In his chapter on the Whyos (Chapter XI, Section 2), Asbury cites two gangs that were contemporaries of the Whyos: the Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang. His source material for these mentions was Frank Moss’s American Metropolis, From Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, published in 1897. Asbury embellished Moss’s account of the Hartley Mob, whom Moss mentioned as using a hearse to transport stolen goods. Asbury spiced up the account by adding that the Hartley Mob used a hearse and funeral carriages to surprise rival gang members in a street fight. Let us set aside Asbury for a moment and wonder at Moss’s confidential sources, for no mention of a “Hartley” gang or mob can be found in any New York City newspapers, history books, memoirs, or prison records. Thomas Byrnes, in the 1895 edition of his Professional Criminals of America, makes a passing reference to a Frank Hartley, a well-known “west-side pickpocket” arrested in 1890–but there is no mention of him heading any gang. The corporeality of the Hartley Mob becomes more unlikely the harder one has to dig to confirm it.

A much more rewarding experience is to be found in tracking down the sources of Asbury and Moss’s anecdote on the Molasses Gang, for this is indeed one of the great criminal yarns of nineteenth-century New York. The story goes like this: a gang of till-tappers targets a old German storekeeper, and two of them enter his establishment and present an unusual request: they have bet each other as to how much molasses that one of their high-hats can hold. Though skeptical, the German complies with their wish and fills the hat to its brim with the thick syrup. Then, one youth quickly pins the storekeeper’s arms, while the other dumps the hat-full of molasses over the storekeeper’s head. While he is temporarily blinded, a third man rushes to rob his cash drawer.

For twenty years, this tale of clever crooks pranking an old storekeeper was retold in books and newspapers, and was dubbed “the molasses trick.” As late as 1906, it found its way into a book that Harry Houdini wrote on the methods of criminals–although Houdini placed its origin in the outskirts of London, England. However, the first account printed in book form that names the perpetrators appears to be Thomas Byrnes’s 1895 edition of Professional Criminals of America. In that book, profile criminal #221, James Dunnigan (alias Hughes, alias Dunn) is credited with originating this crime, in company with “Billy Morgan, Blind Mahoney, and two others.” Both Asbury and Moss repeated these names, but left out mention of the two others.

However, a much different picture emerges if you track the mentions of the “molasses trick” that appeared in newspapers between 1883 and 1914. Several other criminals are mentioned as originating the stunt: Patrick McGrath; Patrick McGuire; Albert Hawthorne; Robert Hawthorne; James McGuire; Charles Arets; William Rogers; William Clancey; John “Limpy” Burke; Edward Hawthorne; “Kennedy”; John “Jack” Kiely/Keely; Joseph “Big Joe” Larimer; and Michael Davis, alias Dunn. Obviously, it would make sense to give credence to the earliest mention of the incident.

The crime occurred on February 3, 1883 and was reported upon the next day by the New York Times:

So here we have the first mention of the crime, but who were the criminals? They were not apprehended until a year later, during which time they committed scores of other till robberies; and when they were caught (by Byrnes’s detectives), they were named as: Patrick McGrath, Patrick McGuire, and Albert Hawthorne (Brooklyn Union); or, Robert Hawthorne, James McGuire, and Charles Arets (Buffalo Evening News). The three men were tried in February, 1884, and sent to Sing Sing under the names: James Brady, Robert Hawthorne, and James McGuire.

Brady’s Sing Sing entry notes that he had previously been imprisoned under the name James Kelly in 1875; and in 1878 as James Murphy, alias Cavanaugh. James McGuire had previously been sent to Blackwell’s Island as James O’Brien.

Both Robert Hawthorne and James Brady (better known as James Kelly) had long criminal careers, stretching into the early 1900s. The final word on the “Molasses Trick” has to go to Brady/Kelly, who penned a full-page article for the Sunday, March 29, 1914 edition of the New York Herald magazine, titled “The Story of a Life of Crime.” In his account, recalled more than thirty years later, Brady/Kelly said his companions were Bobby Hawthorne, Tommy Murphy, and “McGlone”. He also recalled that the storekeeper’s name was “Schmidt” and that the crime occurred in 1878; and that he was arrested right after the crime in a bar when a detective caught him reeking of the smell of molasses.

It’s as if someone took the truth of the matter and poured a hat of molasses over it.

2 thoughts on “The Hartley Mob and the Molasses Gang

  1. Jerry, I wonder if “McGlone” was Mike McGloin, the kid nabbed by Byrnes for the Hanier Murder in 1881 and hanged in the Tombs in 1883.

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    1. It’s hard to tell who Brady/Kelly was referring to. He mentions “Bobby Hawthorne,” and this matches other accounts naming Robert Hawthorne. He also mentions a “Tommy Murphy,” a name not heard before in the context of this crime. Note that Brady/Kelly himself once used the alias James Murphy. “McGlone” isn’t given a first name; but is sounds like Mike McGloin would have been on Death Row when the Molasses Trick was played in February, 1883.

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