Chapter One: Space Invaders
The Man Who Knew Too Much
George Leonidas Leslie moved to New York in 1869, the same year the Brooklyn Bridge began construction. The city was still reeling from the effects of the Civil War, which came to a bloody end only four years earlier; displaced families and internal immigrants with battle-scarred bodies roamed the streets looking for work, and the army’s impenetrable forts and armories still loomed over distant neighborhoods like castles. Away from all the shadows and poverty, in an ever-increasing blaze of artificial light, Manhattan was lurching forward into the so-called Gilded Age, as industrialists, financiers, and railroad barons brought with them a rising tide of brick and limestone mansions, with elaborate private gardens, art galleries, hidden vaults, and ballrooms. The disparities in wealth and privilege could not have been more noticeable—or more of an open dare, an irresistible challenge, for someone freshly arrived in the city intent on leapfrogging all the darkness and dirt, conning his way directly into the comfortable halls of the well-to-do.
At the time, New York was just reaching the delirious pace of acceleration that would make it the global capital of the 20th century, an icon of American entrepreneurialism and a real-time test-bed for what a modern city should be. New technologies were emerging and interacting with one another in ways that had not—indeed, could not have—been anticipated. No one knew what form the puzzle of the city would soon take. The invention of the elevator in 1853 would have urban effects beyond even the most optimistic forecasts, sending buildings soaring into the sky, while an experimental pneumatic underground transportation system prototyped beneath Broadway by inventor Alfred Ely Beach would, years later, inspire the great labyrinth of the New York City subway system.
Leslie had been trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati, where he graduated with honors. Always with one eye on the buildings taking shape around him, he would stroll past the buzzing construction sites of 5th Avenue—super-mansions built using so much rock, they were more like mountains than houses—and go for long walks along the city’s docks, watching the boroughs knit themselves together as the elegant and monumental spine of the Brooklyn Bridge took shape. He was charismatic, well connected, and could have worked for any of the wealthiest clients in the city, from private bankers to financiers.
But his first thoughts upon arrival were not about joining the parade of design and construction on display, still less about how his own remarkable architectural talents might help to beautify the city for those who could never afford to live like kings.
His first thoughts were that he could use his architectural skills to rob the place blind.
What followed would inaugurate one of the most spatially astonishing crime sprees in U.S. history. Nineteenth-century New York City police chief George Washington Walling estimated that Leslie and his gang were behind an incredible 80 percent of all bank robberies in the United States at the time, until Leslie’s betrayal and murder in the spring of 1878. This would include the great Manhattan Savings Bank heist of October 1878, which netted nearly $3 million from one of the most impregnable buildings in North America. It was an act Leslie had been planning obsessively, continuously, down to its every architectural detail, for more than three years—but Leslie himself would be murdered by a member of his own crew before he could participate in this heist he had so meticulously put together.
Seduced by the lavish lifestyles of his potential clients and future colleagues, Leslie gave in to temptation and began to misuse his professional training. To his peers, he seemed to have a long and successful career ahead of him as a designer of private homes, banks, and offices. To Leslie, this was not nearly enough—and, either way, it was simply far too slow. Leslie was charismatic, debonair, and ambitious, talking his way up the social hierarchy and seeking out the owners of businesses and financial institutions, including John C. Roebling, engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Wall Street financier Jim Fisk.
He would wheedle his way into private gatherings, not just for the cocktails and social camaraderie, but to case the place. Oh, he might say to a wealthy businessman or bank owner at a dinner party, as if he had just thought of something off the top of his head. I’m an architect, you know—I’d love to see the blueprints for your new bank downtown. I’m working on one myself and I’m having trouble with the vault. If I could just take a quick look, I’d be most appreciative. Do you have the plans here? Through good old-fashioned social engineering, Leslie would thus gain access to key documents or structural drawings of future targets—a backstage pass to the entire metropolis—the way a car aficionado might ask to take a peek under your hood. No one thought twice of it—why would they? Leslie dressed well, he had been trained as an architect, and his spatial knowledge of the city only continued to grow.
At the same time, Leslie went to work cultivating contacts on the opposite end of the social ladder: tradesmen of a different kind, and experts in darker undertakings. Leslie’s secret weapon here was a notorious fence of stolen goods, the Prussian-born Fredericka Mandelbaum, widely known as “Marm.” Marm Mandelbaum’s eye for trickery and subterfuge extended even to architecture: at one point, she had a dumbwaiter installed inside a false chamber in her home chimney, where she could stash sensitive items in a rush. Rather than opening or closing the flue, a small lever in the fireplace would lift her hot goods to safety. In her own way, Mandelbaum was a Dickensian supervillain, complete with a labyrinthine lair on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her thieves’ den there boasted multiple entrances, unmarked doors, armed guards, and even a disguised access point through a pub on Rivington Street. These all led into a goods yard where deals and trades could be made.
More importantly, for Leslie, Mandelbaum owned a cluster of warehouses over the river in Brooklyn where she would store, hide, and sell stolen merchandise. On the receiving end of her unpredictable generosity, Leslie was given free rein to use those warehouses as a kind of architectural training ground for future burglaries.
It was here that Leslie’s spatial skills truly flourished: deep in the vast interiors of Mandelbaum’s warehouses, with almost no risk of detection or exposure, feeling safely isolated from Manhattan by the still-unfinished Brooklyn Bridge, they built their duplicates and copies at full scale. If Leslie could not obtain a set of blueprints, he would simply draft his own, depositing some money in the bank he planned to rob, then using his time in the space to look around and study his surroundings. Beyond his training and charisma, Leslie was preternaturally gifted with an eye for easily missed architectural details. He was able to see blind spots and vulnerabilities where other people might not look at all. Leslie could sketch building interiors and the dimensions of private safes from memory, building up a burglar’s library of architectural documents far more exciting than anything he had studied back in school. He and his gang would then use these black market plans to guide their construction of exact models, like stage sets on which the art of burglary could be rehearsed to perfection.
Arguably, Leslie’s gang was responsible for establishing what would later become the well-worn Hollywood trope of the duplicate vault: a detailed replica of the eventual target, assembled in order to practice and implement sophisticated methods of entry. Think Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job, or even Inception, with those films’ warehouse scenes full of architecturally ambitious burglary crews tinkering amidst models and floor plans. Leslie set the template for this technique way back in the 1870s, constructing lifesize, 1:1 mock-ups of bank vaults, buying duplicate copies of private safes, and installing it all like a burglar’s showroom in an archipelago of gas-lit brick warehouses scattered around the cobblestone streets of old Brooklyn. Leslie’s obsession with specifics extended even down to pieces of furniture that might get in the way during his gangs’ impending architectural assaults, arranging chairs and sofas, formal work desks and cabinets, in their proper place—then coaching his team in the darkness with a stopwatch to make sure they got the sequence exactly right, without bumping a single table. In short, he robbed the banks of nineteenth-century America by making copies of them: declaring replicant architectural warfare on the moneyed classes of the east coast.
Always casing something, either for himself or because other gangs had commissioned him to design their next heist, Leslie inhabited a city of spectacular raids and speculative break-ins yet to occur, a world where criminal opportunities were hidden in the very architecture of the metropolis, just a different way of using its streets and buildings. Lines of sight, potential hiding places, how shadows were cast at different times of day, routes into and out of a bank vault, even the specific order of streets that led to and away from a chosen target: these were the landmarks Leslie looked for and noted. He inhabited a parallel New York, a wire-diagram of every potential entrance and connection.
Indeed, Leslie was so dedicated to detail, so confident in his own abilities, that he would often case the interiors of banks both during business hours and long after: before his gang robbed the Manhattan Savings Institution in October 1878, Leslie had already broken into the bank twice, stealing nothing, simply checking out the building for himself and verifying that he had the correct combination for the vault door. This gives Leslie the air of an addict, seemingly unable to resist the lure of an uninhabited architectural space emptied of its workers, unable to turn down the pure illicit thrill of a bank interior that temporarily belonged to him alone, having realized long ago that the best way to commune with an architectural space was by breaking into it.
Leslie’s gang augmented their rigorous training with clever visual tricks and social camouflage. Upon arrival in Dexter, Maine, for a February 1878 bank heist, he and his crewmembers avoided each other on the streets and rented rooms in different hotels so they’d never be seen as a group. Leslie then equipped them all with costumes stolen from the New York opera, ensuring that they’d remain unrecognizable during the commission of the crime. He had done this before over the years, in fact, once forcing a gang member—the man who, as it happened, would later become Leslie’s murderer—to dress like a woman and serve as a lookout while his team robbed the Ocean National Bank in Manhattan. In Maine, the group’s disguises included new clothes, wigs, and fake beards; at one point, a black stage screen was unrolled and carefully held aloft to help hide the act of burglary from the street. This tendency for flair transformed Leslie’s criminal actions and the loose gang of confidants with whom he burgled into a kind of avant-garde, wandering theatrical troupe, an ingenious production crew whose work combined stagecraft, architecture, and cosmetic subterfuge in their quest to find entrance into the closed spaces of the city.
The group’s peculiar genius for burglary comes across in a small but spectacular detail, memorably described by Leslie’s biographer J. North Conway in his book King of Heists. In January 1876, Conway explains, the gang made their way to Northampton, Massachusetts, to rob a bank there. Leslie had already taken several trips to Northampton before the actual heist in order to study the design and layout of the town itself, even walking a variety of potential getaway routes. He had learned years earlier that architectural expertise is nothing without urban expertise: if you don’t know how to get away from a crime, then you might as well not commit it. But it was there in Northampton that Leslie’s gang turned their attention from space to time. Before they hit the bank itself, they broke into the lodgings of the bank watchman, to incapacitate him for the duration of their crime. If he was tied up, the group reckoned straightforwardly enough, then he couldn’t stop them or call the police. However, anticipating the watchman’s own future narrative of the crime, which would naturally include details of when the perpetrators arrived, how long they spent in the vault, and, most importantly, what time they fled away into the shadows of the New England night, they also tampered with the watchman’s clocks, stopping them or breaking them altogether. The watchman and his family thus sat there, immobile and utterly clueless about how much time had passed, as if forcibly removed from the present moment, left to wait in a criminal purgatory. It could have been twenty minutes or it could have been two hours. Either way, by the time they were found and freed, Leslie’s crew was long gone.
Pirates of space-time, dressed in opera costumes, picking bank locks and assembling duplicate vaults in abandoned Brooklyn warehouses, Leslie’s gang and their astonishing success rate set a delirious precedent for future burglaries to come. In the process, Leslie became both burglary’s patron saint and architecture’s fallen superhero, its in-house Lucifer of breaking and entering. His darkest accomplishment, however, was hardwiring crime into architectural history, making burglary a necessary theme in any complete discussion of the city. Burglary is the original sin of the metropolis. Indeed, you cannot tell the story of buildings without telling the story of the people who want to break into them: burglars are a necessary part of the tale, a deviant counter-narrative as old as the built environment itself.
Today, security expert Bruce Schneier would call Leslie a defector: someone who has used his access, training, or skills against the very people those talents were meant to benefit. Think of the doctor who becomes a torturer, the IT expert who becomes a cybercriminal, the corrupt cop who becomes a dealer. Leslie, the architect-burglar, the great betrayer, called into question one of the most basic requirements of urban living and of cosmopolitanism itself: the ability to live alongside one another without descending into a state of constant fear or worry. That requires trust. For Schneier, it is when we lack trust that we need security—in other words, if only we could have faith in one another’s intentions then we would not need all those door locks and burglar alarms. What is a society like ours left with, then, if the very architects who design our buildings become the people most likely to break into them?
George Leonidas Leslie, the greatest burglar of the nineteenth century, poses a fundamental, perhaps existential threat to the urban social contract. He implies that none of us really understand how buildings work—how the city itself operates—but, worse, that someone else out there has a better idea and they’re fully prepared to use that knowledge against us. By turning his architectural knowledge into a tool not for increasing the public good but for breaking into the city, he became a kind of trickster figure at the birth of the modern metropolis, installing crime in its very structure like a Trojan horse.
Today, nearly 150 years later, burglary and architecture still go hand and hand; if you look closely, from just the right angle, every city implies the crimes that will someday take place there. Burglary is designed into the city as surely as your morning commute.