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Paul Brown | Longreads | June 2020 | 22 minutes (5,961 words)
On April 18, 1872, Austin Bidwell walked into Green & Son tailors on London’s renowned Savile Row and ordered eight bespoke suits, two topcoats, and a luxurious dressing gown. Bidwell was 26 years old, 6ft tall, and handsomely groomed with a waxed mustache and bushy side-whiskers. If the accent didn’t give it away, his eye-catching western hat marked him out as an American — a rich American. London tradesmen called Americans with bulges of money in their pockets “Silver Kings,” and they were most welcome in upmarket establishments like Green & Son, which charged as much for the strength of their reputations as for the quality of their goods.
As master tailor Edward Green busied himself around his store, young Austin, lips clamped around a cigar, explained he was a businessman who had crossed the Atlantic to introduce Pullman railroad cars to England. Austin was setting up a factory to manufacture the cars and he expected to spend a lot of time in London. He would likely need to expand his wardrobe. The obliging tailor, with dollar signs in his eyes, recorded the order and asked Austin to sign the ledger. Austin Biron Bidwell took a pen, dipped the nib into an ink reservoir, and signed his name as “F. A. Warren.” For Frederick Albert Warren, the ten-million-dollar con was on.
Sixteen days later, Austin returned to Green & Son to try his new clothes. He was now a regular visitor, having called several times to be fitted, and to place new orders, and he had a friendly rapport with the tailor. Austin told Green he was going away for a while, to Ireland. He had a substantial amount of money — £2,000 (equivalent to around $215,000 in 2020). It was too much to carry with him. Brandishing a thick roll of notes, Austin asked if Mr. Green would be so kind as to hold the money for him until he returned. The tailor declined politely but invited Austin to follow him around the corner to the Western Branch of the Bank of England.
Savile Row was thick with the lavender smell of gentlemen’s perfumes and the sweaty-palmed stench of money. London in the early 1870s was, according to a Collins’ travel guide from the time, “the metropolis of a great and mighty empire… and the richest city in the world.” At the heart of the city’s prosperity was the Bank of England, “unquestionably the greatest bank in the world.” It was founded in 1694 by the government of King William III. Over the next couple of centuries, it established itself as a model financial institution that was regarded as completely impenetrable. “As safe as the Bank of England” became a much-used simile for good reason.
Green led Austin through the Western Branch’s stone portico and into the grand two-story banking hall, where motes of dust floated in sunbeams from the high windows. The key to the security of the Bank of England was trust. The Bank only conducted business with persons known to them. This meant, as an American stranger, Austin Bidwell was unable to open an account — unless he was introduced by a reputable existing customer of the bank. As Austin had staked out the bank for several days prior to his first meeting with the tailor, he knew Mr. Green was just such a customer. After Green’s introduction, Austin was presented with a checkbook and passbook in the name of Frederick Warren.
The Collins’ travel guide, alongside information on places of interest, omnibus routes, and the city’s sewerage system, offered useful hints for visitors to the entangling metropolis of London. “Beware of strangers who endeavor to force their acquaintance on you,” it warned. “They are often low sharpers.” This advice could have been useful to Edward Green, and to the Bank of England. Austin Bidwell was a low sharper, a filcher, and a chizzler, and he had set in motion a plot to dupe, rob, and humiliate the greatest bank in the world.
The men who robbed the Bank of England had steamed out of New York harbor earlier that spring on an iron-hulled liner that would take more than a week to cross the Atlantic. The plot’s mastermind was Austin’s brother, George Bidwell. George was more than a decade older than Austin, a few inches shorter, and a little stockier. He wore a fashionably-trimmed mustache and was almost as dashing, if perhaps not as silver-tongued. George was a notorious fraudster and a veteran of headline-making scams perpetrated across the US, South America, and Europe. The Chicago Tribune called George “an ingenious scoundrel” whose numerous scrapes and swindles placed him “among the most remarkable men known in the criminal annals of America.”
George first encountered the art of the scam as a kid, when his father was conned out of every penny he had by a crooked business partner. George regarded his father as honest and hardworking but embarrassingly naïve. The family moved several times, from upstate New York to Michigan and around the Midwest. In each place, his father would establish a new business, only to be “taken in and done for” by hustlers who left the family penniless. George sold apples and candy from a basket to support the family and bristled at his father’s gullibility. Somewhere around this time, he decided there was no point struggling to earn a legitimate living when there was much easier money to be had in fraud, so he moved to New York to make his fortune.
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George’s favorite scam was a consignment fraud that involved setting up bogus shopfronts and ordering large quantities of stock — everything from sugar to furniture — on credit that would never be paid. As the scam expanded, George recruited an assistant — Austin. George lined up suppliers, and Austin set up shopfronts. George was protective of Austin, who was still a teenager, and endeavored to “keep my young brother ignorant” of the illegalities of their business. But Austin’s eyes were quickly opened to the swindles and their financial possibilities, and, at the age of 16, he followed his brother to New York.
If George was the mastermind, Austin was the confidence man. The Tribune called Austin a “handsome rascal,” and his striking appearance and wily charm enabled him to gain quickly the trust of those who were marked to be conned. In New York, he ingratiated himself on Wall Street among young brokers. Soon, he was swindling long-established New York firms out of tens of thousands of dollars. He had once been, according to his brother, “a fine, steady young man, universally regarded as one likely to fill an honorable position in the world.” Now, by his reckoning, he had entered “the primrose way” — a Shakespearean term meaning an attractive path that ultimately leads to destruction.
As their schemes expanded, George and Austin fell in with — and learned from — some of the most notorious criminals in America, including master forger Gottlieb “George” Engles and bank robber Joe Chapman. The brothers were arrested several times, and both spent time in jail. By the time of their release, according to the Tribune, America had become “too hot for them.” So they headed to Europe, with eyes on the Bank of England.
The third member of the gang was the forger George “Mac” Macdonnell. Mac studied medicine at Harvard, but never practiced, and instead served several years in jail after running a bad check scam on Tiffany & Co. A well-built character with an impressively-luxuriant beard, Mac was a debonair gentleman with a “smooth and soft” voice who was well-traveled and fluent in multiple languages. He was a year older than Austin and had met both Bidwells while imprisoned.
A fourth man, Edwin Noyes Hills — known as Ed Noyes — would join the others in England once he had returned from “a short absence in the country,” by which he meant a spell in jail. Ed had been a friend of Austin’s since their schooldays. He would be the bagman, collecting the gang’s loot. But before that, they would need to extract the loot from the bank.
The plan involved the forgery of bills of exchange, which are essentially commercial checks promising payment after a certain date. For example, a manufacturer might sell goods to a retailer on three months’ credit, and the retailer might give the manufacturer a bill of exchange that is payable in three months. The gang knew from previous experience that New York banks required these bills to be authenticated by the issuer before they were accepted. It was Mac who made the “great discovery” that the Bank of England accepted them on sight, without verifying they were genuine. Instead, the bank relied on the apparent trustworthiness of the customer presenting the bills.
“Here was an opening, indeed!” wrote George in a memoir. “All I had to do was to start a manufactory for making imitation bills and deposit them in the Bank of England.” Dating their bills three months in the future would give the gang a window of opportunity to rack up huge sums before the imitations were discovered. The main obstacle was the difficulty in obtaining a Bank of England account. But now, thanks to Austin’s confidence trick on the unwitting Mr. Green, the gang had an account under the name of Frederick Warren. “I could not believe it to be among the possibilities that any bank, especially an institution like the Bank of England, should do business in so loose a manner,” wrote George.
Over the next few months, Austin made regular withdrawals and deposits on the Warren account, circulating the gang’s capital in an attempt to strengthen his reputation with the bank. The younger Bidwell brother also became acquainted with the bank’s extravagantly-named manager Colonel Peregrine Madgwick Francis, a veteran of the British Army who resided in an apartment above the banking hall. George had traveled across Europe sourcing “a great variety” of blank bills of exchange printed in French, German, Dutch, and other languages, and obtaining genuine bills of exchange bearing stamps and signatures from leading financial institutions — Baring Brothers, the International Bank of Hamburg, the Bank of Belgium and Holland — to use as templates.
French-speaking Mac went to Paris to obtain wooden printing blocks for the forgery operation, but he returned empty-handed. Instead, George took the risk of sourcing the blocks from engravers in London, “with great reluctance, and with the feeling that I was committing a grave error.”
Then Austin was almost killed in a rail crash. George had sent him to Paris to obtain a bill of exchange from Rothschild & Sons, perhaps the most esteemed financial house in Europe. Alfred de Rothschild was a director of the Bank of England, and George believed that obtaining a Rothschild bill would strengthen beyond doubt the Warren account’s reputation with the bank. But, on the way from Calais to Paris, Austin’s train derailed. The driver and engine stoker were killed, and several passengers were injured. Austin claimed to have had “a most miraculous escape from instant death.” He returned to London in bandages and presented a Rothschild bill for £4,500 (worth almost half a million dollars in 2020) to Colonel Francis, telling him he had been injured in a fall from a horse. Francis accepted the bill without hesitation.
The gang covered their tracks in London using a variety of aliases linked to empty hotel rooms and anonymous post office boxes. But they were often seen in gentlemen’s clubs and coffee houses with criminal acquaintances. One of these acquaintances was forger Walter Sheridan, who had planned to be involved in the robbery, but went home after determining the gang was “associating with disreputable women.” George Engles replaced Sheridan in London, but also went home before the heist. Another acquaintance was Joe Chapman, who had recently been named a suspect in the robbery of the Third National Bank of Baltimore. It was the association with Chapman that came closest to ruining the gang’s plans.
Chapman had been tailed to England by the great detective William Pinkerton — the son of Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. “Big Bill” Pinkerton, whose reminiscences of fellow detectives inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, was following a trail of stolen bills on London’s Strand when he stumbled upon Chapman with Austin Bidwell. Having no evidence to arrest them, but recognizing the threat they represented to London’s financial institutions, Pinkerton claimed to have immediately warned the Bank of England. “They merely pooh-poohed the idea that these men could do anything,” he recalled, “saying that banking in England was done on a different system than in America, so I let the matter rest.”
The efforts to source printing materials caused a delay of a few weeks, but Mac was soon at work, with his papers and inks and blocks and stamps, expertly producing counterfeit bills that were almost entirely indistinguishable from the originals. George was impressed and prepared to execute the plan. He had already sent a telegram to Ed Noyes in New York advising him to come to London.
Meanwhile, the gang continued to associate with what Walter Sheridan had called “disreputable women.” George was staying at various hotels and lodging houses with a 19-year-old named Helen “Nellie” Vernon. Newspapers described Nellie as a “fashionably-dressed young woman” who was “said to be a Belgian.” She accompanied George on his European travels without, she later claimed, any idea of his criminal activities. Then George received something that gave him reason to consider abandoning Nellie and the whole operation — a letter from his wife.
George had married Martha Brewer in East Hartford, Connecticut, in 1859, when he was 26 and she was 17. According to the Chicago Tribune, Martha fell in love with George “after the manner of a village maiden who adores the brigand in the opera” and left school to be with him. The couple had children, who George barely knew. Now, Martha, a “noble and devoted young lady,” was imploring George to come home. According to his memoir, George determined to return to his wife, then changed his mind. “Woe to me that I failed to carry out that determination,” he wrote.
While George remained with Nellie, Austin and Mac stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel, close to Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace. They spent their evenings at a smoking club called the Turkish Divan and became acquainted with a waitress called Frances Gray. Austin gave his name as Theodore Bingham, and the pair “became on friendly terms,” until Austin wrote to say he was unable to see her anymore, and Frances and Mac got together instead. Mac moved out of the Grosvenor and into Green’s Hotel near Mayfair, which became his love nest and forgery den.
Austin was no longer interested in Frances because he had met a prettier young woman, with “an abundance of golden hair,” named Jeannie Devereux. Jeannie was a 17-year-old who was determined to secure her future by marrying a wealthy foreigner. Austin was happy to play along, but the affair became something more than a sham when he and Jeannie fell in love.
On December 2, Austin strode into the Continental Bank on Lombard Street, just a few yards from the headquarters of the Bank of England. Giving his name as Charles Johnson Horton, he requested to open an account by paying in Bank of England notes, and returned on the following day to deposit checks from Barings and the Warren account at the Bank of England. As the checks came from such esteemed institutions, the Continental Bank accepted them without question. On a subsequent visit one month later, Austin introduced Ed Noyes as his confidential clerk and asked that he be allowed to conduct business on his behalf. This was granted, and the gang began to circulate funds between the Warren and Horton accounts to strengthen the impression they were being used for legitimate business purposes.
Meanwhile, Austin had gone back to the Bank of England and told Colonel Francis he was going away, to Birmingham to inquire about his Pullman factory. He would be receiving further bills of exchange, he said. Would it be possible to send them for deposit by mail? This was slightly unusual as Austin’s address in Birmingham was a Post Office box but, for such a good customer, Colonel Francis would personally see that the request was honored.
Now George sent 10 genuine bills in Warren’s name to Colonel Francis, “to ascertain if our fraud machine was in working order.” The bills were paid immediately, and it appeared the machine was working. “I had the Warren account with the Bank of England, and the Horton account with the Continental Bank,” wrote George. “With these simple means, I now proposed to enter the bomb-proof vaults of the greatest financial fortress of which history gives account.”
The gang spent a “merry and exceedingly expensive” Christmas Day at Ford’s Hotel, a recently-renovated property that was popular with gentlemen of the time. George the mastermind, Austin the confidence man, Mac the forger, and Ed the bagman were joined by Nellie Vernon. George presented his friends with monogrammed scarves, chosen by Nellie.
There was something else to celebrate, because Austin had announced that he was going to marry Jeannie. George was surprised, but he offered his brother some advice. “Do not think of marrying her before you are settled in business,” he said. “Go home and, with the money you have, get into some legitimate occupation. Then you can marry with good conscience.” But Austin did not go home. He and Jeannie married on January 8, at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, then set off on a honeymoon trip via Paris to Cuba. George had always intended to get Austin out of the way before the heist began. “Now my brother was safely out of England,” he wrote. “All was prepared for the trial test.”
On January 21, 1873, George sent the first batch of forged bills, with a total value of £4,250 ($456,000 in 2020), from Birmingham to the Bank of England. “Will the false bills go through?” wondered George. “Will the Argus eyes of the renowned Bank of England detect the imposture at first glance? These and similar questions agitated my mind at this juncture.” George’s agitation was unnecessary. A day later, a letter was received from Colonel Francis stating that the bills had been received and accepted. “Hoping you are recovering from the effects of the fall from your horse,” Francis added.
The initial batch of bills were dated for March, presenting a window of just a few weeks before the Bank of England would attempt to obtain payment from the issuer and discover the bills were fake. By the end of February, the gang needed to submit as many forged bills as possible, withdraw the cash, cover their tracks, and prepare their escape. “In planning so gigantic a fraud,” wrote George, “I believed every point could be so completely covered that even my name would never be known, for otherwise I should have been hunted throughout the world.”
The cash-out began when George gave Ed a check for £4,000 from the Warren account at the Bank of England, which Ed deposited in the Horton account at the Continental Bank. Then Ed withdrew cash from the Horton account, exchanged it for gold, then back to cash. “The object of the double exchange was to break the connection,” explained George. Much of the cash was used to buy U.S. bonds, which were sent by mail to America to await the gang’s return.
Now, George noted, “The fraud machine [was] in full operation.” The gang celebrated with champagne, but George offered words of caution to his co-conspirators. “Negligence or accident will beat the best-laid plans,” he told them. “Let us do no more crowing until we are out of the woods.”
Over the next few weeks, the gang sent six further packets of forged bills of increasing value to the Bank of England — from £9,350, to £14,686, to £19,253. All were accepted, and the funds were transferred from the Warren account to the Horton account, then withdrawn and converted into cash, gold, and bonds. By the end of February, with the March deadline arriving, the gang hurried to wind up their operations. Arrangements were made for their passage back to America, and George and Mac discussed whether they should “stop with what we had, or put in one more batch of bills.” They decided on the latter and, on February 27, “the very last lot” of forgeries — 24 bills totaling £26,265 ($2.8m in 2020) — were submitted to the Bank of England.
But in their haste, the gang — specifically Mac — had made a mistake. Two of the bills did not have a date inserted, and could not be accepted. When they were received by the Bank of England, on the morning of February 28, they were taken by a clerk to the office of the supposed issuer, B.W. Blydenstein & Co. banking agents, to have the error rectified. One of Blydenstein’s partners, William Trumpler, immediately identified the bills as forgeries. The scam was uncovered. In total, the gang had successfully cashed 92 forged bills to the value of £102,217 ($10.9m in 2020). Now the game was up.
Late in the morning on March 1, unaware they had been rumbled, George sent Ed to the Continental Bank to withdraw the last of the money from the Horton account. But the Bank of England had already connected the Warren account to the Horton account, and its deputy chief cashier, Frank May, was inside the Continental Bank. When Ed walked in, he was identified as Mr. Horton’s clerk. May instructed a police officer to arrest him. Ed feigned surprise and asked why he was being arrested. May told him he was from the Bank of England and was charging him with fraud.
George claimed he wasn’t unduly alarmed by Ed’s arrest. “I felt secure that no information would be got out of Noyes,” he wrote, and he was correct — Ed refused to say anything. Nevertheless, George hurried to Green’s Hotel to find Mac. The blocks, inks, and forms used in the forgeries had already been destroyed. Now George gathered up the remaining papers from Mac’s room and threw them into the fireplace. Then Mac said he had a letter to write, and asked George to save him a piece of blotting paper. George retrieved a small piece and set it aside. This, George later recognized, was a fatal mistake.
The Times of London reported the crime under the headline “GREAT FORGERY.” An “enormous amount” had been stolen from the Bank of England via counterfeit bills, the newspaper said. “The forged bills are said to have been admirably executed, the signatures, the print, the paper, the stamps, etc., having been so carefully counterfeited as to almost defy detection.” A reward of £500 (equivalent to more than $50,000 in 2020) was offered for information leading to the apprehension of Frederick Albert Warren, also known as Charles Johnson Horton, who was described as a tall, well-dressed American.
Agnes Green, the proprietor of Green’s Hotel, read the reports and hurried to Mac’s room. It was empty, except for newspapers and four small pieces of blotting paper on which could be seen sums of money and the names of various banks. There was also a discarded trading directory with handwritten marks next to the listings for several engravers and wood-cutters. Miss Green handed the blotting paper and directory to the police and gave them a name: George Macdonnell.
Mac had decamped to Frances’s lodgings in Pimlico and arranged for her to leave with him for New York. He packed up his clothes, cash, gold, and bonds, and told her to meet him in Liverpool on the following day, but when she went there he never showed. Mac had got spooked, doubled back, crossed the English Channel to France, then boarded a steamer at Le Havre for New York. He was, he thought, sailing toward freedom.
Meanwhile, George went to see Nellie, who was surprised he had shaved off his mustache. “He told me he was in a bother,” she recalled. “Some friend of his had been doing something, and he did not wish his name mentioned.” George instructed Nellie to go in a cab to several different hotels to collect telegrams and his luggage, then meet him at Euston Station, from where they would head to Wales then on to New York. She went to the hotels, collected the luggage, and went to the station, where she was arrested.
The City of London Police quickly unraveled the plot, questioning bankers, tailors, and engravers, and tracing paths from gentlemen’s clubs, to hotels, to railway stations. But it was Nellie who blew the lid off the case. Charged with being in the unlawful possession of a bag containing £2,717, part of the proceeds of the robbery, she told police the bag belonged to a man called George Bidwell. She had repeatedly asked George to have his photograph taken, but he had refused. However, she was able to identify photos of his brother, Austin Bidwell, and his friend, George Macdonnell.
When Colonel Francis saw the photos, he confirmed that Austin Bidwell was the man he knew as Frederick Warren. The London police circulated descriptions, offered rewards, and issued arrest warrants for George, Austin, and Mac for the crime of forgery. They also telegraphed the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The hunt was on.
Mac was the first of the fugitives to be captured. Detectives awaited his arrival in New York and arrested him before he disembarked. He was carrying two gold watches, several loose diamonds, and $10,000-worth of gold (equivalent to $212,000 in 2020). But there were no bonds or anything else that could specifically tie him to the robbery. “I’m clean, you can’t prove anything on me,” said Mac. “You can’t send me back to England on any such charge.” But a City of London Police constable traveled to New York and took Frances Gray with him. Frances identified Mac, and he was taken back to London to face trial.
Austin was living the high life with Jeannie in Havana, socializing with the many wealthy Americans who lived there. He read about Ed’s arrest in the newspapers and planned to head for Mexico. But, thanks to a tip from an American doctor in Havana, the Pinkerton agency was already on his tail. Austin was arrested by Captain John Curtin, the Pinkertons’ best man, during dinner with his wife and friends at a sea-front hacienda. He later attempted to escape from the barracks where he was being held, leaping over a balcony and hurrying out of the city. By now, Bill Pinkerton had arrived in Havana to take charge of the case. Two days later, Austin was recaptured, and he and Jeannie were put on a boat to London.
Meanwhile, George had fled to Wales, across to Ireland, then to Scotland, pursued by the City of London police. He narrowly escaped capture several times in “a series of the most extraordinary adventures,” during which he disguised himself as a priest, a professor, a Russian, and a deaf and dumb man with a slate and pencil. It was, he said, “a hell’s chase, make no mistake.” The chase ended in Edinburgh on April 2, when he was cornered after a foot pursuit by private detective James McKelvie. George spoke in “some foreign language” and refused to confirm his name, but McKelvie told him: “You are George Bidwell; you are wanted for the forgery on the Bank of England.”
The trial began on August 18 at the Old Bailey, England’s historic criminal court, in front of Judge Thomas Dickson Archibald, who was known as Mr. Justice Archibald. George, Austin, Mac, and Ed — who were being held in the adjacent Newgate Prison — were charged with “forging and uttering numerous bills of exchange with intent to defraud the governor and company of the Bank of England.” All four prisoners pleaded not guilty.
The trial lasted nine days and called 108 witnesses, including Nellie Vernon, Frances Gray, Edward Green, Colonel Francis, and representatives of many different financial institutions. According to the Times, “The evidence disclosed one of the most elaborate conspiracies and gigantic frauds which had been held in modern times.”
Jeannie Bidwell was not among the witnesses. George later claimed Jeannie had “deserted” his brother on their return to England, but the truth was somewhat different. Austin instructed her to leave, so she went to her mother in London. A few weeks later, a small wooden soapbox was delivered to an undertaker. Inside the box, wrapped in newspaper and a bedgown, was the body of a prematurely-born baby. Six shillings had been placed in the box to pay for a funeral. A police detective named Mullard traced the box to a parcel delivery office and found it had been deposited there by a Mrs. Devereux, Jeannie’s mother. The baby girl was Jeannie’s — and Austin’s — daughter.
Jeannie was charged with concealment of birth and, although she was “very ill,” was sent to St Giles’s Workhouse, a miserable institution for the poor, where she could at least get medical attention. Mercifully, Jeannie’s story had something of a happy ending. She divorced Austin and made a life for herself as a governess, responsible for looking after and teaching children. In 1881, she married Arthur Patching, an insurance agent who — in what seems to have been a coincidence — worked for the Bank of England.
Back at the Old Bailey, the trial was disrupted by an escape attempt. A third Bidwell brother, John, had arrived in London for the trial. He bribed three guards with large sums of money and arranged for the prisoners to be hustled out into the street from a passageway that linked the prison and the courthouse. The plan was foiled after one of the guards, named Smith, bragged to a detective that he would soon be immigrating to Tasmania with £1,000 in his pocket. The three guards were replaced by six “well-armed” police officers, who kept a round-the-clock watch.
Each day of the trial extended long into the evening, and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic published lengthy columns detailing its revelations. Then, at seven in the evening on 26 August, the jury retired to consider their verdict. They returned after just 15 minutes and declared all four prisoners guilty. There was much noise and excitement, and the gang was surrounded by armed police who “closed in behind them in a formidable body” as the judge prepared to pass sentence. First, the prisoners were asked if they had anything to say.
George said he would not ask any consideration for himself, but he begged that his brother, “a young man, and but recently married” might be shown mercy. Mac, too, had nothing to say on his behalf, but he attempted to extricate Ed, who he said knew nothing about the forgeries. Austin said he regretted “opportunities thrown away and talents wasted,” and apologized to Colonel Francis, who he said had been the subject of unfair criticism. Ed was the only member of the gang to plead innocence — or at least ignorance. He appealed to the judge to “temper justice with mercy,” but the appeal was in vain.
In previous years, the sentence for forgery on the Bank of England had been death. The four Americans would not hang, but their sentence was severe. “If I could conceive of any case of forgery worse than this, I should have endeavored to take into consideration whether some punishment less than the maximum might have been sufficient,” Justice Archibald reportedly said. “But as I cannot conceive a worse case, I cannot perceive any reason for mitigating the sentence. That sentence is that each and all of you be kept in penal servitude for life.”
George went to Dartmoor Prison, a granite-walled fortress in the remote uplands of Devon. It was a desperate experience. “My life — my errors, lost family, friends, country — all rushed through my mind and overwhelmed me like a tumultuous flood,” he wrote. After considering suicide, and exhausting all possibilities of escape, George spent his time learning French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin, and writing poems. He also tamed a rat, which, he said, “became the solace of an otherwise miserable existence.”
In mid-1887, at the age of 54 and having served 14 years of his life sentence, George was released due to ill health. He was described as “emaciated and almost at death’s door,” and “believed to be insane.” This seems to have been an exaggeration. He went home to America, where he met Martha, who had been “true to him all this time.” He claimed to be completely rehabilitated and vowed to dedicate his life to helping young criminals reform their ways. He also began to campaign for the release of Austin, Mac, and Ed.
Austin was released in February 1892, having served nearly 20 years in Chatham Prison, “with courage and fortitude unbroken, ready to begin again the battle of life.” Like his brother, he claimed to be a reformed character, saying, “Wrongdoing never pays.” Mac and Ed were released a few months later. On their return to New York, Mac and Ed met George and Austin, and the four men dined together at the Fifth Avenue Hotel to discuss long-past adventures.
Much of their stolen loot was recovered. The Bank of England sent agents to retrieve multiple packages from America, including a large trunk containing $220,500 in U.S. bonds (worth almost $5m in 2020) and a card bearing the name George Bidwell. The Western Branch of the Bank of England was sold to the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1930. The grand building it occupied now houses the London flagship store of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Both George and Austin wrote and self-published memoirs. The books are littered with inconsistencies and falsehoods, obscuring the distasteful aspects of their crimes. Neither book mentions Jeannie, Nellie, nor Frances, and the long-suffering Martha is never named. Both books are presented as cautionary tales. The title page of Austin’s book bears the message: “In the world of wrongdoing, success is failure!”
While George and Austin claimed to be reformed, Mac and Ed continued their criminal careers. In 1897, they were arrested for running a swindle on a paper company in Chicago. A couple of years later they were reported to be living in poverty and ill health, Mac in San Francisco and Ed in New York. Mac spent time in San Quentin prison, while Ed returned to London. By then, George and Austin were both dead.
The Bidwell brothers had gone to Butte, Montana, to promote Austin’s book. Austin contracted pneumonia and died in his hotel room on March 8, 1899. George died in the same place almost three weeks later, “friendless, alone and as is supposed well-nigh penniless.” He had been “literally broken-hearted” over the death of his brother and had struggled to raise funds to send Austin’s body back east. It was initially stated that he died of pneumonia, but the undertaker suggested George died of poisoning, administered by himself.
At his death, George’s estate consisted of two overcoats, a steamer trunk, and 130 copies of Austin’s memoir. A copy of the book held by the Library of the University of California includes a handwritten dedication from George: “If anyone thinks this is a hard world, or feels discontented and unhappy, get put behind bars for a week and be happy forever after.”
Paul Brown is a freelance journalist and author who writes about history, true crime, and sports for the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and the Blizzard. His latest book, The Ruhleben Football Association: How Steve Bloomer’s Footballers Survived a First World War Prison Camp, was published by Goal Post in February 2020.”
Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Matt Giles