Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

AFFIRMED.—The case of the state vs. Elizabeth Wohlman, for grand larceny, was affirmed in the Supreme Court yesterday, and the defendant committed to the County Jail for safe keeping until such time as it is convenient to take her to the Penitentiary. The defendant, together with Catharine Martin and Augusta Goetz, living in Belleville, came to this city on the 8th of November 1861, and visited many stores for the ostensible purpose of purchasing goods. They visited the jewelry stores of Cappel, Crane, Jackard, (sic) and others, and the hat and fur store of Mr. Gray. From each of these stores they stole jewelry, and were detected in the store of Eugene Jaccard, in the act of putting some jewelry in the basket which one of them carried.

Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), April 27, 1864

Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and worn close to her head in a tight bun. One hand peeks out from a heavy, striped shawl that’s draped across her shoulders and pinned over a knotted scarf around her neck. From her pierced ears hang beautiful earrings, possibly made of gold. Yet something is off about the photo. The woman’s expression is worried and frightened, even a touch angry, and one of her eyes seems to stare directly at the viewer, while the other gazes disconcertingly off camera.

Elizabeth back photo

Back of Wohlman ambrotype, which reads: Mrs. Wohlman-Shop Lifter, 29-years of age-5 foot 6 inches-Brown hair and-Gray eyes, German-Lucker. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Her name was Elizabeth Wohlman, and it’s no surprise she looks unhappy. Shortly before her likeness was captured, she and several family members were arrested at gunpoint outside of Eugene Jaccard & Co., a luxury goods store near the St. Louis riverfront. After being unceremoniously hauled off to the city jail and searched by police officers on that fateful day in November 1861, Wohlman was charged with shoplifting.

This extraordinarily detailed image exists because the St. Louis Police Department began taking photographs of suspects and criminals for the purpose of identification in October 1857. The portraits were hung in a public place in the police station, and citizens were encouraged to walk through and examine what soon became known as the “rogues’ gallery.” Many other American cities followed St. Louis’s lead and started rogues’ galleries of their own, but few of those photographs still exist today.

St. Louis jail

St. Louis City Jail, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A group of nearly 200 photos from the first 10 years of the St. Louis rogues’ gallery miraculously survived and was donated to the Missouri Historical Society by the police department in 1953. Several of the images, including the ambrotype of Wohlman, are identified with handwritten notes on the reverse side.

I discovered the collection while searching for mid-19th-century photos of “typical” German immigrants living in St. Louis, with the goal of getting a better understanding of what my ancestors, who immigrated to St. Louis during that period, looked like. The rogues’ gallery, which includes the likenesses of immigrants and native-born Americans, fascinated me, so I decided to research all the identified people using genealogical resources.

Elizabeth Wohlman is special for several reasons. She’s one of only three women in the collection and the only woman identified by name. Additionally, few women anywhere were photographed for rogues’ galleries because mid-19th-century Americans found it difficult to accept the idea that women committed crimes. This makes Wohlman’s photo exceptionally rare.

There’s more to know about Wohlman’s life, her crime, and the price she paid for it, along with many others whose photos were taken for the “illustrious collection,” as one St. Louis newspaper described it. Grab a copy of Captured and Exposed to begin exploring their stories on your favorite eBook device, then head to the Missouri History Museum to see their portraits on display once again (September 22, 2018 – March 10, 2019) in the new Atrium exhibit, The St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery.

Featured photo: Sixth-plate ambrotype of Elizabeth Wohlman, November 1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Earnest Ernest

Earnest Ernest

Ernest Perez was 21 years old and a native of Mexico. His first name fits his gaze as he looks seriously up at the camera. The photographer could not have asked for a more beautiful light in which to take Ernest’s mugshot.

He was arrested on October 7, 1922, for petit larceny, details unknown. The jail warden thought he was reliable or he wouldn’t have made him a “trusty” — the inmate in charge of disciplining other prisoners when they were at work outside the jail. If you weren’t into power trips, being the trusty would have been an awful job.

Ernest Perez_low_marked

After serving 20 days in the Yuba County jail in Marysville, with 80 more to go, Ernest saw his chance. He took “french leave” and headed into the wild blue yonder of California.

CharlesJMcCoy-1000Charles J. McCoy sent out wanted letter after Ernest disappeared, hoping that an officer of the law would see it and see Ernest and arrest him and return him to jail to finish his time.

A police officer prior to being elected sheriff of Yuba County, in 1914, Charles followed his father, Hank McCoy, to the job. He remained in the job for 31 years.

It’s not possible to catch up with Ernest and find out what he did with the rest of his life. Hopefully he found a way to make a good, honest living, but as a Mexican living in 1920s America, that would not have been an easy task.

Featured photo: Ernest Perez, from the collection of the author

Photo of Charles J. McCoy: courtesy of James Casey 

The Death of Hannah Toppin

The Death of Hannah Toppin

Yesterday afternoon, Lieut. Spear, of the Tenth Police District, received an anonymous letter stating that the body of a young lady was lying in a house in Jefferson Street, below Second, and intimating that the death was caused by vio’ence.

Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 8, 1859

Hannah Jane Toppin’s body lay on a bed in a third floor room in Martha Hudson’s Philadelphia home. She suffered for days before finally dying on March 7, 1859 — her nineteenth birthday.

Martha knew Hannah’s death would not stay a secret for long. She packed her bags and was out the door of her Jefferson Street row house a few hours after the young girl took her last breath.

The following day Hannah’s father, Henry Toppin, went to the Hudson home after he heard a rumor that his missing daughter had died there. He identified the body as Hannah’s and the police were called. They arrested John Hudson but could not locate his wife.

Hannah was a first generation child of Irish immigrants. Her father worked as a weaver. Hannah and her three brothers attended school as youngsters, but once they reached their teen years they worked to help with the family finances.

Hannah worked in a hat store on Second Street where she met a mechanic named Robert Dunlap. They began spending time together and soon Hannah feared the worst — that she was enceinte. She hid her fears from her parents but confessed her worries to a cousin. Unable to keep the secret, the cousin soon spilled the beans to Hannah’s parents.

Henry and Jane Toppin informed their only daughter that they knew her secret. Hannah told them she had a plan to visit Mrs. Hudson’s herb shop, where she’d heard she could get a natural remedy to end her pregnancy.

Her parents forbade her to leave the house but two weeks later she was gone. She spent the next four weeks at Martha Hudson’s house.

Dr. S. P. Brown performed a postmortem exam on Hannah’s body. He testified at the inquest that the membrane around Hannah’s bowels had been perforated by an instrument and was “highly inflamed.” Her death was the result of peritonitis due to the perforation of her bowel. Jane Fletcher, a woman who lived with the Hudsons and who nursed Hannah before she died, testified that her death was slow and agonizing.

Dr. Brown also stated that Hannah was not pregnant when she died. Whether she’d had a miscarriage earlier or whether the pregnancy had been a false alarm was unknown, however Dr. Brown stated that, in his opinion, Hannah was mistaken in thinking she was pregnant.

The inquest verdict was that Martha Hudson caused Hannah’s death while trying to induce an abortion. John Hudson and Robert Dunlap were held as accessories before the fact. Martha, however, was still missing.

In late March a New York City policeman saw a woman leave a dry-goods store “laboring under great excitement.” He thought she might be a shoplifter so he followed her to a house on West Thirty-First Street and spoke to the man who rented her a room there. The man told the officer that her name was Mrs. Brown and that she was in “great disquietude due to family difficulties.” The officer told him to keep an eye on her and left. Later he read in a newspaper about the death of Hannah Toppin and the search for Martha Hudson. He thought “Mrs. Brown” might be Martha Hudson, so he returned to the house and spoke to her. She confessed to being the wanted woman.

Martha was returned to Philadelphia where she was held on a charge of murder in the second degree, meaning intentional murder without premeditation, but with malice aforethought.

At the trial Dr. D. S. Brown (not the Dr. Brown who performed the postmortem) testified that Martha called on him two days before Hannah died and begged him to come and see Hannah. At first he refused but eventually he agreed. Hannah told the doctor that Mrs. Hudson had operated on her because a drunken woman hit her in the stomach. She said Mrs. Hudson had been very kind to her. Dr. Brown testified that her condition seemed to have improved when he saw her the next morning. The following night she died.

Martha’s attorney presented no defense. She was convicted of second-degree murder on May 3, 1859. She was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Featured photo: “Mrs. Hudson, Abortionist” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All in the Family

All in the Family

In the arrest of nine residents of Sample alley during the last two days, and the recovery of about $10,000 worth of merchandise stolen from Pittsburgh stores, Commissioner of Police Peter P. Walsh of the North Side, believes that the greatest system of shoplifting ever conducted in this city has been exposed.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 14, 1914

Although she was only 17 years old, Gertrude Busch doesn’t look too upset about being arrested as a member of the “biggest shoplifting gang” ever to hit the city of Pittsburgh. Gertrude had a pretty good poker face.

She was born in Germany and immigrated to America with her parents and eight siblings in 1909. The Busch family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shoplifter skirt illus. - Newspapers.com

In May 1914 the owner of a Pittsburgh dry goods store, Maurice Kiwowitz, realized he was missing a large amount of his merchandise. Maurice figured about $100 worth of stuff ($2,500 in 2018 dollars) had gone rogue every week during the previous few months. He suspected a group of German women were responsible for the thefts when he noticed a pattern of things vanishing after their daily visits to his shop. He instructed one of his shop clerks to closely watch the women the next time they dropped by.

The clerk followed his instructions and caught one of the ladies in the act of secreting something in the “copious pockets of a specially designed skirt.” The clerk alerted Maurice, who promptly called the police.

The police arrested Gertrude, her mother, Annie Busch, and four of her sisters: Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret.

Mama_Angeline Busch

Anna (left) and Angeline Busch

Theresa_Sophia Busch

Theresa (left) and Sophia Busch

More arrests followed over the next two days, including Gertrude’s father, “Christ” (Christian), her brother, William, and three of her brothers-in-law. The final count of those in custody was eight members of the Busch family and three of their sons-in-law. Only three of Christ and Annie’s nine children weren’t implicated in the crime: Mary, age 33, Henry, age 21, and Annie, age 13.

The Busch gang’s modus operandi was for mama Annie to go into a store with several of her daughters. She’d strike up a conversation with the clerk while the daughters surreptitiously slipped items into the hidden pockets in their skirts. As soon as the ladies finished filling up, Mrs. Busch purchased an inexpensive item to keep the clerk from suspecting foul play and they made a rapid exit.

The police found over $10,000 worth of merchandise ($252,000 in 2018 dollars) stolen from shops around the city and packed into 18 trunks that were stored in the cellars of the family’s three homes. Most of it was inexpensive clothing and household goods. Many of the items had been soaked in water to make them look wrinkled, old and worn out in case someone questioned the item’s provenance.

Christ_William Busch

Christ (left) and William Busch

Fred_Jacob

Fred Volscoat (left, Theresa’s husband) and Jacob Bachmann (Angeline’s husband)

Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret Busch all confessed to shoplifting and were charged with larceny. However Annie, Christ, Gertrude and William Busch and the three of brothers-in-law claimed they “knew nothing of any robberies and did not know that the stuff in their trunks was stolen.” Convinced they were lying, the police charged them with receiving stolen goods. In addition to the adults, eight children ranging in age from two weeks to 14 years were taken to jail with their parents because there was no one left to care for them.

The four confessing sisters told police that the family planned to ship the trunks back to Germany, where they would use the stolen loot to stock a dry goods store they planned to open. It sounds like a half-baked scheme but these weren’t the cleverest of crooks, given that they went back to the same store to shoplift day after day.

In June 1914 a grand jury brought back bills charging the entire family, including the brothers-in-law, with larceny and receiving stolen property. The following February they were all put on trial.

Newspapers were silent on the outcome of the trial, but given the evidence it’s hard to imagine they weren’t found guilty. However Gertrude was very young, her parents were elderly and the rest of the family members had small children, so it’s likely none of them got much, if any, prison time.

By 1919 the Busch family had moved from Sample Alley, in the heart of Pittsburgh, to other towns in Pennsylvania where they found honest, gainful employment. There’s no evidence any of them ever broke the law again, but the shopkeepers of Pittsburgh must have rejoiced to see them go.

Christ, age 61, died of pneumonia in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, in April 1919. His wife Annie died two days before Christmas in 1946 at the ripe old age of 89. And, while many of the couple’s children lived only to middle age, poker-faced Gertrude beat the odds and made it to 76.

Featured photo: mugshot of Gertrude Busch, taken May 12, 1914, by the Pittsburgh Police. Collection of the author.

Note: I purchased the nine mugshots shown here from an eBay seller. The mugshots of Margaret Busch and Sophia Busch’s husband, Melchior Gebhart, were not available from the seller. 

Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.

The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905

With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.

Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.

Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.

In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.

He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.

On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.

Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.

Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.

As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.

With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.

On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.

Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.

The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.

When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.

Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.

Valentine1

Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.

After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.

The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.

Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.

Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New Jersey Noir

New Jersey Noir

Mrs. Emogene Hurst, 27-year-old expectant mother, has been indicted for murder in the shooting of her husband which police said was brought about by a lover’s triangle.

The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), August 29, 1951

The news photo of Emogene Hurst and her lover, James “Reds” Moore, was shot in the most unflattering way possible. The room is dark and a bright light on the floor provides the only illumination. Dark shadows menacingly engulf the couple. But the film noir feel was appropriate, because Emogene and Reds were in every bit as much trouble as Walter and Phyllis, the murderous pair glamorously portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the noir classic “Double Indemnity.”

Emogene’s husband, 38-year-old Harrison Hurst, was found dead in his bed in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on the morning of July 9, 1951. He had a single gunshot wound to his head. The gun was lying in a pool of blood on the floor next to the bed. It looked like a straightforward suicide until a police investigator started poking around and asking questions. Emogene didn’t help herself when, rather than crying, she laughed and got drunk at her husband’s funeral. Then she proceeded to sit on Reds’ knee and kiss him. People noticed and they talked.

The police took a second look and decided Harrison’s demise wasn’t due to suicide but rather it was murder.

They took Emogene in for questioning and brought in the Reverend Maurice Ragan to assist in the interrogation. Ragan was, very conveniently, both a man of the cloth and an officer of the law. He advised Emogene to sign a statement admitting that she shot her husband because “a sinner who repented would be rewarded.” Emogene, who was born and raised in a small, rural community in Tennessee and never went beyond the 8th grade in school, admitted to her affair with Reds and signed a confession that she’d shot her husband.

However she claimed Harrison beat her and threatened to “blow her brains out.” Fearing for her life, she said she got his gun and shot him while he slept.

Harrison was also a native of Tennessee and Emogene was his second wife. They were married in 1943, shortly after he was released from the Tennessee State Prison. She was 18 and he was 30 when they tied the knot. After the marriage the couple moved to New Jersey, where Harrison was jailed for robbing a filling station and for breaking and entering.

Emogene’s confession was the main legal evidence against her in her murder trial. But her height, said to be almost six feet, and weight, somewhere between 230 and 250 lbs., were mentioned in nearly every news article. When a fellow inmate at the jail tried to spruce up her appearance by curling her hair, it was noted by the newsmen. It was rumored, incorrectly, that she was pregnant when she was arrested.

The state anticipated that if found guilty, Emogene would have a chance to get cozy with “Old Smokey,” the infamous New Jersey state prison electric chair in which Bruno Richard Hauptmann lost his life after he was convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The Hursts took boarders into their home to supplement their income. Reds was one of the boarders, along with a man named Dana Nelon and a woman, Annabelle Connor. At the trial it came out that Emogene and Reds were not the only ones in the Hurst home carrying on an extramarital affair. Emogene testified that both her husband and Dana were having relations with Annabelle, who was allegedly recovering from injuries she’d sustained in a car accident. Apparently Annabelle had enough energy for a bit of fun while she recuperated.

Jury gets Emogene Hurst case. Photo. Love letters. - Newspapers.At her trial Emogene renounced her confession, claiming it was “wrung out of her” after hours of police questioning. Emogene testified that Dana shot Harrison in an argument over Annabelle’s affections after a night of heavy drinking and partying. She said she was sitting outside her house when Dana came up to her and said “Go inside and you’ll see your man making love to my woman,” shortly before he shot Harrison. Later she saw him cleaning the blood off his fingers with lighter fluid.

Dana countered that Emogene woke him early in the morning, claiming there was “something wrong with her husband.” Upon investigation he found Harrison dead in bed with a bullet wound to his head. He said that Emogene pulled the gun out from under her apron and laid it in the pool of blood on the floor. Why she would incriminate herself in front of her boarder was never explained.

It was Reds who sealed Emogene’s fate when he testified that several days prior to the shooting she showed him the gun and asked him to use it to kill Harrison. “But I told her I wouldn’t do anything like that,” he testified. She was found guilty of first-degree murder, but the Cumberland County jury recommended mercy. Instead of facing “Old Smokey” she was sentenced to life in prison on January 23, 1952.

After more than 14 years in the Clinton Reformatory, Emogene Hurst was paroled in November 1966. She was 41 years old. The other characters in the saga of the murder of Harrison Hurst had long since faded into the woodwork.

Featured photo: news photo of Emogene Hurst and James “Reds” Moore, taken on August 14, 1951. Collection of the author.

Sophie Lyons at the Fair

Sophie Lyons at the Fair

We have in jail again one of whom perhaps a few here and in Detroit and Jackson have heard. Her name is Sophie Lyons, and she has been returned from the Work house for a new trial. She has already cost the county a large sum of money in the two trials she has had and the case may be taken to another court or perhaps not again prosecuted here. However it is to be hoped that no pains or money will be spared in giving this noted outlaw her just deserts. It would not be a bad reputation for Washtenaw County that it was a hard one for criminals.

— Ann Arbor Courier, July 13, 1883

Ann Arbor, 38 miles directly west of Detroit, is the seat of Washtenaw County and home to the University of Michigan. Founded in 1824 by East Coast land speculators, Ann Arbor has agricultural roots, but by the 1880s it was a flourishing town populated by well-to-do citizens.

Ann Arbor hosted the 33rd Washtenaw County Fair during the first week of October 1881. The fair gave farmers a place to display their harvest bounty and compete for cash prizes. “There were ninety entries of poultry, about sixty of sheep, 165 of fruit and sixty-five of grain and seeds.” Oxen, swine, horses, “fat cattle” and steer were also on display, along with flowers, butter, cheeses and sweetmeats. There was even a competition for the prettiest baby. Purses of between $40 and $150 were offered in a variety of horseraces. A hot air “balloon ascension” was another feature that drew in the crowds.

The atmosphere was festive despite the cold, rainy weather that dogged the fair during its first two days. However on the third day the weather improved and the crowds swelled. Harriet Cornwell, the elderly wife of a wealthy paper mill owner, attended the fair that Thursday.

Harriet was in the Floral Hall when a lady wearing a broad-brimmed hat with a veil stopped and asked her if she’d dropped her handkerchief. Harriet wasn’t sure but after checking, she discovered that she had. The woman offered to find it for her. Harriet wasn’t in good health and she gladly accepted the kind offer. The woman asked bystanders to move back so she could locate the hanky. After she located it and handed it to Harriet, she left so quickly she seemed to have vanished into thin air. Harriet didn’t even get a chance to thank the stranger for her kindness.

It wasn’t until after she got back home that Harriet noticed her gold watch and chain were missing. She thought the watch and chain might have been stolen at the fair, so she reported it to the police. She didn’t associate the loss with the veiled woman who’d retrieved her handkerchief.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Andrew Rogers of the Detroit Police was busy seizing packages sent to Sophie Lyons’ housekeeper. Many of the packages contained valuable watches and jewelry. Sophie told friends she’d gone to Cleveland to attend President Garfield’s funeral, but Rogers believed she’d really gone to put her talents as a pickpocket to use.

One of the packages the Detroit police intercepted was sent from Ann Arbor. It contained Harriet Cornwell’s gold watch and chain.

washtenaw court house 1877

Washtenaw County Court House, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Sophie was charged with “larceny from the person” for the theft of Harriet’s valuables. She was placed on trial at the Washtenaw County Court House.

The prosecutors had to prove Sophie was at the fair in Ann Arbor on the day the watch and chain were stolen. This was difficult because she wore a hat and veil wherever she went, including in the courtroom during her trials. Some witnesses were certain they had seen her in Ann Arbor. Others  weren’t so sure. Her defense attorneys had witnesses who knew her and testified that she’d been in Detroit the day the watch was stolen.

Sophie veiled hat

Sophie Lyons in one of her unusual veiled hats; 1887 mugshot photo taken in St. Louis, MO

According to the prosecutor, when the judge ordered Sophie to show her face to a witness, she “sprang like a panther, tore her wrappings from her head and face and rushed to the witness, thrusting her face close up” to the witness’s face. She kept her back to the courtroom and immediately replaced the hat and veil after the witness got a look at her.

Sophie was volatile in court — at times she cried, asking who would care for her children if she went to prison. Other times she threatened violence against prosecution witnesses. She had a sharp tongue and seemed to enjoy using it.

Theresa Lewis was called as a witness, but her credibility was damaged when her role as a confidential informant for the police was revealed.

Sophie’s trials in Ann Arbor attracted large crowds. Many attended hoping to hear her fling insults at Theresa or even see the two women brawling with one another. Sophie accused Theresa of stealing things from her home while she’d been a tenant. At one point the judge ordered Sophie and Theresa to stand next to each other. Sophie took the opportunity to bash into Theresa, sending her flying across the courtroom.

DeHoCo

Stereoview of cells and passage in the Detroit House of Corrections, ca. 1880; NYPL

The prosecution prevailed and Sophie was convicted of stealing Harriet’s watch and chain in March 1882. She was sent to the Detroit House of Correction but released seven months later when the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the conviction. She was was tried again and convicted a second time, in February 1883, and sent to the DeHoCo again. The Supreme Court overturned her second conviction in July 1883.

Her money exhausted and her health poor after two incarcerations, she begged the judge to drop the charges, but he refused. Her final trial in Ann Arbor was held in March 1884. She was found not guilty at the third trial, however her legal troubles weren’t over yet.

She was immediately held in Detroit on charges related to pickpocketing in Cleveland. However by then Theresa, who was also an important witness in that case, was suffering from cancer. After many postponements, the charges were dropped when Theresa died in May 1886. Sophie then left Detroit and headed to other large cities where her face was less well known.

sohpie lyons author marked

Sophie Lyons, author photo, ca. 1913

Thomas Byrnes, Chief of Detectives in New York City, published Professional Criminals of America in 1886. Byrnes described the 204 criminals he considered to be the most dangerous individuals in America. Sophie was one of only ­­­18 women to make the cut. He noted in her bio that she had been recently “convicted at Ann Harbor, Michigan” but his information was already out of date.

Sophie spent the next 20 years shoplifting, pickpocketing, robbing banks and blackmailing people all over the Midwest (except Michigan), the East Coast, Canada and Europe, but ultimately she returned to her home in Detroit. By the early 20th century Sophie claimed she’d reformed and even published a memoir, titled Why Crime Does Not Pay. Though she had given up crime, her substantial fortune came almost entirely from her earlier criminal activities and the irony of her book’s title was certainly deliberate.

If Sophie ever made another visit to Ann Arbor after 1884, she kept it quiet. No doubt she wanted to avoid the town where she was put on trial three times for the same crime — it was a record for her and not one she would have bragged about.

She died in 1924 at Grace Hospital after collapsing of a stroke in her home. Her cremains were buried next to those of her favorite child, Carleton Mason (who spent most of his life in Seattle, steering clear of his mother and her notorious reputation) at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery.

Featured Photo: mugshot of Sophie Lyons from Professional Criminals of America by Thomas Byrnes, 1886.