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Writing History & Mysteries

When I'm not delving into historical research, I'm planning a character's demise.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for NOTORIOUS Ned Lyons

There were several attempted bank robberies in our county during the late 1800s and early 1900s. To date, the following is the first robbery case I have encountered with off shoots of political corruption of the era, and infamous criminals that connected us to New York City, “Boss Tweed”, and—like the movie of the same name—the Gangs of New York. The planning and execution of their crimes also brought to mind the movie The Sting, and a more modern comparison, Ocean’s 13—not to mention the truly brilliant schemes to break out of jail. This was a gang of profession thieves who would be immortalized in books on the most notorious criminals of the late nineteenth century.

During the middle of the night on September 20, 1870 an explosion ripped through the sleeping village of Perry, NY. Another useless attempt was being made to rob Smith’s Bank. Henry N. Page, bank president, inspected the vault. The money inside remained untouched and tools lay everywhere. The clock on the vault indicated the first attempt to blow the safe was at 12:45 a.m. It could be that not enough gun powder was used to produce a large enough explosion to open the safe. The men must have attempted to open it using their tools as the second blast did not occur until 2:45 a.m. This time it was so loud there was no way to escape detection thus leaving them no time to rob the safe—instead, they ran.

At the time of their arrest, the men gave their names as Robert E. Hapgood, 30; James J. Watson, 28; and John Hayes, 21. Our local law enforcement had no idea who they really had in custody at the time of the arrest and prosecution. Another month would pass before they discovered that these men were not average thieves but notorious safe crackers out of New York City that made the hit on Smith’s Bank. Robert E. Hapgood was really the notorious bank robber Ned Lyons. James J. Watson was really Jimmy Hope, the leader of a New York City gang. John Hughes was a petty criminal who fell in with the wrong crowd and whose real name was John A. Hayes. I believe, after pulling two major heists in Pennsylvania, they headed north to western New York to lay low—but just couldn’t resist the urge to rob the little bank in the village of Perry.

Ned Lyons was defended by an attorney, who at the time was said to be one of the best lawyers in Buffalo—A. P. Lanning, Esq. His help was to no avail. All three suspects were convicted in November under the above aliases and sentenced to five years in Auburn State Prison.  Because of Ned's ballot box stuffing expertise in New York City, Ned and his wife Sophie had connections with politicians. Sophie engaged the help of a politician, and lawyer in our area of this state, to try and get her husband moved from Auburn prison to Sing Sing where it was easier to buy your way out of jail. 

On February 6, 1871 Ned Lyons was transferred to Sing Sing prison. He wouldn’t be there long. Sophie, a criminal herself, arranged his escape. Over the next decade both would be in and break out of prison several times, and as they aged and gave up their robbing ways, it was finally decided it was less costly to just leave them be. But just so everyone would know, a notice was often printed in the newspaper to hold on to your valuables; Ned and Sophie were back in the city. Sophie eventually divorced Ned and remarried a different criminal, whom she also left. Sophie went straight and used much of her ill gotten gains to invest in real estate and charitable causes, and even wrote a very colorful autobiography. Ned died a penniless criminal has-been.

If you would like to read more on their exploits and other notorious criminals of the day, complete with photographs, you can get the following books for free at http://www.archive.org in any format. I prefer the PDF files as they are scans of the original pages.

Professional Criminals of America by Thomas Byrnes (Cassell & Company, Ltd: 1886)
Our Rival the Rascal by Benjamin P. Eldridge and William B. Watts (Pemberton Publishing Co.:1896)
Why Crime Doesn’t Pay by Sophie Lyons Burke J. S. Ogilvie Publishing Co.: 1913)

The previous post is a small excerpt from "The Gangs of New York Hit Smith's Bank in Perry" by Cindy Amrhein (me) which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Historical Wyoming.


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  1. Cool story! I adore the fact you have a blog about History. I'm also AtoZing and I have followed you. ;o)
    Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  2. And I used to dislike history in school - cause they didn't make it real

  3. I have an uncle who robbed a bank...twice.
    I wouldn't call him Notorious...just stupid :P

    Jamie Dement (LadyJai)
    My A to Z
    Caring for My Veteran

  4. My relatives stayed on the straight and narrow! thanks for visiting my little blog!

  5. I hope that I never end up being notorious, I don't think it is likely, but one never knows!


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