He escaped from a British prison in Australia and made his way to New York City. In the 1840s the Police Gazette wrote that Bristol Bill the Burglar was “the most celebrated bank robber and robber of our time”.
London police knew his name but never revealed it, but we do know the following about Bristol-Bill. He was born in the early 1800s into an aristocratic family, the son of a Bristol MP. When Bill was in his second year at Eton College, his family adopted a 16-year-old orphaned daughter of a poor clergyman. Bill was the handsomest of the men, standing nearly 6 feet tall with piercing brown eyes and a broad forehead. Before long, he seduced the young woman and impregnated her. His father was so incensed when he found out about her delicate condition that he beat her son to a pulp and then drove the girl out of her house. His father sent Bill back to Eton, but Bill soon tracked down his love and the two eloped to London.
The boy was born, and to pay the bills, Bill got a job at a local locksmith. Soon, Bill became so adept at making keys, locks, and tools that he began selling his wares to a London gang called the Blue Boys. The Blue Boys were so successful in robberies and bank robberies that they soon made Bill their leader. This continued for half a dozen years until Bill accumulated approximately $200,000. With his newfound wealth and the police hot on his heels, Bill left his wife and son and headed for Liverpool, where he hoped to catch a ship to the United States. But a certain London policeman was on his trail and arrested Bill in Liverpool. This same cop would pay for a large part of Bill’s life across the pond.
After his arrest, Bill’s money was confiscated and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a penal colony in Botany Bay, Australia. After his 10th birthday, Bill escaped by swimming four miles to an American whaler. He first landed in Bedford, Massachusetts, but then made his way to New York City, where at the time almost all professional thieves were of British origin. Bill’s mission was to join a gang of thieves calling itself “the most extensive association of thieves, counterfeiters, and swindlers the Western world has ever seen.” The London contingent consisted of such prominent “cruisers” (a London term for thieves), as Billy Fish, Billy Hoppy, “Cupid” Downer, Bill Parkinson, Bob Whelan, Jim Honeyman and Dick Collard. They were joined by two New Yorkers, Joe Ashley and “One-eye” Thompson.
The mastermind of the operation was a shady character named Samuel Drury, who was known as a banker and financier, but was actually a renowned counterfeiter and ringleader for stolen goods. Whatever the gang stole from him, Drury would buy and sell, keeping most of it himself.
Bill casts a girl named Catherine Davenport, who was an expert sneak thief and pickpocket, but also worked for Drury as a “koneyacker” or counterfeit money smuggler. Davenport informed Drury that the famous Bristol bill was in New York City and that she wanted to join his operation. When Bill first met Drury, he thought she looked familiar.
Have you ever been a policeman in London? Bill asked Drury. Drury admitted that he was. “I knew it,” said Bill. “You are the same bloodhound that tracked me down to Liverpool and pinched me for 14 years.”
Drury told Bill that he was caught stealing from himself and had to leave London for New York City. Drury told Bill, “If you have a grudge against me, you must forget it. I can make you a fortune in this country.”
Bill worked with Drury and his team for four full years, robbing banks, valuables, and jewelry from multiple states, as far away as New Orleans. He even traveled to Montreal to steal a large quantity of silver plates from the home of the Governor General of Canada. Bill’s specialty was making his own burglary tools, and he was the best lock picker in America. He once escaped from jail with a key he made out of silver oak. On another occasion he opened his cell door with a key he fashioned from a piece of stovepipe. Bill’s biggest heist was the robbery of the barge “The Clinton”. After opening the ship’s safe with a key he had made from a wax impression, Bill walked away with $32,000 in cash. He kept $10,000 for himself and sold the rest to Drury for $7,000, which Drury gradually divested of a bank he owned in upstate New York.
By 1849, Bill had earned over $400,000 in the United States, which he spent primarily on these three “wives,” one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn, and one in New Jersey. The three women were good friends and usually accompanied Bill on his robberies out of town; one posing as his wife and the other two as his sisters. There is no record of how he picked and chose which lady to play which role for each separate occasion.
Living the exuberant life, Bill thought it was finally time to get back at Drury. Bill knew that Drury had bombed the house of a lawyer with whom he had fallen out. No longer needing Drury as a fence, Bill, at the request of the Police Gazette, provided information to the police about Drury’s involvement in the explosion. While Drury and his son, along with One-Eyed Thompson, were in jail awaiting arraignment, police raided Drury’s Astoria mansion and found counterfeit license plates and thousands of dollars in counterfeit cash.
For his help in catching Drury, the New York City police gave Bill a pass. Knowing that New York City was not safe for him, Bill traveled to Vermont with his current girlfriend, a former opera singer known only as “Gookin’ Peg.” He was also accompanied by a forger named Christian Meadows and a thief from London named English Jim. They rented a cabin in Groton, near the Canadian border, and prepared to do what they did best. Acting on information provided by the New York Herald and the Police Gazette, the Vermont police raided the farmhouse in the spring of 1850. They found Bill’s homemade burglary tools, a counterfeit machine, and freshly made bills. In addition, there were several diagrams of banks that Bill was planning to rob.
Faced with insurmountable evidence, Bill and Meadows were arrested. English Jim was not at the cabin when the police arrived and for some reason “Gookin’ Peg” was not charged. Bill and Meadows were sentenced to ten years in Windsor State Prison. When Bill was released, he was almost 60 years old and disappeared from the American crime scene. Some said that he returned to London. Others said that he died broke in the United States.
While in prison, Bristol-Bill the Bulglar confided to his fellow prisoners that the biggest mistake he ever made was inventing an unpickable lock in his early days as a locksmith in London, which was sold widely in the United States. Joined. He said that on many occasions he found his invention in bank vaults and on the front doors of houses, which made his search, entry and robbery mission almost impossible.