Over the weekend, I purchased an old mugshot, dated January 1900. I had no idea who George Seymour was when I bought it and found, to my surprise, he was once one of the most famous criminals in the country.
If we begin with his arrest in Pittsburg in January 1900, we can assume this was a low point for Seymour. It was barely three weeks into a new century, and he was already busted.
Detective William Elmore spotted the 27-year-old Seymour and another man John Bates as they were riding on a Herron Avenue streetcar in Pittsburg, PA. Though neither of the men lived in Pennsylvania, Seymour and Bates were well-known to Detective Elmore as a professional thieves.
George Seymour was a Chicago resident and claimed to be a saloonkeeper, it would be closer to the truth to say he was a career criminal. Seymour liked to work with a partner or even a team, and he usually selected locations far from home. John Bates was from Columbus, Ohio. Like Seymour, he had a long record of petty crimes. Bates had been arrested in New York City the year before, while using the alias John Barnard.
Detective Elmore recognized Seymour and Bates and deduced they had a racket in Pittsburg. He suspected they were probably riding on the streetcar with the intention of robbing other passengers. Seymour was using an alias (George Cissna) but Detective Elmore was not fooled.
Seymour and Bates were brought to Pittsburg police headquarters, where they were booked on suspicion, despite a lack of evidence and having no stolen property on them. Seymour and Bates were brought before Magistrate McKenna of Allegheny County the following morning where they were ordered to pay $50 plus costs, or serve 90 days in jail.
This trip to Pittsburg was not Seymour’s first unsuccessful expedition – far from it. The first time his arrest made the news was in Kansas in 1895.
A more highly publicized crime occurred in Philadelphia in September of 1898. The latter arrest occurred while Seymour was using the alias John Parker, and working with a small gang, including Jennie Lyle, a female pickpocket from Cincinnati. Seymour was given 90 days by the magistrate and The Philadelphia Inquirer took care to note that “As he was led from the courtroom, Seymour was heard to say to the woman, ‘Don’t forget to keep me posted if you get out before me.'”
As time went on, Seymour became more prolific. In 1908, he was on the run after stealing $142, which is about $4,000 in 2018.
His infamy caused the city of Cincinnati to include his name in a proactively published list of criminals who would be arrested on sight, should they be unwise enough to appear.
Later, while under arrest and being transferred from one jail to another, Seymour – then using the alias John Martin – met a friend at the depot who also happened to know the guard. The friend suggested going to the bar, and Seymour looked at his handcuffs and asked the guard plaintively, “You don’t expect me to walk across town wearing these, do you?” The guard agreed this was unreasonable, and uncuffed him. Seymour, of course, escaped at the bar.
The guard, who appears to be an early Roscoe P. Coltrane, gave an interview to a newspaper reporter about the incident, while asking him to please not publicize it.
In 1910, almost 10 years to the day from his arrest in Pittsburg, Seymour shot and killed another pickpocket he believed was flirting with his wife Frankie. They were in Ohio, and the Seymours initially managed to escape.
George was picked up almost immediately but was acquitted of the murder, which he claimed was done in self-defense. In April, he beat theft charges in Baltimore.
The last trace of him I could find of him was when he was sentenced to six years in 1915.
After I read about his 20-year criminal record, I looked back at the mugshot. George Seymour still doesn’t look like a bad fellow and I don’t think he was. He isn’t ultra-sophisticated or a criminal mastermind – if he was really great at being a thief, he wouldn’t have been arrested so often.
He was just a career criminal, the same way other people are career engineers, or career musicians.Just a guy.