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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

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.

Tube Room Hustler

Tube Room Hustler

Detective Raphael of Police Headquarters late last night arrested Sadie Schoen, 18 years old, a saleswoman, of 728 East Ninth Street. According to Inspector McCafferty, the girl got $60 from a department store by a method that is new, and in this case effective.

The New York Times, June 27, 1908

The morning of April 25, 1908, began like any other day at the large dry goods store on Broadway in New York City. The store had been open for a while and was starting to get busy. Dorothy Fuller, the cashier in the millinery department, was at her register behind the counter when a young woman she didn’t recognize walked up to her and started a conversation.

“Mr. Eck told me to ask you how much cash you have on hand,” said the woman.

“Why there is just $60 here,” Dorothy replied after an inspection of her cash drawer.

“All right. Mr. Eck said you’re to give it to me. I’ll take it to him to check up.”

The store was a large one and Dorothy didn’t know all the employees but she knew Mr. Eck was the supervisor of the tube room. She also knew that sometimes he needed cash moved from one location to another in the store. The woman in front of her was confident and nicely dressed. Because of that, along with the fact that she wasn’t wearing a hat, Dorothy assumed she was a store employee and she handed over the money without question.

The woman thanked Dorothy and left, presumably headed to the tube room. Dorothy had a customer waiting so she got back to work.

Instead of going to the tube room, the woman went back to the saleswomen’s dressing room where she’d left her hat and coat, picked up her belongings and quickly left the store with the cash.

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The tube room in a Hartford department store, circa 1920. Connecticut Historical Society museum & library.

The tube room, located in the dark basement of the store, was where communication about customer payment went back and forth via a pneumatic tube system. The customer’s money or a request to pay by credit was sent to the centralized tube room. A tube room employee, usually a poorly paid young woman, checked the credit status of the customer using a card index and approved the purchase or not. The tube room girl also made change, prepared receipts and sent everything back via the tube to the salesperson. However cash registers like Dorothy’s were also used on the sales floor for customers who had cash, were in a hurry and didn’t need a receipt.

It took detectives two months to find the young woman who made off with the $60.

Sadie Schoen laughed when Detective Raphael of the NYPD visited her at home on June 25th and told her she was wanted for swindling. She told him he was mistaken. What she didn’t know was that he’d brought Dorothy Fuller along with him and Dorothy had identified Sadie as the woman who’d tricked her by pretending to be a tube room employee.

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Born in Austria to Yiddish-speaking parents, Sadie immigrated to the United States when she was two years old. The police photographed her in her beautiful hat and later she was arraigned for swindling at Centre Street Police Court in lower Manhattan.

By 1910, according to the federal census, Sadie boarded with an Austrian family in a lower east side tenement and worked as a feather duster maker. After her 1912 marriage she and her husband raised a family in the Bronx.

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The police court where Sadie was criminally charged was in “The Police Building” at 240 Centre Street. Constructed in the Beaux-Arts style between 1905 and 1909, the building also housed NYPD headquarters until 1973. After sitting empty for 15 years it was converted into luxury residences. Now a popular home base for celebrities, an apartment there was recently listed for sale for $15,500,00, with a monthly maintenance fee of $12,533. That’s a whole lot of tube room cash.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Sadie Schoen, June 25, 1908, New York Municipal Archives.

Brooklyn Bad Fortune

Brooklyn Bad Fortune

Bessie Globllo, 28, a gypsy of 361 S. 3rd St., was held without bail for a hearing Thursday in Brooklyn Felony Court on a charge of attempted grand larceny yesterday by Magistrate Cullen.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York), January 20, 1947

Brooklyn resident Rosa Rivera had her fortune told on Thursday, January 16, 1947. During the session Rosa mentioned to the fortune teller that she had $800 socked away in her bank account. The fortune teller told Rosa to go to the bank, remove the cash, bring it home, place salt on it, wrap it in a handkerchief and put the bundle under her pillow. In three days time, the fortune teller claimed, the total amount of cash would be miraculously increased!

The fortune teller stopped by Rosa’s place three days later to check on how the cash expansion was progressing. Rosa, meanwhile, had gotten suspicious about the fortune teller’s financial advice and she’d called the police. Detectives were waiting for the fortune teller when she arrived.

Fortune telling was then and still is illegal in New York if the fortune teller charges a fee (tips are allowed) unless it’s performed as part of an act in a show or exhibition. However police suspected the fortune teller had bigger plans and intended to steal Rosa’s $800. They arrested her for attempted grand larceny.

The “gypsy,” as she was described in the news, was Bessie Globllo or Golobillo and she had a police record dating back to 1929 when she was only seven years old. The magistrate ordered her held without bail.

Globllo or Golobillo aren’t real surnames, so unless the police totally botched the spelling of her last name, Bessie gave them an alias. Who was she?

One useful item from the news reports of the case was that Bessie lived at 361 South 3rd Street in Brooklyn, New York. I searched the 1940 federal census for a woman named “Bessie,” who was born around 1920 and lived in Brooklyn at house number “361.” And, almost like magic, there she was.

Bessie GloblloShe was not, as it turned out, a Romani woman. Her real name was Bessie Topchevsky and she was born in New York in 1922. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland or Russia who arrived in the U.S. in 1917. In 1940 she was a single 18-year-old living with her parents and an older brother and younger sister. She’d completed eighth grade and had a full time job working with “radio parts” (possibly assembly) in the wholesale radio industry.

The NYPD began taking “stand-up” mugshots in 1918. These photos showed the person’s full body, not just the head and shoulders. According to the New York Department of Records, they were used for “recidivist criminals or those accused of a major crime.” Bessie fit both categories.

In her stand-up mug shot, Bessie is well dressed in what looks like a real fur coat and pearls. The fortune telling business must have been booming.

I’d love to know more about Bessie and if the charge against her stuck. Since she didn’t actually steal Rosa’s money it seems likley that the police wanted to scare her away from fortune telling more than put her in prison, but there was no further mention of her or the case in the newspapers.

Featured photo: Bessie Globllo, January 19, 1947, New York Municipal Archives.

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.

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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.

Male Fraud

Male Fraud

SEATTLE, Nov. 11 — Maggie Snyder, Patrick Snyder and Lester Levins were arrested this morning by a deputy marshal and two hours later were indicted by the United States Grand Jury and charged with conducting an illegal marriage bureau and fraudulently securing many thousands of dollars through the mails. Snyder conducts a mattress factory here and the other two run the bureau. The scheme was to get a man of means in communication with a woman located somewhere on the coast. After some correspondence regarding marriage the woman usually wrote she was ill and begged for money to be sent to her. Nearly all the victims have been from Western Washington.

The San Francisco Call, November 12, 1905

An article in the Huffington Post titled “How a Billion-Dollar Internet Scam is Breaking Hearts and Bank Accounts” serves as a reminder that some scams never die; they simply morph over time as technology changes. The criminals described in the article steal photos of actual people and use the photos to create fake Facebook profiles to trick lonely individuals into believing they are real people in search of a romantic relationship. Once the victim is hooked, she’s told a sob story and asked for cash — repeatedly. One woman lost two million dollars to the thieving scammers.

One hundred years before Facebook launched, Maggie Snyder and two male “colleagues” were arrested for a running a scam marriage bureau that targeted men as victims, in 1905. They advertised in Washington state newspapers, offering a “fine line” of young women, all of who claimed to be anxious to marry a lonely bachelor. At the time, women were in short supply in the state.

Fake matrimonial bureaus, such as the one run by Maggie, were similar to the current romance-for-money scam. The bureaus were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both men and women were the targets of such criminal operations.

In the case of Maggie’s bureau, the men exchanged letters with young ladies who supposedly lived somewhere on the west coast. Once a man was hooked, his “fiancée” asked for money to be mailed to her because she was ill or to help her pay her railroad fare — excuses varied. After the money was received the lady mysteriously disappeared. Of course the women never actually existed; Maggie and her cronies wrote the letters and collected the cash.

After receiving more than a dozen complaints from men who’d been duped and robbed, the Seattle police arrested Maggie, Patrick and Lester and charged them with mail fraud on November 12, 1905. Of the three, only 40-year-old Maggie got prison time. She was sentenced to a year at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary on January 23, 1906. She was also charged a $100 fine and court costs. Given the primitive state of that prison in the early 20th century, Maggie’s stay, particularly since she was one of the only women convicts, would not have been a pleasant one.

Nowadays middle-aged women are often the targets of fake romance scams and many of the criminals live and operate outside the United States. The use of Facebook and other social media makes these criminals hard to trace. While the method of communication has evolved with technology, the basic human instinct to trust others, along with the need for love and companionship haven’t changed, so the scam continues in a modern form.

Featured photo: Maggie Snyder, McNeil Island Penitentiary Prisoner Identification Photographs, NARA Pacific Alaska Region.