Sophie Lyons at the Fair

Sophie Lyons at the Fair

We have in jail again one of whom perhaps a few here and in Detroit and Jackson have heard. Her name is Sophie Lyons, and she has been returned from the Work house for a new trial. She has already cost the county a large sum of money in the two trials she has had and the case may be taken to another court or perhaps not again prosecuted here. However it is to be hoped that no pains or money will be spared in giving this noted outlaw her just deserts. It would not be a bad reputation for Washtenaw County that it was a hard one for criminals.

— Ann Arbor Courier, July 13, 1883

Ann Arbor, 38 miles directly west of Detroit, is the seat of Washtenaw County and home to the University of Michigan. Founded in 1824 by East Coast land speculators, Ann Arbor has agricultural roots, but by the 1880s it was a flourishing town populated by well-to-do citizens.

Ann Arbor hosted the 33rd Washtenaw County Fair during the first week of October 1881. The fair gave farmers a place to display their harvest bounty and compete for cash prizes. “There were ninety entries of poultry, about sixty of sheep, 165 of fruit and sixty-five of grain and seeds.” Oxen, swine, horses, “fat cattle” and steer were also on display, along with flowers, butter, cheeses and sweetmeats. There was even a competition for the prettiest baby. Purses of between $40 and $150 were offered in a variety of horseraces. A hot air “balloon ascension” was another feature that drew in the crowds.

The atmosphere was festive despite the cold, rainy weather that dogged the fair during its first two days. However on the third day the weather improved and the crowds swelled. Harriet Cornwell, the elderly wife of a wealthy paper mill owner, attended the fair that Thursday.

Harriet was in the Floral Hall when a lady wearing a broad-brimmed hat with a veil stopped and asked her if she’d dropped her handkerchief. Harriet wasn’t sure but after checking, she discovered that she had. The woman offered to find it for her. Harriet wasn’t in good health and she gladly accepted the kind offer. The woman asked bystanders to move back so she could locate the hanky. After she located it and handed it to Harriet, she left so quickly she seemed to have vanished into thin air. Harriet didn’t even get a chance to thank the stranger for her kindness.

It wasn’t until after she got back home that Harriet noticed her gold watch and chain were missing. She thought the watch and chain might have been stolen at the fair, so she reported it to the police. She didn’t associate the loss with the veiled woman who’d retrieved her handkerchief.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Andrew Rogers of the Detroit Police was busy seizing packages sent to Sophie Lyons’ housekeeper. Many of the packages contained valuable watches and jewelry. Sophie told friends she’d gone to Cleveland to attend President Garfield’s funeral, but Rogers believed she’d really gone to put her talents as a pickpocket to use.

One of the packages the Detroit police intercepted was sent from Ann Arbor. It contained Harriet Cornwell’s gold watch and chain.

washtenaw court house 1877

Washtenaw County Court House, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Sophie was charged with “larceny from the person” for the theft of Harriet’s valuables. She was placed on trial at the Washtenaw County Court House.

The prosecutors had to prove Sophie was at the fair in Ann Arbor on the day the watch and chain were stolen. This was difficult because she wore a hat and veil wherever she went, including in the courtroom during her trials. Some witnesses were certain they had seen her in Ann Arbor. Others  weren’t so sure. Her defense attorneys had witnesses who knew her and testified that she’d been in Detroit the day the watch was stolen.

Sophie veiled hat

Sophie Lyons in one of her unusual veiled hats; 1887 mugshot photo taken in St. Louis, MO

According to the prosecutor, when the judge ordered Sophie to show her face to a witness, she “sprang like a panther, tore her wrappings from her head and face and rushed to the witness, thrusting her face close up” to the witness’s face. She kept her back to the courtroom and immediately replaced the hat and veil after the witness got a look at her.

Sophie was volatile in court — at times she cried, asking who would care for her children if she went to prison. Other times she threatened violence against prosecution witnesses. She had a sharp tongue and seemed to enjoy using it.

Theresa Lewis was called as a witness, but her credibility was damaged when her role as a confidential informant for the police was revealed.

Sophie’s trials in Ann Arbor attracted large crowds. Many attended hoping to hear her fling insults at Theresa or even see the two women brawling with one another. Sophie accused Theresa of stealing things from her home while she’d been a tenant. At one point the judge ordered Sophie and Theresa to stand next to each other. Sophie took the opportunity to bash into Theresa, sending her flying across the courtroom.

DeHoCo

Stereoview of cells and passage in the Detroit House of Corrections, ca. 1880; NYPL

The prosecution prevailed and Sophie was convicted of stealing Harriet’s watch and chain in March 1882. She was sent to the Detroit House of Correction but released seven months later when the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the conviction. She was was tried again and convicted a second time, in February 1883, and sent to the DeHoCo again. The Supreme Court overturned her second conviction in July 1883.

Her money exhausted and her health poor after two incarcerations, she begged the judge to drop the charges, but he refused. Her final trial in Ann Arbor was held in March 1884. She was found not guilty at the third trial, however her legal troubles weren’t over yet.

She was immediately held in Detroit on charges related to pickpocketing in Cleveland. However by then Theresa, who was also an important witness in that case, was suffering from cancer. After many postponements, the charges were dropped when Theresa died in May 1886. Sophie then left Detroit and headed to other large cities where her face was less well known.

sohpie lyons author marked

Sophie Lyons, author photo, ca. 1913

Thomas Byrnes, Chief of Detectives in New York City, published Professional Criminals of America in 1886. Byrnes described the 204 criminals he considered to be the most dangerous individuals in America. Sophie was one of only ­­­18 women to make the cut. He noted in her bio that she had been recently “convicted at Ann Harbor, Michigan” but his information was already out of date.

Sophie spent the next 20 years shoplifting, pickpocketing, robbing banks and blackmailing people all over the Midwest (except Michigan), the East Coast, Canada and Europe, but ultimately she returned to her home in Detroit. By the early 20th century Sophie claimed she’d reformed and even published a memoir, titled Why Crime Does Not Pay. Though she had given up crime, her substantial fortune came almost entirely from her earlier criminal activities and the irony of her book’s title was certainly deliberate.

If Sophie ever made another visit to Ann Arbor after 1884, she kept it quiet. No doubt she wanted to avoid the town where she was put on trial three times for the same crime — it was a record for her and not one she would have bragged about.

She died in 1924 at Grace Hospital after collapsing of a stroke in her home. Her cremains were buried next to those of her favorite child, Carleton Mason (who spent most of his life in Seattle, steering clear of his mother and her notorious reputation) at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery.

Featured Photo: mugshot of Sophie Lyons from Professional Criminals of America by Thomas Byrnes, 1886.