Herbert’s Asbury’s primary source for his remarks on the Hudson Dusters gang of Greenwich Village (found in Chapter XII, Section 2) was a long feature article in the January 18, 1914 edition of the New York Sun, entitled “Inside Life of a New York Gang.” The author, listed only as “One Who Was Among Them,” dated the founding of the gang to about 1905 (whereas Asbury suggested the late 1890s) and the originators to be “Kid York” and “Circular Jack.” These two names appear in none of the dozens of other newspaper articles written about the Hudson Dusters between 1910 and 1925, but reappear in Asbury’s text. Since Asbury’s publication, these two nicknames have been accepted as real, when in likelihood they were merely aliases invented by the Sun reporter to protect his sources. [In newspaper archives, “Kid York” was an East Boston boxer of the early 1900s, and “Circular Jack” was the name given to an unknown writer of politically embarrassing flyers in Hartford, Connecticut, also in the early 1900s.]
The first mention in New York newspapers of the gang named the “Hudson Dusters” occurred in February 1912, reporting on their wild gun-battle against a neighboring gang, the Marginals. A different article appearing later that same month described them as idle youths, frequenting the Abingdon Square area of Greenwich Village. They were accused of robbing steamship passengers, local stores, and stealing from passing merchant wagons. They had some protection from prosecution by the area’s political clubs, for whom they provided polling station intimidation. Patrolmen had been beaten or shot at by them; but complaining officers were reprimanded by their superiors due to those political connections. Officer Dennis Sullivan was beaten, had his badge and weapon stolen, and then was mocked in a flyer spread in the neighborhood, an incident that Asbury relates. Asbury didn’t go far beyond the 1914 Sun article, although there are other interesting aspects to this gang.
Searching for the original mentions of the Hudson Dusters leads one down a fascinating rabbit hole, suggesting that its founding members were tutored in the fine art of letter-box stealing and check-forging pioneered by one of the most successful criminals of the late 19th-early 20th century, Charles Tischer, aka Charles Fisher. The knowledge of how to run a check-forging ring was passed down to a first generation of Hudson Dusters, but with their arrests the gang devolved into just another juvenile delinquent street turf gang.
Just a month after their shoot-out with the Marginals, another newspaper article appeared in the March 14, 1912 edition of the New York Times announcing the arrest of Joseph Devine (aka Joseph Elliott) and Willa Harris (aka May Smith) for check forgery. Devine was noted as a member of the Rough Ocean gang of forgers, but was formerly a Hudson Duster. According the the Herald, both Rough Ocean and Hudson Dusters had been forgery gangs led by James Ford, now in Sing Sing. Ford’s leadership of the forging ring was inherited by William Boland (aka Little Nemo), also now in prison. Joseph and his brother James Devine were Boland’s lieutenants.
James Ford, born in 1887, first was noticed by authorities in 1905 (age 18), when he was caught trying to pass a forged check in Brooklyn. That episode earned him a five year sentence in the Elmira Reformatory. He was released early, but was arrested again in 1908 for forgery among his gang members at their pool hall at 112 Greenwich Ave., in the heart of what would become Hudson Duster territory. Among those others arrested were Joseph Devine and William Boland. That earned Ford six years at Sing Sing, which he was still serving in 1912. William Boland, who was arrested with Ford in 1908 but was later released, was caught in 1910 by authorities in New York and was accused of running a nation-wide forging ring. He was, at that time, 22 years old. The police grabbed Joseph Devine with Boland, but could not press charges against him, leaving him free to run the ring until March, 1912.
So how did these young men learn how to operate a sophisticated forgery ring, which involved making duplicate keys to mailboxes, chemical alteration of check forms, and a talent for handwriting imitation? A 1910 article on Boland’s arrest offers the only clue. The Brooklyn Union of July 1, 1910 notes: “[Boland] is a pupil of James Ford, alias ‘Rough Ocean,’ now serving six years in Sing Sing. Ford learned the forgery business from associates of Charles Fisher, an old-time professional, now with two associates awaiting trial in the Tombs for extensive forgeries.”
This is the only documented link between the first Hudson Dusters and the forgery mastermind Charles Fisher [sic Tischer], but the techniques used by Ford/Boland/Devine were the same as those pioneered by Fisher in the 1880s and 1890s. But there is an additional fact that is impressively weird. Back in 1895, Charles Fisher and three associates, including his alleged spouse, “Sheeny” Rachel Hurd, were captured for running a letter-box forgery operation in Baltimore. When arrested, police found Fisher was using two aliases: “J. B. Ford” (noted in some articles as F. B. Ford) and “William Boland.” In 1895, the real James Ford and William Boland would have both been 8 or 9 years old. Coincidence? Hardly. But still mysterious.