Unlocking History

Infamous forger’s career ends at San Quentin

Photo of man in hat and in prison stripes over a check for $22,000.
The forged check for $22,000 landed Charles Becker in San Quentin on a seven-year sentence.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

California prisons have housed and attempted to rehabilitate some notorious offenders such as stagecoach robber Charles “Black Bart” Boles, Richard “Rattlesnake Dick” Barter, and millionaire Griffith J. Griffith. Like some of those who fall into the rehabilitated category is an infamous inmate who decided he was done with his criminal life after serving his sentence at San Quentin.

In 1896, with Pinkerton Detectives hot on his trail, Charles Becker was finally captured. He’d served in other prisons, but San Quentin was different. He bartered an original life sentence down to seven years.

While incarcerated, Becker put his skills to use by creating printed programs for events at the prison. This is the story of a man whose elaborately planned crimes spread from coast-to-coast and across Europe, but through rehabilitative programming, eventually turned over a new leaf.

Skills put to criminal use

“If all forgers were as skillful, as painstaking and astute as was Charles Becker, of Brooklyn, when in 1895 he raised a draft of the Bank of Woodland, California, on the Crocker-Woolworth Bank of San Francisco, from $12 to $22,000, the protection of banks against alterations would be almost impossible,” wrote the Scientific American, June 17, 1911.

Black and white photograph of Charles Becker
Charles Becker, Pinkerton Detective Agency photo, undated.

Becker was creative, inventive and crafty.

“So artistic was Becker’s alteration of this $12 draft that a careful examination under the microscope was necessary for its detection. The draft had been duly protected with a check punch, but paper was chewed into a … pulp-like mass, the old perforations were filled, and these fillings were hardened and ironed. The draft was on a safety tint paper, but this did not prevent the erasure of the amount by means of acid, the surface and tint being restored by means of water color. The raised amount was then inserted into letters and figures, the new perforations to ‘protect’ the $22,000 draft were made with a hand punch, and the raised draft was complete,” the magazine reported. “The altered draft was cashed without exciting suspicion and without unusual difficulty, and before its fraudulent nature was discovered, Becker had disappeared.”

In one of his first heists in 1872, his detailed plans paid off, landing his group a load of cash.

Becker and two accomplices burglarized the Third National Bank in Baltimore, Maryland. Like something out of a movie, the small gang opened a brokerage office on the floor directly above the bank. From there, they cut through the floor and drilled into the vault, according to the 1910 book “Celebrated Criminal Cases of America” by Thomas Samuel Duke.

With a significant haul, they made their way to Europe where they established a forgery ring, obtaining about $50,000, or roughly $1 million by modern standards.

Turkey too tough for ring

They were caught in Turkey, tried by the English Consular Court and sentenced to three years in prison.

Becker and Joe Riley escaped custody and fled to London, leaving behind Joseph Chapman to take the fall. But there was a problem with their plans – Chapman’s wife was their bookkeeper. Essentially a fourth accomplice, she held the ill-gotten cash.

“Suspecting that his companions would endeavor to obtain money from her, (Chapman) telegraphed, instructing her to give them nothing,” according to the book.

Becker and Riley decided on another approach, slipping her some drugs on April 13, 1873. The goal was to knock her out but they were unaware Mrs. Chapman had a heart condition. Their sleep concoction killed her. Now with a murder on their hands, they took off for New York.

Lessons not learned

Almost immediately, they passed a fake check with the Union Trust Company for $64,000. In their haste to obtain cash, they were caught. To save his own hide, Becker turned State’s evidence and was granted immunity while Riley was sent to prison.

Vintage mugshot of man in suit.
James Creegan,, circa 1898.

Needing a new partner, Becker wasted no time enlisting the help of father-in-law Clement Hearing, who ran a lithograph business.

The team forged “an enormous amount of scrip of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad,” according to Duke’s book. Again they were caught and he served a short stint in prison. After he was released, he went back to his forging ways with his Hearing, passing off counterfeits with the Bank of France. This time, Becker served “10 years at Kings County Prison” in New York.

After serving his sentence, he set up a new ring with James Creegan who would act as a middle man. “In Omaha, they defrauded five banks in one day. In 1894, Becker, Creegan and Frank Seaver, alias Dean, made a trip to the Pacific coast (where) it is estimated they cleared $100,000,” the book states. By modern standards, that’s almost $3 million.

With their loot, they returned east for a short time and Becker added new members to the gang. The group returned to San Francisco, taking different routes to cross the country. Becker had learned from his previous missteps and took extra precautions with his new team. He added Ed Mullady as the financial backer, Frank Seaver, Joe McCluskey and kept on Creegan to act as middleman. Becker limited his dealings to Creegan, keeping himself out of view of the others.

Man with dark hair in coat and tie.
Charles Becker, circa 1886, New York.

In San Francisco, they lodged in different parts of the city. Much like their earlier successful heist, one established himself as a businessman, renting an office.

“Under the name of A.H. Dean, (Seaver) deposited $2,500 in the Nevada Bank, and either drew or deposited almost daily to make it appear that he was a business man. At the Bank of Woodland, he obtained a draft for $12 on the Crocker-Woolworth Bank and gave it to Creegan who delivered it to Becker (who) erased and altered the draft to $22,000. … It was then returned to Seaver, who deposited it to his own credit at the Nevada Bank on Dec. 18, 1895. It passed this bank and also the Clearing House,” according to Duke’s book. “The next day, Seaver procured a horse and buggy and a messenger boy, and went to the bank and drew the $22,000 in gold and drove out Mission Street. He stopped in front of a house where he said he lived and bade the boy take the buggy to the stable. After the boy got out of sight, Seaver went several blocks to his room, where McCluskey and Creegan awaited him. They divided the spoils, Creegan taking his own share and also Becker’s.”

That same night, Becker and Creegan took off for New York. A few days later, Seaver and McCluskey left the city. The deception wasn’t detected until Jan. 4, 1896.

The message went out to bankers across the country regarding the gang and their methods along with a description of Seaver.

Hunt is on

It all came crashing down when Seaver, using the alias Dean, opened an account at the St. Paul National Bank. Meanwhile McClusky was doing the same thing in Minneapolis. The two were apprehended and brought to San Francisco.

Pressure was on Becker and Creegan who “were under constant police surveillance.” Due to insufficient evidence to hold McClusky, he was released. He headed to New York, directly to his other partners. He demanded they financially help Seaver. Becker and Creegan refused.

Abandoned by the group, Seaver cracked. He confessed, resulting the arrests of the rest of the gang. McCluskey then also confessed. Two other two claimed innocence but the Pinkertons, along with the San Francisco Police Department, were able to show their movements, combining with testimony of porters, bellhops and others.

They were found guilty on Aug. 28, 1896, and sentenced to life imprisonment but an appeal to the Supreme Court ended in a new trial, set for December.

Becker’s closest ally had enough and confessed his part. Creegan was sentenced to serve two years at Folsom Prison. Seeing no other options, Becker confessed and in a plea deal was sentenced to seven years in San Quentin.

McCluskey died shortly after his sentencing.

Ready for new life

“Charles H. Becker, who is considered to be one of the cleverest forgers in the world, will … breathe the air of freedom,” reported the San Francisco Call, Sept. 26, 1903. “His sojourn in prison has materially altered his physique, but his brain is as active as it was a quarter of a century ago. During his imprisonment at San Quentin, Becker has not idle, neither has he been compelled to soil his hands. During Warden Aguirre’s regime, Becker used to devote his time to pen sketches and the homes of the prison officials are filled with specimens of his handiwork.”

Older man in coat and tie with number 18022 on his chest.
Charles Becker, San Quentin, 1898. Photo from California State Archives.

Rumors floating around claimed he was to receive a pension from the National Banking Association but Becker quickly dismissed those.

“Well the papers have it that I am to receive all the way from $300 a month to $5,000 per year. Some people assert that I am going to Chicago to work in one of the large banks, having been engaged to detect forged drafts. That story is absolutely untrue. No such offer has ever been made me. I could do the work all right, but don’t you suppose the bankers would be afraid of me? They would fear that while I was passing on some of the bad paper I might conveniently overlook a large draft,” Becker told the newspaper.

“I am a pretty old man now and want my freedom the balance of my days. Of course, I still believe I could make the bankers ‘make good’ on the pension idea. A man can do a lot of harm with a little acid, pulp, India ink and a penknife if he knows how and is so inclined. My intention is to quit the business, though,” he said.

According to prison officials, Becker was “a most exemplary convict and has received all of his credits.”

Life ends in poverty

Becker returned to New York where he reportedly died in poverty in 1916. It took a week for the newspapers to report his passing.

“The death (in New York) almost a week ago of Charles Becker, who won international notoriety as a forger and a penman of skill, became known here today,” reported the San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 17, 1916. “Becker as a young man was an expert engraver, and this art proved valuable in his career as a forger. He died in poverty, according to his friends.”

Man in prison stripes. Two boards read: Dec. 31st 1898, Age 59, 7 years, Germany, 18022, Chas Becker, Forgery, San Fran.
Charles Becker, 1898. California State Archives.

The Washington Post published a story on Oct. 16, 1916, that reinforced the bankers’ pension rumor, claiming Becker earned $500 per month during his dozen years of freedom.

“The job was to stay honest. And he did,” the paper claimed. “Few of the men who … have patronized the race tracks of the metropolitan district have paid more than passing attention to the short, rather pallid, gray-haired and gray-mustached man with pleasant hazel eyes who was to be seen wandering around like a casual visitor rather than a (gambler) wherever the thoroughbreds ran. Occasionally an old-timer … would mutter, ‘That’s Charlie Becker.’ The Pinkerton men, of course, knew who he was. But to the thousands who saw him there was nothing in his face or manner to tell that his fingers could raise a $12 check to one of $22,000, so skillfully that the latter amount would be handed to the bearer by the paying teller of any bank in the United States without question.”

Read more about San Quentin at the time Becker served his sentence (link opens new tab).