Posts Tagged ‘Marm Mandelbaum’

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.

A 19th century pickpocket fleeces New York

July 12, 2012

Criminals in the 19th century had such illustrious nicknames.

Take Old Mother Hubbard, for instance. Reportedly born in 1828 in Ireland as Margaret Brown, she came to the U.S. and found work as a housekeeper—then embarked on a 50-year side career as a notorious pickpocket and shoplifter.

“She makes a specialty of opening hand-bags, removing the pocket-book, and closing them again,” states Professional Criminals of America, written by NYPD head Thomas Byrnes in 1886.

Old Mother Hubbard stole pretty much anything she could in Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, and she practiced her craft typically dressed in black silk.

After a stint in prison in Illinois, she arrived in New York City in 1884 and joined the inner circle of top fence Marm Mandelbaum. But not for long.

That year, she was nabbed stealing a purse from a shopper at Macy’s, then on 14th Street (left) and booked at Jefferson Market Courthouse on Sixth Avenue.

Described as a “white-haired, wrinkled woman” by The New York Times, she served three months at Blackwell’s Island.

Upon her release, she was rearrested for crimes committed in Boston and sentenced to prison.

The official record goes cold after that—perhaps she died in a Boston jail.


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