No. 364
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
March 22, 2018
Murderers Row

New York, New York, November 19, 1873 – The morning of November 19, 1873, William J. Sharkey was securely locked in cell No. 40, on “Murderers’ Row” in the New York City prison known as the Tombs. But when the bell rang at 2:00 that afternoon, signaling the end of visiting hours, cell No. 40 was empty and Sharkey was nowhere to be found.

William J. Sharkey

William Sharkey was in jail for the murder of Robert S. Dunn (alias Bob Isaacs), at a saloon called The Place on Hudson Street, on Sunday, September 1, 1872, following the funeral of Tammany man, James Reilly. Sharkey had set Dunn up with a faro game in Buffalo, and fronted him $600 to get started. Dunn was now back in New York and Sharkey wanted his money. When Dunn said he didn’t have it, Sharkey drew a single-barreled Derringer and shot him in the chest. Sharkey fled the saloon leaving Dunn bleeding to death on the floor.

Sharkey was soon captured and brought to trial. It was cold-blooded murder in front of dozens of witnesses; even with Sharkey’s Tammany connections, the best verdict he could get was guilty of murder in the first degree, with a recommendation to mercy. Sharkey was sentenced to be hanged on August 15, but his attorney filed a writ of error, which was granted by the New York Supreme Court. As of November 19, 1873, Sharkey was still in the Tombs, awaiting his new trial, but Sharkey was tired of waiting, and was determined to get out of jail without another court appearance.

Luxury in the Tombs

Given the number of criminals that had been housed behind the stone walls of the Tombs, successful escapes were rare. It was an imposing and well-guarded fortress. Escapes from Murderers’ Row were seldom tried, but for reasons other than security—life on Murderers’ Row was quite comfortable. Those with influence and money had the freedom to leave their cells and walk the corridors of the prison and the yard outside. Prisoners bought their own furnishings, including carpets, artwork and upholstered sofas. Those who could afford it, had their meals catered from Delmonico’s or other fine New York restaurants, and followed dinner with drinks and cigars.

Maggie Jourdan

William Sharkey, who had been a political operative, and one-time candidate, for Tammany Hall, had influence, and through his sweetheart, Maggie Jourdan, he had money. Maggie Jourdan was infatuated with William Sharkey, and she was an industrious pickpocket. She sold all of her fine clothing and jewelry to make sure her lover was comfortable in jail, buying him a walnut table, a soft mattress for his bed, a Kidderminster carpet, a canary in a cage, a soft chair for lounging, drapes for the cell door, a silk and velvet dressing gown and velvet slippers. Though Sharkey had lost the privilege of walking the corridors due to insolence toward the jailors, he was living the good life locked in his cell.

From the first day of Sharkey incarceration, Maggie Jourdan had come to the prison every morning and, more often than not, had stayed until the 2:00 bell. Someone paying close attention may have noticed that on November 19, she left the prison well before 2:00. As it was, nothing seemed unusual that day until another visitor, Mrs. Allen, who was visiting her husband, Wes Allen, in jail for burglary, claimed she had lost her admission ticket. Their suspicions aroused, the guards did a quick check of the prison and found cell No. 40 empty.

The Escape of Sharkey

Sharkey’s clothes lay in a heap on the floor, and the hairs of his mustache, still wet from shaving, were found on a shelf. They soon surmised that Maggie Jourdan had somehow obtained a key to the cell and provided the prisoner with a change of clothes. He had left the prison dressed as a woman, showing Mrs. Allen’s admission ticket when he left. The guards at the door then remembered seeing a large woman, dressed all in black, with a black veil over her face, leave the prison. They had seen her walk down the street and make a rather deft leap onto a streetcar.

The system was thrown into turmoil, with the warden blaming the guards and the district attorney blaming the warden. Mrs. Allen was interrogated; she said she lost her ticket and nothing more. When Maggie Jourdan was arrested at her mother’s house she showed no signs of distress, telling detectives that she was “the happiest little woman in the world.” She was tried for helping Sharkey escape, but with representation by Big Bill Howe of the remarkably successful crimial law firm of Hummel and Howe, the trial ended with a hung jury. The indictment against her was eventually quashed.

William Sharkey had left New York and travelled by boat to Baracoa Cuba, then to Havana where he lived under the name Campbell. Though authorities knew of his whereabouts, the United States had no extradition treaty with Spain, so there was nothing they could do. Maggie Jourdan went to Havana to live with Sharkey, but it was not the paradise she had expected. Sharkey turned mean and abused her so badly that she left Havana and returned to New York where she disappeared from public life. William Sharkey never returned to the United States.


  • Asbury, Herbert. All around the town. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.
  • Farley, Phil. Criminals of America, or, Tales of the lives of thieves enabling every one to be his own detective : with portraits, making a complete rogues' gallery. New York: Author's edition, 1876.
  • Sutton, Charles, James B. Mix, and Samuel Anderson Mackeever. The New York Tombs; its secrets and its mysteries. New York: United States Pub. Co., 1873.
  • WALLING, George W. Recollections of a New York Chief of Police; an official record of thirty-eight years ... Illustrated, etc. New York: Caxton Book Concern, 1887.

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