The Badger Game

Old-fashioned terms for crime can be confusing. When Lillie Bates was arrested in New York City on June 17, 1909, the officers listed her crime as simply “Badger.” Did that mean she was caught mistreating a short-legged, furry, mammal that hunts at night? No. It meant she was involved in a criminal enterprise referred to then as the “Badger Game.”

The game was often a venomous combination of crimes, including prostitution, robbery, con game and extortion. The game involved a woman and her male accomplice, and it was he who was the “badger.”

The female in the partnership posed as a reputable woman who was down on her luck and therefore willing to have a sexual encounter with an “old married man with the appearance of honor and wealth.” She got him into her bedroom, which had a secret panel cut in one of the walls. Here’s a description of what often happened next:

She fastens the door and will permit nothing until the lamp is extinguished. The very respectable gentleman lays his clothes carelessly upon a chair, together with his watch and well-filled purse, and the hour of pleasure begins. But the woman’s accomplice is outside the partition and at a signal from her he knows that the time for him to take action has arrived. Silently he opens the secret door. Light as a cat the “badger” passes through it, with his usual dexterity begins to examine carefully all the clothes of the victim as they lie on the chair, far from the bed. The darkness of the room facilitates his work. Very soon he has got possession of all that is of any value and he creeps back through the opening. The door shuts as noiselessly as it was opened. The object of the two is attained and now it only remains to set free the plucked bird without any disturbance. As soon as the “respectable gentleman” begins to dress someone knocks at the door. The “respectable gentleman” gets alarmed. His companion does the same; she urges him to dress as quickly as possible, and go out by the back door, for it is quite certain that her husband, or father, or brother, as the case may be, has returned and wants to come in.

— The Dark Side of New York Life and Its Criminal Classes, Gustav Lening, 1873

The expectation was that the victim left the house so quickly that he didn’t check to see if all his valuables were where he usually kept them.

Variations on the badger game were plentiful. All of them required acting talent along and a boatload of nerve. Sometimes there was no secret panel and the male accomplice simply stormed into the room, claiming to be the woman’s outraged husband, fists cocked and ready for a fight unless he was financially compensated. Sometimes the couple threatened to reveal the victim’s transgression to his family unless he paid up.

NPG.James Alba Bostwick.undated
Sophie Lyons, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

Sophie Lyons, the “queen” of nineteenth century crime, was an adept practitioner of the Badger Game. She was so good at it that she sometimes pulled it off without a “badger.” In 1878 she finally got caught after she lured a well-respected, elderly lawyer to her Boston hotel room with the promise of sex, got him to undress, then locked his clothes in her trunk.

She forced him to write her a check for $1000 ($24,215 in 2018), and told him he’d get his clothes back after she returned from the bank with the money. She locked the door on her way out so he couldn’t call the police.

Officials at the bank were suspicious of such a large check and called the police, who escorted Sophie back to the hotel. There they found her naked victim. She claimed she was his long-standing mistress. He refused to prosecute due to the shame it would have brought him. “She was so bewitching and fascinating that I could not help it,” he sheepishly remarked.


I found no record of a Lillie or Lillian Bates’ arrest or conviction. Was “Fred,” whose name was tattooed on her arm, the badger? Was her victim a well-known man who was too embarrassed to press charges? We’ll never know the details of how she played the badger game. Ten months after her arrest, when the 1910 census was taken in New York City, there was no one named Lillie Bates living in the city.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Lillie Bates, June 17, 1909, New York Municipal Archives.

25 thoughts on “The Badger Game

      1. Hi you two! 😊 I dare to disagree! I don’t think her clothing would’ve been considered risqué at all. It looks decidedly demure to me for that era. If she was playing the badger game and trying to pose as a reputable woman down on her luck, why would she dress in a manner suggesting she was anything other than that, as risqué clothes would’ve suggested?

        I’m fascinated by the photo of The Queen! What on earth has she got on her head? Was she wrapped in a blanket due to being arrested in flagrante delicto? I want to write that again “ in flagrante delicto”! 😁😁😁 What a wonderful phrase! I don’t think I’ve ever used it before. (Easily amused, me.) Also, what is that around her neck? I imagine she would be a striking woman, but I guess it would be the power of her personal allure, not her looks that would’ve caught her prey in her snare.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Very insightful comment Kate! I think we may all be right about Lillie’s clothing. The jacket makes the outfit look “respectable” at first glance, but the lacy bodice hints that the lady might not be so respectable after all.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Oh goodness-The Queen! Sophie Lyons’ headgear (such as that shown in the photo) was apparently an important aspect of her personality and she used it to help her in her criminal endeavors. I am absolutely fascinated by her. She was smart and manipulative and thus she was rarely caught “in flagrant delicto!” I’m going to send you an email about the headgear.

        You seem to be feeling better, based on how much you’re writing. At least I hope you are!

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Less headaches, thanks but still sooo fatigued, sadly. My best position is horizontal. 😁 I’ve learned how to force my iPad to turn on, so I’ve been able to do more than I could if sitting at the computer. Getting the battery sorted tomorrow, I hope. Will be without it for a couple of days. Can’t wait to be able to use it anywhere instead of being tethered to a power point.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. How dare you use logic to refute our subjective opinions, Kate! 😁😁😁 I agree completely with your logic, but I still think the silk shirt with lacy bodice looks like a négligée. She was pushing the boundaries of respectable attire in 1909.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I wondered about her race too. She certainly could be of mixed race, but because she lived in NYC, where there were so many different ethnic groups and races, it’s hard to say. The NYC police tended to be thorough in describing a suspect’s racial and ethnic background, especially if the person wasn’t white and Christian. My guess is that they weren’t sure that she wasn’t white so weren’t willing to write anything down on her card. This also makes me think she’d never been arrested by them before. What do you think?

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Absolutely fascinating post Shayne. Your research brought the crime and history to light. This would make a brilliant basis for a Peaky Blinders style, period tv series, with the badger and his team being the stars, of course. I’d definitely be barracking for the Criminal underdogs. It is such an audacious crime, I can’t help but admire Lillie and Sophie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No I haven’t! That’s a thumbnail I use on my WordPress site. I’ll have to investigate why it’s showing up. Strange. Btw, that is the side photo from a mugshot set taken in Portland, Oregon in the 50s.

      Liked by 1 person

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