All in the Family

All in the Family

In the arrest of nine residents of Sample alley during the last two days, and the recovery of about $10,000 worth of merchandise stolen from Pittsburgh stores, Commissioner of Police Peter P. Walsh of the North Side, believes that the greatest system of shoplifting ever conducted in this city has been exposed.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 14, 1914

Although she was only 17 years old, Gertrude Busch doesn’t look too upset about being arrested as a member of the “biggest shoplifting gang” ever to hit the city of Pittsburgh. Gertrude had a pretty good poker face.

She was born in Germany and immigrated to America with her parents and eight siblings in 1909. The Busch family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shoplifter skirt illus. - Newspapers.com

In May 1914 the owner of a Pittsburgh dry goods store, Maurice Kiwowitz, realized he was missing a large amount of his merchandise. Maurice figured about $100 worth of stuff ($2,500 in 2018 dollars) had gone rogue every week during the previous few months. He suspected a group of German women were responsible for the thefts when he noticed a pattern of things vanishing after their daily visits to his shop. He instructed one of his shop clerks to closely watch the women the next time they dropped by.

The clerk followed his instructions and caught one of the ladies in the act of secreting something in the “copious pockets of a specially designed skirt.” The clerk alerted Maurice, who promptly called the police.

The police arrested Gertrude, her mother, Annie Busch, and four of her sisters: Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret.

Mama_Angeline Busch

Anna (left) and Angeline Busch

Theresa_Sophia Busch

Theresa (left) and Sophia Busch

More arrests followed over the next two days, including Gertrude’s father, “Christ” (Christian), her brother, William, and three of her brothers-in-law. The final count of those in custody was eight members of the Busch family and three of their sons-in-law. Only three of Christ and Annie’s nine children weren’t implicated in the crime: Mary, age 33, Henry, age 21, and Annie, age 13.

The Busch gang’s modus operandi was for mama Annie to go into a store with several of her daughters. She’d strike up a conversation with the clerk while the daughters surreptitiously slipped items into the hidden pockets in their skirts. As soon as the ladies finished filling up, Mrs. Busch purchased an inexpensive item to keep the clerk from suspecting foul play and they made a rapid exit.

The police found over $10,000 worth of merchandise ($252,000 in 2018 dollars) stolen from shops around the city and packed into 18 trunks that were stored in the cellars of the family’s three homes. Most of it was inexpensive clothing and household goods. Many of the items had been soaked in water to make them look wrinkled, old and worn out in case someone questioned the item’s provenance.

Christ_William Busch

Christ (left) and William Busch

Fred_Jacob

Fred Volscoat (left, Theresa’s husband) and Jacob Bachmann (Angeline’s husband)

Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret Busch all confessed to shoplifting and were charged with larceny. However Annie, Christ, Gertrude and William Busch and the three of brothers-in-law claimed they “knew nothing of any robberies and did not know that the stuff in their trunks was stolen.” Convinced they were lying, the police charged them with receiving stolen goods. In addition to the adults, eight children ranging in age from two weeks to 14 years were taken to jail with their parents because there was no one left to care for them.

The four confessing sisters told police that the family planned to ship the trunks back to Germany, where they would use the stolen loot to stock a dry goods store they planned to open. It sounds like a half-baked scheme but these weren’t the cleverest of crooks, given that they went back to the same store to shoplift day after day.

In June 1914 a grand jury brought back bills charging the entire family, including the brothers-in-law, with larceny and receiving stolen property. The following February they were all put on trial.

Newspapers were silent on the outcome of the trial, but given the evidence it’s hard to imagine they weren’t found guilty. However Gertrude was very young, her parents were elderly and the rest of the family members had small children, so it’s likely none of them got much, if any, prison time.

By 1919 the Busch family had moved from Sample Alley, in the heart of Pittsburgh, to other towns in Pennsylvania where they found honest, gainful employment. There’s no evidence any of them ever broke the law again, but the shopkeepers of Pittsburgh must have rejoiced to see them go.

Christ, age 61, died of pneumonia in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, in April 1919. His wife Annie died two days before Christmas in 1946 at the ripe old age of 89. And, while many of the couple’s children lived only to middle age, poker-faced Gertrude beat the odds and made it to 76.

Featured photo: mugshot of Gertrude Busch, taken May 12, 1914, by the Pittsburgh Police. Collection of the author.

Note: I purchased the nine mugshots shown here from an eBay seller. The mugshots of Margaret Busch and Sophia Busch’s husband, Melchior Gebhart, were not available from the seller. 

The White Slavers

The White Slavers

HELD AS A WHITE SLAVER

Jacob Ginsberg, aged 22 years, living at 699 Park Avenue, this borough, was held to-day in $3,000 bail by magistrate O’Connor, in the Essex Market Court, Manhattan, for the alleged abduction of Esther Perlmutter, aged 16 years, of 308 East Third street, Manhattan.

— The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1909

Herman Perlmutter lived with his wife, Celia, and their seven children in an overcrowded tenement in Manhattan’s East Village. Herman and Celia were Jewish immgrants to the United States from Hungary. Herman spoke both Yiddish and English and worked as a buttonhole maker. He was one of thousands of immigrants in turn of the century New York City who worked for low pay in the garment industry.

The problem was Esther, the Perlmutters 16-year-old daughter. A middle child of the seven, she refused to get a job in a factory as the older children in the family had done. With nine mouths to feed, the Perlmutters desperately needed the income. But for Esther, life was too short to spend 11-12 hours a day slaving away behind a sewing machine.

Instead the diminutive girl took up with a ne’re-do-well from Brooklyn named Jacob Ginsberg. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob spent his days in his brother’s poolroom at 25 Avenue B, in the red light district on the eastern edge of the lower Manhattan. Esther informed her father that she lied about her age so she and Jacob could get married without his permission. She moved out of her family’s tenement and into a room on East Fourth Street with Jacob.

The Perlmutters were devastated that their daughter had married a man without a job who hung out in an Alphabet City poolroom. Complete disaster hit when Herman discovered that there was no marriage — Esther and Jacob were living together in sin. Even worse, he found that Esther supported herself and her no-good partner by selling her body — Esther worked as a prostitute.

White Slaver

Illustration from Fighting the traffic in young girls; or, War on the white slave trade by Ernest Albert Bell, 1910.

In a desperate attempt to save his child, Herman reported to the magistrate at the Essex Market Court that Jacob had abducted his daughter. The magistrate held Esther under $500 bail as “an incorrigible child.” Jacob was held under $3000 bail as a “white slaver.”

Slavery of black people by whites is a shameful part of the history of the United States, but what the heck was a “white slaver?”

By the end of the nineteenth century Americans had grown less tolerant of prostitution than in earlier times. Vice commissions in big cities were appointed to investigate whether women were engaged in prostitution of their own free will or whether unscrupulous men (foreigners and African-Americans were high on the suspect list) tricked or forced them into the work. Public concern was, of course, limited to white women and girls. Politicians and social reformers referred to this phenomenon as “white slavery” and the men who participated in it as “white slavers.” Men convicted of being white slavers often got hefty prison sentences.

Esther turned 17 in December 1909. This made her an adult in the eyes of the law. She and Jacob scraped together enough money to pay their bond and were released from jail. The pair got married on January 3, 1910, and rented a flat uptown on West 66th Street. The marriage got the law off the couple’s backs and the move put distance between Esther and her family. If it was Esther’s choice to work as a prostitute, Jacob couldn’t be convicted of white slavery. That’s not to say prostitution was legal, but it was a petty crime that generally resulted in only a fine in the magistrate’s court.

The Ginsbergs took a business partner — a 19-year-old named Louis Seidman. Seidman’s cover story was that he worked as a newsboy, but instead of selling newspapers, he and Jacob hung out on the streets of lower Manhattan in search of teenage girls. When they found a good “prospect” they took her to the uptown flat, where Esther tried to convince her to work for them as a prostitute.

Louis brought Rose Kripitzer, aged 15, and 14-year-old Augusta Schaller to the flat on Sunday, May 22, 1910. “You’ll earn between $5 and $10 a night instead of the $3 a week you earn working at a factory,” Esther told the girls. What she said was true. Though workers had started to unionize and demand better wages and hours, pay was still quite low and working conditions in the factories were deplorable, particularly for women and children.

Rose and Augusta’s parents didn’t know where they were so they reported them as missing. Augusta returned home on Wednesday night. She told her parents about how Louis lured her and Rose to the flat with promises of a better job. After they got to the flat Esther promised they would make good money “receiving visitors” there.

Esther Ginsberg_back

Reverse side of Esther’s card.

The Schallers told the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about Augusta’s experiences with the Ginsbergs and Louis. An agent from the society investigated the goings-on at the flat and arrested Esther and Jacob. Louis was arrested when he showed up in court as a witness for the couple at their arraignment. All three were convicted of “impairing the morals” of Rose and Augusta. Jacob and Louis were sentenced to a year each in the penitentiary.

Esther “was remanded for further investigation” by the court but there’s no evidence she was ever sent to prison. Her mugshots and measurements were taken by the police, who noted that she wore a wig. Possibly she wore it as a disguise, but it’s more likely that Esther, as a married woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, followed the tradition of wearing a Sheitel.

Esther suffered from a serious heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus — a blood vessel in her heart that should have closed shortly after she was born had instead remained open. There was no treatment for it at the time. She would have had symptoms all her life, including shortness of breath and fatigue, because her heart had to work much harder than normal. She died at age 20 of complications arising from her condition. She must have known from a young age that she wouldn’t live to be an old woman.

Jacob and Louis were impossible to trace with certainty, due to their common names, after they were sentenced to the penitentiary in 1910.

If they were alive today Esther and Jacob wouldn’t recognize their old East Village neighborhood. The gritty slums where they sought out poor, young girls to work as prostitutes have increasingly given way to high-priced apartments, trendy shops, expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Jacob’s hangout, the poolroom at 25 Avenue B, is now a “speakeasy” called the Mockingbird. Located beneath a restaurant, the club doesn’t advertise on the outside other than to suggest you “look for the silhouette on the door in the underbelly of New York’s indelible East Village.”

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Esther Ginsberg, June 1, 1910, New York Municipal Archives.