Much needs to be sorted out in Herbert Asbury’s statements concerning a “Thieves’ Exchange” and his sketch of jewelry peddler John D. Grady. Both of these items appear in Chapter X, Section 2 of The Gangs of New York. The alleged “Thieves’ Exchange” was located in the Eighth ward, near the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street. Asbury’s source for this information was James Dabney’s McCabe’s Secrets of the Great City, published in 1868. McCabe, more so than Asbury, makes it clear that this was a specific building (Asbury implies it is a saloon), that had the warehouse of a the proprietor–a fence–attached. As is the case with many of McCabe’s “secrets,” no other newspapers or books can be found that reference such a place.
McCabe might be given the benefit of the doubt, in that there might have been a fencing operation that also served as a gathering spot. There were many saloons in that area where criminals drank and exchanged information , and doubtless there were also fencing operations nearby as a convenience. A half block from Broadway along Houston Street was Harry Hill’s dance hall, of which the San Francisco Chronicle (Jan 23 1877) claimed “in the daytime it is a thieves’ exchange; in the evening a low variety theater.” However, Harry Hill was many things, but no one accused him of being a fence; and, in fact, Harry discouraged criminal acts within his resort.
It should be noted that London, England, had an area of city streets known as the Thieves’ Exchange–this was mentioned many times in American newspapers of the 1860s and 1870s, but not a similarly named part of New York. Also, American city newspapers of the late nineteenth century began printing classified “Lost and Found” sections where thieves would attempt to ransom stolen goods of sentimental value back to their owners, for a finder’s fee greater than that a fence offered. These came to be known as “Thieves’ Exchanges.” However, there is no evidence outside McCabe suggesting a New York city locale popularly known as the “Thieves’ Exchange” existed.
Similarly, John D. Grady was never known by the nickname “Traveling Mike,” although this has been republished countless times thanks to Asbury. However, Grady did have a more interesting nickname: “Old Supers and Slangs.” This was a thieves’ slang term for “watches and chains.” Watches and watch chains were among the main wares that he peddled. Grady was also known as “the Burglars’ Banker.” Asbury states that Grady had no regular establishment, but for many years he did have an office at the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street–one long block north of Broadway and Houston. He later moved to Sixth Street.
As Asbury states, John D. Grady did often wander the streets in his overcoat stuffed with valuables, and a valise full of jewelry. He was born in Ireland around 1828, and started life in New York as a painter. However, he soon realized he could make money by issuing loans to elite criminals and disposing of the valuables they brought him. Grady died of pneumonia in 1880, but left a legacy of underworld familiarity rivaling fellow fence Marm Mandelbaum. His New York Times obituary dropped the names of nearly every major thief of the era:
It should be noted that no contemporary sources–such as the obituary above–link Grady to the 1866 Lord Bond robbery, as Asbury does at some length. The perpetrators of the Lord Bond robbery have never been fully identified, but the consensus is that it was pulled off with more than a little dumb luck by lesser-known criminals. Grady’s first mention in newspapers–as a jewelry peddler–dates to 1868, two years after the Lord Bond robbery. Asbury was likely wrong about Grady’s involvement.
Postscript 3/5/2020: John Oller offered a correction: “I also wanted to note that I did find a reference to Grady as “Traveling Mike” during his lifetime, in Crapsey’s Nether Side book in 1872, at pp. 84-85. So it looks like this is at least one where Asbury is not the original culprit, if indeed the nickname was apocryphal.”