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.

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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.

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.

 

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.