In all ages, the ‘elite’ have their own way of living, their own moral code, their own mannerisms, their own etiquette. However, there is no era in which these rules and regulations were more evident than in 1880s New York City. Even if you were tangentially related to wealth, you had to abide by certain rules and those differed if you were ‘old money’ or ‘new money’. But one thing is certain: if your name is tarnished, you will be disowned in a flash. So, when John Cross, successful architect and friends with Stanford White among others, and a reasonably close relative of the Astors, finds himself in a bind, he’s not sure what to do.
It seems that his son, George, a recent Harvard graduate, has accumulated a sizable gambling debt that he’s unable to pay. The man he owes, James Kent, a well respected New York socialite whose sideline happens to be crime, upon hearing that George’s father is an architect, presents John Cross with a proposal–in exchange for sparing George’s life, Cross will assist in the planning of robberies of buildings and homes he designed. A percentage of the proceeds will go towards paying off George’s debt. Of course, Cross feels like he has no choice. Thus begins a great book by Charles Belfoure, House of Thieves, author of The Paris Architect.
I heard Belfoure speak at Book Expo and he mentioned he always wondered what a life of crime would be like. An architect by profession, he thought this would be the perfect way to marry these two professions. However, he also said that the idea was not original, but had come from the life of George Leslie. The headline in the Daily Beast of October 19, 2014 states “The High Society Bank Robber of the 1800s: He was wealthy, a member of New York City society, and a patron of the arts. And he was also the secret mastermind behind the biggest bank heists of his day.” Leslie was also an architect by profession.
However, while I admit there is a lot of drama and tension regarding the events of the book, the real treat is Belfoure’s description of the Manhattan of the late 1880s, the tenements, the grand houses of the rich, the vacant land and farms above 80th Street. It is inconceivable to me that parents who could not care for their children would throw them out onto the streets to make their own way in the world as pickpockets, newsies, etc. The piss and manure that lined tenements streets is contrasted by the opulence of the mansions along Madison Square.
The squalor of the poor is described against the huge amounts of money spent on Julia, Cross’ daughter’s, coming out party. No expense was spared–as it was paid for by her Aunt Caroline (Astor). Belfoure goes on to explore women’s roles at the time–Julia was being groomed to marry someone of her social class and her desire to go to college and write a novel were smirked at. The mother’s and grandmother’s roles were to educate Julia regarding proper etiquette, provide here with piano lessons and enough education to enable her to converse with eligible bachelors.
There’s a psychological element to the book as well. Cross was armed forces age during the Civil War and the law allowed the wealthy to pay a substitute to serve in the army. Cross’ family having the means, did just that (as did George Leslie’s family). But Cross always wondered whether he had courage enough to do something dangerous.
All in all, House of Thieves is good on so many levels. One of the best books I’ve read this year.