Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.

The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905

With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.

Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.

Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.

In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.

He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.

On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.

Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.

Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.

As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.

With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.

On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.

Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.

The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.

When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.

Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.

Valentine1

Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.

After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.

The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.

Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.

Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New Jersey Noir

New Jersey Noir

Mrs. Emogene Hurst, 27-year-old expectant mother, has been indicted for murder in the shooting of her husband which police said was brought about by a lover’s triangle.

The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), August 29, 1951

The news photo of Emogene Hurst and her lover, James “Reds” Moore, was shot in the most unflattering way possible. The room is dark and a bright light on the floor provides the only illumination. Dark shadows menacingly engulf the couple. But the film noir feel was appropriate, because Emogene and Reds were in every bit as much trouble as Walter and Phyllis, the murderous pair glamorously portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the noir classic “Double Indemnity.”

Emogene’s husband, 38-year-old Harrison Hurst, was found dead in his bed in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on the morning of July 9, 1951. He had a single gunshot wound to his head. The gun was lying in a pool of blood on the floor next to the bed. It looked like a straightforward suicide until a police investigator started poking around and asking questions. Emogene didn’t help herself when, rather than crying, she laughed and got drunk at her husband’s funeral. Then she proceeded to sit on Reds’ knee and kiss him. People noticed and they talked.

The police took a second look and decided Harrison’s demise wasn’t due to suicide but rather it was murder.

They took Emogene in for questioning and brought in the Reverend Maurice Ragan to assist in the interrogation. Ragan was, very conveniently, both a man of the cloth and an officer of the law. He advised Emogene to sign a statement admitting that she shot her husband because “a sinner who repented would be rewarded.” Emogene, who was born and raised in a small, rural community in Tennessee and never went beyond the 8th grade in school, admitted to her affair with Reds and signed a confession that she’d shot her husband.

However she claimed Harrison beat her and threatened to “blow her brains out.” Fearing for her life, she said she got his gun and shot him while he slept.

Harrison was also a native of Tennessee and Emogene was his second wife. They were married in 1943, shortly after he was released from the Tennessee State Prison. She was 18 and he was 30 when they tied the knot. After the marriage the couple moved to New Jersey, where Harrison was jailed for robbing a filling station and for breaking and entering.

Emogene’s confession was the main legal evidence against her in her murder trial. But her height, said to be almost six feet, and weight, somewhere between 230 and 250 lbs., were mentioned in nearly every news article. When a fellow inmate at the jail tried to spruce up her appearance by curling her hair, it was noted by the newsmen. It was rumored, incorrectly, that she was pregnant when she was arrested.

The state anticipated that if found guilty, Emogene would have a chance to get cozy with “Old Smokey,” the infamous New Jersey state prison electric chair in which Bruno Richard Hauptmann lost his life after he was convicted of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.

The Hursts took boarders into their home to supplement their income. Reds was one of the boarders, along with a man named Dana Nelon and a woman, Annabelle Connor. At the trial it came out that Emogene and Reds were not the only ones in the Hurst home carrying on an extramarital affair. Emogene testified that both her husband and Dana were having relations with Annabelle, who was allegedly recovering from injuries she’d sustained in a car accident. Apparently Annabelle had enough energy for a bit of fun while she recuperated.

Jury gets Emogene Hurst case. Photo. Love letters. - Newspapers.At her trial Emogene renounced her confession, claiming it was “wrung out of her” after hours of police questioning. Emogene testified that Dana shot Harrison in an argument over Annabelle’s affections after a night of heavy drinking and partying. She said she was sitting outside her house when Dana came up to her and said “Go inside and you’ll see your man making love to my woman,” shortly before he shot Harrison. Later she saw him cleaning the blood off his fingers with lighter fluid.

Dana countered that Emogene woke him early in the morning, claiming there was “something wrong with her husband.” Upon investigation he found Harrison dead in bed with a bullet wound to his head. He said that Emogene pulled the gun out from under her apron and laid it in the pool of blood on the floor. Why she would incriminate herself in front of her boarder was never explained.

It was Reds who sealed Emogene’s fate when he testified that several days prior to the shooting she showed him the gun and asked him to use it to kill Harrison. “But I told her I wouldn’t do anything like that,” he testified. She was found guilty of first-degree murder, but the Cumberland County jury recommended mercy. Instead of facing “Old Smokey” she was sentenced to life in prison on January 23, 1952.

After more than 14 years in the Clinton Reformatory, Emogene Hurst was paroled in November 1966. She was 41 years old. The other characters in the saga of the murder of Harrison Hurst had long since faded into the woodwork.

Featured photo: news photo of Emogene Hurst and James “Reds” Moore, taken on August 14, 1951. Collection of the author.

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.

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.

Sophie_first mug

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.

Garfield funeral Cleveland

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 Galloping Cow and the Boy She Threw

The Galloping Cow and the Boy She Threw

Philomena Falkner, alias Mary Rinehardt, accused of throwing a little boy from the second-story window of a house on Broadway, was before the Police Court yesterday, but the case was continued until Thursday, the boy not being able to appear.

The San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 1876

On the afternoon of November 29, 1876, a woman known in San Francisco as the “Galloping Cow,” apparently due to her awkward walk, tried to kill a six-year-old boy.

Sisto “Thomas” Drolet and his older brother, John, were in the woman’s neighborhood on the edge of the Barbary Coast  selling ducks. She invited the boys up to her room, allegedly to discuss a sale, but instead she picked Thomas up, held him for a moment and, after remarking “What a pretty boy,” she abruptly threw him out the window. He fell to the street below and was severely injured, with a fracture to his skull.

Two months later the woman was tried in the San Francisco Municipal Criminal Court. Thomas had recovered enough by then to appear in court as a witness. Her defense lawyer claimed that at the time of the assault she was not responsible because she had been drinking for many days and was driven insane by the amount of alcohol she’d consumed. Drinking to excess was a way of life in the Barbary Coast, so the jury didn’t buy the argument. They returned a verdict of guilty of assault to murder.

She was sent to California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, on February 5, 1877, where she was one of only a handful of female prisoners.

Mary Reinhardt SQ record1-2

According to the prison register, her true name was Mary Reinhardt and she was a 31-year-old German-born seamstress. She had a light complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and was 5 feet 8 inches tall, with “large features.” She was missing one of her front teeth. The register made no mention of a foot or leg deformity that might have caused her to walk in an unusual manner. She served most of her two-year sentence and was released on October 5, 1878.

In February 1880, a woman described as a “strapping amazon” who was “sailing under the sobriquet of the Galloping Cow” got very drunk on “coffin varnish” after visiting several saloons in Fresno, 200 miles southeast of San Francisco. She became unruly and gave vent to a stream of obscene language, so a policeman was called. In the process arresting her, she pulled out a clump of his hair “sufficient to construct a small-sized mattress.” He finally got her into bracelets and hauled her off to jail. She was found guilty of being drunk and disorderly and sent to the county jail for 3 months. It seems likely that this woman was Mary Reinhardt, though she was not mentioned by name.

Thomas Drolet mugshots 3Thomas Drolet, Mary’s young victim, was born in 1871 in San Francisco to a Chilean-born father, Juan Antone Drolet, and Johanna Ahern, a native of County Cork, Ireland. The family was a large one, with twelve children in total, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

When Thomas was 22 he stole a barrel of whiskey that was sitting outside a wholesale dealer’s place of business on California Street. The barrel was so large it was described as holding two thousand drinks. A policeman saw Thomas roll the barrel to a side street so he arrested him and returned the barrel to its owner.

Before he went to trial for the whiskey theft he tried to steal a sack of sugar from outside the Cluff Brothers store at Front and Pine Streets. Again he was caught in the act, arrested and charged with petty larceny.

In court Thomas’s mother, Johanna, pleaded with the judge to have mercy on her son, saying that the head injury he’d suffered as a child had caused long-lasting damage. She argued that he wasn’t responsible for his actions. The court wasn’t sympathetic to her argument because if he had succeeded, Thomas would have benefited financially from his crimes. He was convicted of grand larceny and sent to San Quentin for a three-year term on December 8, 1893.

After his release from prison Thomas’s life continued on a downward trajectory. He served a second term in San Quentin. After his wife, Josephine, made several unsuccessful suicide attempts, she took their two small children and divorced him in 1899. According to an article in the San Francisco Call, by the time of the divorce Thomas was a “confirmed thief” whose childhood head injury had turned him into a “driveling idiot” and a “Chinatown bum.”

Thomas died in 1903, aged 32, of cystitis and kidney stones. He’s buried with his parents and some of his siblings at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California.

San Francisco policeman Jesse Brown Cook kept a copy of Mary’s undated mugshot, titled “Philomena Falkner, alias the Galloping Cow” in the San Francisco crime scrapbooks he made in the early 20th century. In addition to describing her assault on “a boy who was selling wild ducks,” he also claimed she was a “pickpocket from the Barbary Coast.” I found no evidence that she was arrested for pickpocketing or explanation of why she sometimes went by the name “Philomena Falkner.”

Featured photo: Philomena Falkner, alias the “Galloping Cow,” from the Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks Documenting San Francisco History and Law Enforcement. UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Mugshots of Thomas Drolet: California State Archives; Sacramento, California; Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 15698-15949

 

Gypsy’s Lament

Gypsy’s Lament

With her hands burned to a crisp and scarcely an inch of her body that is not frightfully charred Mrs. Mary Mills, commonly known as “Mother Mills,” lies at her home in the tenderloin district, on lower D street, suffering intense pain and with probably but a few more hours to live. “Mother Mills” is over eighty years old and now she is dying from injuries inflicted by a girl called “Gyp,” whom she has sheltered and given such a home as a First street house can afford.

— The San Bernardino County Sun (California), August 25, 1901

San Bernardino is a beautiful city in southern California, nestled in the San Bernardino Valley — “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God” — as native peoples originally called it. The city dates to the 1860s, when pioneers arrived in covered wagons. Most of the travelers were male and soon a thriving business in prostitution was established in San Bernardino. For years city officials passed laws to try to control and even eliminate prostitution, but the laws were often ignored. Prostitution was popular with many of the citizens and it also provided an economic base and a “prime source of cash” for years, according to writer Harvey Kahn.

Prostitution also had countless human costs. It played a major role in a horrendous tragedy that occurred in San Bernardino in 1901.

 

San_Bernardinos

San Bernardino’s “D” street, ca.1905. California Historical Society Collection.

At about 8 p.m. on a sweltering Saturday night in late August, Mary “Mother” Mills ran screaming from an “assignation house” (see note at the end of the story) on D Street. Her head and clothing were covered in flames that were described as “cooking her flesh.” Born in Ireland, she was 76 years old and had owned a number of San Bernardino “sporting houses” over the course of her long career, which was said to date back to the early years of the city’s existence.

Mother Mills collapsed on the ground, writhing in pain. Help arrived shortly, but it was several minutes before the flames were completely extinguished. She was carried back into the house, laid carefully on a cot and a doctor was summoned. It took some time for him to locate an unburned section of her body in which to inject morphine in an effort to reduce her suffering from the burns that covered her body. Due to the extent of her injuries, she was not expected to recover.

The San Bernardino police took Gypsy Adams into custody that night and charged her with the attempted murder of Mother Mills. Gypsy or “Gyp” as she was known, was a middle-aged inmate of the brothel where Mother Mills also lived. She was known for her volatile temper and addictions to alcohol and opium. The other prostitutes in the house tried to prevent her from taking an oil lamp into her room, because she had a history of throwing things when she got angry. They feared that someday, in a fit of temper, she would burn the house down. Instead she apparently had thrown a lighted lamp at Mother Mills and burned her down. Mother Mills succumbed to her injuries the following day.

Gypsy had no lawyer at her arraignment a few days later, so she represented herself. One of the witnesses that day was 26-year-old Bessie Turner, who, according to the 1900 census was the head of the brothel where Gypsy lived. “You’re a dope fiend, ain’t you,” Gypsy inquired of Bessie. “No, I ain’t,” snapped Bessie, who one reporter described as having “blood in her eye, that even paled the rouge on her cheeks.” The women exchanged insults and curses, until finally Bessie grabbed the judge’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy’s head. It missed Gypsy and landed on the leg of a police officer. However her demonstration of temper and willingness to throw objects in anger did not deflect suspicion for the murder from Gypsy to Bessie. Gypsy was charged with murdering Mother Mills and held for trial.

An African-American prostitute named Kate Parker, who lived in the brothel next door, was the first person on the scene after Mother Mills ran out of the house. She testified at Gypsy’s trial that Mother said “Gyp hit me with a lamp. Look at my forehead,” as Kate ran towards her to help. The testimony was objected to as hearsay and it wasn’t allowed at trial. However the judge allowed in statements allegedly made by Mother Mills about how she had befriended Gypsy when others had spurned her.

Gypsy testified that she had eaten about half a pound of opium and she was so crazed by the drug that she didn’t know what happened the night Mother Mills caught fire.

The jury was convinced of Gypsy’s guilt but was torn between whether it was first or second degree murder. First degree would have meant a mandatory death sentence. They chose instead to find her guilty of murder in the second degree with a recommendation for mercy. She was sentenced to 25 years in the California State Prison at San Quentin.

Born in Louisiana, Gypsy’s age at the time of her trial was reported to be somewhere between 28 and 37 years. No one knew much about her background and she disclosed very little about herself. Her real name was rumored to be Mary DeSilva and it was said that she was of Creole ancestry.

According to the 1900 and 1910 federal census records, Gypsy was born around 1863 in Louisiana to a Portuguese-born father and a mother born in Ireland. No one of that description appears on the 1870 census under the name “Mary DeSilva” or “Gypsy Adams” or any variations of those names. It’s possible her family slipped through the cracks and didn’t get counted or possibly both names were aliases.

Gypsy or Mary or whatever her name was, left Louisiana and wound up in Chicago. Using the name Maria Desylva she married Timothy McCarthy, a man she later claimed was her uncle, in March 1882. She and Timothy had a son, also named Timothy, in 1884. She stated later that her husband was a policeman and he was killed in the Haymarket riot on May 4, 1886, despite the fact no one of that name appears in the Illinois death index for that date. She had another child in 1888, George McCarthy, who only lived a few months. Obviously if her husband died in 1886 he could not have been the father of George. After George died, in 1888, Gypsy put her son Timothy in an orphanage and headed west.

Next there’s an eight year gap in her timeline, until she appeared in the news in 1896 when she was jailed as a “vagrant and lewd person” in San Pedro, California. Immediately after she was released from jail she went to Los Angeles where, under the name Mary Jacinta De Sylva, she married a Michigan native named William Tossell. Strangely William was employed as both a barber and jeweler. In 1899 he signed up to fight in the Spanish-American War which effectively ended the marriage — Gypsy claimed he’d abandoned her. By 1900 she’d moved to the San Bernardino brothel. She was divorced from William Tossell in 1902.

Gypsy Adams all

California State Archives, Sacramento, California. Department of Corrections San Quentin Prison Inmate Photographs 19075-19674.

Gypsy served ten years of her sentence and was paroled in December 1911. A few months later she wound up in the tenderloin district of Carson City, Nevada, where she got so drunk that the police were called. She had violated her parole and was returned to San Quentin. She said that she would rather be in prison, where she was sure of having food, clothing and shelter, than be free but without money or friends. She was released from prison in March 1917.  At that point the trail of her ill-fated life goes cold.

Note: I use the words “brothel” and “prostitute” for clarity but these words were not used at that time the events in this story took place. Instead euphemisms such as “assignation house,” “sporting house” or “resort” were used to for the place and  “soiled doves,” “women of the half-world” or simply “inmates” were the terms for those who worked in the place.

Featured photo: Gypsy Adams, inmate photo from the Photograph Album of San Quentin Prison, California State Archives; Sacramento, California.

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.