George Leonidas Leslie was “one of history’s most prolific bank robbers”, says Zachary Crockett in The Hustle. Born in 1842 in Ohio, he led an extraordinary double life. By day, he was a “distinguished architect who hobnobbed with New York City’s elite”. By night, he and his crew carried out more than 100 heists that yielded more than $7m ($200m in today’s money). Incredibly, the authorities estimated that between 1869 and 1878 he was responsible for “80% of all bank robberies in the entire US”.
Unlike other bank thieves of the time, Leslie wasn’t interested in blowing open the vault doors. He planned each heist meticulously: planting a gang member as an employee at the target bank, building a mini replica of the building in an empty warehouse and practising on a similar model of the vault lock. His raids – all on East coast banks – were so lucrative that other robbers hired him as a consultant: for $20,000 (around $500,000 today), he would “look over other outfits’ plans and make suggestions”.
The biggest heist Leslie planned, on the Manhattan Savings Institution, netted an astonishing $2.7m, or $81m in today’s money. It’s still America’s largest ever bank robbery. Alas, Leslie himself wasn’t there to see it. He’d been shot dead several months earlier, aged 36, probably by a disgruntled member of his crew. At his funeral was a “mishmash of crime lords, cops and financiers”: the “perfect manifestation of his dual existence”.