Posts Tagged ‘19th century swindlers’

A con artist known as “queen of the underworld”

February 23, 2013

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.

An 1880s swindler who preyed on New York men

April 26, 2012

“How can hard-headed business men of caution and experience be victimized by women who lack the first elements of female charm?”

That’s the question posed in a May 1923 New York Times article about notorious 19th century swindler Bertha Heyman, whose picture “is one of the least attractive in the police records of that day.”

Heyman, dubbed the Confidence Queen in the 1880s, came New York after immigrating from Prussia in 1878.

Her scheme was the one fraudsters use today: She’d claim to be a wealthy woman who was blocked from accessing her estate. (Nigerian internet scams, anyone?)

The men would advance her money in return for a cut of her fortune—and she’d take off.

Heyman, who stayed at the finest hotels and boasted of having A-list friends, had a knack for picking rubes.

After getting hundreds and in some cases thousands of dollars from several men, she was convicted of obtaining $500 on false pretenses and sentenced to prison on Blackwell’s Island.

But even there, she didn’t stop: She convinced another male New Yorker to fork over his $900 life savings.

What’s so fascinating isn’t how she pulled the wool over the eyes of so many guys but that she later said she didn’t do it for the money—it was the sheer enjoyment of tricking someone.

“The moment I discover a man’s a fool I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be ‘skinned,'” she told The Times in an 1883 article. “It ministers to my intellectual pride.”

[top photo: a tobacco card of Bertha from 1888]


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