Monday, March 26, 2018

The Vanderbilt Forgery

Narrator: It was not in fact him.
         Every so often, when working at a museum, you are asked a question that you’ve never had to consider before. Recently the question was posed to me; “Did John Henry Livingston ever do time in state prison?”
Of course not. I mean John Henry Livingston came from a good family. He was a successful lawyer and he almost won a seat in congress. There’s no way he did time…..Right?
The Sabbath Recorder from December 12, 1867 has this brief article.
“John Henry Livingston has been sentenced to four years and six months at Sing Sing for passing a forged check for 75,000 purporting to have been signed by Cornelius Vanderbilt.”
 Up the river. Sing Sing Prison in 1857



Wait…. what? I needed to do some more digging.
          A little time on Google brought me to 1886 Professional Criminals of America by Thomas Byrnes. There, on page 286, is the entry for John Henry Livingston, which included a more detailed description of his crime. Apparently, Mr. Livingston walked into the National City Bank dressed as a messenger from the American Express Company. He presented the check for $75,000 to be paid to Henry Keep, President of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad signed by
Cornelius Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt. He presented the check a teller named Thomas Worth, requested certain denominations and said he would be back for the money. A short time later he returned and was handed a package with $75,000 in it and left.
          Ok. So first and foremost who was this guy. Clearly, he was not the John Henry Livingston of Clermont.  Was he a Livingston at all? An article in the Hudson Daily Star on October 15, 1875 claims he was the son of the owner of Livingston Manor, who squandered his inheritance and was shunned by the family. He was described in the New York Evening Express as about 50, fat and jolly with a heavy double chin. He had apparently worked as a railroad conductor before turning to a life of crime. He apparently used the aliases Lewis, Matthews and DePeyster at various times according to several newspaper articles. One obituary I found, transcribed by Susan J. Mulvey claims he is the “prodigal” son of Henry W. Livingston, that he was born in 1821 and committed suicide in Albany in 1881. I can’t confirm this with the Livingston family genealogy.
          But, back to the crime at hand. Depending on the newspaper accounts I was able to find it was anywhere from several days to six weeks before anyone noticed that a forged check had been passed. At that point the police were called and the case was turned over to Detective William George Elder.He first
Thomas Worth, bank teller, artist and
crime buster.
interviewed the teller Thomas Worth. As it turned out, in addition to being a bank teller Worth was an artist for Currier & Ives. He produced a sketch of Livingston. Elder instantly recognized Livingston as a criminal he had tangled with before and the hunt was on.
So the descriptions weren't wrong.  
          Livingston stayed in New York City for about a week after his crime and bought several valuable horses. He had them shipped to Chatham Four Corners and then on to Buffalo. He then turned up in Buffalo where he spent another great sum of money on horses and shipped them to Chicago. He continued west and soon bought a farm or a ranch outside of Chicago at Blackberry Station.
Detectives caught up to him there either after a few months or two years depending on the source consulted. He was surprised by their visit and especially surprised when Detective Elder addressed him as “Mr. Livingston.” and denied being a forger but did not resist arrest. He had only $10,000 of the cash he had stolen left. Eventually the farm and livestock would be sold at auction to pay back the bank for its losses although ultimately only about half the money was recovered. Some of Livingston’s friends tried to start a legal action to keep him from being extradited. Elder had the legal paperwork to take Livingston back to New York but he was afraid Livingston’s friends might try a less than legal action to help him escape.
          Instead of boarding a train in Chicago, Elder and a police Captain named Yates put Livingston on a wagon and drove for twelve hours to the village of Dyer, Indiana where Elder and Livingston boarded a train for New York.
          Livingston did not serve out his sentence but was pardoned part way through. His wife and daughter had apparently sought shelter at an almshouse. After his release, he pulled off a minor scam in New York and then fled to New Orleans with his family where he managed to swindle several thousand dollars from some gentlemen.
          He next appeared in Mobile, Alabama where he tried to buy five steamboats for a fake company. His scam was found out and he fled again. He showed up in Chicago destitute during the winter of 1873-74. In the spring, he was suddenly wealthy again. Again, pretending to work for the American Express Company he attempted to withdraw $140,000 but was denied and fled back to New York City.
          In New York City, he was caught trying to scam $150 from a real estate agent with the assistance of his daughter, Jennie Lewis. He was sentenced to five years in prison, she was sentenced to two. There was a movement to have her pardoned and she was on February 19, 1876 because her crimes were committed on the order of her father. So far, I have been unable to determine her fate after her pardon. Several women named Jennie Lewis show up in the papers for everything from playing organ at church, to arrests for sand bagging and opium use, to suicide and even one Jennie Lewis who was murdered by a vengeful ex-fiance. I don’t know which one is our Jennie.
          Livingston was suspected of many other frauds but the police were unable to pin them on him. They could not explain where he had acquired the wealth he flashed about in New York City and Chicago.
So, what happened to John Henry Livingston after his imprisonment? Maybe he went to Albany and committed suicide. Maybe he retired to a quiet life. Personally, I prefer an ending given in the Ellicottville Post in December of 1887. After detailing his crimes, they concluded:
Recently an old man has been engaged in swindling operations in the West and it thought by police that it is possible he is Livingston.

Perhaps John Henry Livingston, the well-known confidence man, rode off into the sunset swindling society gentlemen the whole way.

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