Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Specials

We went to the Museum of Sydney yesterday and saw an exhibition made up of photographs called "specials", taken of suspects by the Sydney Police in the 1920s. The photographs were taken on (with?) glass plates and, possibly as a consequence, they are very clear, as if you are looking through a window, not back into the past.

One thing that struck me was how well dressed everyone was then. For instance, there is a shot of four complete rogues, taken outside Central Station in Sydney:

They are Thomas Craig, Gregory Leonard Gaffney, ("Gaffney the Gunman, alias Raymond Neil), William Thompson and Francis Wilson. The picture was taken on 25 January, 1926, when as the caption puts it "These four thugs were picked up during a police raid on a gathering of underworld figures. Gaffney has his arm in in a sling, probably as a result of a fight with the police, Craig and Thompson had once assaulted a tram conductor, simply because he had asked for their tickets, Wilson was quick with his fists and was the only one of the four to be convicted of assuaulting police." They were arrested on suspicion of "being in a house frequented by reputed thieves"

Despite their roguishness, they all wear good suits, very good hats and polished shoes. I think it must have been much harder to distinguish who was trustworthy and who not in those days, if you were trying to use clothing to help you make your judgments.

Mind you, I could easily have succumbed to the lefthand man in this picture, even though he wasn't particularly well dressed. He was part of a trio of confidence tricksters, if memory serves me right:

He looks amusing and totally unreliable, always an attractive combination, when you are young.

Another man who I suspect may have posed a danger to young women looking for an object for their affections is this chap:
His name was Timothy O'Connell, alias (never a good sign, an alias, surely, let alone two), Tim F Connell, Timothy Trengrove. His picture was taken on 6th March 1920, when he was arrested for possessing housebreaking tools. O'Connell was, as his name might suggest, an Irishman. He came to Sydney via Western Australia. He was convicted of the charge and appears to have left NSW as soon as he was released from prison.

Many of the photographs are mysterious but hint at possible sadness:

This man, Harry Burston, was photographed in 1922. His offence is not known, but I find myself wondering if he was gay before you were allowed to be and possibly worried that his double life was about to unravel. Of course, he may have been a violent robber, for all I know, but his expression suggests to me that he is doing his best to hide a feeling of humiliation.

Other pictures just tell straightforwardly sad stories:

This is Julius Friedmann (alias G Cohen, Louis Ferry, Gordon Leigh, Robert Stevens, Robert Wilson, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt). His picture was taken on 27 February, 1922. The museum's caption explains that Friedmann was a German theatrical manager who "lived with his family in a furnished apartment in the harbourside suburb of Neutral Bay. During an inspection, the apartment owner discovered that most of the furniture had been removed. In court, hoping for leniency, Friedmann said he had pawned the furnishings to buy food for his family. He was sent to prison, where he died shortly afterwards."

But let's talk about happy - or happier - things.

There is the slightly ludicrous - or should that be admirable in his refusal to give in to disability? - Henry "Lightning" Hastings,  a pickpocket whose right arm was partially paralysed, which must have added considerably to the difficulties of his chosen career:

There is Albert Raymond Clarence Fulton who was arrested on 9 August, 1921, after "luring a young female typist to his office with a fake job advertisement and dictating an extract from a pornographic publication entitled Sadopaideia, which he then asked her to read back to him":

There is this trio, whose central figure was suspected of stealing a large number of possum skins:
Even he seems aware that the charge is comic.

Best of all though, for amusement (the exhibition had numerous pretty dark exhibits, but you will have to go to the museum or buy the very good book that accompanies it to see those), was the section devoted to confidence tricksters.

First up was this character who looks a compete dill to me, but obviously fooled quite a few people so may have had more charisma when you met him in real life:

His name was Alex Westland Robertson, but his alias was Mountbatten. In 1923 "he was arrested for stealing from his employer, but he was better known as a confidence man. He specialised in swindling women, convincing them he was single, rich and related to Lord Mountbatten, when in fact he was married, poor and had no connection to the aristocracy. He impressed his targets with 'diamonds' that he claimed were from a South African mine he owned - they were actually pieces of glass. Robertson persuaded many women to lend him money, having assured them that he was expecting to receive £30,000. He even became engaged to one rich heiress

Then came this trio, who "convinced their target to place bets on horses that Reid, supposedly a jockey, would be riding. The victim happily handed over his money but eventually realised that Reed was not riding in the races. At trial, the target was reluctant to explain what he was paying for (probably to fix the race) and all three men were acquitted".

Next up was Barbara Turner Taylor, (alias Barbara Bradley, Edna Gillespie, Edna Florence Gillespie, Florence Gillespie, Barbara Taylor, Barbara Tiernan, Barbara Tierney, Barbara Turner):

Turner Taylor was described "by police as the cleverest confidence trickster in NSW. She manipulated her victims with ease. She targeted businessmen and lawyers with tales of hardship, convincing them to lend her money. Compounding her victims' humiliation, Turner Taylor later wrote a book about her exploits, naming and shaming those who had fallen for her scams. She hoped her life story would one day be turned into a movie", (and I'm guessing it could still be an opportunity for a caper film or even a television series).

The world was full of dangers from scams in those days, and Henry Marchant (alias Henry Burke, Henry Joubert, John Marchant, Henry Wilhelm), was a master of one called the 'Dutch watch' scam:

Apparently, Marchant "would befriend a stranger, before his 'Dutch' accomplice approached, offering to sell Marchant a watch at a fraction of its supposed value. Marchant would ask his new friend to lend him the sum, promising to pay him back. He would then head off to fetch his wallet, leaving the watch as security. Merchant would not return and the victim would discover he had been left holding an almost worthless watch".

My absolute favourite of these stories in the exhibition relates to the Climax Agency, a group of three men who made large sums of money with a confidence trick involving, of all things, potato peelers. I will save them for my next post though, when I will explain how those swindled might have managed to recoup some of their money, provided they were swindled at exactly the right time of year.

In the meantime, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum of Sydney or, failing that, ordering the book that goes with the exhibition. Unfortunately though, with my usual thoroughness, I never noticed what the exhibition was actually called. Shame on me.

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