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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Alias Jimmy Valentine

From Washington Lawyer, February 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

Another improbable coincidence. First, I get a call from Bill Owen, a lawyer friend of mine. I have not heard from Bill in 45 years. The very same day I see an ad offering a leather bound book of O. Henry’s short stories. It occurred to me that I had written something about O. Henry’s Jimmy Valentine story before, but not about the part Bill Owen played and the 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue bank robbery in the 1950s.

The 5th Street criminal bar was interested in two things about that robbery: Would the police get the safecrackers, and, if so, who would get the cases?

Within the week the alleged safecrackers were caught in Philadelphia and extradited to Washington. Joe Fanning, the Philadelphia lawyer who tried to stop the extradition, contacted two Washington lawyers, Bill Owen and Jimmy Hughes, to represent the alleged safecrackers.

Joe Fanning came to Washington to meet with Bill Owen and Jimmy Hughes and some other 5th Streeters at the New England Café at 9th and F Streets, across from the Gayety burlesque theatre, to discuss getting the clients out on bond, fees, and the clients’ defense.

When that was settled, Joe Fanning told us some things about his Philadelphia practice. Joe and his father got most of the safecracking business around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He said a competent safecracker does not blow up a safe. No, he gets into the bank by bribing a clerk. He enters by night with his tools. He listens to the clicks of the tumblers. He gets the combination and opens the safe.

Joe Fanning asked if anyone had heard of Jimmy Valentine and O. Henry’s safecracking story. He said William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry (1862–1910), served three years in the pen because of a conviction for embezzlement, taking money from a bank in Texas where he worked as a teller.

Porter / O. Henry made friends in prison with another prisoner, a safecracker. When Porter / O. Henry got out, he moved to New York and commenced writing short stories under the name O. Henry.

He used in one of his stories his prison friend who he called Jimmy Valentine. In the story, Jimmy Valentine intended to go straight with the law, but only after cracking one more safe, an old safe in an old bank in a small town. When he got to the small town, he took a job in a shoe store as cover while casing the bank. But something happened Jimmy did not expect. He met a girl who was the daughter of the bank president. It was love at first sight for them both.

The banker also took a liking to Jimmy. He decided to give a party for the two at the bank, a party to introduce Jimmy to his banker friends and to show off his bank’s new time safe.

Jimmy’s girlfriend’s sister was at the party with her two little girls playing hide-and-seek in front of the open safe. Then a dramatic event took place: One of the little girls ran into the safe to hide. Her sister pushed the safe door, and it slowly swung closed.

The guests at the party who saw what happened cried for help. The safe must be opened or the girl will die. A call was made to the police and to the people who installed the time safe. The word was that the time safe could not be opened for 24 hours.

As Jimmy watched this tragedy unfold, he had to make a quick decision. Could he open the safe? And if he could, should he? It would show him up as a safecracker.

Jimmy’s technique with the combination lock tumblers was to sensitize his fingers with some sandpaper. Without thinking any more, he rubbed the tips of his fingers against the adjacent marble wall. He went to the safe, turned the tumblers, and heard the clicks that disclosed the combination. He still had that touch in those sandpapered fingers. The safe popped open. The little girl danced out, unaware that she had just sidestepped death.

Jimmy looked around to see the reaction. Standing back from the crowd was a man he recognized, the detective from the safe squad who had come to the bank when the call was made to the police. It was the detective who had put Jimmy in jail two years ago.

Jimmy walked over to him and said, “You saw it all, and now you must do your duty.”

The detective said, “Yes, I saw it all. I thought I recognized you, but I see I made a big mistake. You are a much better man than that man I knew.”

O. Henry’s Jimmy Valentine story was a big hit. O. Henry was asked to turn the story into a play. He was tempted but was fearful that if the play were successful, his jail term would be exposed. He liked his O. Henry anonymity. He sold the rights to a playwright for $500, and the story was dramatized and renamed Alias Jimmy Valentine. It was a Broadway success and many years later a 1930s movie.

A Broadway songwriter, Gus Edwards, saw the play. It inspired him to write the song “When Jimmy Valentine Gets Out.” It was the hit of the 1911 season. Let’s end this little story with Gus Edwards’ song:

Look out, look out, Look out for Jimmy Valentine
For he’s a pal of mine, A sentimental crook
With a touch that lingers
In his sandpapered fingers
He can find the combination of your pocketbook.
Look out, look out, For when you see his lantern shine
That’s the time to jump right up and shout
Help! He’d steal a horse and cart,
He’d even steal a girlie’s heart
When Jimmy Valentine gets out.

One thing more, Bill Owen’s client was acquitted.

Jacob A. Stein has written a new book, Eulogy of Lawyers. Reach the publisher at [email protected].