Hungry Joe Lewis Swindles Oscar Wilde
Hungry Joe was originally born Frank Alvany in Chicago (or was it Baltimore?), but as a swindler and confidence-man (con-man), was so popular for his deeds around New York City, that the infamous policeman Alex “Clubber” Williams, once recognized him as the man who swindled his brother on a ferry ride, he then grabbed the huckster by the shirt and tossed him out the door of the station house into the street. Joe’s game of chance in which to con those wishing to part with their money quickly, was Banco or Bunco. Bunco is a dice game, played in teams with three dice.
Hungry Joe would set his foundation of the con by say, staying at a nice hotel or by traveling on a ship or train, establishing his new identity, and finding his mark (generally someone of means and wealth). He would then feign recognition of the person and through thorough research on the person, be able to walk right up to them and feel like an old chum, or a local from the hometown. He had the gift of gab, and was especially successful with more trusting, elderly men. Joe reeled in many takers with this scam: Civil War General John Logan (whom is credited with the advent of the Memorial Day holiday), Joe only “borrowed” fifty bucks from him and disappeared, a hotel detective giving away his identity; tycoons and bankers; politicians like the grandson of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., whom Joe, when he saw the aging grandpa’s bankroll, simply grabbed it and ran out the door; and also the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde.
Lewis met Wilde while the latter was in New York at the starting off point of his now famous 1882 American lecture tour. Lewis worked up the con over several days, gaining Wilde’s friendship and trust along the way. How he eventually got these men of means into a greedy game of street dice is by having meals with them and retiring to a “friend’s” parlor to play a friendly game. Alas, playing on their human needs and feelings: greed, easy money, excitement, etc., as often happens to marks.
Lewis alleged to have gotten $1,500 in cash from Wilde, even before being written a check for another $5,000. But as Wilde began to realize he had been conned, he simply stopped payment on the check. But his legend was sealed, Hungry Joe was to become one of the most famous, or infamous, con-men of the era. NYPD police inspector Thomas Byrnes humorously said of Wilde, that he “reaped a harvest of American dollars with his curls, sun flowers and knee-britches” he was no less a swindler than Lewis, “only not quite so sharp.”
In 1885, Joe was said to be working in a new protege named Oliver. But by 1888, Joe was busted conning a Baltimore businessman out of $5,000 and sentenced to nine years in prison. Upon his release, Joe returned to NYC, but jail had not been kind to the handsome flim-flam man: a bit slower in step, eyes not as bright as before, hair sprinkled with silver. Hungry Joe was said to have rounded out his days selling cigars or as Joe put it, doing honest work for a change: working as a bookmaker, or selling his own gambling tip-sheets at the horse races.
Joe passed away a few years later in 1902. He was about fifty.
Low Life by Luc Sante
Professional Criminals in America by Thomas Byrnes
Brooklyn Daily Eagle