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.

 

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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.

Executed by Guillotine

Executed by Guillotine

Enrico (Henri) Pranzini was held to account for the gruesome 1887 murders of courtesan (high class prostitute) Marie Reginault and her servant, Annette Gremeret and Gremeret’s young daughter at Reginault’s Paris apartment in Rue Montaigne. Highly successful in her profession, Reginault lived a life of luxury. Some of her clients were said to be prominent men in the French government and army. The three victims’ throats had been slashed so badly they were nearly decapitated.

pranzini-and-the-victims

Enrico Pranzini and the three victims. Page from the “Album of Paris Crime” by Alphonse Bertillon. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A handsome, 30-year-old man with a muscular build, Pranzini was popular with the ladies and was described in the press as a “gigolo.” Born in Egypt, he was intelligent, worldly and spoke several languages. Prior to the murders he worked as an interpreter and translator and traveled widely throughout Europe and the Near East. The press described Pranzini as a “professional blackmailer” who used his good looks and charm to “make love to older woman, get them in his power and then compromise them if they refused to pay.”

Letters, cuff links and a belt found at the crime scene implicated another man, Gaston Geissler, as the murderer, however the police believed they had a better case against Pranzini, despite the fact that he had no history of violence. Salacious details about the murders were reported widely in the press and the public clamored for a scapegoat. Pranzini filled the bill.

pranzini-police-news

Reports of the murders in the press included illustrations, some of which were based on morgue photos and mug shots.

Pranzini maintained his innocence throughout his trial for the triple murder. The prosecution’s case was circumstantial—it was based on the fact that he left Paris on the night of the murders and that he gave jewelry similar to some that was missing from the murdered woman’s apartment to prostitutes in Marseilles in the days following the crime.

He was convicted and given the death penalty — execution by guillotine.

Pranzini marched from his cell to the scaffold with a firm step and defiant air. When the executioners seized him the murderer resisted and fought desperately, demanding they let him alone. The executioners overpowered him and threw him upon the machine and in an instant had him securely bound. Immediately the terrible knife was started. It descended with horrible slowness at first, but then its movement quickened and the head of the murderer rolled into the basket.

The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 1, 1887

After his public execution, Pranzini’s body, minus the head, was removed to a Paris medical school, where parts of it disappeared. Subsequently it was discovered that some of his skin had been removed and used to make wallets. Other parts apparently went to well-connected curiosity seekers.

If you are visiting Paris, you might drop by the Police Museum of Paris, where you can see not only a wax model of Pranzini’s head but also a display of Parisian policemen taking a rogues’ gallery photo, like the one of Pranzini at the top of the page.

Featured image: Enrico (Henri) Pranzini mugshot by Alphonse Bertillon. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.