter returned he received the same treatment, and the robbers then proceeded to open the safe. They secured between $80,000 and $100,000 and escaped, but a bitter quarrel occurred when the loot was being divided, which resulted in the killing of three of the robbers.
In this gang were Jimmy Hope, Jim Casey, Tom McCormick, George Howard, and three others. Casey was killed by McCormick in New York, and on June 4, 1878, Howard’s body was found near Yonkers, New York on the Hudson River.
Just a few months later, in August 1869, Hope, Ned Lyons, and two others rented a room beneath the Ocean Bank, located at Fulton and Greenwich Streets, in New York City. A partition was erected to obstruct a view from the street and they then proceeded to cut through the stone floor directly under the vault. The entrance into the vault was made on a Saturday night. Over $1,000,000 in money and bonds were removed from the vault, but the bonds were thrown away and they took what gold and silver they could carry without attracting attention, which only amounted to a few thousand dollars.
In 1870, Hope participated in the burglary of the paymaster’s safe in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but the admissible evidence was not strong enough to justify a trial.
He next assisted in the robbery of Smith’s Bank, at Perry, New York. For this crime he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced on November 28, 1870, to serve five years at Auburn Prison, New York. However, on January 3, 1873, he escaped with three other prisoners — “Big” Jim Brady, Dan Noble and Charles McCann.
In November 1873, Hope, along with Jim Brady, Frank McCoy, Tom McCormack, and George Bliss rented a house next to the First National Bank in Wilmington, Delaware. On the morning of November 7, the gang entered the home of the cashier of the bank and his family who lived nearby. The plan was to force the cashier of the bank to open the safe for them while his family was held hostage. However, a servant girl escaped and alarmed the authorities. Hope and his confederates were captured, convicted, and on November 25, 1873, they were sentenced to 40 lashes and ten years’ imprisonment. They were also made to stand one hour in the pillory and pay a fine of $5,000 each. All of them offered to pay $25,000 in lieu of the whipping but this was denied by the court. It would be over 30 years before another bank robbery was attempted in the state of Delaware. When they had served one year of their term the entire gang escaped.
After participating in numerous other bank robberies of more or less importance, Hope began laying his plans for what proved to be his most conspicuous, and in some respects, his most successful robbery, namely the Manhattan Savings Bank robbery in New York City.
In 1878, Dan Kelley was employed as a night watchman at the bank, which was regarded as one of the strongest banking-houses in America. At 6 a. m. Sunday, October 27, 1878, Kelley, according to custom, awakened Janitor Wertel, who lived with his family in the bank building. Kelley then went home and Wertel began to put on his clothes. While dressing, several men rushed in upon him and at once overpowered and handcuffed him. Wertel’s wife and mother-in-law began to scream, but the robbers displayed revolvers and threatened to kill them if they did not stop. While some of the robbers stood guard over the women, others led Wertel into the bank and threatened to kill him if he did not reveal the combination of the safes to them. He complied with their request, and after opening the outer door, the robbers opened the others by means of the safe-cracking tools they carried. They stole securities and money to the amount of $2,757,700. Of this amount, $73,000 was in coupon bonds and $11,000 in cash.
The robbers then quietly departed, leaving all their tools behind. As there were no marks on the doors or windows, it was concluded that they gained an entrance to the bank by means of a passkey. It was therefore believed that someone connected with the bank was implicated in the robbery and several people were placed under surveillance by Captain Thomas Byrnes, who afterward gained an international reputation as Inspector Byrnes.
Among those shadowed was one Patrick Shevlin, who had been employed as a watchman at the bank, but who, after the robbery, spent much time and money at a resort where known thieves congregated. Feeling confident that this watchman had knowledge of the crime, Byrnes took him into custody, and after several days of cross-examination by the shrewd detective, the watchman made one or two fatal slips of the tongue, and then, realizing that he was cornered, admitted that a gang headed by Jimmy Hope had, after much persuasion, influenced him to enable them to procure duplicate keys to the bank.
The criminals represented that Shevlin would never be suspected and that he would be given his share of the money obtained. Police Officer John Nugent was also charged with complicity in the robbery but was finally acquitted. Soon, ten men were arrested in different parts of the United States on charges of having participated in this robbery. Most of them were captured while attempting to dispose of the stolen bonds.
On July 18, 1879, John Hope, Jimmy Hope’s son, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, and on December 12, 1879, Billy Kelly was sentenced to ten years. Jimmy Hope was sent to Auburn Prison but subsequently escaped. John Dobbs, Sam Ferris, John Nugent, Abe Coakley, Patrick Shevlin, Pete Emerson, and Ed Goodrich were discharged from custody, Shevlin having been granted immunity for his assistance to the prosecution. As a result of this theft, the bank was closed temporarily. The officials immediately appealed to Congress and succeeded in having the stolen bonds canceled and duplicates issued.
On June 26, 1881, the janitor of the Sather Bank, at the southeast corner of Commercial and Montgomery Streets in San Francisco, California noticed some dirt near the vault which had evidently fallen from the top of the vault. Suspicion was immediately aroused, and Captain of Detectives I. W. Lees was notified.
On investigation, he found that on the second floor, in a dark corner where the janitor kept his brooms, an opening sufficiently large to admit a man had been deftly cut in the floor and through the lower ceiling over the vault. The next night Lees, with a squad of detectives, kept watch, and during the night their vigilance was rewarded when they observed two men enter a hallway leading upstairs. After allowing time for the robbers to resume operations, Lees and his men entered the building and proceeded at once to the hole in the floor, where they observed one of the burglars in the act of lowering himself to the next floor. Upon realizing that he had been discovered, he whipped out a large revolver, but the detectives covered him with sawed-off shotguns and he surrendered. His accomplice, who had gone up to the next floor, escaped, but it was subsequently learned that his name was Dave Cummings, a notorious burglar, who was afterward sent to an eastern prison for a long term.
The man arrested proved to be Jimmy Hope. He was found guilty of attempting to burglarize the Sather Bank, and on October 15, 1881, was sentenced to serve seven years imprisonment. Upon his discharge, he was returned to Auburn Prison to serve out his unexpired term.
After his release, Hope settled in Manhattan with his wife and daughter in a modest apartment. He died of a heart attack on June 2, 1905.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated October 2020.
Duke, Thomas A.; Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, 1910