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.

A Noted Woman Outlaw

A Noted Woman Outlaw

Sophie Lyons, the woman who indulges in aliases, pistols, morphine, etc., was released from arrest yesterday, the doctors failing to agree on her insanity.

— Detroit Free Press, May 25, 1881

For years the name “Sophie Lyons” raised the hackles of policemen throughout the world. Sophie was particularly unpopular in southeastern Michigan, where she was tried three times for pickpocketing in the early 1880s.

Sophie_first mug

Pre-1876 drawing of Sophie based on her now-lost mugshot photograph

Her story began in New York City on Christmas Eve 1847, when Sophia Elkin was born to German-Jewish immigrant parents. The youngest of three children, she was taught to steal during childhood by her family, who were part of the Gotham criminal underworld. At the age of 12 she served a prison term for burglary at the New York House of Refuge on Randall’s Island, off the coast of Manhattan.

After her release from prison she took her mother’s maiden name, Levy, and worked for Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, an infamous New York City fence, who helped polish Sophie’s pickpocketing and shoplifting skills. Her first marriage to a thief named Maurie Harris was short-lived. By the age of 18 Sophie was married to her second husband, Edward “Ned” Lyons, a notorious bank robber. All four of Sophie’s husbands and most of her many lovers were criminals.

By the late 1870s Sophie had split with Ned and moved to Michigan, partly due to its proximity to Canada, which at the time had no extradition treaty with the United States. There she operated under several aliases, including Kate Loranger and Harriet Smith. The Detroit police soon figured out her true identity and found that she’d learned her craft from New York City experts and had an escape from Sing Sing under her belt.

She tried to commit suicide in 1877 while she was held in the Detroit jail on a shoplifting charge. At the time she was addicted to morphine and was going through painful withdrawal symptoms. While she was in court awaiting a hearing, she violently attacked another prisoner who had insulted her.

Andrew Rogers, Superintendent of the Detroit Police, breathed a sigh of relief when Sophie left Detroit, but by 1880 she’d returned. In March 1881 she tried to shoot George Hendrie, the wealthy owner of the Detroit City Railway. She claimed the married Hendrie had fathered a child with her and she demanded money from him to keep the matter quiet. Hendrie refused to succumb to her blackmail attempts so she confronted him at his office, pistol in hand. Fortunately for Hendrie, she was a lousy shot and the bullet missed its mark.

Andrew Rogers

Andrew Rogers, ca. 1905, Detroit Historical Society

Rogers suspected that Sophie was pickpocketing and shoplifting on his patch again, but she was so clever that it was difficult to get evidence against her, so he resorted to an unusual tactic. He hired a poor Detroit widow, Theresa Lewis, who was desperate for cash, to work as his confidential informant. Theresa’s job was to ingratiate herself with Sophie, spy on her and gather evidence against her to be shared with Rogers and one other trusted police officer.

During the summer of 1881 Theresa went to Sophie’s Detroit house at 23rd and Fort streets and offered to read the bible with her. Sophie had no interest in the bible but she allowed Theresa to stay as a tenant in her home. Theresa moved in and began to spy on the household. She reported her discoveries back to Rogers.

Sophie left town to attend the funeral of President James Garfield in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 21, 1881. Theresa told Rogers that Sophie’s housekeeper, Sarah Brew, began to receive many packages sent from out of town by a “Sarah Smith” after Sophie left. Theresa kept some of the wrappings from the packages and gave them to the police.

Garfield funeral Cleveland

Crowds in Cleveland for the Garfield funeral

Rogers suspected that “Sarah Smith” was actually Sophie and that the packages contained items stolen by her while she was out of town, so he instructed his trusted officer to intercept any packages at the post office that were addressed to Sarah Brew.

The Garfield funeral, with its massive crowds, provided abundant prospects for pickpockets, but it wasn’t the only situation that was ripe with opportunities. County fairs, with their large crowds and many distractions, offered exceptional hunting grounds for pickpockets looking to practice their craft. And since the fairs were often held in smaller communities, people were less likely to be on their guard than in the crowded shopping districts of big cities.

The next time Sophie appeared on the radar of Superintendent Rogers, she’d been at a fair in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Next post: Sophie Lyons Goes to the Fair

Featured photo: Sophie Lyons, CDV by James Alba Bostwick; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

The Galloping Cow and the Boy She Threw

The Galloping Cow and the Boy She Threw

Philomena Falkner, alias Mary Rinehardt, accused of throwing a little boy from the second-story window of a house on Broadway, was before the Police Court yesterday, but the case was continued until Thursday, the boy not being able to appear.

The San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 1876

On the afternoon of November 29, 1876, a woman known in San Francisco as the “Galloping Cow,” apparently due to her awkward walk, tried to kill a six-year-old boy.

Sisto “Thomas” Drolet and his older brother, John, were in the woman’s neighborhood on the edge of the Barbary Coast  selling ducks. She invited the boys up to her room, allegedly to discuss a sale, but instead she picked Thomas up, held him for a moment and, after remarking “What a pretty boy,” she abruptly threw him out the window. He fell to the street below and was severely injured, with a fracture to his skull.

Two months later the woman was tried in the San Francisco Municipal Criminal Court. Thomas had recovered enough by then to appear in court as a witness. Her defense lawyer claimed that at the time of the assault she was not responsible because she had been drinking for many days and was driven insane by the amount of alcohol she’d consumed. Drinking to excess was a way of life in the Barbary Coast, so the jury didn’t buy the argument. They returned a verdict of guilty of assault to murder.

She was sent to California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, on February 5, 1877, where she was one of only a handful of female prisoners.

Mary Reinhardt SQ record1-2

According to the prison register, her true name was Mary Reinhardt and she was a 31-year-old German-born seamstress. She had a light complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with “large features.” She was missing one of her front teeth. The register made no mention of a foot or leg deformity that might have caused her to walk in an unusual manner. She served most of her two-year sentence and was released on October 5, 1878.

In February 1880, a woman described as a “strapping amazon” who was “sailing under the sobriquet of the Galloping Cow” got very drunk on “coffin varnish” after visiting several saloons in Fresno, 200 miles southeast of San Francisco. She became unruly and gave vent to a stream of obscene language, so a policeman was called. In the process arresting her, she pulled out a clump of his hair “sufficient to construct a small-sized mattress.” He finally got her into bracelets and hauled her off to jail. She was found guilty of being drunk and disorderly and sent to the county jail for 3 months. It seems likely that this woman was Mary Reinhardt, though she was not mentioned by name.

Thomas Drolet mugshots 3Thomas Drolet, Mary’s young victim, was born in 1871 in San Francisco to a Chilean-born father, Juan Antone Drolet, and Johanna Ahern, a native of County Cork, Ireland. The family was a large one, with twelve children in total, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

When Thomas was 22 he stole a barrel of whiskey that was sitting outside a wholesale dealer’s place of business on California Street. The barrel was so large it was described as holding two thousand drinks. A policeman saw Thomas roll the barrel to a side street so he arrested him and returned the barrel to its owner.

Before he went to trial for the whiskey theft he tried to steal a sack of sugar from outside the Cluff Brothers store at Front and Pine Streets. Again he was caught in the act, arrested and charged with petty larceny.

In court Thomas’s mother, Johanna, pleaded with the judge to have mercy on her son, saying that the head injury he’d suffered as a child had caused long-lasting damage. She argued that he wasn’t responsible for his actions. The court wasn’t sympathetic to her argument because if he had succeeded, Thomas would have benefited financially from his crimes. He was convicted of grand larceny and sent to San Quentin for a three-year term on December 8, 1893.

After his release from prison Thomas’s life continued on a downward trajectory. He served a second term in San Quentin. After his wife, Josephine, made several unsuccessful suicide attempts, she took their two small children and divorced him in 1899. According to an article in the San Francisco Call, by the time of the divorce Thomas was a “confirmed thief” whose childhood head injury had turned him into a “driveling idiot” and a “Chinatown bum.”

Thomas died in 1903, aged 32, of cystitis and kidney stones. He’s buried with his parents and some of his siblings at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California.

San Francisco policeman Jesse Brown Cook kept a copy of Mary’s undated mugshot, titled “Philomena Falkner, alias the Galloping Cow” in the San Francisco crime scrapbooks he made in the early 20th century. In addition to describing her assault on “a boy who was selling wild ducks,” he also claimed she was a “pickpocket from the Barbary Coast.” I found no evidence that she was arrested for pickpocketing or explanation of why she sometimes went by the name “Philomena Falkner.”

Featured photo: Philomena Falkner, alias the “Galloping Cow,” from the Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Mugshots of Thomas Drolet: California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 15698-15949

 

Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

San_Bernardinos

San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.

The Lady Swindles

The Lady Swindles

Mme. La Touche, the female Napoleon of Wall Street, who discovered a new system of finance that was based on the most profound and logical principles, is a martyr to the cause. She still remains in a dungeon cell in the Jefferson Market Police Court building, not one friend having come forward with the required real estate security for $2,500 bail, which is demanded as a condition of her release. And there, it is said, she is likely to remain until her trial in the Court of the General Sessions.

— The Evening World (New York City), December 10, 1887

Madame La Touche was born Marion Gratz in New Brunswick, Canada in 1846. The 19th century was a time when women criminals were rare and crime was primarily the domain of men. In 1886, when NYPD Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes published his book, Professional Criminals of America, only 18 ladies made the cut out of 204 rogues and Madame La Touche was not one of the chosen damsels. However Byrnes included her — she was criminal #345 — in the 1895 edition of his book.

In addition to being a female crook there was another feature that set Marion apart. In her long history as a swindler she never stole from men, at least not directly — instead she preyed solely on her own sex.

By 1873 she’d made her way to America and started her criminal career in Boston. She worked under the name Marion L. Dow, but no Mr. Dow was ever located by authorities. According to Byrnes, Marion enticed wealthy society ladies into her “coils by exciting their speculative proclivities.” She’d paint a “glowing picture of the facility with which the husbands of her intended victims acquired large sums of money through stock speculation.” After persuading the ladies to invest their own money with her, she disappeared with the cash.

Marion L. Dow_our rival the rascal

Marion (possibly a personal photo) from the book Our Rival the Rascal

“Marion L. Dow can probably boast of having assumed more names and characters than any other woman who has not been a professional actress,” wrote Boston police officers Benjamin Eldridge and William Watts in their 1897 book, Our Rival the RascalNo doubt they were relieved when, in 1880, things got too hot for Marion on their turf and she headed to fresher fields in New York City.

By means of fake investment bureaus, Marion swindled wealthy Gotham gals to the tune of $40,000. Moving on to Philadelphia, she took lavish apartments and outfitted herself in expensive clothes and jewelry. As an enticement to invest with her, she guaranteed her clients against loss of their investment in exchange for half of their profits. The money rolled in until the ruse was discovered and she spent four months in Philly’s Moyamensing prison.

After her release from prison she met and married a Pennsylvania-born forger and swindler named Royal La Touche. (The name was not an alias — it really was Royal La Touche). It turned out that Royal was already married to two other women besides Marion! Before the couple had much time to enjoy their wedded bliss he was sent to Sing Sing to serve a three-year term for bigamy.

Marion spent no time crying over Royal’s fate. Using a new alias, “Carrie R. Morse,” she returned to New York City and went right back to her old tricks. She opened a bogus brokerage office at 47 West Thirty-seventh Street and hired a woman who was required to pay $600 for the privilege of having the job. When the company proved to be a scam, “Carrie” was arrested in 1884. One of her victims told of how she sold her shoe store in order to invest and had been forced to put her four children in a poor house after losing her life savings. It took two trials but Marion was convicted of obtaining money through false pretenses and sentenced to four months in prison.

A sensible person wouldn’t risk another arrest in New York City, but Marion wasn’t sensible. In 1887 she took a partner in crime, Sophie Lyons, a notorious pickpocket, shoplifter and bank robber, and embarked on her most audacious scam. She called it the “New York Women’s Banking and Investment Company.” Marion promised clients $50 a month in income if they would invest $300 in her company. This time women from all walks of life were encouraged to participate.

The lease of the building on West Twenty-third Street and refurbishments, including a fake vault, to make it look like a real bank were done on credit. Stock certificates were printed in rainbow colors, because, according to Sophie, ladies appreciated color and preferred to select their stocks based on their favorite hues. Marion set Sophie up in a luxurious apartment and furnished her with expensive jewelry and a lavish wardrobe. Posing as “Celia Rigsby,” a woman made wealthy through her dealings with Madame La Touche, Sophie was the honey that lured the flies in.

When the scam was uncovered, Sophie scarpered back to her home base in Detroit, but Marion was arrested and housed in the “dungeon cell” at Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village. Financial crimes, then as now, are laborious and difficult to prove. When only one of the defrauded women was willing to testify against her, the D.A. dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Marion was free again.

After Royal was released from Sing Sing he and Marion reunited and lived together until his death around 1915. Sophie Lyons wrote in her 1913 memoir, Why Crime Does Not Pay, that her old pal “Carrie” had retired from crime and died penniless, but Marion was still very much still alive and swindling when the book came out. She continued her stock swindles, was frequently arrested and served three more terms in prison during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Marion at 85

Her final arrest came in the summer of 1931. Marion, by then an 85-year-old widow, who was, according to one news report, “hard of hearing, but retains that look of guileless sincerity which charmed money of out investors’ pockets almost fifty years ago.” Despite the recent stock market crash, her victim, a Harlem rooming house owner named Edna Mattice, gave Marion $300 to invest because Marion claimed to have confidential information from a high honcho on Wall Street. Mrs. Mattice said Marion was “always reading market reports” and she spoke “with awe-inspiring glibness and authority upon financial matters.”

Marion might have spent the rest of her life in a Harlem prison as a habitual criminal, but authorities hoped to find a way to be lenient due to her age. Help came from unexpected quarters — the Salvation Army! A spokeswoman for the charity said it was “deeply interested in Mrs. La Touche’s case, and if the court would permit, it would undertake to look after her for the rest of her life.” The judge agreed to the plan.

During the 1931 holiday season, people on the streets of Harlem likely had no idea that the hunched old lady ringing the bell by a red kettle and asking for their spare coins was the greatest lady swindler of the 19th century.

Featured image: reproduction of CDV mug shot of Marion L. Dow from “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas Byrnes, 1895.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle lived with his widowed father, John, and four siblings in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. The Doyle family’s tenement, located at 86 Mulberry Street, housed 19 families, 68 souls total, all with Irish roots. The building probably had six or seven apartments, no indoor plumbing and was less than a block from Mulberry Bend — one of the most dangerous areas in the slum-infested Five Points. George, soon to be known by the nickname “Dorsey,” was 14. He and his younger sister, Katie, were still in school while the rest of the family worked at low-paying jobs.

At the age of 14 Dorsey Doyle was likely already sharpening his skills as a pickpocket and readying himself for life as a gang member and career criminal.

Dorsey Doyle prison record

Description of George J. “Dorsey” Doyle, New York Sing Sing Prison Admission Register. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Box 8; Vol. 23.

In 1887, when he was 21, Dorsey pleaded guilty to robbing a man of his watch and chain on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to two years and three months in Sing Sing Prison. The prison entry for him lists six scars — most of them on his face — a testament to a life of violence, despite his youth. Sing Sing was known for whippings, solitary confinement, poor rations and a requirement of total silence from inmates. Rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey emerged from Sing Sing a full-blown, hardened criminal.

Dorsey was a member of the Whyos, a gang of Five Points Irish mobsters that hit its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s. While earlier New York criminal gangs spent most of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had the entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally they were involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. They were rumored to have a price list for the criminal services they supplied, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up (“doing the big job”). By 1888, four of the Whyos members had been convicted of murder and hanged at the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan.

After his release from Sing Sing, Dorsey branched out from New York City and, in 1893, earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year at “ESP” in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes new edition of his book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described him as “well known throughout the eastern country, as he follows the races, fairs, etc.”

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Dorsey Doyle, May 1887; Professional Criminals Of America (1895) by Thomas Byrnes.

After an unsuccessful attempt, in 1898, at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City (Dorsey shot at the policeman who eventually caught him) he received a second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his second release from Sing Sing, he and three other men were observed trying to pick pockets on an electric car in Manhattan. A mad chase by police ensued during which he jumped off the moving car and was the only man captured. He was convicted of attempted grand larceny and sentenced to Sing Sing for the third time!

At the turn of the twentieth century, with his Whyos pals dead or in prison and with a face that was well known to the New York police, Dorsey moved west. In 1908 he was arrested with another man for lifting a diamond stud off a man boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was arrested in Pittsburgh in 1915, the newspaper described him as “John Dempsey, alias Dorsey Doyle, aged 50, of Toledo.” He was one of a “mob” of clever pickpockets, all of them younger than Dorsey.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket — a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey was never mentioned in the news after 1915, so he may have retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were, after all, long gone, and no one, even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

Featured photo: Dorsey Doyle, carte de visite mugshot, circa 1892, by John Rosch. Collection of the author.

First Lady of San Quentin

First Lady of San Quentin

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

Mary Von ad

Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour — Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money — something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand — the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco — it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Featured photo: Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.