George Leonidas Leslie started out in life as one of the privileged class. Yet, he wound up a criminal, known by the New York City Police as “King of the Bank Robbers.”
Leslie was born in Cincinnati in 1840. His father owned a brewery and Leslie started out as an academic, graduating from the University of Cincinnati with honors and a degree in architecture. After both his parents died, Leslie sold his father’s brewery, gave up his architectural career and moved to New York City. There he fell in with a bad crowd and decided he could make a good career in robbing banks. It is estimated that in the ten years period spanning 1874-1884, Leslie was responsible for 80% of all bank robberies committed in the United States, taking in cash estimated to be between 7-12 million dollars.
In New York City, Leslie posed as a man about town with considerable means. He belonged to the most exclusive clubs and was a regular theater-goer and a patron of the arts. He used his guise to gain access to various bits of information that make his bank-robbing life most profitable. Leslie would often spend as many as three years planning a bank job. When he found a bank to his liking, Leslie would try to get the blueprints of the interior of the bank. If this were not possible, he would visit the bank posing as a depositor, and with his experience in architecture, he would draw up rough plans on the inside of the bank himself. Sometimes Leslie would have one of his gang members get a job at the bank as either a night watchman, or a porter, so that Leslie could get the exact specifications, and make and model of the bank vault.
After obtaining this valuable information, Leslie would buy a duplicate of the bank safe. He spent days and sometimes weeks, perfecting the art of opening the safe. He shied away from using dynamite to crack the safe, deciding that would cause too much noise and lead to being detected. Leslie method of opening safes included boring a hole underneath the dial, then using a thin piece of steel to manipulate the tumblers into place. To cover almost any contingency in robbing a bank, Leslie had a set of burglar tools specially created for him that cost the staggering sum of $3000, which was more than most people earned in several years.
To perfect the job he was planning, Leslie sometimes set up a room, in a loft he rented downtown, to resemble the inside of the bank he was planning to rob. There Leslie, and the men whom he selected for that particular bank job, would spend considerable amounts of time practicing exactly how the bank robbery should develop. Leslie would darkened the lights and watch his men go through their maneuvers in the darkness, then critique their work. His cohorts consisted of various known criminals like Jimmy Hope, Jimmy Brady, Abe Coakley, Shang Draper, Red Leary, Johnny Dobbs, Worcester Sam Perris, Bill Kelly and Banjo Pete Emerson.
In May of 1875, Leslie decided to rob the Manhattan Savings Institution at 644 Broadway. Leslie, through his “inside man” at the bank, Patrick Shelvin, found out the make and model of the lock on the bank’s vault. He procured an exact model from the manufacturers, Valentine & Bulter, and spent six months perfecting the opening of the lock. On October 27, 1875, Shelvin let Leslie and his crew into the bank at night. When their work was done, they had stolen $3.5 million in cash and securities, almost $50 million in today’s money. No one was arrested until May, 1879, and as a result Jimmy Hope and Bill Kelly were convicted and sent to prison. Abe Coakley and Banjo Pete Emerson were also arrested, but were acquitted at trial. Leslie was never arrested and his involvement in the robbery was not known until after his death.
Leslie reputation grew to such gigantic proportions, he was often called in as a “consultant” by other bank-robbing gangs. It was believed he received more than $20,000 just to travel to San Francisco to look over plans for a local bank heist.
Yet, if Leslie had one weakness, it was for the affections of women. He began an affair with the girlfriends of one of his cohorts, Shang Draper. On June 4th, 1884, Leslie’s decomposed body was found lying at the base of Tramps Rock, near the boarder line between Westchester and the Bronx. He was shot twice in the head. Police speculated that Leslie was killed by the jealous Draper in a house at 101 Lynch Street in Brooklyn, then his body was carted away to Tramps Rock by three of his associates, who had been seen near Yonkers at the time the body was discovered. But there was little evidence of the crime and no one was ever arrested.