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Talented architect becomes ‘king of bank robbers’ in the US


Rich man, graduated valedictorian in architecture, George Leslie by day socializing with the elite, by night dressed up with the gang responsible for 80% of bank robberies across the country during 9 years.

George Leonidas Leslie was born in 1842, in New York, into a wealthy family of English descent. After moving the family to Cincinnati, Ohio, father George started a brewery and got rich quickly.

While going to school, George had to join the army, participate in the Civil War, and his parents paid 300 USD for his son not to have to go, a huge amount of money at that time. Ignoring the criticism behind his back about dodging the army, George studied well and earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture, graduating valedictorian from the University of Cincinnati.

After graduating, he ran his own architecture firm in Cincinnati. Both his parents died in 1867, prompting him to sell his family home, brewery and architecture firm, and set off eastward, to New York.

Broadway new york seen from the city post office, 1870. Photo: fine art america

Broadway New York seen from the City Post Office, 1870. Photo: Fine art America

George relies on his bravery, architectural talent and family background to “go straight” into the life of the New York elite. He was gracious, elegant, and had an excellent understanding of architecture, able to please any of the wealthiest clients in the city, befriending them.

But George didn’t come here to show off his architectural talent. His talent was used to read bank drawings and figure out how to break in and steal money.

He was engrossed in the private gatherings of the elite, but not just for cocktails and small talk. George will tell a wealthy businessman or banker at a dinner party that he is an architect, asking to see their bank blueprints.

“If you’re designing it by yourself and you’re stuck, let me take a quick look and I’ll help,” he said with the spontaneity and goodwill, which always worked. No one doubted George, for he was rich, well dressed, educated, and designed the great buildings of the city.

Even if that didn’t work, George simply went to the bank he was targeting, told the manager that he wanted to deposit large amounts of cash, but wanted to see the vault’s design first to make sure the bank was safe. The ruse worked, and in most cases the blueprints for the building were delivered directly to him immediately.

George also has a natural gift for seeing architectural details that are easy to miss. He can see blind spots and holes that others don’t, and can outline building interiors and the dimensions of private safes with just a glance.

George leonidas leslie's sketch. Photo: alcheron

Sketch of George Leonidas Leslie. Image: Alcheron

When he was successful enough with high-class connections, he embarked on cultivating relationships with locksmiths, black market pimps…, building his own bank robbery gang.

Among dozens of recruits, typically Fredericka Mandelbaum, nicknamed “Marm”, the queen of the New York underworld.

She’s the owner of a crime den known as Manhattan’s “labyrinth on the Lower East Side,” with multiple entrances, armed guards, and even a meeting spot disguised as a high street pub. save. All exits to this maze lead to a cargo yard where her gang can make deals.

More importantly, Marm owned a cluster of warehouses across the river in Brooklyn that would store, hide, and sell stolen goods.

George used this space as a rehearsal area for his accomplices. From the drawings he obtained, he reconstructed a spatial replica of the banks that wanted to rob, accurate to every object. George would then have his accomplices rehearse in the dark over and over again before embarking on the actual robbery.

January 25, 1876 went down in history when one of the largest bank robberies in global history occurred. He and his accomplices successfully stole $1.6 million (nearly $43 million today) from Northampton Bank in Massachusetts.

The scene of a bank robbery by george and his accomplices, and the tools found, are depicted in a book. Photo: new york public library

The scene of a bank robbery by George and his accomplices, and the tools found, are depicted in a book. Image: New York Public Library

Most robberies take place in a rather dramatic fashion. Thieves often appear with a lot of dynamite and some matches to blow up the safe, the way to break the safe is quite dangerous and cumbersome. But with his wisdom, he even created a tool to open the safe without knowing the password.

For “research”, George buys exactly the same safes that banks use to try to break it. Finally, George came up with a device shaped like a tin wheel with a metal wire. The device can be slid into the safe’s lock dial. When the banker opens the safe, the code will be automatically marked on this device.

None of the bankers would know it was there, and the next time they turned the dial, the mechanism would cut the tin wheel to show what numbers were used.

Using the tool required George to enter the bank at least twice before committing the robbery, once to place the device and a second time to retrieve it. But in return, thanks to it, he was able to open the safe quickly and easily. This is also one of the reasons why George is called “The King of Bank Robbers”.

But it was also at its peak that the gang began to disintegrate. The accomplices believe that Geroge does not focus on his work but spends too much time as a consultant for other gangs. With his popularity in the criminal underworld, George will go anywhere and plan bank robberies for other gangs.

He made a decent amount of money from these side jobs without having a party, which caused instability. In addition, he was also a famous promiscuous, rumored to have dated the wife of one of his accomplices.

The most notorious was the robbery of the Manhattan Savings Fund in October 1878. George took 3 years to plan but did not have the opportunity to see his gang succeed. He had mysteriously disappeared 5 months earlier.

Despite the lack of a leader, the gang continued the robbery. With George’s battle plan devised earlier, they stole about $2.5 million (more than $70 million today).

Although it was the biggest deal, the gang ran into unexpected problems: only $12,000 of it was in cash, $250,000 in negotiable bonds, and the rest in registered bonds. George’s gang gradually disbanded due to a conflict over the distribution of evidence.

Manhattan savings fund, where the robbery of the century took place in october 1878. Photo: daytonian in manhattan

Manhattan Provident Fund, where the October 1878 “robbery of the century” took place. Image: Daytonian in Manhattan

Not long after, the police arrested most of the bandits and charged them with robbery. During a decade of struggling across the country’s east coast, the gang is believed to have pocketed more than $7 million (equivalent to $200 million today).

George was not arrested. His body was found in a bush in Yonkers, New York, on June 4, 1878, with bullet holes in his ears and under his nose. Police knew he wasn’t murdered there because they couldn’t find any blood at the scene. The murder remains unsolved, although there are speculations that it is related to his affair with the wives of his accomplices.

By the time George died, no one thought he was behind all the thefts. Only when his accomplices were arrested after the last theft, the true identity of the tycoon was revealed.

He is therefore both considered the “fallen superhero” of the architectural world. George’s way of “intelligent theft” paved the way for later Hollywood movies, typically the Ocean 11, 12 and 13 trilogy.

Hai Thu (Follow New Yorker, NYPost, Ranker)

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