Posts Tagged ‘notorious 19th century criminals’

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.

The best counterfeiter in 19th century New York

January 5, 2011

As a young man in the 1840s, William Brockway prepared well for his 50-year career as the most impressive counterfeiter the city has ever seen.

First he got a job working with an engraver who created legit bank notes; he then honed his skills by taking electrochemistry classes at Yale University.

His fake notes, from small bills to $200,000 government bonds, began appearing around 1850, startling the Treasury Department with their accuracy.

After plying his trade in Philadelphia, the now-wealthy Brockway set up shop in Brooklyn and later at 31/2 Division Street in Manhattan.

He was eventually nabbed in 1880, surrendering his plates, which he stored in Queens, in order to get a lighter sentence.

Released from prison in 1887 at age 65, Brockway just couldn’t resist the counterfeiting life. After producing $500,000 in fake notes, he got caught in a sting in Rockaway Beach and returned to prison until 1903.

In 1905, the NYPD arrested him as he walked down Fulton Street downtown, just to get an updated mugshot, perhaps the one above. The “noted old forger” as he was called died in 1920 at age 97.

Check out an example of his funny money here.

Girl gangsters of 19th century Manhattan

December 2, 2009

When you think of the criminal gangs of New York in the 1800s, ruthless young men probably come to mind.

But these gangs had female members as well, some of whom were notorious fighters.

There was Hell-Cat Maggie, a member of the Irish-American Dead Rabbits in the 1850s. Her home base was the Five Points slum, near today’s City Hall. Supposedly her teeth were filed into sharp points and she clawed rivals with brass fingernails.

Another was Sadie Farrell, aka Sadie the Goat. Reportedly she robbed East Siders by first head-butting them in the stomach. In the 1860s she joined the Charlton Street Gang, river pirates on the West Side.

Ida Burger, called Ida the Goose, was a prostitute and Lady Gopher, part of the Gophers of Hell’s Kitchen. In the 1910s she was lured away to the Lower East Side’s Eastman Gang, led by Monk Eastman, but eventually went back to the Gophers after a bloody shootout.

The illustration above, from the New York Public Library, depicts tough chicks rumming it up at a Five Points tavern in the 1870s.


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