Jerry Kuntz (Writer)

Exploring American History through Unique Individuals

A New Project — Re-Examining Asbury’s “Gangs of New York”

Although up to my neck in another research (for publication) project about the balloon-parachute act, I can’t resists making little research forays back into the world of nineteenth-century criminals. I’ve decided to go ahead with an idea I had a year or two ago: to deconstruct the anecdotes conveyed by Herbert Asbury in his classic 1928 book, Gangs of New York.

In one sense this is easy pickings: Asbury was a feature writer who took as his sources the works of other feature writers, and rarely verified details by using more direct documentation, like newspaper collections, interviews, legal documents, etc. In many instances he repeated bad information first printed by his sources; in other cases he went further and embellished that bad information.

That being said, this is a labor of love: I’ve been a fan of the book, and even like the the Scorsese movie, which applies Hollywood embellishment to further obscure the facts. Both Asbury and Scorsese had a clear affection for their subject, and brought forward some of the atmosphere that justifies the inclusion of the criminal underworld in the story of America.

The new blog can be found at:

Asbury’s Gangs of New York – Annotated

The Writing Master published

From January 2018 to January 2019, I spent a year researching 204 nineteenth-century professional criminals; however, for four years prior to that I had been researching one single man from that century, the forger James B. Crosse, aka James Buchanan Cross.

Crosse has been an obscure figure, with little known about him except small mentions by Thomas Byrnes, Robert Pinkerton, etc. asserting that Crosse had been one of the greatest forgers of the 1860s.

I had been looking for a story about a criminal who came to a good end, and found Crosse mentioned in a William Pinkerton newspaper column as a man who reformed and became a doctor. Once I started to dig into Crosse’s history, I was able to connect his movements and aliases to reveal an astounding criminal mastermind–and his consort, Jane H. Fleming (aka Eusebia Fitzgerald), who was once described as the “wickedest woman in the world.”

In terms of historical significance, the research turned up a document residing in the Pennsylvania State Archives: an 1858 requisition from the Governor of Pennsylvania to the Governor of Virginia for one John Wilkes Booth, to face a charge of breach of promise. Combined with other evidence, I can present the case that Booth was seduced and then blackmailed by Jane Fleming, James Crosse, and a lawyer named Robert M. Lee. To avoid these charges, Booth fled from a theater company in Philadelphia.

After the Civil War ended, Robert M. Lee found himself in prison, but fortunately he was pardoned–twice!–by President Andrew Johnson, after two private meetings with Lee’s beautiful wife, who had known Johnson for many years. Who was the wife? Jane H. Fleming.

I doubt I’ll ever come across a true story with so many amazing characters. I’m proud to share it with interested readers:


Available now at Amazon:


204 Criminals Later…

Professional Criminals of America REVISED

About a week ago, I finished researching and updating the last of the 204 criminal profiles included in Thomas Byrnes’s 1886 edition of Professional Criminals of America. This had been a year-long project, and one that I undertook thinking that the result might be adapted to print format. However, after evaluating the bulk of material that was collected and presented, I’ve realized that there is enough text and images for two or three print volumes–more than anyone would want to publish or buy–and that the online version has many advantages. So it will stand as a WordPress site indefinitely.

There were many surprises–and many great stories–but few of these men and women came to good ends, and the majority of them spent huge stretches of their adult lives in prison. The few moments of cunning, ingenuity, humor, sentimentality and excitement did not balance the immense waste of human potential.

None of the 204 stories were as compelling as that of the forger I have previously researched, James B. Crosse; but now I can return to my manuscript on Crosse and revise it with much more confidence in my knowledge of the subject matter, and how much Crosse differed from even the most infamous outlaws that came after him.

There are many ways in which the Professional Criminals of America REVISED project could be expanded, but I may not be the one to take that on.



King of Burglars

While researching old-time crooks as part of my Professional Criminals of America–REVISED blog project, I came across a “lost” treasure.

Maximilian Schoenbein, known to the public as Max Shinburn, was the most famous bank robber of the 1860s. In 1913, three years before he died, 74-year-old Shinburn wrote a series of eleven articles for the Boston Herald detailing his infamous crimes as well as those of this associates, Adam Worth, George Miles White, and “Little Dickie” Moore.

For some unknown reason, these articles were never collected and published as a book; nor were they ever syndicated to other newspapers, or reprinted in any format. Shinburn wrote these under a rarer variant of his aliases, “Mark Shinborn.”

I’ve spent several weeks transcribing the stories and have put them together in a new book available now on Amazon: King of Burglars: The Heist Stories of Max Shinburn



The Real Story of the Stolen Gainsborough Portrait
How Adam Worth Stole the Kimberley Diamonds
Mark Shinborn’s Story of the Concord Bank Robbery
Mark Shinborn Tells Story of His Greatest Peril
A Wad of Bills Gets Mark Shinborn Out of a Tight Place
How Shinborn Cleaned Up $20,000 at Springfield
True Story of the Great South Norwalk Bank Robbery
How Four Gangs Sought to Rob the Wolfeboro, N.H. Bank
When Revolvers Barked in a Famous Old-Time Hold-Up
Mark Shinborn Tells Story of His Most Famous Crime
How Mark Shinborn at Last Paid the Penalty





Professional Criminals of America – REVISED

I’ve set up a new blog site as an experiment in historical research, using as its basis the landmark 1886 book by Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes of the New York Police Department, Professional Criminals of America.

Byrnes legacy is decidedly mixed. He was an unapologetic advocate of harsh interrogation techniques, i.e. “the third degree,” a euphemism for the torturing of suspects. Still,  Byrnes adopted new methods to track habitual criminals, namely the “rogue’s gallery” of photographs. In addition to photographs, Byrnes kept records of physical descriptions of criminals and a list of their known crimes and criminal associates. He drew on all of these to produce Professional Criminals of America in 1886. The first section of his book discusses the techniques used by different types of criminals; the main section consists of numbered profiles of professional criminals, many accompanied by 1-2 pages of description. Interspersed in this section are pages showing photos from NYPD’s rogue’s gallery. These photographs were on display in wall mounted cases in the Central Station.

The new blog is intended to revisit those same profiles using genealogical information, government (court and prison) records, and newspaper archives to discover what, if anything, Byrnes missed in his sketches of the most infamous criminals of his age. In many cases, the criminal careers of those he profiled extended well beyond 1886.

Writing About a Frustrated Writer

The “Boy Naturalist,” Ernest T. Morris, strove for many years to be a naturalist-explorer-travel writer, but met with limited success. Although his New York World newspaper columns on life in the Amazon Valley were read by thousands, his book detailing his most thrilling journey was rejected by C. Scribner and others. He had high hopes for publication, and the failure to see his text in print demoralized him. He died eight years after completing it. Morris’s wife came to believe that the manuscript was under a curse placed by South American Indians.

When I embarked on researching Morris’s life and writing about him, I had no idea that the project would face its own publishing struggle. One of my first inquiries went out to the leading expert on Amazon exploration, who replied that: 1) he had never heard of Morris; 2) that Morris could not have collected Munduruku trophy heads, because they had stopped taking heads in the 1790s; and 3) that I was wasting my time on some sort of circus sideshow promoter. This response didn’t daunt me in the least, because even at that early point, I knew this expert was wrong.

After working on a biography of Morris for nearly two years, I felt vindicated when my book proposal was accepted by a major university press; the acquisitions editor immediately understood that I wasn’t just writing about one obscure man–I was evoking a unique period in the history of science. That editor left his position about a month later. I submitted my final draft and all graphics to his replacement. Instead of receiving back suggested edits, what I got in the mail was a notice that the press had changed their editorial direction and were canceling my contract.

So, like Ernest Morris, I learned the sting of rejection (though all my previous books had been accepted on first submission). Two other academic publishers indicated that they did not think a biography of Morris was marketable enough to make a profit. I have little ammunition to argue that they are wrong, especially because I believe the text requires copious illustrations, many in color; what is disappointing is that none of these presses seemed concerned about whether Morris’s story was worthwhile.

Unlike Ernest, the Internet has made self-publishing a viable alternative. While losing out on library approval plan sales is regrettable, I think I can reap just as much in royalties (if not more) from self-publishing than academic presses offer (which is next to nothing).

A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon: the Travels of Ernest T. Morris  by Jerry Kuntz


Night of the Salamander Safes

During the night of October 28-29, 1851, several stores along the Buffalo lakefront were burglarized. The exact number of break-ins is unclear–at least three, but perhaps as many as 5-10. Several of the stores had valuables stored in safes that were all the same make: Gayler Patent Safes, often described as “salamander” or “hobnail” safes.


[Gayler safe, collection of Historical Society of Windham County, Newfane, VT.]

Gayler safes were made of cast-iron, with a layer of air separating two containers, one inside the other. Both doors, outer and inner, were opened by separate keys. The safes were designed in the 1830s primarily to withstand fires, hence the nickname “salamander” safe after the mythical attribute of the amphibians. They withstood some fires but not intense heat, and were supplanted in future decades by safes lined with liquid plaster of paris and, eventually, asbestos.

They were also advertised as being burglar-proof, though that claim certainly proved bogus on a late October night in Buffalo. Local authorities had never seen such brazen thievery before–multiple break-ins all in the space of a few hours, and all showing evidence of skillfully picked-locks.

A couple of the store-owners recalled suspicious characters in the area the previous few days, and one recalled a man leaving a watch for repair. This tip led authorities to a boarding house where they found a stash of burglar’s tools and some of the stolen bills. A man who gave his name as “Aaron B. Sanford”, his wife, and another man were arrested for the robberies.

Though his real name would not be known for several years, “Sanford” was in reality the master thief of the nineteenth century, James Buchanan Crosse. Crosse would later be exposed as a brilliant handwriting forger and prison-escape artist, but many of his crimes were disguised by aliases and went undetected and unconnected to his known background. I’ve been piecing together his career for the past three years and am preparing a manuscript on his exploits–which I guarantee will amaze.

The Rejected

This past Friday I made a research trip to the library hosting the archives of a major American publisher of the nineteenth century. I went there hoping to find a reference to the manuscripts they had rejected, and the reasons why. My current research project, Ernest T. Morris, the “Boy Naturalist,” had his book turned down by several publishers.

I found a partial answer: a ledger book containing lists of manuscripts submitted and those rejected; and dates of receipt and return. Ernest was there: received July 12, 1881. Declined and returned to author, July 18, 1881.

As I paged through the ledger book, a few other rejected titles caught my eye:

  • Reminiscences of a Confederate Hospital Matron by Phoebe Pember.
  • Reminiscences of a Filibuster in Nicaragua by CW Doubleday
  • Life in California by an Argonaut of 1849-1850 by George Wood of Jamestown NY

So I looked these up, to see if they were published by a different company. The first two titles did get into print, by other famous publishing houses.

George Wood’s book did not. But I did find a post from 1998 on a genealogy forum from a descendant. “My mother tells me he wrote a diary of his voyage, but his wife used it to repair the holes in their children’s shoes!”


New Images of Lawson Airplanes

Frank Schober was an Early Bird aviator (he soloed in 1912) and later worked as a mechanic for Glenn Curtiss. In 1917, Schober was recruited by Alfred W. Lawson to come to Milwaukee to help assemble military training models that Lawson hoped to sell to the Army. World War I ended before any sale could be made, and Schober left Milwaukee. After Schober left, Lawson completed work on his 16-passenger Lawson Air Liner (L-2) and flew it on a tour from Milwaukee to Washington D.C. and back (with many  promotional stops and minor mishaps).

Schober rejoined Lawson in Milwaukee in 1920 as work started on an even larger plane, the Midnight Liner (L-4).

Several photos from Schober’s collection have previously been published online, mainly on the Early Birds entry for Schober:

Schober’s grand-daughter recently sent me some scans of other photos in the collection, including shots that were new to me.

Here are a few:

1) Public viewing of the Midnight Liner [my guess is that this is early December, 1920]. The man in the pilot togs isn’t identified, but may be the co-pilot hired for the Midnight Liner, Charles Wilcox.


2) Workmen gathered around the Midnight Liner. The lightweight clothing makes me guess that this might have been April or May, 1921, shortly before the first attempted flight.


3) The severe damage to the engine and nose of the Midnight Liner after it crashed during takeoff, May, 1921. This is much closer than any other views I’ve seen. From this image, it’s easy to understand why the cost of reconstruction scared away Lawson’s investors.




2016 Art Bachrach Literary Award Winner

I heard late last week that I’ve been awarded the 2016 Dr. Art Bachrach Literary Award by the Historical Diving Society (UK) for The Heroic Age of Diving. Given in recognition of significant contribution to the literature of diving history. (pic from a previous recipient).
My first writing award!

Bachrach Award

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