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The Big Bank Heist at Broadway and Bleecker

Louis Werckle “is a little old man, of no physical strength, and of apparently less courage.” That’s how The New York Times snarkily described the janitor of the Manhattan Savings Institution on October 28, 1878, an innocent and unwilling participant in one of the greatest crimes of the 19th century, which took place smack dab in the middle of our neighborhood.

The six-story bank building at 644-646 Broadway, on the corner of Bleecker Street, was the target of a heist that netted thieves more than $2.8 million in securities and cash, equal to approximately $80 million in current dollars. That makes the bank robbery one of the largest in U.S. history.

Head office of the Manhattan Savings Institution at 644-646 Broadway, circa 1870s, from the HSBC Archives

In the 19th century, the Manhattan Savings Institution was one of the largest banks in the world, one that also held the securities, jewelry, and other valuables of some of New York’s most prominent citizens, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould. It was also famed for its vaults and security systems, a veritable labyrinth of bolts, locks, and steel doors. The potential challenge of the crime and its possible rewards proved to be quite a lure for the man police and reporters eventually dubbed “The King of Bank Robbers.”

That man was George Leonidas Leslie, a dashing bon vivant with a sizeable inheritance who ingratiated himself into high society after arriving in New York in 1869. His skills as a trained architect and his inside knowledge of the comings and goings of the city’s wealthiest combined for one very successful criminal leader. The gang of thieves he formed and maintained from 1869 to 1878 was alleged by police to have been responsible about 80% of all bank robberies in the United States during that period.

Leslie identified the Manhattan Savings Institution as his ultimate target as early as 1873, but didn’t start planning the deed until 1875. He was a patient and meticulous planner, exploiting his knowledge of architecture to record every detail of his target and often depositing some of his wealth in a bank to be able to come and go at will during his research without raising suspicion. 

It took Leslie three years to prepare for the heist. At around 6 am on Sunday, October 27, 1878, a gang of seven thieves burst in on Werckle’s apartment directly above the bank, tying up the janitor, his wife, and his mother-in-law and demanding the keys to the bank and the combination to the safe. (Wreckle had both because he was entrusted with opening the vault every morning and placing the bank’s books on the appropriate employees’ desks.) After a series of threats from the masked intruders, Werckle gave into their demands, stating that they would still be unable to turn the knobs of the bank’s doors. “You leave that to us” was the reply.

Details of the securities stolen from the Manhattan Savings Institution on October 27, 1878.

Four of the crooks went down to the bank on the first floor, leaving three to watch the hostages. After about three hours, the gang reunited in the Werckle apartment, then left the premises. The janitor, still handcuffed, ran down to the barber in the building’s basement — his shop had been open since 7:30, but he heard no unusual noises coming from the bank floor above — and cried that he thought the bank had been robbed. The barber ran up the steps to the bank, peered inside the Bleecker Street door, and “saw the vault open and a lot of silver lying scattered about,” according to the Times; he then ran to nearby Police Headquarters with the news.

By the time the police had arrived, the perpetrators were long gone. It took about six months for police to crack the case, thanks to the nature of what the criminals took: All but around $12,000 of the multimillion-dollar loot was in non-negotiable securities. When burglar Johnny Dobbs tried to cash in those notes, he was arrested, which led to the capture of the rest of the gang, including watchman Patrick Shovlin, an inside man on the caper.

And what of George Leslie? He was never involved with the actual execution of the crime, as he had disappeared sometime in May 1878. The following month, his body was discovered in a bush near Yonkers; the heist went on without him. The likely cause of death: murdered by fellow gang member Shang Draper following an affair with his wife.

The present-day Manhattan Savings Institution building by Robert Fisch; explore more of his photos in our Historic Image Archives here.

The scene of the crime was razed in 1889, to be replaced two years later by a new, elegant eight-story building for the bank designed by Stephen D. Hatch. The brownstone, terra cotta, and brick structure is trimmed in cast iron and topped with a copper-clad tower and pediment. Inside the pediment: the monogram of MSI, which reminds those who live in the building’s present-day lofts and those who pass by of the history of the site as the one-time home of the Manhattan Savings Institution.

Interested in more bank robberies connected to our neighborhoods? Read about how what may be New York’s most notorious bank robbery — which played out on live TV and was later immortalized on film — had deep roots in Greenwich Village.

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