In his book Edgar Wallace—Each Way (John Long, London, 1932) the author's secretary Robert Curtis notes that Wallace used only one pseudonym — "Richard Cloud" — in the course of his long literary career. According to Curtis, the only story printed under this name was "Broken Hearts," a tale that was novelised in 1925 as Blue Hand. However, the present article justifies the assumption that Wallace also used this nom de plume in Part 6 of the 12-part pulp series The Great Stories of Real Life published by George Newnes in the mid-1920's. This assumption is based on the fact that, in addition to "The Great Bank of England Frauds" (attributed to "Richard Cloud"), Part 6 of the series includes an article attributed to Edgar Wallace and published under the title "The Trial of the Seddons." From this it appears that, on this occasion, the pseudonym was used to avoid listing Wallace as the author of two of the five articles comprising this issue of The Great Stories of Real Life. Interested readers will find a bibliographic description of Parts 1 to 6 of the series at CiNii Books."
In addition to the original article about this cause célèbre, this PGA/RGL Special includes a complete transcript of the trial of the four men who succeeded in defrauding the Bank of England. —RG
THE Bank of England, considered impregnable against the cunning attack of the cleverest criminals, received a great fright when it was discovered that George and Austin Bidwell had stolen a quarter of a million pounds by forgery. Only a foolish slip on the part of the forgers brought their audacious crime to light, and up to then their gains had been at the rate of £10,000 a day.
IN the United States of America there is no exact equivalent to the organisation of Scotland Yard. The state and city police forces have their detectives and plain-clothes officers, the Federal Government has a special force attached to the Ministry of Justice, but the coordination represented by Scotland Yard is not known, and the real detective forces in America are those controlled by William Burns and by the Pinkertons, of which the Pinkerton firm is perhaps the most famous, although at the present moment William Burns occupies an official position at Washington.
The firm of Pinkerton grew from small beginnings. In 1848 the founder of the firm was a sheriff in Chicago, having been invited to that position through his success in dealing with counterfeiters, and thereafter the Pinkertons had some sort of official recognition, being engaged, amongst other things, to protect President Lincoln in the stormy days preceding the War of Independence.
In 1884 the business of Pinkerton came into the hands of Robert and his brother William. By this time there was a Pinkerton office in every State in America, for the firm dealt only with real crimes, such matters as engage the attention of private detectives in England—divorce cases, watching suspected persons, etc.—being refused.
Amongst other duties they were engaged to protect banks. Most of the important banks of America were under their care in 1914.
In 1872 William Pinkerton traced a bank robber to the East End of London. There were some difficulties of extradition on the evidence that William possessed, and whilst he was waiting to secure fresh affidavits from the United States, his man disappeared, to be recaptured afterwards.
One day William, in company with Inspector Shaw of Scotland Yard, was walking along the Strand, their minds more occupied with recreation than with business. On their way they called in at a tailor's shop, where certain notes had been changed which Pinkerton was able to identify with money that had been stolen in America. The inquiry proceeded upon the usual lines, and they were just about to leave the tailor's shop when two men walked in. They were strangers to Shaw, but not altogether strangers to Pinkerton, who turned his face so that he might not be recognised, but watched them through a convenient mirror. When they had gone out of the shop, Pinkerton caught Shaw by the arm.
"Did you see those two men who came in?" he asked.
Shaw had noticed them casually.
"Who are they?" he demanded.
"That was Macdonnel and Bidwell. They are two of the most notorious bank forgers in the United States, and I hadn't the slightest idea that they were in England. I can only tell you, from my knowledge of these gentlemen, that they are not in London on pleasure. Bidwell is about as bad a scoundrel as you could meet anywhere; and Macdonnel can give all your crooks a start and a beating! Come along, we'll follow them."
THEY turned out of the shop into the Strand, and, keeping the two men in sight, trailed them home. To Pinkerton this little chase was the merest side line; a busman's holiday, for he had no charge against either Bidwell or the other man, and his chief interest was to discover whether these two were in communication with the man he was after, and who were engaged, if not exactly in the same kind of business, at least in one which bore a strong family likeness to bank frauds.
In those days all banks suffered in some degree from the activities of minor swindlers; but there had been nothing in the nature of a big haul made from any of the joint stock establishments, and except for the occasional forgeries on the Bank of England with which the police had to deal, that sedate establishment was practically immune from the activities of wrongdoers. So free, indeed, that a sense of false security had grown up in Threadneedle Street, and the possibility of clever minds getting behind the very careful system of book-keeping involved was pooh-poohed. So Shaw told Pinkerton.
"Let them pooh-pooh as much as they like," said Pinkerton earnestly, "but I tell you that these two men could take money out of the Bank of England very easily indeed. It's no business of mine, but I warn you that in Macdonnel and Bidwell you have two really dangerous and clever men."
Shaw was impressed, and since there was an excellent working arrangement between Pinkerton's and Scotland Yard, he induced the head of the great American detective agency to send to America for the photographs of these two rogues, in order that they might be circulated in the higher branches of Scotland Yard.
With these facts in their possession, Scotland Yard circularised all the banks in the country, warning them of the activities of the two men, and received a very cold acknowledgment of their warning.
Now, Austin Byron Bidwell was something more than an ordinary bank robber. In addition to his record as a forger, he had established communication with several criminal organisations, not least of which was the New York bank detective ring, which was supposed to protect the banks, but in reality received a very large percentage of the proceeds of every robbery. Bidwell knew that, if the worst came to the worst, he could find safety in America, providing he was ready to cut up his share of the robbery with the chiefs of the New York detective force. And with this comforting knowledge, he and Macdonnel set about their preparations for engineering the fraud which was to rob the Bank of England of £200,000. They were aided by Austin's brother, George, and an accomplice named Noyes.
The four had been two years in Europe, and by means of forged letters of credit had succeeded in amassing a very considerable sum. They operated in Berlin, in Marseilles, Dresden, Bordeaux and Lyons, and as soon as the continent of Europe grew a little too hot for them, they crossed to South America till the hue and cry had died down, and then came over to England in the spring of 1872. Macdonnel took lodgings at a house in Piccadilly, and the three men began to organise their fraud.
It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that bill-discounting is one of the commonplace functions of every banking system. Bills of exchange are constantly bought and sold as though they were stocks and shares that would mature on a certain date. Bills are given by the highest financial houses. The Rothschilds, for example, would give bills at a month or three months as readily as they would give cheques.
That is to say, if I purchase a thousand pounds' worth of machinery from a firm and give a bill, which is in reality a postdated cheque, undertaking that the money shall be paid on a stipulated date, say in two months' time, the man to whom I give that bill hands it to his bank, which discounts it, allowing him the thousand pounds, less a percentage, and placing the the money immediately to his credit. All the great financial houses, as well as the great commercial houses, give bills, just as they receive bills, in payment for various services.
Austin Bidwell began operations by opening a bona fide credit at the Burlington Gardens branch of the Bank of England, whilst his two confederates went out into the provinces to secure genuine bills. It was quite a simple matter to secure bills drawn by well-known financial houses, and since Bidwell informed the bank that he was in England with the object of opening a Pullman- car manufactory in the region of Birmingham, and that his financial transactions would be large, no extraordinary precaution was taken in regard to him, although the authorities of the bank had in their possession a very full description of himself and his companions and a copy of their photographs!
Bidwell paid in a genuine bill of Rothschilds for £4,500, which was duly discounted and placed to his credit. Other genuine bills followed; and then there began to flow into Old Burlington Street a stream of forged acceptances.
Now, the difference between an ordinary bill of exchange and that bill of exchange which we call a cheque, is that, in the case of a cheque, the document is returned to its drawer within a day or so, when he or his clerk can discover immediately if the cheque is forged or if there are any irregularities in the business. But a bill of exchange may be two or three months before it is presented for payment to the drawer. And since Bidwell was apparently a man of some standing, and the acceptances that came in were from people of well-known financial stability, no questions were asked, the bills were discounted, and large sums were placed to the credit of the forger.
No sooner was the money in the bank than Bidwell, who operated in the name of Warren, drew cheques in favour of one Horton, who had an account in the Continental Bank. Horton was, of course, himself. No sooner was the money in the Continental Bank than it was drawn out, the notes exchanged for gold, the gold again exchanged for notes at the Threadneedle Branch of the Bank of England, and these put away handy against the day when the first of the fraudulent bills matured, and when it would be necessary for these men to make a quick getaway.
Before the first forged bill should fall due, the conspirators had laid their plans to be clear of the country and in safe hiding.
APPARENTLY the authorities at the Bank of England had no idea that there was anything wrong about the account. Money was coming in in large quantities, in a form which was perfectly normal, and was being paid out almost as quickly as it came in, but that was a very ordinary state of affairs, met with in every banking business.
And then the forgers committed one of those extraordinary pieces of folly which, for some reason difficult to fathom, are exhibited in almost every cleverly arranged plan of criminality. In two of the forged acceptances, of the supposed to have been drawn by the firm of Rothschilds, they omitted to put the date.
The manager of the Bank of England sent the bills to Rothschilds, asking them to be good enough to insert the date, and thinking its omission was merely an oversight. The forgeries were at once detected, and Noyes, who was better known to the manager than any other of the gang, was immediately arrested.
As soon as the news came to Scotland Yard of the forgery, Inspector Shaw went up in a cab to the Bank, carrying with him the photographs of the two men, and Austin Bidwell's was instantly recognised by the manager.
The gang worked under the cover of a small crowd of five; and no sooner was Noyes in the hands of the police than Bidwell was informed of his peril. The gang had already made a rough division of the spoils. All was in readiness, day and night, for a quick departure; suitcases packed, railway and steamship tickets purchased under different aliases; and within a few hours of the discovery, and long before the police officers watching the various ports could be notified, Austin Bidwell fled to Paris to meet the girl with whom he was in love, and to whom he was married before he set forth on his disastrous honeymoon trip. George Bidwell was arrested in Edinburgh.
In the meantime the police were combing London for the others. Macdonnel was the most elusive and most difficult to find. He had appeared in only one or two of the transactions; his place of residence was unknown, though Shaw had an idea that it was at this man's house that the forgeries were perpetrated—a surmise which proved to be well founded.
The extent of the defalcations was not yet known to the terrified bank officials. Their first impression was that they had been swindled to the extent of a million pounds, and the wildest rumours circulated through the City of London as to the bank's stability. It complicated matters considerably that, amongst the forged acceptances, there were a number of genuine bills.
A further complication was to be found in the fact that banks not only discount bills, but resell them—in other words, have them re-discounted by other banks. Many of the acceptances which had been placed to Warren's credit were scattered all over the country in the various banking institutions, and the amount of the bank's loss remained problematical for a very considerable time. The exact amount stolen is believed to have been some £200,000, half of which, however, was subsequently recovered.
The Bank of England might, indeed, have avoided the loss of a penny but for the blatant dishonesty of the bank police of New York.
That the thieves should have omitted to put the date into two of the forged bills is inexplicable; but a more extraordinary act of folly was to follow.
PINKERTON'S had been immediately notified, and William Pinkerton, who was in New York, got at once into touch with the Paris police, guessing that Austin Bidwell and Macdonnel would double back to the Continent. From the inquiries of the French police officers, aided by Pinkerton's own agents in Paris, it was discovered that a man answering Bidwell's description had been married and had left almost immediately on a ship sailing for Vera Cruz.
Pinkerton's made a few inquiries, and discovered that the ship would probably call at Havana, and William Pinkerton, who had only just landed in New York, was dispatched with all haste to intercept the steamer.
Unconscious of the extraordinary activity of the London and American police, Bidwell watched the approaching shore of Havana with a sense of satisfaction that he had shaken off pursuit, and that ahead of him, in the semi-tropical climate of South America, were many years during which he might enjoy the fruits of his nefarious practices. The police would be looking for a single man, he argued, or two men; they would not identify, in one of this happy honeymoon couple, the notorious Austin Bidwell who was wanted for forgery.
He was in his cabin when the pilot boat came out, and he did not see the hateful figure of the detective as he climbed up on to the deck; but a few minutes later there came a tap at the door, which opened to reveal the man he knew only too well.
"I want you, Bidwell," said Pinkerton, "for conspiring to rob the Bank of England of a million dollars."
The frightened girl-wife, ignorant of her husband's character, clung to him in fear and anguish. In another minute Austin Bidwell was handcuffed and was being marched up to the deck and to the waiting police boat.
Handing his prisoner over to his men, Pinkerton went back to the cabin and instituted a thorough search. To his amazement, beyond a few hundred pounds which the man had in his possession, there was no sign of the stolen property. Dumbfounded, the police chief went back to his prisoner and questioned him. Austin Bidwell only smiled triumphantly.
"Say," he drawled, "what sort of a bank robber am I? If I'd taken that money, wouldn't I have it with me? Do you think I'd trust anybody else?"
This was a facer for Pinkerton, but whether the man had money or not, he was wanted by the English police and, taken ashore, was lodged in jail.
But where was the money? Pinkerton went back to the ship, had the hold cleared of all baggage belonging to the prisoner, and this was carefully examined, without, however, discovering a single dollar.
And then an idea occurred to the detective. Bidwell would know that he was calling at Havana, and that he would be there long enough to enable him to go ashore and collect any letters which might be waiting for him at the post office. What would be easier than for him to have posted on the money in advance? And with this idea firmly fixed in his mind, Pinkerton went to the post office, to find his judgment vindicated, for there were a number of packages and letters waiting for Bidwell in his assumed name, and amongst these was a considerable sum of money in American bonds, and letters, one of which was from George Bidwell, the brother of the forger, who had been operating for the gang in Ireland, and had been arrested and escaped from prison. Incidentally, this letter told the police the hiding-place of yet another package of bonds, which were eventually recovered.
So far as Bidwell was concerned, the chase seemed at an end; but within two or three days of his confinement in the Havana prison, an amazing thing happened. One morning, as he was being marched from one part of the prison to another, he eluded his guards and, leaping through an open window, fell two stories into the crowded street below. He miraculously escaped hurt, and, scrambling to his feet before the astonished passers-by could realise what had happened, he had made his escape!
That is the baldest narrative of an escape which was probably much better planned than is believed. Bidwell, who knew the corrupt Colonial Spanish, and had a smattering of the language, had probably succeeded in bribing his guards—by no means a difficult proposition to a man of his plausibility; the more so, since it is certain that he was supplied with money from some outside source.
Pinkerton was in his hotel when the news came to him of the prisoner's escape, and he rushed to the jail, to find that the story was only too true.
But with that dogged determination which was a characteristic of his family,he went out to trail down his man.
The island of Havana was roughly searched from end to end, and it soon became apparent to the detective that, impossible as it might seem, Bidwell had not only escaped from the jail, but was clear of the island.
Pinkerton refused, in the first place, to accept this latter theory, most industriously urged by the local police officials. He argued that Bidwell would be so knocked about by his leap that, though he might have got out of Havana, he could not have got away to sea. Every boat had been searched, the coastguards were patrolling the beaches; and when, a few days later, there came a report of a strange white man wandering on the seashore, Pinkerton made his way to that part of the coast and rearrested the prisoner, this time beyond all hope of getting away.
In the meantime, the third chief member of the gang was engaged in an adventure of an even more exciting character. When the warning came, and he knew that Bidwell had got away to Paris, he, proceeding with more leisure, stopped to make away with the evidence of his guilt which, as Inspector Shaw had guessed, was to be found in his lodgings. Nobody, however, had associated Macdonnel with the quiet house in Piccadilly. To his landlady he was a well- behaved man of pleasant demeanour, who spent a great deal of his time in his room, working, as he had informed her, "on important documents." She thought he was a lawyer's clerk employed to engross important documents, and did not dream that she harboured under her roof one of the most brilliant forgers whom the world has ever known.
Macdonnel packed without haste, destroyed all the instruments of his craft, and then, when he was ready to go, committed the crowning folly to which I have already made reference. He sat down to write letters to some of his acquaintances -and used a clean piece of blotting-paper to dry the ink on his letters!
This done, he left the house in a hurry, without taking the trouble to inform his unsuspicious landlady or even to pay her bill. Had he destroyed the blotting-paper, had he even taken the trouble to settle his account, and to offer some excuse for being called away into the country, he would in all probability have escaped detection.
The landlady was puzzled by his hurried departure, made an inspection of the room, and saw that he had taken with him all his worldly possessions, and was alarmed to realise that she had been bilked. In a sense of resentment against her lodger, she sat down after tea to read the evening newspaper, and there read the account of Noyes's arrest and a fairly garbled story of the extensive frauds which had been practised on the bank so successfully. Again she went up into Macdonnel's room, but this time she instituted a search; and one of the first things she found was the clean piece of blotting-paper bearing the marks of Macdonnel's correspondence. She held it up to the mirror, and what she read confirmed her suspicions. Taking the piece of blotting-paper, she put on her cloak and went out to interview the police.
Shaw, who was summoned just as soon as he heard of the arrival of this important witness, saw the blotting-paper, and realised that the mysterious lodger was Macdonnel. The blotting-paper told the police much more than Macdonnel could guess, for there appeared a word which was deciphered later as the name of a ship, the Thuringia.
MACDONNEL left Piccadilly, drove by cab to Euston, and took train for Liverpool. He arrived on the Mersey that night, and without delay caught another train, which brought him early the following afternoon to Southampton. He had to zigzag his way across England and Wales to accomplish this feat, but he was successful in so far as he was able to catch a boat for Havre and reach the Thuringia before Scotland Yard could communicate with its captain. In these days of wireless it is a simple matter to keep track of every ship on the ocean, but before radiography was discovered a ship was out of touch the moment it sailed from port.
Macdonnel had no illusions about the genius either of the English police or their American comrades. He knew that by sailing to New York, as he was, he was running his head into the lion's mouth; but in preparation for such a hasty exit he had been in communication with the captain of the bank detectives of New York, and the plan he had made was one which was calculated to baffle the cleverest of police organisations.
The bank ring lived on the contributions of criminals. Ostensibly existing to protect banking institutions from the depredations of thieves, it filled in reality a position analogous to that occupied by Jonathan Wild in the darkest days of English jurisprudence. Captain Irving, the chief of the police, was on the friendliest terms with Macdonnel, with whom he had probably shared a considerable amount of plunder in the past. And Macdonnel's scheme was simplicity itself. In the letter he wrote to New York he hinted at a big coup that was being worked, which might necessitate a hurried visit to New York. If the police were after him—that is to say, if Captain Irving knew that the police were after him—it was arranged that Irving's men should go down to the ship, arrest him, and confiscate the plunder, which was to be divided when Macdonnel was surreptitiously released from prison. The New York bank police were then to report that, although they had arrested the prisoner, no money had been found in his possession, and Macdonnel thought that the fact that he had been arrested in a penniless state would be quite enough to induce the English police to give up any sort of attempt to arrest him; more especially as by now, he guessed, they would have caught one or other of his companions.
Whilst we must give a large measure of credit to the foresight and ingenuity of the police forces, it is certain that Noyes, who regarded himself as something of a victim, and was already under arrest, had given a considerable amount of information to Inspector Shaw—information which was largely responsible for the eventual capture of Bidwell.
With the knowledge that Macdonnel was sailing on the Thuringia, the work of the English police was simplified. A detective officer went to Havre and verified the story that a man answering Macdonnel's description had come on board at the last minute in another name than his own. This news was sent to London, and Shaw telegraphed to Pinkerton to arrest Macdonnel and bring him back to England for trial.
The bank frauds were now public property, not only in Europe but in the United States. The newspapers were filled with stories of the three men who had successfully robbed the greatest banking concern in the world of a million dollars, and the news that Macdonnel was on the Thuringia, if it was not public property, was known, amongst others, to Captain Irving.
The plan of operations was as follows: Irving and his lieutenant were to board the Thuringia outside Sandy Hook; the lieutenant was to arrest their prisoner, at the same time covering from observation the transfer of the money which Macdonnel had in his possession, and which would be transferred at the moment of arrest to the police chief.
There is very little honour amongst thieves, and certainly Macdonnel had some doubt in his mind as to how the loot would eventually be divided when he was let out of prison. He therefore divided the money he carried into two portions: eighty-three thousand dollars (some £17,000) he kept in his pocket, and the remainder, some £25,000, he put in the false bottom of the trunk, which was addressed for delivery to his sister. With these preparations made, he waited with equanimity for the ship to sight Fire Island, having in his mind a conviction, amounting to a certainty, that his presence on the ship was known, and that he would be in the hands of the police as soon as the vessel passed Sandy Hook.
Now, Pinkerton's had been notified of his presence on the Thuringia; and Pinkerton's had no illusions about the probity of the bank police. It was a point of honour and a point of pride with this American organisation that all their dealings should be marked by absolute honesty; and they were determined that the plan between Irving and Macdonnel should be frustrated. Through their extraordinary system of intelligence they became aware of the pretty little plot that had been hatched; and as the day grew nearer when the Thuringia was due to arrive, the chief of the Pinkerton Service made his plans to upset the scheme of the conspirators.
A few hours before the Thuringia was due at Sandy Hook, a party of Pinkerton's men went into a tug that had been specially chartered, and stole away towards the open sea. The police boat was then lying in New York Harbour, but before Pinkerton's had proceeded far, the news was flashed to the head of the bank police that Pinkerton's were on the warpath, and within an hour the police boat was steaming at full speed towards Sandy Hook.
They came up with the Pinkerton boat, which had anchored for the night, and dropped their anchor parallel to their rivals. Early in the morning, a faint light appeared at sea. It was the Thuringia, and the moment the watch reported having sighted the ship, the Pinkerton boat dashed out to meet it.
Simultaneously the police boat got on the move, and there began a race for the ship, for the prize of £40,000!
The boats ran level for a long time, and then the police boat began to forge slowly ahead, despite the frantic efforts of Pinkerton's engineer. They gained a minute—just long enough to enable the police boat to draw alongside of the Thuringia, and the chief and his lieutenant scrambled aboard. By arrangement, Macdonnel was waiting on the deck to receive them. In a minute, before the Pinkerton man could dash on to the deck, the transfer of the bonds had been made, and Macdonnel was a prisoner in the hands of the bank ring!
It was a bitter pill for Pinkerton's to swallow, the more so since they knew that not only had they lost the money, which they had pledged themselves to restore to the Bank of England, but because they had lost their man; for they did not doubt that, on some pretext or other, Macdonnel would either be released, or else would be allowed to escape through some conveniently open door, and the escape suppressed until the man was beyond reach'of Pinkerton's bloodhounds.
Macdonnel was taken ashore and lodged in jail.
"A few days and we'll have you out again," whispered one of the corrupt police officers as he was bundled into his cell.
And, never doubting, Macdonnel settled himself down to wait, with whatever patience he could summon, for the welcome release. But that release never came. The sum was too small a one for Irving to divide. He may have thought that Macdonnel was double-crossing him, and in this he would not have been far wrong. But what is more probable is that the Pinkertonian energy had communicated itself to Washington, and the story of the cunning escape had been notified to executive headquarters, with the result that the Federal authorities made it impossible for the forger to get away according to plan.
Slowly, as the days passed and he saw the proceedings for extradition taking shape, it began to dawn upon Macdonnel that he had been double-crossed. And then came news of a crowning misfortune, which blotted out all hopes of escape with the aid of an infuriated Irving. Pinkerton's had trailed the trunk addressed to Macdonnel's sister, had taken and opened it, and had discovered the $125,000 which Macdonnel had so carefully hidden.
Irving was furious; making no disguise of the part he had played, he accused the prisoner of double-crossing him, and from that moment Macdonnel's fate was sealed. In the custody of Pinkerton officers he was brought back to England. Bidwell had already arrived; and there began a trial which ended in all the conspirators being sentenced to penal servitude for life. George Bidwell was released after serving fourteen years; Austin Bidwell served nineteen before obtaining his freedom. In the days of their prosperity the brothers had spent thousands in mere extravagances. Both of them died in the most miserable poverty.
The Bidwells and Macdonnel were perhaps the only criminals who have succeeded in defrauding a bank to any great extent without the assistance of some confederate within the bank itself. Their success was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that they were practically unknown to the bank authorities, and possessed of no credentials which would inspire the confidence of a great banking house.