Unforgettable Legs

Unforgettable Legs

Short skirts may or may not be a sign of modern depravity, but they registered as a sign of bad luck for Peggy Hudson and her husband, according to reports from Los Angeles. Peggy is now awaiting sentence on a charge of first degree robbery.

Hayward Semi-Weekly Review (Hayward, California), May 15, 1928

Charles Anderson arrived home after a long day at his Los Angeles restaurant, The Red Onion, on the night of March 5, 1928. He pulled his car into the garage, got out of the vehicle and was unpleasantly surprised to discover a man and woman waiting in the shadows for him.

The woman thrust a gun into his ribs and told him to turn out the lights. Once they were extinguished the man ordered Charles onto the ground and tied him up with a piece of rope. Then the couple went through his pockets and robbed him of the day’s profits from the restaurant — $382 cash ($5,640 in 2018).

Before they left the man remarked to Charles, “Guess I’ll have to take your car too. You see I’m an ex-convict and I have to make a quick getaway. Don’t be afraid, though. I don’t want your car and I’ll leave it a couple blocks from here on Reno Street.” And with that puzzling comment, the pair got into his car and drove off into the night.

Charles freed himself and called the police. His car was nowhere to be found.

Bora Hudson has unforgettable legs - Newspapers.com

“I didn’t get a good look at her face, but I saw her legs, and I could pick them out any time,” he told the police. He claimed the legs he’d seen belonged to Nora Hudson, better known as Peggy. She was a woman he’d previously employed as a cashier at his restaurant. He also said he thought he recognized Peggy by her voice but he was less sure of that than he was about her legs. He didn’t know her male companion.

Changes in women’s hemlines in the 1920s meant a lot more leg showed than ever before and naturally men took notice. This careful, possibly even lecherous, observation of his female employee’s legs paid off for Charles. It took two months but the LAPD finally located 20-year-old Peggy by tracing her to her home address on Flower Street in downtown L.A. The police took Peggy and her husband, Willard Hudson, a musician, into custody and booked them on suspicion of robbery.

Was there something unusally memorable about Peggy’s legs? If so it’s not obvious in the news photo.

Williard Hudson mug

California State Archives

Willard’s incriminating comment about having a criminal record turned out to be true. He’d been incarcerated at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.

A pair of slick criminals the Hudsons were not. With time to cool off they likely realized they’d been foolish to rob a man who knew Peggy. Then they compounded their mistake when Willard confessed his criminal background to their victim.

They pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and each was sentenced to five years to life in prison. Willard served his sentence at Folsom Prison and Peggy was sent to San Quentin. She was paroled in August 1931 after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Peggy Hudson must go down in history as the only person ever captured and sent to prison after being identified by her legs.

Featured photo: Nora Hudson, alias Peggy Hudson, July 8, 1928; California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin Mug Book.

A Chinese Puzzle

A Chinese Puzzle

Tangled skeins of evidence which are being closely investigated by the authorities may result in the unearthing of one of the largest gangs of white slavers in the country with headquarters in New York City and also in other cities, as the result of the arrest of Mrs. Marie Chin Wore of Chenango street, who was taken shortly after midnight by Chief Detective Loren W. Rummer and Detective Larry Abel, police officials declared today.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), February 28, 1920

A young girl was found wandering in the vicinity of New York City’s Bowery in February 1920. She was taken to a Christian missionary society where she told authorities a disturbing story about having been forced to become the “child wife” of a much older man.

The missionary who took care of the girl after she was found, Mary E. Banta, claimed the child was born “Frances Michaelson” to Morris and Sadie Michaelson in New York City and that she was placed in a foundling home nine days after her birth in 1908. Mary also claimed that Marie Chin Wore became the girl’s foster mother 1916 and legally adopted her in 1919, changing her name to “Anna Chin Wore.”

Harry Chin Wore

Harry Chin Wore

In 1919 Marie arranged for Anna to marry David Lee Nong. A California-born man of Chinese ancestry, David owned a restaurant in Binghamton, New York. After the marriage, according to the 1920 census, Marie, age 32, and her Chinese husband, Harry Chin Wore, age 44, lived with Anna and David. Marie worked as a waitress in David’s restaurant and Harry ran a nearby laundry. Anna, age 16, was listed on the census as Marie and Harry’s biological daughter. Marie’s birthplace was listed as “Greece” and Anna’s as “New York.” Marie’s native language was recorded as “Greek.”

Less than two months after the marriage Anna stole enough money from David to escape to New York City.

Mary Banta took Anna back to Binghamton. Marie was arrested there and charged with abduction.

Anna Chin Wore marriage portrait_marked

Anna had on a dress that was much too large for her in her wedding photo. News photo, collection of the author.

Marie and her lawyer

Marie and her lawyer in court

Marie testified in court to being an opium addict and said she was in the clutches of a gang of Chinese criminals who dealt opium and smuggled Chinese men and drugs across the border of Canada into the United States. She claimed that David Lee Nong was part of the gang and that there was an opium den in the basement of his restaurant. Rumors of “white slavery” swirled around the case. News stories proclaimed that Marie went by multiple aliases and had been imprisoned several times in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island in New York City, but no proof of these claims was provided.

However Marie showed no signs of being addicted to opium or any other drug. Opium wasn’t found in the basement of David’s restaurant or anywhere on the premises, nor was the gang of criminals located. She appeared to be nervous but unrepentant and angry in court, at times shaking her head and sneering at Anna while she gave her testimony.

Anna testified that she was unsure of her age but had been told she was between 11 and 13 years old. She said that Marie “told me that my mother was a dirty Jew and had thrown me into an ash can, where a policeman had found me.” She recalled living in the foundling home in New York City and attending school in Manhattan before Marie removed her from the institution.

Nong restaurant

David Lee Nong’s restaurant

David, who was arrested as a material witness but wasn’t charged, testified that it was the custom in China for children to marry very young but he claimed he hadn’t known that Anna was only 11. He paid about $700 ($10,214 in 2018 dollars) to Marie and Harry to help them move to Binghamton and set Harry up in a laundry business. Nonetheless the cash was seen as a quid pro quo for his marriage to Anna.

Marie and David applied for and received a license for his marriage to Anna on November 20, 1919, but when they tried to get a judge to perform the ceremony, he refused due to Anna’s youth. Next they went to a local Baptist minister who agreed to perform the marriage after Marie lied to him, telling him that Anna was 16 and the marriage was out of necessity because she was pregnant.

Anna testified that a few weeks after the marriage, Marie took her to a hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and forced her to commit “a statutory offense” with a Chinese man who was unnamed.

There was no evidence that Harry Chin Wore was directly involved in the marriage plot but he was found to be in the country illegally under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He was ordered deported to back China. Marie was offered a suspended sentence as long as she agreed to be deported to China with him. The couple was taken by the Binghamton sheriff, in June 1920, to San Francisco and put on a steamship bound for China.

As she waited to sail, Marie gave an intriguing interview to a reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin.

I was born in China and I speak Chinese even better than English, although my parents were Americans. In fact, I came to America to be educated and was graduated from the University of Maine, later graduating as a trained nurse at the Portland, Maine general hospital. We were married in Canton, China, and I have no wish to terminate that marriage by taking advantage of the fact that my husband is debarred from the United States. I can be of great service to humanity in the Far East both by sympathy and education and even feel more at home there than in the land that was formerly mine only by parental tie.

Anna was sent to New York City, with missionary Mary E. Banta as her guardian, where she would attend school under the care of the missionary society. Mary sued in the New York Supreme Court to have Anna’s marriage annulled.

David lost his restaurant due to the unsavory publicity about the case. In February 1922 he pleaded not guilty to a charge of gambling at a Binghamton cafe. He died of liver cancer on July 10, 1922 in the Binghamton city hospital. He was 42 years old.

Before condemning David’s role in the case it’s important to realize that U.S. immigration laws in the late nineteenth century resulted in there being few females in America for Chinese men to marry and mixed marriages, while not outlawed in New York, were frowned upon. The marriage age in New York, with parental consent, was 14 at the time and it’s only recently been changed to 17.

Questions about Anna’s parentage went unanswered. If what Mary Banta said was true and Morris Michaelson was her father, he was likely white and Jewish. Therefore her mother must have been Asian. That would have been an unusual pairing for the time, though not impossible. Several young men named Morris Michaelson, all of them white, lived in New York City, according to the 1910 census, but none of them had a wife named Sadie or a wife who was Asian, though she may have died shortly after the child’s birth and that could explain why the baby was placed in an institution.

The New York Extracted Birth Index lists a Frances Michaelson who was born in March 19, 1908 (the exact birthdate Mary Banta claimed was Anna’s) and there’s an Anna Michaelson, born in 1908, who was a resident of the New York Foundling Hospital and Children’s Aid Society until 1915. But there’s no way to definitively link either of those girls with Anna Chin Wore.

Could Anna have been, as one newspaper suggested, the biological daughter of Marie and a Chinese man who wasn’t her husband? Could that be why the baby was placed in an orphanage and why Marie lied about her relationship to Anna after she got the child back — to hide that fact from Harry Chin Wore?

This case is full of perplexing clues but short on verifiable facts. We’ll never know if Marie had good intentions when she arranged a marriage for Anna or if she sold her to the highest bidder.

Featured photos: March 1920 news photos of Marie Chin Wore (left) and Anna Chin Wore. Collection of the author.

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 Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The Disappearance of Sonny Von Maluski

The mystery of the disappearance of Raimonde Von Maluski, 3 years old, believed to have been kidnapped a week ago near his Washington Heights home, continued unsolved yesterday. Seventy detectives under Acting Lieutenant Edwin England continued the hunt, searching again through High Bridge and Fort George Parks and canvassing Houses.

The New York Times, April 6, 1925

SonnyRaimonde Von Maluski III, known as “Sonny,” was last seen on the sidewalk near his family’s apartment building on West 178th Street. The day, Sunday, March 29, 1925, was clear but far from warm, with an afternoon high of about 45 degrees. The small boy was outside on his own, apparently watching a Salvation Army prayer meeting and parade that took place in the street. Washington Heights, where the Von Maluski family lived, is in the narrow northern strip of Manhattan bordered by the Hudson River to the west and the Harlem River on the east.

By sometime on Sunday evening Sonny’s parents, Raimonde and Alice, realized that their three-year-old was gone so they alerted the police. Despite a massive search of the area, which included dragging a nearby City reservoir and the Harlem River, the child was nowhere to be found.

Initially the police theorized that Sonny had been kidnapped for ransom because the building where his family lived was home to some fairly affluent people. However Sonny’s family lived in the basement — his father was the building superintendent. With three young children — 5-year-old Gertrude and baby Robert — in addition to Sonny, there was no money to pay a ransom. In fact the family also had a lodger. Harold Jones, aged 25, worked as a handy man for Raimonde and lived with the family in their cramped apartment.

Mary Jones newsOne day into the search for Sonny, Harold suggested that his 40-year-old estranged wife, Austrian-born Mary Jones, might have been responsible for the boy’s disappearance. He said Mary had become mentally unbalanced the previous year when their baby died shortly after it was born. Harold claimed that Mary held a grudge against Sonny’s father because Raimonde informed the police that she’d stolen something from the building. During a visit to Harold, Raimonde had thrown Mary out of the apartment house due to a display of what Harold described as “disorderly conduct.” Harold claimed Mary was a bigamist, with two prior marriages but no divorces from her previous husbands.

The police arrested Mary, who lived alone in a flat on 3rd Avenue in the East Village. She insisted that she knew nothing about the child’s disappearance but the police charged her with kidnapping Sonny.

HaroldHarold told the police that he believed his wife contacted a man named Alexander Albert and offered him $100 to knock off Raimonde. Alexander was questioned and told police that the information was true but he’d declined the offer. Harold named several other “Bowery stew bums” (homeless alcoholics) he believed Mary tried to bribe to harm Raimonde. Police located the men but could find no evidence of a plot so they were released.

Sonny wasn’t mentioned as a target of Mary’s revenge.

At Mary’s grand jury hearing a ten-year-old girl identified her as the woman she’d seen in a cab that followed Sonny during the parade. However a woman who’d also been nearby failed to identify Mary. A cab driver named William Mahon testified that he’d picked up a woman he identified as Mary, along with a young boy who matched Sonny’s description, near the Von Maluski’s building on the evening the boy went missing. He said the boy was crying. He testified that he’d driven them over a bridge and dropped them off near a vacant lot in the Bronx.

Sonny’s mother, Alice, testified that she and Mary argued about why Harold had moved into her family’s apartment. Alice said that Mary told her she thought Harold moved in so he could carry on an affair with another woman. Alice also admitted that Mary had offered her children toys when she’d visited their apartment, but Alice hadn’t allowed the children to accept them.

The grand jury indicted Mary for the kidnapping of Sonny Von Maluski.

The prosecution witnesses at the trial consisted of cab driver Mahon and another cab driver. The second driver claimed a woman approached him several weeks before Sonny’s disappearance and offered him money to “get a sick child away from a dopehead mother and a drunken father.” He refused the offer but he identified the woman as Mary. A man described as a “volunteer witness” (apparently he wasn’t called by the prosecution but he was allowed to testify) said he’d been in a cab behind the Mahon cab and had gotten a good look at the woman and child who got in the cab. He swore that the woman was Mary.

Mary displayed no emotion throughout her short trial and was the sole witness in her own defense. She admitted she’d been married three times but insisted she wasn’t a bigamist. On that Sunday she had lunch with friends at the restaurant below her apartment, then attended services at nearby St. Ann’s Church. After church she said she went home and took a nap until 9 p.m. Then she woke up but decided it was too late to go out again, so she got undressed and went to bed.

The jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before finding Mary guilty of kidnapping. At her sentencing the judge stated, “I believe you are utterly bad. I believe you killed that child.” He sentenced her to 20 to 40 years in Auburn Prison. He demanded Mary tell the court where the child’s body was hidden. In reply, Mary said, “Why don’t the Von Maluskis tell the truth?”

The family

The following year Mary wrote to the Von Maluskis from her prison cell and promised to tell them what she knew about Sonny’s disappearance if they would visit her. The couple had given up hope of finding Sonny alive, but they went to Auburn hoping to discover the location of his body. However all Mary told them was that she believed he was alive and living near East 51st Street in Manhattan. Prison officials noted that Mary frequently rambled and seemed to be losing her grip on reality.

In 1927 a woman in Hagerstown, Maryland reported to the police that a year or so earlier she’d taken in an abandoned young boy. She heard about the Von Maluski case and wondered if her boy might be Sonny. The woman and the Von Maluskis exchanged photos and descriptions and Raimonde visited in person. Sonny had a large burn scar on his chest, but the Maryland boy didn’t have a scar and he didn’t recognize Raimonde. It was decided that the boy wasn’t Sonny.

Harold Jones moved to Mills House #3 on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan by 1930. The Mills hotels (there were three in NYC) offered spartan accommodations for working men. Harold is listed on the 1930 census as a 29-year-old unmarried man who worked odd jobs for a living. Harold’s whereabouts after 1930 could not be determined.

Alice gave birth to a daughter, Adele, in 1926. By 1939 Alice either died or she and Raimonde divorced, because he married 32-year-old Enid Whitney in May of that year. The following year the couple had a little boy they named Frederick.

Mary was moved to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Dutchess County, New York, by 1940. During the 1940s, Matteawan inmates were subjected to electric and insulin shock treatments. The facility also housed more than three times the number of people it had been built to hold. Mary’s date and place of death are currently unknown, but my research into her later life is ongoing.

Alive or dead, Sonny Von Maluski was never found.

Featured photo: news photo of Mary Jones at her grand jury hearing, April 1925. Collection of the author.

The Unlawful Operation

The Unlawful Operation

SYDNEY.—In the Darlinghurst sessions on Thursday, Harold George Hooper, 34, picture show installer; Thomas Bernard Hooper, 39, agent; Michael Sayegh, 26, formerly a medical student; Nancy Cowman, 18, picture show attendant, and Vera Crichton, 23, married woman, were charged with having conspired together for the purpose of the performance of an unlawful operation.

The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), July 11, 1924

It was a stuff up from start to finish, (that’s a “screw up” in America) beginning with the age-old story of boy meets girl, falls in lust with girl, gets girl pregnant. However the boy in this case was a 34-year-old man who was already married and had no intention of leaving his wife, so what to do? His plan was to spirit his 19-year-old girlfriend off to the big city where the pregnancy could be ended with no one the wiser. But you know what they say about even the best-laid plans, and these certainly weren’t in that category.

Isabella Higgs

Mug shot of Isabella Higgs, 21 February 1924, Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

The story begins in Braidwood, a small town 175 miles southwest of Sydney, Australia. The year is 1923 and Harold Hooper, known as “Dick” to his many friends, went to Braidwood from Sydney to set up a “picture show,” (aka movie theater). Dick and a local girl, Isabella Higgs, met by chance one day in August and struck up an acquaintance. Isabel, described in the news as a “sturdily-built country girl,” came from a poor Braidwood family and worked as a servant.

Soon Dick and Isabel were seeing a lot of each other. According to an account of the case in The Truth, a scandal sheet newspaper, “She met him almost every night, and each time they defied conventions which prescribe that it is wrong for a single miss to dally in company dangerous to her chastity.” In plain language, they had sex, a lot of sex.

In late September Isabel told Dick she thought she was pregnant. Dick brought her a box of pills and told her to take them and they would take care of the “problem.” The pills didn’t work and soon “she found her condition reaching a serious stage.”

Dick ran back to Sydney where, he claimed, he had pressing business obligations. He asked a friend, Michael Sayegh, to go to Braidwood for him, partly for the picture business but also to meet with Isabel. Michael, a Syrian immigrant, was a commercial traveler, however he’d been a medical student at the University of Sydney. He’d dropped out of medical school in his fourth year due to financial difficulties, but he still had some medical instruments and told Dick he knew how to perform an “unlawful operation.” This operation was illegal in Australia at the time.

Michael met with Isabel and confirmed that she was about three months pregnant. Then he broke the news to her that Dick was already married and had a young son. He told Isabel that if she would go to Sydney he would perform an operation on her. Isabel wasn’t convinced this was a good plan, but she also wasn’t thrilled about telling her father about her predicament.

Vera Crichton

Mug shot of Vera Crichton, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

Dick, always ready with an excuse, said he had kidney trouble and couldn’t travel to Braidwood, so he sent his brother, Thomas Bernard “Burn” Hooper, age 39, and Vera Crichton, a 23-year-old married woman, to talk Isabel into coming to Sydney. Vera told Isabel she’d had the operation herself and it was entirely safe. Isabel agreed to the plan but only if she got to see Dick before she had the operation. It was now late January 1924.

The group set off in a hired car that broke down several times. In addition to Burn, Vera, and Michael, Nancy Cowman, an 18-year-old picture show attendant described as “young and pretty, with pouting red lips” came along on the trip. After many stops and starts due to car trouble the travelers finally made it to Sydney.

None of the news articles explained why Michael, Nancy and Vera got involved in the project. Maybe they owed Dick a few favors. Burn was Dick’s brother and evidently he was motivated by family loyalty.

Meanwhile Isabel’s family had no idea where she’d gone so they reported her to the police as a missing person. They were concerned that she’d been kidnapped or, worse, that she might be dead. The police began to search for Isabel.

In Sydney Michael rented a room for Isabel on Surrey Street in Darlinghurst, a neighborhood then known for razor gangs, sly-grog houses (that’s a speakeasy if you’re a Yank), drug dealing and prostitution. If someone were looking for a place to perform an operation with no questions asked, Darlinghurst would be a perfect choice. Nancy and Isabel stayed together in the room several days with Dick popping by nightly to reassure Isabel that the operation would be fine. Michael stopped in a few times with powders for Isabel to take, but he didn’t perform the operation. He was probably hoping the drugs would cause a miscarriage.

A few days later Michael was finally ready to begin the operation. But before he started, Nancy showed up and told him that Vera and Burn had been arrested and interviewed about Isabel’s disappearance. They’d given statements to the police that Isabel was alive and well but the darned police wanted proof. They wanted Isabel in the flesh. Michael packed up his instruments and the three of them bolted.

Dick took Isabel and Nancy to a parsonage in Maroubra, a beachside suburb of Sydney. The parson was a friend of Dick’s who didn’t ask a lot of questions. (Where did Dick get such devoted friends?) The girls hid out in Maroubra for the next ten days. Dick promised Isabel that if she kept her mouth shut that after she had the baby he would give her a pound a week until the child turned 14. Generous Dick.

The police told Vera and Burn they couldn’t have bail until Isabel was located alive and well. On February 20, 1924 Isabel, Nancy and Dick turned themselves to the police. The now-famous mug shots of Nancy, Isabel and Vera were taken the following day. Unfortunately the mug shots of the men apparently didn’t survive.

Dick, Burn, Vera, Nancy and Michael were charged with “conspiracy to bring about a result by the illegal use of an instrument.” In those days no one ever dared utter the word “abortion.”

No charges were brought against Isabel. She returned to Braidwood, where she had the baby. She brought the baby to the trial of the five conspirators in July.

The cowardly Dick claimed he wasn’t the father of the baby. He insisted he was just trying to be a Good Samaritan by bringing Isabel to Sydney where she could secretly have the baby. The jury must have had trouble keeping a straight face.

Dick, Burn and Vera were convicted but the jury couldn’t agree on Nancy and Michael. Dick and Burn appealed their convictions and were retried. Burn was acquitted but Dick was convicted again, however he was released without being sentenced to prison. Vera also appealed and got a new trial but for some strange reason it never took place and she was released from custody. At the second trial of Nancy and Michael, Nancy was acquitted. Michael, the Syrian immigrant who was described as being from a “highly-respected family and who had been a brilliant scholar while at the University” was convicted and sentenced to 12 months hard labor. His sentence was upheld on appeal.

The story was reported all over Australia, including in some articles that were illustrated. Though it’s a tragic tale it had one positive outcome — it left us with a group of fascinating mug shot photos. They’re in the collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum in Sydney, which has generously scanned and uploaded them to their web site, along with others taken around the same period. The photos are so interesting and unusual that they’ve been used and abused all over the Internet, so it seemed to me like a good idea to tell the story of the real people and try to set the record straight. Then everyone can go back to colorizing them, drawing them, putting them on coasters, using them as avatars, whatever.

If you want to read more stories of the people in the Justice &​ Police Museum mug shot photos, I highly recommend the book Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle.

Featured photo: Mug shot of Nancy Cowman, 21 February 1924, probably Central Police Station, Sydney. Collection of the Justice &​ Police Museum.

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.

Hard Truth and Hard Time

Hard Truth and Hard Time

When George Brown, who said he was a resident of New York state, pleaded guilty before Judge Jones last week to stealing the automobile of controller Paul J. Schmidt, he said he was never in trouble before, and was sentenced to three years in the county jail. The judge promised to be lenient with Brown if he told the truth. On investigation the judge learns that Brown was convicted of stealing an automobile in New York state and sentenced to five years in Auburn prison, and that he escaped from that institution. Brown was confronted with the proofs by Judge Jones today and informed that his sentence would be changed from the county jail to the penitentiary. He was convicted in New York state under the name of Irving Barber.

Pittston Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), February 15, 1922

Irving Barber_back_markedHis first mistake was to steal the Ford Touring car of the newly elected Controller of Luzerne County. His second mistake was to lie to the judge about his criminal past. The mistakes compounded to send Irving Barber, alias George Brown, a 26-year-old apprentice carpenter, to the Eastern State Penitentiary for his third prison stretch on February 21, 1922.

Ultimately Irving admitted to the judge that he’d stolen five automobiles, various license plates and a bankbook. And he confessed to forging checks. It also came to light that he’d recently escaped from Auburn prison, where he’d been serving a five-year term for grand larceny. As a teenager he’d been an inmate of the Elmira Reformatory in New York.

Eastern State, or ESP, the prison in Philadelphia that Irving would call home for the next five to ten years was one of the oldest and most well known in the United States. ESP opened in 1829 and was designed around the Quaker idea of the “separate system” in which prisoners spent their days and nights in isolation to silently reflect upon the crimes they had committed. By contrast, Auburn, the New York prison from which Irving escaped, functioned under a system (aptly named the “Auburn system”) that forced prisoners to work together in silence, move in lockstep and avert their eyes from other prisoners and guards. Unlike at ESP, inmates who broke the rules in the Auburn system received harsh physical punishment.

Due to overcrowding the solitary system was abandoned at ESP in 1913 and from then on brutality towards inmates became the preferred method of control. Guards doused unruly prisoners with freezing water during the winter, strapped them into tight restraints for long periods of time and subjected the most intractable prisoners to prolonged periods of solitary confinement in a dark, underground pit with little food. If Irving didn’t cooperate he might have experienced some of those punishments.

ESP mugbook

Eastern State Penitentiary mug book page. Collection of ESP

Mugshots taken at ESP from the early 20th century to the late 1920s are easy to spot because in the side view the prisoner’s head is always held with a large clamp and the prisoner number, stamped on a tablet with rounded edges, hangs from the prisoner’s collar from an S-shaped wire.

Irving became ESP prisoner # C-1367 and he looks to have been stoic about his fate. It’s likely he realized that, unlike at Auburn, escape was unlikely. Assuming he served his maximum sentence of ten years, Irving might have crossed paths with Al Capone, who briefly entered ESP in 1929 as prisoner #C-3327. The celebrity prisoner got a nice cushy cell complete with oriental rugs and a radio, but Irving’s cell would have been one of the more usual kinds.

a-standard-cell

Modern photo of a cell at ESP

Irving made Pennsylvania his permanent home after he was released from prison. Under his alias — George Brown — he went straight, got married and raised a family. He died of a stroke in 1960.

ESP closed in 1971, however if you want to vicariously experience the sensation of being imprisoned there, it’s open for tours.

Featured photos: 1922 ESP prisoner card of Irving Barber. Collection of the author.