The Divine Miss Devine

The Divine Miss Devine

She gazes off in the distance with a look of calm confidence on her face. With her hair pulled tightly back from her forehead, a small curl nestling near her ear and delicate lace gloves on her hands, she appears to be the epitome of a beautiful and alluring antebellum woman.

It was in the late summer of 1859, when she sat weeping at the Philadelphia train depot. Her distress attracted the attention of a gentleman. He went over and asked if he could be of assistance. She told him her name was Carrie Bradford and she was the daughter of Captain Bradford of Washington. Her distress, she claimed, was due to the fact that she had no place to spend the night.

Her youth and attractive features did not go unnoticed by the gentleman. He was sympathetic to her situation — a woman of her class could not be left on her own in a big city like Philadelphia. Unscrupulous people might take advantage of her.

He took her to a nearby hotel and explained the situation to the proprietor, convincing him to let her stay. The next day she wrote a letter to her father in Washington and asked the proprietor to mail the letter for her. Then she went to see a dressmaker, Mary Ann Kent, at her shop on Lombard Street, a few blocks from the Delaware River.

At the shop she told Miss Kent that her brother had recently died in Montevideo, Uruguay. She explained that his funeral would be held in Philadelphia and she needed a beautiful black mourning dress. Miss Kent was also young — about the same age as her client. Although she did not know where Uruguay was, she was convinced by the story of the refined young woman. She took her measurements and began to work on the dress.

When the dress was ready the young woman returned to the shop and tried it on. It was stunning. She was very pleased with it — so pleased, in fact, that she decided to wear it out of the shop. She told Miss Kent to donate her old dress to “some poor person.”

This was odd, but Miss Kent didn’t question the decision of such a gracious woman. She also hoped the young lady would come back to the shop and order more expensive dresses.

The new dress cost the astonishing sum of $21.71 (about $625 nowadays). Of course she did not carry this amount of money in her purse. She asked for the bill to be sent to an address in West Philadelphia, where, she said, her father was staying temporarily.

Miss Kent let her walk out of the shop wearing the dress. She lived to regret it.

The young woman went next to the shop of an undertaker and told him the story of her dead brother in South America. She asked him to make a coffin for her brother’s funeral. The undertaker heard lots of sad stories in his line of work. He took the order, but checked the address she gave him before he started the work on the coffin. He discovered that no one knew “Miss Bradford” there. Naturally he did not make the coffin. Instead he reported her to the police.

“Carrie Bradford” was an alias, one of several that she used while staying without paying at various hotels around the City of Brotherly Love. As it turned out, Miss Kent was not the only business owner she had swindled.

The Philadelphia press covered the story of the sly woman con artist. The story was also carried in the papers in Baltimore and Brooklyn to serve as a warning to those in other cities.

In early September 1859 she appeared in court before Alderman Ogle, charged with obtaining goods under false pretenses.

2005.100.551.1Her real name was Mary Ann Devine, but it’s hard to say more precisely who she was. It’s likely she was a poor immigrant from Ireland who came to the Philadelphia when she was about ten years old, fleeing the terrible famines in her native land. She probably worked as a servant from dawn to dusk, six days and half days a week, for which she was paid a pittance. One day she realized that by making use of her good looks, imagination and acting abilities, she was a few easy lies away from eating meals in a nice hotel, sleeping in a soft bed and wearing a beautiful gown — unthinkable luxuries for someone like her!

Whether she ended her crime spree in 1859 is impossible to say.

Her photo is a police mugshot, one of the earliest taken in America. To explore more of the faces of people arrested between 1857 and 1861, check out “Rogues, a Study of Characters.” The collection is online at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her Clever Game

Her Clever Game

Emma Johnson was sentenced to the penitentiary this week in the Shawnee county district court, and her pal, E. Johnson, who claimed to be her husband, was sentenced to the Hutchinson Reformatory, the charge against both being forgery of a large number of small checks in Topeka recently. The checks were passed at Topeka stores. The woman is believed to have been the real leader in the enterprise. She is about twice as old as the man claiming to be her husband.

— The Merchants Journal, Topeka, Kansas, January 26, 1918

Part of the reason the game worked so well was its simplicity. Emma’s “husband” and “daughter” had real checks — the pay was honestly earned. But it was a simple proposition to forge the checks, making four or five checks from one, and presto: a week’s work became the wages of a month or more.

Emma went to stores in Topeka and asked the owners if they would mind cashing the checks for her. She looked honest and was well dressed and polite so most were happy to oblige. If they bothered to call at the hotel, where her “daughter” worked, or motor car company, where her “husband” was employed, to make sure everything was on the up and up, they were informed “yes, certainly” Mr. or Miss Johnson worked at the business.

They pulled the scam all over Topeka during the fall of 1917. Towards Christmas they thought they might be pushing their luck and headed out of town.

Hugh Latimer

Hugh Larimer, Kansas Historical Society

The merchants of Topeka weren’t happy about being scammed. It wasn’t right or fair and it made them look like dupes. They refused to sit by and do nothing, so they banded together and hired a private investigator from the Burns Detective Agency to try to track the criminals down. And track them he did, all the way to Oklahoma City, where Emma and the man who claimed to be her husband were arrested. The girl who posed as their daughter got away.

Hugh Larimer, the Shawnee County sheriff, took the couple into custody and charged them with forgery. The Burns detective informed Hugh that Emma and her young partner were also wanted for pulling the same check duplication scam in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The couple pleaded guilty to 3rd degree forgery.

Emma Johnson, alias Kaparis, was sentenced to between one and ten years at a new facility for women, the Kansas State Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. E. Johnson, alias L.S. Burgess, got a similar sentence to the state prison for men.

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Women gardeners in front of the vegetable storage cave at the Women’s Industrial Farm in 1936. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

Emma became the farm’s 36th prisoner on February 8, 1918. Her date of release is unknown because many of the records of the farm no longer exist.

Featured photo: glass plate negative of Emma Johnson, prisoner 36, of the Women’s Industrial Farm in Lansing, Kansas. Collection of the Kansas Historical Society.

 

 

The Badger Game

The Badger Game

Old-fashioned terms for crime can be confusing. When Lillie Bates was arrested in New York City on June 17, 1909, the officers listed her crime as simply “Badger.” Did that mean she was caught mistreating a short-legged, furry, mammal that hunts at night? Probably not. More than likely it meant she was involved in a criminal enterprise called “the badger game.”

The badger game involved a woman and her male accomplice, and it was actually the accomplice who was the “badger.” The game was often a venomous combintion of crimes, including prostitution, robbery, con game and extortion.

The female in the partnership posed as a reputable woman who was down on her luck and therefore willing to have a sexual encounter with an “old married man with the appearance of honor and wealth.” She got him into her bedroom, which had a secret panel cut in one of the walls. Here’s a description of what often happened next:

She fastens the door and will permit nothing until the lamp is extinguished. The very respectable gentleman lays his clothes carelessly upon a chair, together with his watch and well-filled purse, and the hour of pleasure begins. But the woman’s accomplice is outside the partition and at a signal from her he knows that the time for him to take action has arrived. Silently he opens the secret door. Light as a cat the “badger” passes through it, with his usual dexterity begins to examine carefully all the clothes of the victim as they lie on the chair, far from the bed. The darkness of the room facilitates his work. Very soon he has got possession of all that is of any value and he creeps back through the opening. The door shuts as noiselessly as it was opened. The object of the two is attained and now it only remains to set free the plucked bird without any disturbance. As soon as the “respectable gentleman” begins to dress someone knocks at the door. The “respectable gentleman” gets alarmed. His companion does the same; she urges him to dress as quickly as possible, and go out by the back door, for it is quite certain that her husband, or father, or brother, as the case may be, has returned and wants to come in.

— The Dark Side of New York Life and Its Criminal Classes, Gustav Lening, 1873

Hopefully the victim left the house so quickly that he didn’t check to see if all his valuables were where he kept them.

Variations on the badger game were plentiful. All of them required acting talent along with a boatload of nerve. Sometimes there was no secret panel and the male accomplice simply stormed into the room, claiming to be the woman’s outraged husband, fists cocked and ready for a fight unless he was financially compensated. Sometimes the couple threatened to reveal the victim’s transgression to his family unless he paid up.

NPG.James Alba Bostwick.undated

Sophie Lyons, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s, Inc.

Sophie Lyons, the “queen” of nineteenth century crime, was an adept practitioner of the badger game. She was so good at it that she sometimes pulled it off without a “badger.” In 1878 she finally got caught after she lured a well-respected, elderly lawyer to her Boston hotel room with the promise of sex, got him to undress, then locked his clothes in her trunk.

She forced him to write her a check for $1000 ($24,215 in 2018), and told him he’d get his clothes back after she returned from the bank with the money. She locked the door on her way out so he couldn’t call the police.

Officials at the bank were suspicious of such a large check and called the police, who escorted Sophie back to the hotel. There they found her naked victim. She claimed she was his long-standing mistress. He refused to prosecute due to the shame it would have brought him. “She was so bewitching and fascinating that I could not help it,” he sheepishly remarked.

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I found no record of a Lillie or Lillian Bates’ arrest or conviction. Was “Fred,” whose name was tattooed on her arm, the badger? Was her victim a well-known man who was too embarrassed to press charges? We’ll never know the details of how she played the badger game. Ten months after her arrest, when the 1910 census was taken in New York City, there was no one named Lillie Bates living in the city.

Featured photo: Bertillon card photos of Lillie Bates, June 17, 1909, New York Municipal Archives.

 

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. 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 Surrey, 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.