Podcasts True Crime

Historic Heist: The Great Bank Robbery of 1878

PODCAST The thrilling tale of a classic heist from the Gilded Age, perpetrated by a host of wicked and colorful characters from New York’s criminal underworld.

Jesse James and Butch Cassidy may be more infamous as American bank robbers, but neither could match the skill or the audacity of George Leonidas Leslie, a mastermind known in his day as the ‘King of the Bank Robbers’.

On October 27, 1878, Leslie’s gang broke into the Manhattan Savings Institution and stole almost $3 million in cash and securities (about $71 million in today’s money), making it one of the greatest bank robberies in American history. 

This epic heist, which took three years to plan, was only the greatest in a string of high-profile robberies planned by Leslie and perpetrated by a rogue’s gallery of New York thieves and fences.

Many details of the crime remain a mystery, and the legend of Leslie has been immortalized — with some mixture of truth and fiction — in Herbert Asbury’s classic The Gangs of New York.

Who was this suave and mysterious Leslie? And how do you actually go about breaking into a bank in the 1870s? (Hint: Make sure you have a ‘little joker’ handy.)

Listen Now – The Great Bank Robbery of 1878

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New York Times, October 28, 1878
Front page of the New York Tribune, oct 28, 1878
Decatur Weekly Republican, oct 31, 1878
The New England Farmer, November 2, 1878
The Saint Paul Globe, Saint Paul, Minnesota, October 28, 1878
Glasgow Herald, Glasgow Scotland, October 29, 1878

The second Manhattan Savings Institution building, built in 1891 at Broadway and Bleecker Street, on the spot of their first bank — the one targeted by the Leslie gang.

Photo by Greg Young
Photo by Greg Young

The City Bank of New York which was robbed in 1831.

New York Public Library

A selection of tools found at a bank break-in in Montreal, 1875.

New York Public Library
Marm Mandelbaum, as depicted in Sins of New York: As Exposed by the Police Gazette by Edward Van Every


Herbert Asbury / The Gangs of New York
Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella / A History of Heists: Bank Robbery In America
J. North Conway / King of Heists
Richard S. Grossman / Unsettled Account
Stephen Jaffe and Jessica Lautin / Capital of Capitol: Money, Banking, and Power in New York City, 1784-2012
Geoff Manaugh / A Burglar’s Guide to the City 

1 reply on “Historic Heist: The Great Bank Robbery of 1878”

Oh hey! I think these are the same robbers who broke into the Saratoga County Bank down the street from where I grew up in Waterford, NY! Until recently you could even see where the robbers pried apart the bars on the basement windows in order to get in.

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