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.

 

 

 

 

 

Cunning Conning Mugging

Cunning Conning Mugging

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., May 30. — Isma Martin, one of the most famous swindlers in the country, is wanted here for swindling Grand Rapids people out of $2,000 by a bicycle swindling scheme. She is the woman who robbed Mrs. Frank Leslie out of $8,000 worth of diamonds. She is a native of Detroit, and first came before the public there by shoplifting in Mabley’s store.

 

This was in 1893. In 1894 she was a reporter on the World. She returned Mrs. Leslie’s diamonds and was not prosecuted. Afterward she turned up in Denver, Colo., where she was arrested for forgery. She, through influence of her wealthy relatives in Detroit, secured her liberty. She came to Grand Rapids four months ago and entered good society, becoming a chum of Miss Gertrude Anderson, a government employee. She used Miss Anderson to secure orders for bicycles from her male friends, saying that her brother in Cleveland was a manufacturer of bicycles and she could get them $100 wheels at half the price. Every order Miss Anderson took from her had to be accompanied by the money. She got $1000 this way and fled.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 31, 1897

You know the old adage — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The trusting Miss Anderson and her friends apparently never heard the phrase, or if they did, they forgot to take it to heart. They found out the hard way when they were bilked out of $1000 in May 1897.

Moral: never trust a smooth-talking con woman who claims she can get you a bicycle (or anything else) at cost!

Ismena Theresa Martin, known as “Isma” was the middle child of seven, born to Irish immigrants Joseph Martin and Fanny Brennan Martin, on March 15, 1871, in Detroit, Michigan. The family prospered in America — Isma’s father started out as a bricklayer but worked as the sewer inspector for Detroit by the time he died of a heart attack in October 1896. His death may have been hastened by emotional distress over his daughter’s criminal misadventures.

Isma’s illegal activities stretched back to 1890 when she stole mortgaged furniture and china in Saginaw, Michigan. She showed up with a small girl at the railroad depot, claiming the child was hers and they were destitute and in need of railroad tickets. She got the tickets, using the furniture as security, all while using an alias — her mother’s maiden name.

In 1895 Isma was “working” as a reporter in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was given access to a valuable diamond brooch and asked to write an advertising copy about the item. Instead she tried to make off with the jewelry, but the theft was discovered and she was fired. Another favorite scam of Isma’s was to get into the good graces of wealthy individuals, often by claiming to be a distant relative. She’d move into her mark’s home and head out to upscale stores and obtain expensive items on credit (false pretenses) by virtue of her connection to her rich benefactor. By the time the ruse was discovered she was long gone.

When Isma’s misdeeds were uncovered, her family in Detroit paid her victims off to keep her out of the courts. Generally if the victim got his or her money or valuables back, they didn’t prosecute. Her criminal activities were written up so frequently in the Detroit Free Press during the 1890s that often the only headline the paper used was “Isma Martin Again.”

Isma fell into the clutches of the police, in Covington, Kentucky, in 1897, for the bicycle scam, and they decided she needed to be photographed, or “mugged.” She objected, supposedly based on advice from her attorney. The “Michigan adventuress fights like a tiger when an effort is made to photograph her” was a newspaper description of the chaotic scene. An officer had to work hard to keep Isma from breaking things up in the Bertillon room, but between “fights and twisting” the photographer got a photo. Unfortunately it was not of much use for identification, though a reporter noted that, “Miss Martin is far from pretty, but she has an intellectual face.”

womeninprison18992

Female prisoners at the Detroit House of Correction in 1899.

Sentenced to 18 months in the Detroit House of Correction for grand larceny, Isma applied for parole in 1898, claiming she was dying of a toothache. Parole was denied. Released in February 1899, she headed to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan “to engage in literary work at the up-lake resorts.” This working interlude was cut short when her typewriter and bicycle had to be confiscated to pay her bills.

Perhaps getting “mugged” in 1897 inspired Isma to go straight. Or maybe it was that stint in the Detroit HOC. At any rate, she stayed out of prison after 1899. Her obituary noted that she worked, under the name I.T. Martin, as a Catholic Correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, but there was no mention of her criminal career. She even wrote a couple of books. She never married and died of a stroke in Detroit on October 6, 1931.

Featured photo: Isma Martin, half-length portrait of criminal for police identification purposes, seated, facing front, 1897. Bail Collection, Library of Congress.