He was a crook, a pickpocket, a Tammany Hall politician, and finally, a murderer. Yet William J. Sharkey was best known for his daring escape from death row, in New York City’s Tombs Prison.
Sharkey was born in New York City in 1845, to well-to-do family, which resided in the Ninth Ward in Manhattan. Despite the affluence of his family, Sharkey gravitated over to the dark side. He began hanging out with pickpockets, gamblers, and crooks, and soon he became a very capable pickpocket himself, and a gambler of some renown. One sad day, Sharkey was arrested for pickpocketing, and he had his picture taken by the municipal photographer, giving himself a definitive presence in the criminal record section, of New York City Police Department.
Sharkey soon elevated himself in the criminal ladder, dealing in stolen bonds. With the money from his endeavors piling in, Sharkey formed his own gang called “Sharkey’s Guards,” which had their headquarters at the corner of Wooster and Houston Streets. It was there that Sharkey insinuated himself into the local political scene, and soon he was the darling of the crooks who ran Tammany Hall. Sharkey dressed himself in the finest clothes, wearing sparkling diamonds on his fingers, and around his neck. Soon, Tammany Hall put Sharkey up for election, for Assistant Alderman. Even though Tammany Hall’s had influence, and muscle, working in their favor at the polls, Sharkey somehow lost the election. Disappointed with his political failure, Sharkey decided to go back to his first loves – stealing and gambling.
With the money he made from various illegal endeavors, Sharkey traveled to Buffalo, New York, and started a faro game. However, Sharkey was so unlucky, he managed to lose $4000 in just five days. Downtrodden, Sharkey returned to New York City, and hooked up with his old friend Robert Dunn, real name Bob Isaacs. Dunn was an employee of the City’s Comptroller’s Office, but he also was a faro dealer, in a Fulton Street gambling house. Figuring Dunn was a more capable faro expert then he, Sharkey gave Dunn $600, and told him to go to Buffalo, and try his hand at faro. Dunn agreed that if he was successful in Buffalo, he promised to repay Sharkey the $600, plus half his winnings. As luck would have it, Dunn was just as unlucky in Buffalo as Sharkey was, and he lost his entire stake. Dunn returned to New York City, and told Sharkey the bad news.
On September 1, 1872, Dunn and Sharkey attended the funeral of James Riley, a prominent member of the Michael Norton Association, a political arm of Tammany Hall. After the funeral, Sharkey and Dunn traveled separately to a saloon owned by Charles Harvey, called “The Place,” located at 288 Hudson Street. By the time Sharkey had arrived, Dunn had already imbibed a few rye whiskeys at the bar. Sharkey ordered a rye himself, and after he knocked it down in one gulp, Sharkey demanded his $600 back from Dunn. Dunn told Sharkey he was tapped out himself, and couldn’t repay the money. Sharkey immediately drew a single-shot Derringer pistol, and pointed it at Dunn’s chest.
Dunn screamed, “Don’t shoot, Billy! I’ll pay you as soon as I can!”
Sharkey would have none of that. He bellowed back, “You better pay me now!”
Before Dunn could reply, Sharkey fired the Derringer point-blank at Dunn. The bullet pierced Dunn’s heart, killing him instantly. Sharkey fled the scene of the crime, but he was captured a few hours later, in a boarding house on Washington Street, near Perry Street.
Sharkey was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged at the Tombs Prison, on August 15, 1873. However, Sharkey’s connections at Tammany Hall pushed back his execution date to early December.
While Sharkey was imprisoned, he was visited daily by the most beautiful Maggie Jourdan, herself a very successful pickpocket. Miss Jourdan arrived early every morning, and always stood until visiting hours were over. Miss Jourdan was a great friend of Mrs. Wesley Allen, the wife of a burglar, whose brother John Allen owned a bawdy dance hall on Water Street. John Allen was known as “The Wickedest Man in New York City.”
While most prisoners at the Tombs lived in perpetual squalor, Sharkey lived quite nicely on the second tier of the prison, in an area called “Murderer’s Row.” With the money Jourdan earned stealing, and also by her hocking her jewelry, including her gold watch, Sharkey was able to decorate his jail cell number 40 (which was never locked), with the finest furniture. Jordan bought Sharkey a walnut table, a Kidderminster carpet, a canary in a cage, and a book-and-magazine rack, which was suspended from the ceiling by silken cords. Jourdan also supplied Sharkey with a soft mattress for his bed, a comfortable chair for his lounging, draperies for his cell door, an elegant dressing gown made of velvet and cherry-colored silk, and velvet slippers.
Jourdan often told Sharkey during her visits, that if he died, she no longer wanted to live. “Willie, I could never let you suffer,” she tearfully told him.
On November 19, 1873, at exactly 10 AM, Jourdan arrived at the Franklin Street entrance to the Tombs. The guard on duty gave her the usual pass given to all visitors. The bottom part of her body was noticeably bulky, but the prison guards thought she had just put on additional petticoats, to protect herself the from the cold November air. Jourdan immediately went to Sharkey’s cell, and she spoke to him for several hours. The prison guards were so accustomed to her being there, they hardly paid any attention to what she did, and what she said to Sharkey.
Mrs. Wesley Allen arrived at the prison at 12:30 PM. She stopped at Sharkey’s cell on the second tier, and spoke to both Jourdan and Sharkey. Then Mrs. Allen went upstairs to the third tier, to visit a prisoner named Flood. At 1 PM, Jourdan exited the prison, which was quite unusual, since she always stood until the end of the day.
A half an hour later, a strange-looking woman, with especially broad shoulders, walked down the second-tier corridor, through two lower gates, and out of the prison. As this dubious lady exited the prison, she handed her pass to the guard minding the exit. This woman wore a heavy black woolen dress, a black coat, an Alpine bonnet, and a thick green veil, which covered her entire face. Patrolmen Dolan was walking down Franklin Street, when he saw this woman nimbly jump onto a passing streetcar, even though she was wearing high French heels.
At 2:05 PM, Mrs. Wesley Allen tried to exit the prison. As she passed the guard standing at the exit, the guard asked her for her visitor’s pass. Mrs. Allen nervously fumbled in her dress pockets for several seconds, before she said, “I put it in my pocket, but I must have lost it.”
The guard, realizing something was up, immediately summoned Warden Johnson. Mrs. Allen was detained, while Warden Johnson ordered all cells in the prison to be immediately searched. During this search, they were dismayed to find out that Sharkey’s cell was empty. His elegant clothes were scattered about his cell, and right above his washbasin, were the remnants of his flowing mustache, which had obviously just been shaved off.
Mrs. Allen was immediately arrested, but since there was no concrete evidence to incriminate her, the police reluctantly released her. Jourdan was arrested that night at her mother’s home at 167 9th Ave. When the detectives told her she was under arrest, Jourdan replied, “I am the happiest little woman in the world.”
Jourdan was tried in General Sessions Court, and was defended by the infamous attorney Big Bill Howe. Howe was so efficient in Jourdan’s defense, the jury acquitted her on all charges.
It was later determined, that despite the fact the police had searched all the piers in the city looking for Sharkey, Sharkey had escaped on the schooner Frank Atwood, and made his way to Haiti. Not liking that country too much, Sharkey boarded another boat, and travel to Cuba, where he settled.
Two years after Sharkey had made his escape from the Tombs Prison, Maggie Jourdan joined Sharkey in Cuba. Yet for some unknown reason (probably because Sharkey was an incorrigible creature), Sharkey badly mistreated Jourdan, the very woman responsible for Sharkey avoiding the gallows in New York City. Sharkey abused Jourdan so much, the captain of the ship who had taken Jourdan to Cuba, hustled her back on board, and took her back to New York City.
Soon afterwards, Jourdan found her true love, whom she married. They presumably lived happily ever after.
As far as it can be determined, William J. Sharkey never returned to New York City.