The old city jail, on Maiden Lane just behind City Hall, “hosted” one of the most notorious bank robbers of his age, Maximilian Shinburn, in the 1890s. The July 22, 1895 edition of the “Albany Morning Express” published a story on a then-current denizen of the old Maiden Lane jail. The headline read,
“Slickest Robber in America, Is Maximilian Shinburn Whom the Jail Harbors. His Methods Are all His Own. He is a Man of Patience and Strategy; Not of Violence.”
Shinburn was notorious. According to “Professional Criminals of America,” (an 1895 tome), he was recognized for 30 years all over the world as the “King of Bank Burglars.” “He is an American product, in the criminal sense, having begun his ‘professional’ work here early in the sixties (1860s) as a leader of that great galaxy of safe breaking stars…” Shinburn was wildly successful –he left America with a half a million dollars of ill-gotten gains. He returned to the U.S. in the early 1890s, organized a new band of burglars, and went to work. When he was arrested there was “vast amount of evidence is in the hands of authorities indicating that his is the genius which substituted nitro-glycerine for the safe breaking appliances of earlier date.”
“Under a dozen aliases and over a period of thirty years he has stolen millions, evaded countless pursuits, broken out of a dozen prisons, lived in luxury, purchased a foreign title, engineered the greatest robberies of the age, and fairly won the title of the century’s greatest thief.”
In June 1895 he was arrested by the Pinkertons in NYC for robbing the First National Bank at Middleburg in April 1895, “but this is only one of a hundred crimes perpetrated by him during an unparalleled record.” Shinburn was taken to Middleburg under heavy guard, and transferred to Albany for safe keeping (so to speak). In the previous two years, his band of robbers were believed to have robbed banks across the U.S. and Canada.
How You Get To Be the World’s Greatest Safe Cracker Genius
Shinburn immigrated to America from Germany before he was 17.” He allegedly had “wonderful skill” as a locksmith. He embarked on a criminal career before he reached 18, falling in with a rogue’s gallery of rogues and went on a safecracking spree, beginning with a New Jersey bank. “He progressed rapidly,” the Los Angeles Herald later reported,” and as his ability became known in the ‘crook’ world his services were in constant demand.” He soon started organizing his own heists, always through safe cracking”.
“At that time the only safe in general use in banks and business houses in this country was that made by the Lillie Company (founded in Troy NY). Shinburn figured that a man who could master the Lillie combination lock could loot every Lilly safe in the country.” So, he did what any clever criminal machinist locksmith would do – he went to work for Lillie.
“It took him over a year to obtain all the knowledge he needed” – about lock tumblers and combinations. (Think of the skill set of the character played by Charlize Theron in “The Italian Job”.) Using this information “Shinburn and his associates plundered Lilly safes all over the country, finally driving the Lillie out of business.”
Shinburn was arrested in Saratoga in 1865 for a robbery in New Hampshire, but escaped the first night of his sentence. He wasn’t recaptured until 1868 while making an attempt on a bank in St. Albans, Vt. He served 9 months and escaped. He robbed a coal company in 1867, was arrested and handcuffed to a detective, but escaped while his captor slept. There were more robberies, more arrests, more escapes.
He invested in the stock market, made a killing, and sailed for Belgium, where he lived large in Europe for fifteen years until he was penniless again. In Paris, he met some American crooks, planned a robbery in Belgium, got caught and jailed . . . and escaped. He returned to the U.S. and began the spree that would see him arrested for the Middleburgh robbery.
Shinburn’s Stay in Albany’s Lock Up
During his stay in the Maiden Lane slammer Shinburn impressed the “Albany Morning Express”:
“Even a casual observer at the little window or peek hole, will at once pick Shinburn out from 30 or 40 other prisoners. He dresses neatly, always wear a clean white shirt and goes about in his shirt sleeves. He keeps his hat on and remains most of the time in the rear portion of the corridor.. The officers at the jail, however, know his record pretty well and there is no time at which his movements are not watched.”
Despite the supposed security of the Albany jail, Shinburn tried to escape. In December 1895 he slipped out the cell door, but was grabbed by the sheriff’s wife at the outer door. “The sheriff’s wife is quite a large woman and the sheriff quite a good man, but Shinburn dragged them both about 100 feet, where all three fell over an iron fence. Mrs. Loveland’s cries were heard at this time and several men from the hotel ran to the scene. Shinburn, when he saw help coming, immediately gave himself up and was taken back to jail. The sheriff supposed that the cell door was locked, but Shinburn must have sawed off the lock during the afternoon, as the sheriff thought he heard a squeaking in the jail, but imagined it was the bed in the cell.” On a later occasion, being transported to Schoharie, Shinburn got into a fight and kicked Sheriff Loveland in the face.
Love Comes to Max
Newspapers reported Shinburn found love in jail. He had many female admirers and won the heart of a young woman stenographer, whose desk in the county clerk’s office was directly opposite his cell window. So ardent was the flirtation which Shinburn carried on across the street which separated the two that the girl became infatuated. “There followed a long period of correspondence, notes being exchanged by means of a long cord which the prisoner let fall to his waiting sweetheart in the street below.” Shinburn finally got the girl’s promise to wait for him outside the door leading from the jail yard at 5 o’clock on a certain afternoon. She was to bring with her a loaded revolver and some money.
Shinburn figured out an ingenious way to escape from his cell, and armed himself with a broom. His jailer foiled the plot. He was a quick man with his revolver, and a shot rang out. “The love-sick maiden was waiting outside as Shinburn had told her but she fled in dismay when she heard the revolver shot and the cries of pain that followed. Her friends prevented her attempting to communicate with the prisoner again.”
Shinburn Pays the Piper
After 11months in Albany Shinburn was sentenced to Dannemora. He served some time, but he was granted a retrial, and returned to the Maiden Lane jail in March 1898. He was again convicted, sentenced and returned to Dannemora. He served his sentence, but immediately on his release he was rearrested him for his jail break in New Hampshire in 1866. He defense was “they got the wrong guy”, but he ended up in prison in Concord, N.H. He was freed from Concord in 1908, and according to an article datelined Boston, April 22, “The aged robber enjoyed barely 24 hours of liberty after serving eight years in the New Hampshire state prison before he was arrested on the charge of stealing $200. He protested his innocence.” He was alleged to have taken the money from another man in the lodging house where he was to stay.
Max died in 1915 under his preferred alias” Henry Moebus”: in Boston in a home for reformed criminals.
(The jail was demolished in 1904 and all prisoners transferred to the Penitentiary (on Delaware Ave./Myrtle Ave) across from what is now Lincoln Park.)
Excerpted from the Carl Johnson’s blog, http://hoxsie.org