The chief bookkeeper at San Francisco’s Sather Bank knew the white stuff on his desk was not dandruff. It had fallen from the ceiling the night before. The next day, when there was new plaster on his desk, he told the bank manager.
On Sept. 26, 1881, this set in motion a confrontation between perhaps the greatest bank robber and the greatest detective of the 19th century. The bank manager met with Isaiah Lees, the San Francisco Police Department’s first Captain of Detectives. At the time, Lees was midway through his legendary 47-year career, which earned him praise from William Pinkerton, of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, who called him “the greatest criminal catcher the West ever knew.”
Lees’ underworld sources had already told him bank robbery royalty — in the form of James Hope and Dave Cummings — had recently arrived from New York. Hope, a skilled machinist, was considered the best “cracksman” in the country.
In 1871, posing as policemen, Hope and his gang stole $100,000 from Philadelphia’s Kensington Bank. In 1872, James and two others rented the basement below the Ocean Bank in New York, cut through the stone floor and took more than $1,000,000 in bonds and cash.
Yet his greatest caper was the 1878 robbery of the Manhattan Bank in New York. Hope planned the job for three years and even broke into the bank before the robbery to study the vault. The heist was the largest bank robbery of the 19th century and netted $2,757,700 in securities and cash — worth more than $60 million dollars today.
James escaped, but his son, John Hope, was convicted for the crime and sentenced to 20 years. Unfortunately for the robbers, almost all of the money in the Ocean and Manhattan Bank holdups was in registered securities, which were very difficult to cash. James was also a brilliant escape artist, who broke out of Auburn Prison twice, and absconded out of the New Castle, Del., penitentiary by using a steam-powered tugboat.
Lees searched the floor above the bookkeeper’s office and found a section of floor had been removed inside a closet. The closet was directly above the bank vault. During the previous week, the burglars had removed 12 layers of brick and iron above the vault. Each morning, they replaced the floorboards and covered the floor with normal bank supplies. All that stood between the burglars and $600,000 in gold was the last layer of iron. This would be the most profitable bank job is Hope’s career.
The evening of the caper, Lees posted three detectives in an office above the bank. Lees waited with two detectives in an alley across the street, holding a lantern he would use to signal the detectives once the burglars were in the bank. After a four-hour wait, two men entered the bank, and Lees flashed the signal.
The lawmen rushed in and arrested Hope, though his partner Cummings was able to escape. Detectives also found blasting powder, keys, jimmies and other burglary tools. Hope gave his name as Thompson, a strategy that failed when lawmen found the name “James Hope” written on his arm in India ink.
Cummings was caught a few days later. The two were charged with attempted burglary. Hope’s attorneys, believing the best defense was a good offense, vigorously attacked the prosecution’s witnesses and evidence. The defense denied the blasting powder found in the bank was evidence of criminal intent because it could also be used to dynamite rocks or tunnels.
By contrast, Hope was relaxed and unflappable. The Chronicle described him as “brisk as a June grasshopper and sleek and contented as a harvest frog.” Despite the spirited defense — and a strangely sympathetic judge — both partners were convicted. Hope served five years at San Quentin. After his release in 1886, he was brought back to New York to face other charges.
The New York charges were dropped, and it is rumored Hope gave the banks the location of the stolen securities in exchange for his and son John’s release. James Hope lived quietly after his release and died in 1905 of a heart attack at age 69.
Lees continued as Captain of Detectives and retired as Police Chief in 1900. He died in 1902 at age 72.
Lees pioneered many of the police strategies used today. In his day, he was renowned and was often consulted by police throughout the country and in Europe, as his portrait hangs in Scotland Yard. But fame is fleeting, and today he is probably the greatest detective of whom you’ve never heard.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.