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.
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.
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.
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.