While on his way home one night from Pinkerton’s Chicago headquarters in the summer of 1870, Allan Pinkerton’s son, William Pinkerton, noticed known thieves Walter Sheridan, Charlie Hicks, and Phillip “Baltimore Philly” Pierson riding together on a streetcar. Intrigued, he followed them to the Chicago and Alton Railroad Station, where he saw them purchase tickets for Springfield, Illinois.

The following day, the First National Bank of Springfield was robbed of $32,000.

The Springfield Job Players

Walter Sheridan, a Southerner by birth and of a gentlemanly, dignified appearance, was an accomplished forger and “sneak” thief — who was also a diamond thief, a horse thief, and a con artist who occasionally dabbled in counterfeit money.

“Sheridan was mixed up in a great many crimes, but in the last years of life was looked upon as being more clever as a first-class bank ‘sneak’ than in any other line, although he has been a successful leader of bands of note counterfeiters,” said William Pinkerton.

As for Charlie Hicks and “Philly” Pearson, they were described as expert burglars.

“They were some of the most remarkable criminals operating in any part of the world, their thefts requiring in almost every instance dexterity and great presence of mind, a quick eye, and unflinching courage,” William Pinkerton later said.

The Springfield Job Plan

In Springfield, the thieves worked as a trio. Sheridan was the “Stall,” engaging the attention of the bank officials about some allegedly important business matter. Hicks “Piped” the place — he was the lookout. Pierson was the “Sneak.”

The job was going well. While Sheridan was in earnest conversation with the bank’s cashier, Hicks stood nonchalantly apparently awaiting his turn to talk to this official.

At the given signal, Pierson — “a nimble little fellow” — crept behind the counter to the vault and secured packages containing $32,000. After leaving the vault, Pierson passed a package to Hicks and walked straight out of the bank with the remaining money.

“If everything goes as planned,” explained Allan Pinkerton, “after the ‘Sneak’ is well away, the ‘Stall’ draws off, so as not to excite suspicion, and takes his departure. The entire job is done in ten or fifteen minutes, and frequently the loss is not discovered for days.”

If everything goes as planned... the entire job is done in ten or fifteen minutes, and frequently the loss is not discovered for days.

The Springfield Job did not go as planned. Hicks strolled in the direction of the exit after Pierson, but before he reached the doors, the bank president entered the room and observed the bulky package under Hicks’s coat, which was not long enough to completely conceal the package.

As a person of action, the president wasted no time. He grabbed Hicks and demanded an account of how he came by the bundle. Hicks said that he had just drawn the money out to which the bank president suggested that they step into his office to investigate the matter further.

Seeing what had nearly taken place, the cashier who was being stalled by Sheridan sent a covert message to the president requesting that two security men come to the front to detain Sheridan — resulting in Sheridan’s arrest along with Hicks. Of course, Sheridan and Hicks stoutly denied knowing each other, but both were held for trial. Hicks pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment at the Illinois Penitentiary in Joliet.

The evidence was not as damning for Sheridan, who made a great display of outraged innocence and managed to obtain $7,000 for bail, which he promptly paid — and promptly forfeited.

The Springfield Job Detectives

When the district attorney learned that Sheridan had jumped his bond, he retained the services of the Agency, who sent William Pinkerton — who had first noticed the sneak trio in Chicago — and another Agency detective to locate the elusive thief.

Hoping to track down Sheridan, the detectives shadowed Hick's brother from Joliet Prison to Hudson, Michigan, where he checked in at the city's top hotel, which just happened to be owned by Sheridan and operated by Sheridan’s brother-in-law. Sheridan also owned a fruit farm in the area and large tracts of pine and farming lands scattered throughout Michigan.

William Pinkerton soon learned that Sheridan wasn’t at any of his business in Michigan. However, William Pinkerton had an idea of how to locate him. During the breakfast rush the next morning, he discreetly procured a photograph from the family’s private quarters, which provided authorities with the first-ever visual reference of the well-known criminal. He disseminated the photo to Pinkerton’s numerous correspondents both in the U.S. and in Europe.

During the breakfast rush the next morning, he discreetly procured a photograph from the family’s private quarters

Just a few days later, William Pinkerton located Sheridan in Sandusky, Ohio, where he nabbed him at a favorable opportunity. He also recovered $22,000 of the stolen money.

The Return to Springfield

The challenge was not just in the arrest, as William Pinkerton soon discovered. It was getting Sheridan to Springfield. William Pinkerton and Sheridan traveled by train, and Sheridan, a distinguished and affable man, strongly asserted that he was being kidnapped and appealed to passengers for aid in the most innocent and impassioned manner possible.

Sheridan also offered a $10,000 bribe to William Pinkerton to simply look the other way and allow Sheridan to escape through the train window. William Pinkerton was not persuaded and proved even more daring, inventive, and determined than Sheridan.

Despite Sheridan’s best efforts, they made it to Springfield. But that is not the end of the story.

Sheridan’s Trial and the Rest of the Story

Sheridan was no novice at trials or imprisonments. He successfully postponed his trial for nearly one year. He obtained the best lawyers in the state who fought the charges on every legal technicality and managed to get the trial moved from Springfield to Decatur. Sheridan even managed to get three “intelligent” jurors placed on his jury.

“He was eventually acquitted, expending altogether for this manner of acquiring liberty the snug little sum of twenty thousand dollars, as he subsequently admitted,” noted Allan Pinkerton in his book, Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches. New York: G.W. Dillingham, 1878.

Sheridan was inordinately ambitious and utterly devoid of fear, and in no time, he joined other groups of sneaks and forgers in the U.S. and Europe.

William Pinkerton said Sheridan was one of the slickest and snakiest of American criminals. He had no hesitation about exposing Sheridan to law enforcement when he and Sheridan ran across each other in Brussels, Belgium, several years later. Sheridan, who was living like a prince at the time, having accumulated millions of dollars over his 36-year career, avowed never to return to the U.S.

However, he couldn’t resist coming home. He quietly slipped back into the country and assumed a new identity.

Eventually, his misdeeds caught up with him. He was arrested in the United States by Allan Pinkerton’s other son, Robert Pinkerton, who took Sheridan to a New York City police station. Sheridan had 82 indictments hanging over his head. Sheridan was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY. Even that is not the end of Sheridan’s story, but it is the end of the Springfield Job story.

The One Who Almost Got Away

After the fallout of the Springfield Job, Pierson — that “old and wily sneak” — fled to Europe but returned to the U.S. to pull another job. He was apprehended in New York for stealing a $1,000 4% bond from a firm of bankers in the New York Post Office Building, tried, and sentenced to three years for his offense.

Published September 07, 2023