The White Slavers

The White Slavers

HELD AS A WHITE SLAVER

Jacob Ginsberg, aged 22 years, living at 699 Park Avenue, this borough, was held to-day in $3,000 bail by magistrate O’Connor, in the Essex Market Court, Manhattan, for the alleged abduction of Esther Perlmutter, aged 16 years, of 308 East Third street, Manhattan.

— The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1909

Herman Perlmutter lived with his wife, Celia, and their seven children in an overcrowded tenement in Manhattan’s East Village. Herman and Celia were Jewish immgrants to the United States from Hungary. Herman spoke both Yiddish and English and worked as a buttonhole maker. He was one of thousands of immigrants in turn of the century New York City who worked for low pay in the garment industry.

The problem was Esther, the Perlmutters 16-year-old daughter. A middle child of the seven, she refused to get a job in a factory as the older children in the family had done. With nine mouths to feed, the Perlmutters desperately needed the income. But for Esther, life was too short to spend 11-12 hours a day slaving away behind a sewing machine.

Instead the diminutive girl took up with a ne’re-do-well from Brooklyn named Jacob Ginsberg. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob spent his days in his brother’s poolroom at 25 Avenue B, in the red light district on the eastern edge of the lower Manhattan. Esther informed her father that she lied about her age so she and Jacob could get married without his permission. She moved out of her family’s tenement and into a room on East Fourth Street with Jacob.

The Perlmutters were devastated that their daughter had married a man without a job who hung out in an Alphabet City poolroom. Complete disaster hit when Herman discovered that there was no marriage — Esther and Jacob were living together in sin. Even worse, he found that Esther supported herself and her no-good partner by selling her body — Esther worked as a prostitute.

White Slaver

Illustration from Fighting the traffic in young girls; or, War on the white slave trade by Ernest Albert Bell, 1910.

In a desperate attempt to save his child, Herman reported to the magistrate at the Essex Market Court that Jacob had abducted his daughter. The magistrate held Esther under $500 bail as “an incorrigible child.” Jacob was held under $3000 bail as a “white slaver.”

Slavery of black people by whites is a shameful part of the history of the United States, but what the heck was a “white slaver?”

By the end of the nineteenth century Americans had grown less tolerant of prostitution than in earlier times. Vice commissions in big cities were appointed to investigate whether women were engaged in prostitution of their own free will or whether unscrupulous men (foreigners and African-Americans were high on the suspect list) tricked or forced them into the work. Public concern was, of course, limited to white women and girls. Politicians and social reformers referred to this phenomenon as “white slavery” and the men who participated in it as “white slavers.” Men convicted of being white slavers often got hefty prison sentences.

Esther turned 17 in December 1909. This made her an adult in the eyes of the law. She and Jacob scraped together enough money to pay their bond and were released from jail. The pair got married on January 3, 1910, and rented a flat uptown on West 66th Street. The marriage got the law off the couple’s backs and the move put distance between Esther and her family. If it was Esther’s choice to work as a prostitute, Jacob couldn’t be convicted of white slavery. That’s not to say prostitution was legal, but it was a petty crime that generally resulted in only a fine in the magistrate’s court.

The Ginsbergs took a business partner — a 19-year-old named Louis Seidman. Seidman’s cover story was that he worked as a newsboy, but instead of selling newspapers, he and Jacob hung out on the streets of lower Manhattan in search of teenage girls. When they found a good “prospect” they took her to the uptown flat, where Esther tried to convince her to work for them as a prostitute.

Louis brought Rose Kripitzer, aged 15, and 14-year-old Augusta Schaller to the flat on Sunday, May 22, 1910. “You’ll earn between $5 and $10 a night instead of the $3 a week you earn working at a factory,” Esther told the girls. What she said was true. Though workers had started to unionize and demand better wages and hours, pay was still quite low and working conditions in the factories were deplorable, particularly for women and children.

Rose and Augusta’s parents didn’t know where they were so they reported them as missing. Augusta returned home on Wednesday night. She told her parents about how Louis lured her and Rose to the flat with promises of a better job. After they got to the flat Esther promised they would make good money “receiving visitors” there.

Esther Ginsberg_back

Reverse side of Esther’s card.

The Schallers told the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about Augusta’s experiences with the Ginsbergs and Louis. An agent from the society investigated the goings-on at the flat and arrested Esther and Jacob. Louis was arrested when he showed up in court as a witness for the couple at their arraignment. All three were convicted of “impairing the morals” of Rose and Augusta. Jacob and Louis were sentenced to a year each in the penitentiary.

Esther “was remanded for further investigation” by the court but there’s no evidence she was ever sent to prison. Her mugshots and measurements were taken by the police, who noted that she wore a wig. Possibly she wore it as a disguise, but it’s more likely that Esther, as a married woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, followed the tradition of wearing a Sheitel.

Esther suffered from a serious heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus — a blood vessel in her heart that should have closed shortly after she was born had instead remained open. There was no treatment for it at the time. She would have had symptoms all her life, including shortness of breath and fatigue, because her heart had to work much harder than normal. She died at age 20 of complications arising from her condition. She must have known from a young age that she wouldn’t live to be an old woman.

Jacob and Louis were impossible to trace with certainty, due to their common names, after they were sentenced to the penitentiary in 1910.

If they were alive today Esther and Jacob wouldn’t recognize their old East Village neighborhood. The gritty slums where they sought out poor, young girls to work as prostitutes have increasingly given way to high-priced apartments, trendy shops, expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Jacob’s hangout, the poolroom at 25 Avenue B, is now a “speakeasy” called the Mockingbird. Located beneath a restaurant, the club doesn’t advertise on the outside other than to suggest you “look for the silhouette on the door in the underbelly of New York’s indelible East Village.”

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Esther Ginsberg, June 1, 1910, New York Municipal Archives.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Flying Scissors

Flying Scissors

A quarrel between two teen aged sisters over clothing and boy friends ended yesterday when one of the sisters hurled a pair of long bladed scissors which penetrated the breast of the other, killing her.

Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1947

The three Zawistowski sisters sat in the kitchen of their family’s apartment on a cool, overcast Monday in late October. The apartment was located on West Evergreen Avenue, just east of Humboldt Park, in a tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Chicago.

Jozef and Magdalena Zawistowski were Polish immigrants with six children, all of whom were born in America. Irene, a junior in high school, had just turned 16. Rose, age 13, was still in elementary school. Adeline, age 18, had graduated from high school and was employed as a bookkeeper for an auto parts company.

The younger girls were home from school for lunch and Adeline was off work because she wasn’t feeling well. Magdalena and John, the girls’ older brother, were in another room. Jozef, a house painter, was away at work.

The girls’ conversation turned to clothes and boy friends, which reminded Adeline that one of her favorite dresses was missing from her closet. She suspected Irene had taken it without her permission and loaned it to a neighborhood girl. She thought Irene should ask before borrowing her clothes and told her so. The conversation took a nasty turn. Insults went back and forth between the two sisters.

Rose, who didn’t like to listen to her older sisters fight, took refuge in her bedroom. But the walls in the apartment were thin and she still heard a rising tide of anger in their voices.

Suddenly it got very quiet. Then Rose heard a cry and the sound of something falling. She ran back to the kitchen where she was confronted by a nightmarish scene.

Adeline

Adeline lay on the floor with one of the blades of the scissors from the table sunk into her chest. Irene stood over her older sister with a look of horror on her face. Then she started to scream hysterically. The others heard the commotion and ran to the kitchen. Magdelena bent down and cradled her daughter in her arms, telling her it would be all right. John called the doctor. He also phoned for the police.

Dr. Slawinski lived less than two blocks from the Zawistowski apartment. He came as soon as he could but it was too late. The blade had punctured one of Adeline’s lungs and most likely it also ruptured a large blood vessel in her chest. All the doctor could do was pronounce the young woman dead.

Meanwhile the police arrived at the apartment and took Irene into custody.

scissors“I got so mad I just picked up whatever I could and threw it at Adeline,” Irene told Capt. Daniel Healy and Lt. Joseph Mooney of the W. North Avenue Police Station. “I loved my sister,” she added. When Irene made her statement to the police she hadn’t yet been told that her sister was dead. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she screamed.

Irene was held in a juvenile facility until the grand jury heard the case two days later. The jury listened to the evidence in order to decide whether or not Irene should be indicted in the death of Adeline.

The only eyewitness to the events was Irene. Did she pick up the scissors and stab her sister? Or did she, as she told the police, throw the scissors at Adeline in a fit of blind rage with no intention of really harming her?

Could a blade from a pair of household scissors that were thrown from a distance of eight feet pierce a person’s clothing, go through the chest wall and the lung’s tough pleural membrane to penetrate far enough to cause death? It took the grand jury only half an hour for to decide that it could have happened that way. Adeline’s death, though tragic, was declared to have been “accidental.” No charges were filed against Irene.

Irene collapses

Immediately after the grand jury announced its verdict, Irene collapsed into the arms of Minnie Attardo, the policewoman in charge of her. After the verdict sank in, Irene became hysterical and had to be carried out of the courtroom.

Adeline’s funeral was two days later, on Halloween day.

The incident was shocking enough that newspapers around the country carried reports about it, but after the grand jury rendered its verdict and Adeline was buried, the story ended as far as the public was concerned. It wasn’t reported if Irene was returned to her family or if she ended up in a foster home or juvenile facility.

I hope Irene got the help she needed for her emotional instability and anger management issues, not to mention the lifelong heavy burden she had to carry of responsibility in her sister’s death.

Featured photo: retouched news photo of Irene Zawistowski and Policewoman Minnie Attardo after the announcement of the grand jury verdict. Collection of the author.

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.

Finding Beverly

Finding Beverly

Five members of a ring alleged to have passed at least $200,000 in stolen forged checks in the last two years were in custody Friday while a sixth person was sought.

Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1960

A gang of forgers from the south side of Chicago worked a lucrative check fraud for a couple of years, beginning in 1958. First they stole blank checks from small businesses, mostly gas stations. Next they stole customer information file cards from chain stores, such as Sears and Woolworth’s, made copies of the cards and returned them the same day. Then the blank checks were filled in with the customer information from the stolen cards and cashed at the chain stores and currency exchanges in the suburbs west of the city.

It worked because store managers didn’t necessarily require I.D. to cash checks for regular customers and there were no computers to verify credentials. But it took nerve and some acting skills.

the forgery gang

The gang consisted of a Patrick “Black Pat” Iannino, a chaffeur, and his girlfriend, Salline Carroll, a dancer, along with Frank Simmons, John Sellinger, Robert McAffee and Beverly Drake. All were described in the newspapers as narcotics addicts. In addition to feeding their drug habits they used the money they stole “living it up, wearing silk suits, driving large cars, etc.” according to one news account.

Paul NeweyTheir lavish lifestyle aroused the suspicions of Paul Newey. Paul, the son of Assyrian immigrants to the United States, was born in 1914 in Minneapolis. He earned a law degree and then applied to work for the FBI, but they wouldn’t hire him due to his “ethnic appearance.” Instead Paul went to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney in 1957. “He was the most persistent investigator I’ve ever known,” said former Chicago Daily News criminal courts reporter Ed Baumann. “He was like a bulldog; he didn’t give up. He pursued things even when he didn’t have to.”

As the summer of 1960 waned, Paul and his team kept the gang under surveilance. “It’s unusual for narcotics addicts to have that kind of money,” he said, “so we started watching them on the assumption they were peddling dope. It was only last week when we made the arrests that we discovered the true source of their income.”

The five gang members Paul’s team arrested — Pat, Salline, Frank, John and Robert — signed statements admitting their guilt in the thefts.

Beverly Drake was the one that got away, or at least she was the one Paul couldn’t locate in August 1960. I can’t say for certain that her mugshot is from her arrest for the check forgery scam, because if she was eventually caught it wasn’t reported in the newspapers. There’s no information on the back of the photo other than her name and F/W/. However the photo is from that time frame and it came from a group of mugshots taken in Chicago.

With her short platinum blond hair and pretty features Beverly looks to me like the doppelgänger of actress Shelley Winters. Whereas Shelley usually played an edgy dame whose mouth got her into trouble, Beverly looks clean cut, trustworthy and only mildly annoyed to have her mugshot taken. It seems plausible that honest-looking Beverly was the gang member who did most of check cashing. Was she a “dope addict?” Only the slight circles under her eyes hint at a darker side to her life.

I don’t know if Paul Newey, who died in 2001, ever found Beverly. I found her with the help of John Van Noate. John is a vintage photography collector and dealer and he picked up Beverly’s mugshot for me at a photo show I couldn’t attend. If you’re looking for interesting vintage photos for your collection you might want to get in touch with him.

Featured photo: Beverly Drake, undated mugshot. 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.

Maid on the Make

Maid on the Make

Lizzie Muehlman, the prettiest, neatest and cleverest thief the Detective Bureau has entertained for a long time, was arrested to-day, but it took quite an aggregation of detectives to nab her. Credited with the job are Lieuts. Howry, a Greek; Unger, a Jew, and Dietsch, a German. They were assisted after the capture by a Swedish patrolman and an Irish sergeant.

The Evening World (New York City), August 9, 1907

That’s a lot of NYPD man-flesh needed to arrest one young girl who weighed in at 113 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall! Not to mention all the nationalities and religions that were required.

The detectives began searching for her after a woman came to police headquarters complaining about a girl she’d hired as a maid. The girl told her she’d left her references in her trunk at home and would bring them in the next day. Instead she vanished with some of her employer’s jewelry.

“She was so cunning, with her fresh complexion, her trusting eyes, her white snug shirtwaist, her little high-heeled patent leathers, that she always got the job. She never kept one for more than a day. If there was no loose jewelry around the house she would depart unobtrusively and her employer would wonder what happened to her. If there was loose jewelry she would depart just as unobtrusively and so would the jewelry,” noted one newspaper article describing the maid’s adventures.

She was a fast worker. In June Mrs. Elizabeth Sandorf of West Ninety-Third Street hired the “charming little girl” to work as her maid and in less than half an hour she made off with two diamond rings and a pair of diamond earrings worth $600. In late July she stole a $500 diamond brooch from another employer, a Mrs. Irving Van Loan of Seventh Avenue. She completed that job in under an hour. She immediately pawned the brooch in Harlem for $100. That kind of cash would have bought a working-class girl a lot of pretty shirtwaists and patent leather shoes, not to mention that fabulous hat!

Mrs. Van Loan went to the police and lodged a complaint. She gave them a description of the thief and detectives kept an eye out for her.

She was finally arrested after detectives noticed her “tripping in and out of apartment houses in the vicinity of 120th Street and Lenox Avenue.” She looked so innocent that the officers thought they’d made a mistake, especially after she put up a tearful protest. But once they got her to the police station she broke down and confessed to half a dozen robberies. The following day almost fifty women who’d been robbed came around to the station to see if they could identify the maid.

The maid’s name was Lizzie and her crime was listed as being a “dishonest servant.” She was 20 years old and born in New York. Frank Lennon, who was described as a “theatrical man,” was her live-in boyfriend. He was arrested as an accomplice, though the role he played in the crimes was not specified. The police searched the couple’s East Fourteenth Street flat and found twelve pocketbooks and ten pawn tickets. Lizzie had pawned some of the things she’d stolen and then sold some of the pawn tickets to a Third Avenue pawnbroker named Samuel Trigger. Trigger was charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lizzie and Frank were arraigned at the Harlem Police Court and locked up in the courthouse jail. Neither got a prison term, according to the records of New York State’s Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908, but they no doubt cooled their heels in jail for quite awhile.

Lizzie Muehlhauser back_marked

She told police that her last name was Muehlhauser (The Evening World paper got the spelling wrong), but I believe that wasn’t her real name. According to news reports Lizzie said her mother lived in Maspeth, Queens. There was a widowed German immigrant named Elizabeth Muehlhauser who lived in Queens and was the right age to be Lizzie’s mother, but she had no children.

Lizzie might have worked for Elizabeth at some point and didn’t like her, so she used her unusual surname as an alias — knowing it would be reported in the newspapers — to embarrass the older woman.

stjosephsasylumMy best guess for who she really was is a girl named Lizzie Mulgrent, who was born in New York in 1888. By 1900 she was either orphaned or an abandoned child because she lived at the St. Ann’s Home for Destitute Children on 89th Street and Avenue A in New York City (previously named St. Joseph’s Asylum). If I’m right, she was one of about 300 girls living at St. Ann’s. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and housed children primarily of Irish descent. Think Jane Eyre but move the setting from England to New York and you get the picture.

What happened to Lizzie after her release from jail is anyone’s guess. She isn’t listed on the 1910 federal census under the names Muehlhauser, Mulgrent or Lennon. But she looks like a girl who could fend for herself, doesn’t she?

Featured photos: Lizzie Muehlhauser, NYPD Bertillon card photos taken August 9, 1907. Collection of the author.