Bidwell Lore: George and Austin Bidwell, The Bank of England and the Primrose Path – Part III

George and Austin Bidwell, The Bank of England and the Primrose Path – Part III
by Rick Wilcox

Welcome to week 85 of Bidwell Lore! This week we conclude our three-part series about George Bidwell and his younger brother Austin, who in the late 19th century managed to swindle the Bank of England out of a very large sum of money!

For the last 2 weeks, we have shared the fascinating story of George and Austin Bidwell and their brazen theft from the Bank of England in 1873. Read on for the conclusion of the story and what happened to the brothers after the forgery was discovered.

After cashing in the forged bills, Austin was living the high life with his wife Jeannie in Havana, socializing with the many wealthy Americans who lived there. As you may remember from week 1 of this series George recalled in his biography: “So after the English police failed to find me the bank employed the Pinkertons with orders to spare no expense. The Pinkertons put twenty of the best men on the case and soon let daylight into the whole matter.”

Pencil sketch of William Pinkerton, older man wearing a dark suit and tie.

While in Havana, Austin read about Ed Noyes’s arrest in the newspapers and planned to head for Mexico. But, thanks to a tip from an American doctor in Havana, the Pinkerton agency was already on his tail. Austin Bidwell was arrested by Pinkerton’s Captain John Curtin during dinner with his wife and friends at a sea-front hacienda. He later attempted to escape from the barracks where he was being held, leaping over a balcony and hurrying out of the city. By now, Bill Pinkerton had arrived in Havana to take charge of the case. Two days later, Austin was recaptured, and he and Jeannie were put on a boat to London. George had fled to Wales, across to Ireland, then to Scotland, pursued by the City of London police. The chase ended in Edinburgh on April 2, when he was cornered after a foot pursuit by private detective James McKelvie, under the direction of William Pinkerton, who had been hired by The Bank of England.

The trial was held at the Old Bailey, England’s historic criminal court, in front of Judge Thomas Dickson Archibald, who was known as Mr. Justice Archibald. George, Austin, Mac, and Ed, who were being held in the adjacent Newgate Prison, were charged with “forging and uttering numerous bills of exchange with intent to defraud the governor and company of the Bank of England.” All four prisoners pleaded not guilty. The trial lasted nine days and called 108 witnesses. The defendants were found guilty.

19th c pencil drawing of the Old Bailey Court House during a court session, Drawing of 40-50 men in suits sitting on all three sides and in the middle, the judges, jury, witnesses and defendants.
The Old Bailey Court House, Universal Images via Getty Images

“This criminal incident was indeed a blow to the Bidwell family in Connecticut, the native homestead of the Bidwells. This family was one of the oldest of New England families and had maintained its high character for over 200 years. While in prison, George and Austin spent many hours writing books (autobiographies) and stories of the complete account of their criminal acts, their arrest, trial, conviction and confinement. Some of the titles were, ‘Forging His Chains,’ ‘The autobiography of George Bidwell,’ ‘The Elms’ and ‘From Wall Street to Newgate via the Primrose Way.’ Included in every publication was the theme that crime does not pay. In most parts the books were more exciting than many of today’s detective novels. These books are indeed rare today but there are some in existence. The Connecticut State Library in Hartford has undoubtedly the most complete collection of the Bidwell publications. The Bidwell brothers were indeed sorry for the crimes they had committed and George expressed his feelings about embarrassing his family members in one of his publications. He admitted he had done wrong and hoped that younger members of the family would not follow the road of life he had taken. It is said that George was warmly welcomed in East Hartford after his return from prison and received the proper encouragement to begin life anew. It is said that Martha Bidwell forgave her husband and welcomed him back with open arms. She was a strong, ambitious, loving individual who raised her family and held up well under the terrific pressures and embarrassment caused by the criminal acts of her husband.” [1]

Courtesy of Amazon

Martha Brewer Bidwell (1841- 1930) had two children with George Coles Bidwell. Helen Elaine Bidwell (1860-1942) and Howard Everett Bidwell (1864-1926). Helen Elaine was married twice and had two children, but very little is known about her or her husbands and children. Everett was twice married and had six children from the two marriages. He served two terms in the Connecticut legislature, was a director of the Connecticut Tobacco Growers Association, and was one of the founders of the East Hartford Trust Company.  George Bidwell originally arrived in London in 1873 at age 40 and then spent 14 years in prison. Given the additional prison time George spent in Sing-Sing [2] prison it is likely he had very little contact with his son Everett.

Will and Ariel Durant wrote of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “How did it come about that a man born poor, losing his mother at birth and soon deserted by his father, afflicted with a painful and humiliating disease, left to wander for twelve years among alien cities and conflicting faiths, repudiated by society and civilization, repudiating Voltaire, Diderot, the Encyclo’pedie, and the Age of Reason, driven from place to place as a dangerous rebel, suspected of crime and insanity, and seeing, in his last months, the apotheosis of his greatest enemy – how did it come about that this man after his death, triumphed over Voltaire, revived religion, transformed education, elevated the morals of France, inspire the Romantic movement and the French Revolution, influenced the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, the plays of Schiller, the novels of Goethe, the poems of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, the socialism of Marx, the ethics of Tolstoi, and , altogether, had more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of that eighteenth century in which writers were more influential than they had ever been before?” [3]

 Will and Ariel Durant very eloquently beg the question in the age-old debate of nature v. nurture in that tug of war over what influences a person’s formative years. It appears to be a false dilemma given that it is very likely that both nature and nurture contribute in equal measures. Unanswered is why did George Bidwell take up a life of crime growing up in what appears to be a relativity healthy family environment, while his son Everett, who was raised by his mother with little contact from his father clearly had a successful life. “It is said that Martha Bidwell forgave her husband and welcomed him back with open arms. She was a strong, ambitious, loving individual who raised her family and held up well under the terrific pressures and embarrassment caused by the criminal acts of her husband.” [4] The description of Martha seems to answer that question.

Next week we begin a new series about the 18th century “Warning Out” list in Stockbridge that included a few names familiar to readers of Bidwell Lore.

[1] Bidwell Family History 1587-1982, Volume I, Joan J. Bidwell, 1983, Gateway Press.
[2] The name “Sing Sing” was derived from the Sintsink Indian tribe from whom the land was purchased in 1685, and was formerly also the name of the village. In 1970, the name of the prison was changed to the “Ossining Correctional Facility,” but it reverted to its original name in 1985.
[3] Will and Ariel Durant volume ten The Story of Civilization: Rousseau and Revolution, A History of Civilization in France, England, and Germany from 1756, and in the Remainder of Europe from 1715 to 1789, 1967, Simon & Schuster, Page 3.
[4] Bidwell Family History 1587-1982, Volume I, Joan J. Bidwell, 1983, Gateway Press, Page 324.

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