A con artist known as “queen of the underworld”

Sophielyons2New York in the 19th century was packed with notorious swindlers.

Yet few were as infamous as Sophie Levy Lyons—the daughter of a shoplifter and granddaughter of a safe cracker who picked her first pocket by age six and continued stealing all her adult life.

That is, until she hit middle age, and renounced her criminal ways.

Born in 1848, Sophie spent her Manhattan childhood mastering the family business. Sent to Sing Sing three times by her 20th birthday, she was part of a gang led by another infamous female thief, Marm Mandelbaum.

In her teens she married bank robber Ned Lyons, who used his “earnings” to finance a cushy life for Sophie on Long Island.

Sophielyons1886But as a young mother, she longed for the con life. For years she alternated between stealing and stints on Blackwell’s Island.

“The key to Sophie’s success was that she was both a proficient technician and a convincing actress,” wrote Cait N. Murphy in Scoundrel of Law.

By age 50, after years of blackmail, jewel smuggling (she invented the hollowed-out heel trick), and a recent arrest for shoplifting from a dry-goods store on 14th Street, she gave up the swindler’s life.

Sophie relocated to Detroit, landing legit gigs investing in real estate and ministering to other cons.

In 1913 she wrote her autobiography, Crime Does Not Pay, then was murdered 11 years later. “She died in 1924—ironically at the hands of thieves,” wrote Murphy. A gang broke into her Michigan home and beat her to death while looking for her rumored wealth.

In a way, her crimes did pay: She left an estate valued at $1 million.

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2 Responses to “A con artist known as “queen of the underworld””

  1. carolegill Says:

    this is one amazing story. Hadn’t heard of her, but did hear of Mother Mandelbaum. Would love to get a hold of that book.
    wow. s

  2. carolegill Says:

    hey! there is the full text to her book! thank you for posting this!

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