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.
“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.