A Noted Woman Outlaw

A Noted Woman Outlaw

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

— Detroit Free Press, May 25, 1881

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

Sophie_first mug

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Rogers

Andrew Rogers, ca. 1905, Detroit Historical Society

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

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

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

Garfield funeral Cleveland

Crowds in Cleveland for the Garfield funeral

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

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

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

Next post: Sophie Lyons Goes to the Fair

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

Crooks’ Books

Crooks’ Books

The engagement of an internationally known woman criminal to marry the internationally noted criminologist, whose inspiration she was in the preparation of a book on the famous women criminals of all time, was announced today.

 

May Vivienne Churchill, known to the police of three continents as “Chicago May” Churchill, assisted and inspired Netley Lucas, English Criminologist, in the preparation of his book, “Ladies of the Underworld.”

The Baltimore Sun, January 4, 1928

During the early 20th century it was all the rage for reformed crooks (or those who claimed to be “ex”) to publish books about their felonious exploits. The notorious “Chicago May” was supposedly the inspiration for Netley Lucas’ 1927 book “Ladies of the Underworld: The Beautiful, the Damned and Those Who Get Away with It.” May’s own memoir, written with professional help, titled “Chicago May: Her Story by the Queen of Crooks” rolled out in 1928.

It’s not surprising that Netley and Chicago May cooked up a scheme to shock polite society while simultaneously promoting their books. As champagne corks popped in celebration of the New Year, 25-year-old Netley, and May, the queen blackmailer old enough to be his mother, announced their intention to wed. They hoped a photograph showing the two of them cozying up on a loveseat would convince readers that their wedding plans were legit. In reality it was a publicity stunt.

Netley Lucas mugNetley was not, in fact, a “noted criminologist.” He was an English con man who began his life of crime at the tender age of 14 when he adopted the persona of a wounded serviceman, claiming to have fought in a World War I battle. Gaining the sympathy of London society, he was able to open credit accounts with various businesses until the deception was uncovered and he was sent to reform school. He quickly escaped and was on the make again, posing as a gentleman. Arrested for false pretenses and check fraud, back to the Borstal went young Netley. There “he had associated with every form of crook and confidence trickster imaginable.” It was perfect schooling for a boy with his predilections and talents.

In 1924, at the tender age of 21, Netley, who claimed to have turned over a new leaf, found his “true calling” as a writer. His memoir, “The Autobiography of a Crook,” was published in 1925. It became a bestseller and over the next few years he wrote biographies of members of various European royal family members and well-known public figures.

Netley’s biographies were fabricated. Even his own memoir turned out to have been ghost written. The book about the exploits of lady criminals was likely also a pack of lies.

Chicago May mugChicago May was born Mary Anne Duignan in 1871 in Ireland. She stole her family’s life savings, in 1890, and used it to immigrate to England, then America. May worked as a prostitute in New York City. Next she moved to Chicago during the World’s Fair, in 1893, where she teamed up with another prostitute to rob clients — one did the robbing while the gent was “distracted” by the other. She also became adept at the “badger game,” a con in which married men were lured into sexually compromising situations, then blackmailed.

May and CharlieMay became romantically involved with the noted criminal Eddie Guerin and they traveled to Europe. (Not one to be outshone, Eddie published his autobiography in 1928). She and Eddie planned the robbery of an American Express office in Paris, but plans went awry and they ended up in prison. The pair reunited in London (May was released, Eddie escaped) where their relationship turned ugly and May took up with another crook named Robert Considine, alias Charlie Smith. An argument between the three, involving Eddie’s threats to slash May’s face, led to Eddie being shot in the foot. May and Charlie were convicted of attempted murder and sent to English prisons in 1907.

Her criminal heyday in the past, May returned to the United States after her 1917 prison release. She landed in Detroit, where, desperate for money, she worked as a common prostitute. May hoped her memoir would help her get back on her feet financially.

Though the engagement to Netley was bogus, May did plan to get married — to her old love and fellow crook, Robert. However she was taken ill before the nuptials could occur and she died in a Philadelphia hospital on May 30, 1929. At least 15 of her 57 years on earth had been spent in a prison cell.

Netley fared even worse than May. In 1931 he was convicted of trying to sell a fake biography of Queen Alexandra and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. The notoriety brought an end to his writing career and he spiraled into alcoholism. He was found dead in 1940, aged 37, in the partly burnt out living room of a house in Surry, England. No one mourned his passing.

They say what goes around comes around, so it seems fitting that crook books are back in style. Biographies of both Netley Lucas and Chicago May have been published in recent years.

Featured photo: news photo of Netley Lucas and Chicago May, announcing their engagement to be married on January 4, 1928. Collection of the author.

Other photos: Netley’s mugshot, Police Gazette, July 18, 1924; May’s mugshot, date and location unknown; May and Robert, The Evening Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, May 30, 1929.