“Thou shalt not steal”
were the last words from Pastor Herbert Emerson Wilson
to his congregation one steamy Sunday morning.
H. E. Wilson, former ordained clergyman, war veteran, bank robber, mail bandit, safe-cracker, jail breaker, convicted and sentenced murderer of his “stool-ing” partner, is without question the outstanding criminal character of the world and of the twentieth century.
Herbert Emerson Wilson was born March 1, 1881 in Wyoming Ontario, a small village near the city of London. He was the fourth child in a family of three girls and five boys, and his parents, Malcolm and Christina Wilson were deeply religious. His father was an inventor and chemist that took an interest in improving the nitroglycerine formula. Interested in the work of his father’s laboratory, Herbert unconsciously acquired a knowledge that would lay the foundation for a career in scientific burglary and safe cracking, not equaled to this day. His mother began to cultivate the fundamental principles of religion early in his life, and after the death of his father, she was even more determined to make him a man of the cloth.
Herbert’s family moved to London, Ontario where he attended high school, and was only a young man when Great Britain declared war against the South African Boers. He joined the First City Volunteers at the age of 19-years, and was shipped to Africa to undergo training at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Grahams Town. Upon his triumphant return from South Africa he was honoured at Buckingham Palace where he received a special medal from the hand of Queen Victoria and the reading of his Record of Deed.
Following his parent’s wishes, Herbert became an ordained Baptist Minister founding a city mission in London, Ontario. After travelling to various communities in the U.S., he settled in San Diego where he was the pastor of the San Diego church for less than a year. Herb terminated his career as a clergyman with a suddenness that surprised even him. This God Fearing Man underwent a strange transition that crumbled his devotion of old-fashion religious beliefs and church tenants. He suddenly lost his faith, and decided that the ministry was no longer for him, he could no longer keep Satan behind him. Herb certainly knew something about explosives, had a love of good tools and a flair for organization. After he met a small time criminal in Detroit named, Herb Cox, the perfect storm was created.
Posing as a successful Los Angeles business man, the smooth talking and debonair Baptist Minister turned safe-cracker, assembled a gang of super-crooks and criminal specialists that could pull off fool-proof jobs, carefully choreographing each robbery. Herb was arrested in the spring of 1921 after getting well over $15,000,000 during his prohibition era criminal career.
Herb spent 12-years of a life sentence in San Quentin Penitentiary. He was not jailed for any of the robberies, including mail robberies, but for a framed murder rap. Herbert Wilson was convicted of murder when Herb Cox, the prosecutions chief witness against Wilson, was discovered shot dead after a jailbreak effort planned by the two that went terribly wrong. Wilson was recaptured, with the authorities saying he shot and killed Cox.
Herbert Wilson was released from San Quentin in 1935 and moved back to London, Ontario to live with his mother after being deported from the United States. In 1936 Herb was convicted of defrauding A.E. Ames and Company of almost $100,000 and spent the next 6-years in the Kingston and Prince Albert Penitentiaries.
Following his release from prison, Herb went to Australia where he lived for a short period of time. When he returned to Canada he lived in Courtenay and Vancouver, British Columbia working as a newspaper columnist, artist, and literary agent. Herb was also the proprietor of his own museum of crime called, “Wilson’s Arcade of Mysteries.”
On Friday April 13, 1951, Wilson, at the age of 70 announced that he had married. Emelia, his second wife was 46 and by his own description, was a well-preserved middle-aged lady from a very fine Dutch family. After having researched the life of Herbert Emerson Wilson for many years, and not to digress too far from Herb’s story, I feel compelled to mention a disturbing discovery. Following Herb’s death, his estranged wife retained custody of his papers and his estate through intestate succession, a clever and brilliant piece of work on her part executed by way of fraudulent and willful concealment. To add to this act, in a letter to Hugh MacMillan, Liaison Officer for the Archives of Ontario (1978), Emelia writes; “a great portion of Herb’s loot and where it is, has remained a mystery. I married him thinking he might reveal that.”
Herb was dubbed the “MOST PROLIFIC” of all prison writers, having turned out two million words while serving time. He wrote his unbelievable autobiography, I was King of the Safe-Crackers, while in prison and authored 17 books, some published by his own literary agency. Publishers were interested in Herb’s autobiography, but his life story had to be expanded into book-length. With the collaboration of his good friend, author Thomas Patrick Kelley, Herb’s magnum opus would soon come to fruition. The full version of Herb’s life story was created from his original memoirs and the literary work entitled, King of the Safe-Crackers was published on January 18, 1955.
Following a publishing deal with New American Library, King of the Safe-Crackers made it’s first debut in the U.S as I Stole $16,000,000 in January 1956 in “Saga True Adventures for Men.” It’s popularity was quickly recognized, and I Stole $16,000,000 was published in the United States March 1956, and became a huge success. The attention-grabbing headlines caught the eye of movie producer Stanley Kubrick, who acquired the movie rights to the life story of Herb’s exploits.
Wilson became a crime lord and master thief garnering him the alias “HOLY HERB” and “KING OF THE SAFE-CRACKERS” The clergyman, the criminal, at least had the virtue of being for something or against something in a world where many people had learned to accept a kind of passive nothingness. He ushered in a high stakes lifestyle and was dealt many fortunes and misfortunes.
Herbert Emerson Wilson died August 17, 1968.
TWO TITLES, THE SAME WORK
The perfect example of a work published in the U.S.A under one title, but published months earlier in a foreign country under a different title are the works, 'King of the Safecrackers' and 'I Stole $16,000,000' by Herbert Emerson Wilson and Thomas Patrick Kelley. There are frequent clues in bibliographic records that would indicate the existence of a foreign original, however the absence of such clues does not mean that the work is solely an American title.
There are four works recorded in the Canadian Intellectual Property Office that were published by Herbert Emerson Wilson (Wilson) all with the collaboration of author Thomas Patrick Kelley (Kelley).
For many years Wilson was looking for a collaborator to expand his manuscripts, particularly the one of his life story/ autobiography titled, "I Was King of the Safecrackers.'' Wilson tells his friend Earle Birney that he made a deal with Kelley, and the "full version" of his life story created from his memoirs was finally expanded into book length. The deal that Wilson was referring to is a contract signed by him and Kelley on November 10, 1954 agreeing for Kelley to furnish him with a completed manuscript (Herb E. Wilson, personal correspondence to Dr. Earle Birney).
On January 18, 1955, the Daily Colonist paper started publishing a serial of Wilson and Kelley's work entitled "King of the Safecrackers."
Part eight of the serial in the January 25, 1955 edition reports that, written exclusively for them, is the "full story" of Wilson's exploits. After years of attempting and finally having his autobiography expanded into book length by Kelley, he is able to use the words "full story." A clue not found in bibliographic records, but nevertheless reflects the importance of the expansion of Wilson's original autobiography, and he informed the Colonist of it.
The 25 part serial that was published in the Daily Colonist is more than likely a condensed version of Wilson's expanded autobiography furnished by Kelley's manuscript, much like the condensed version of I Stole $16,000,000 that appeared in Saga, True Adventures for Men, January 1956.
In a letter from Wilson to Dr. Earle Birney, dated October 3, 1955, Wilson writes:
"Recently received good news about some of my literary work. Shortly after
I wrote a twenty-five part serial for the Victoria Daily Colonist, my New York
literary agent sold the 'full version of my life story' to the New Library Publishers."
It was Kelley's American literary agent, Larston Farrar, who arranged a publishing contract with the New American Library (NAL), for his book 'The Black Donnellys.' On April 20, 1955, Kelley approached Farrar with a manuscript titled 'I Stole $16,000,000,' which was Wilson and Kelley's first published work re-titled. It is believed, the title change may have been the result of potential legal issues due to previous contracts involving Wilson's autobiography. Alternatively, the title may have also changed to have the U.S. publisher believe that they were the first to publish the work, not wanting them to know about the foreign publication.
It is very possible that Kelley convinced Wilson to change 'King of the Safecrackers,' a title Wilson deemed himself with for many years, to something more tantalizing. In 'The Black Donnellys' published in Canada (April 1954), Kelley makes reference to criminals who lived in the London, Ontario area (Kelley, p. 17), one of them being Herbert Emerson Wilson, who had stolen $16,000,000.
Unknown to the New American Library was that Kelley's manuscript, which Wilson published and copyrighted under the title King of the Safecrackers, may have violated the contract agreement for the publication of I Stole $16,000,000. The contract agreement signed by Wilson, Kelley and Larston Farrar on April 27, 1955 stated:
"The seller agrees not to permit, without NAL's written consent, newspaper
publication of the book in any form whatsoever prior to publication of NAL's
edition of the book" (New American Library, 1955-1960).
Wilson had good reason to be concerned about his publication of King of the Safecrackers in the Daly Colonist Paper. If found out, it may have put the publishing deal of I Stole $16,000,000 at risk. Except for his personal correspondence with Earle Birney, the publication of King of the Safecrackers was never spoken of again. This would have been very difficult for Wilson considering how much he enjoyed boasting about his work.
King of the Safecrackers and I Stole $16,000,000 are the product of Kelley's manuscript. In order to meet publication and editorial requirements, the manuscript went through editing and some revision by Bradley Cumings, before the publication of I Stole $16,000,000. This explains why the arrangement of the material that made up I Stole $16,000,000 differs from the arrangement of material in the Daily Colonist serial "King of the Safecrackers."
March 27, 1956: 'King of the Safecrackers,' now under it's new title, 'I Stole $16,000,000' with the subtitle, "The Amazing Confessions of the King of the Safecrackers" was published by the New American Library
May 15, 1956: In a letter from Wilson to Marcia Stegmann, secretary to Mr. Cumings, Associate Editor, Wilson writes:
"The way the manuscript now looks it would seem that Thomas P. Kelley,
my collaborator, as well as myself, hadn't done a very commendable job.
So much of my original 110,000 word autobiography, which I wrote in
San Quentin Prison, California, Mr. Kelley deleted to about eighty
thousand words. But from looking over quite hurriedly, the manuscript
from which the book I Stole $16,000,000, was published, it would seem
that the Kelley version has been condensed considerably.
There is so much blue and red pencil markings, whole paragraphs deleted,
some whole pages deleted, and scads of smaller deletions that it has left
me somewhat confused...
So, with my sincere congratulations for the commendable arrangement
of the material that made up I Stole $16,000,000..." (New American Library,
May 30, 1956: Due to the success of the book in the U.S. under the new title, Wilson proceeded to publish 'I Stole $16,000,000' in Canada. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office records indicate that 'I Stole $16,000,000' was the second work that Wilson had published.
April 24, 1957: 'Crime was my Business' was published in Canada, as his third work.
August 4, 1958: Wilson writes a letter to the New American Library (1955-1960) asking them to reconsider publication of 'Crime was my Business.' In this letter, Wilson refers to this work as his second book.
This revelation from Wilson (indicating that 'Crime was my Business' was his second book) makes it quite clear that he unwittingly reveals 'King of the Safecrackers' and 'I Stole $16,000,000' are both his first work.
The Canadian Intellectual Property Office's final recorded work by Wilson is 'Canada's False Prophet' The Notorious Brother Twelve. Kelley received a "certified cheque" from Wilson for five-hundred dollars for his literary work on the manuscript, Brother Twelve (Herbert E. Wilson, personal correspondence to Thomas P. Kelley, November 24, 1964). The book was published January 1967 by Simon and Schuster of Canada Ltd., another publishing company introduced to Wilson by Kelley.
Kelley, Thomas P. The Black Donnellys. Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1954. Print.
Wilson, Herbert Emerson. I Stole $16,000,000. 1955 – 1960. Container 1, Box 76, Container 2, Folder 2010. Series II: New American Library, Editorial/ Author Files. Guide to the New American Library Archive, The Fales Library and Special Collections, New York, NY. 4 October 2016.
Wilson, Herbert Emerson personal correspondence to Birney, Dr. Earle. 3 October 1955. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Ont. 2015.
Wilson, Herbert Emerson personal correspondence to Birney, Dr. Earle. 8 February 1957. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto Libraries, Toronto, Ont. 2015.
Wilson, Herbert Emerson. "King of the Safecrackers." The Daily Colonist [Victoria] 18 Jan. 1955: 1. Web.