Life Savings Larceny

Life Savings Larceny

It is a grave error for magistrate and justices of the peace to permit pickpockets [to] escape conviction. What is worse, such leniency is frequently due to the influence of the pickpockets with the minor judiciary who discharge them.

— Judge John Monaghan, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1920

Trifim Trochuk, a 37-year-old Russian immigrant, got on the Second Street trolley to ride to Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue Wharf on July 17, 1920. At the wharf he planned to board the steamship Haverford to sail back to his Russian homeland. He’d worked for the last six years as a dishwasher in a restaurant in order to save up enough money to return to Russia and bring his wife and children to America. His life savings, $867 in dollars and 600 Russian rubles, was in his hip pocket.

A young woman boarded the trolley and Trifim generously got up to give her his seat. As he did so, a man who had boarded with the woman jostled him and Trifim felt a hand reach into his hip pocket. He checked his pocket and panicked when he realized his money was gone. He shouted that he’d been robbed, then he noticed a roll of banknotes in the lap of the woman to whom he’d given his seat. She was trying to hide the notes with her handkerchief.

Ida Weiner_back_marked

Back side of Ida’s Bertillon card.

The man and woman, Harry Stoll, alias Dahl or Goodman, and Ida Wergna, alias Weiner, were arrested on suspicion of being pickpockets when the trolley reached its stop. The couple denied knowing each other, however they were tried together two weeks later. After one “stubborn juror,” who thought he needed to ask more questions and hear more witnesses, was convinced to change his vote, Harry and Ida were convicted of grand larceny.

There’s no record of whether or not Trifim got his money back.

Harry boasted of being arrested multiple times in New York and Philadelphia for pickpocketing, claiming he’d never been convicted. Not so lucky this time, he was sentenced to a minimum of two years at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary by Judge Monaghan. Ida, who confessed to the judge about her role in the crime, was sentenced to eighteen months in Moyamensing Prison.

TrifimAccording to Trifim’s 1942 naturalization record, he never made the trip back to Russia where his four children still lived. Trifim’s wife, Uliana, died in Russia and he never remarried.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Ida Wergna. Collection of the author.

Naturalization record of Trofim Trochuk: Massachusetts, State and Federal Naturalization Records, 1798-1950.

Angry in Omaha

Angry in Omaha

Minnie Bradley was arrested on the evening of December 11, 1902, and charged with “larceny from the person” or pickpocketing. Someone from the Midway Saloon, a well-known dance hall and whorehouse owned by several notorious Omaha crime bosses, offered to pay her $25 bond. Before she was released, W. H. Breiter showed up at the police station and identified Minnie as the person who had robbed him earlier that evening. Minnie offered Breiter $5 to drop the charge, but he refused, so she spent the night in jail.

Described in the newspaper as a “traveler,” Breiter had been “strolling about” near the Tenth street viaduct in Omaha, Nebraska. He told police that a woman appeared out of the darkness and demanded his money. He claimed he handed it over to her.

The next day Minnie appeared before Police Judge Louis Berka. The judge decided she could stand for trial for the Breiter hold up, but he offered her an alternative — if she left Omaha the charges against her would be dropped. She chose to leave rather than face a trial, but first the police took her mugshot to guarantee that all Omaha police officers would be familiar with her face, in case she was tempted to return.

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Judge Louis Berka. Find-A-Grave.

Minnie’s 1901 mugshot is unusual for the amount of emotion she displayed. She has her arms crossed and it’s obvious that she’s angry and unwilling to look at the camera, or maybe she looked away just before the shutter was released. Her occupation was listed as “prostitute” and her home, at 116 North Eleventh Street, was around the corner from the Midway.

Breiter’s story about Minnie robbing him doesn’t really add up. It’s unlikely that a lone woman would rob a man outdoors in a deserted spot at night. It’s possible that Breiter was a client who didn’t want it known that he visited a prostitute, particularly an African-American prostitute. He might have refused to pay, so she took what he owed her.

Minnie returned to Omaha in 1904 and made two more appearances in police court before Judge Berka. The first, in March 1904, was as witness against a man named William Warwick, who was accused of assaulting her. The two had gotten into a heated argument when he bragged to her that, due to his light complexion, he often passed as a white man during his travels out west. He also mentioned that he had been in the company of two white women the previous evening. Minnie said William should show more respect for his race and reminded him that his mother was a black woman. His response was to punch her. Judge Berka sentenced him to 30 days in jail.

Two months later, in May 1904, Minnie was the defendant in a case of assault and battery brought against her by an African-American woman named Annie Curtis. Annie was drunk and her behavior was violent — an argument broke out between the two women. Minnie claimed Annie was on the verge of throwing a phonograph at her when bystanders intervened. Annie claimed Minnie threw a brick at her, which Minnie denied. The outcome of the case was not reported.

Minnie slipped out of the news after 1904, but her mugshot leaves little doubt that she was a force to be reckoned with.

Featured photo: Minnie Bradley’s 1902 mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Fainting Bertha

Fainting Bertha

She was an expert pickpocket who would steal a man’s diamond stickpin, using her well-known fainting trick, without batting an eye. But she was also mentally ill, suffering periodic bouts of insanity so intense that it was impossible for doctors or hospital attendants to control her. In the grip of one of these attacks, which sometimes occurred at night, she had been known to break every window she could reach while screaming profanities at the top of her lungs. Her mood swings were intense — she was calm one moment and crying hysterically the next. By July 1911, officials in Nebraska were faced with the vexing question of what to do with “Fainting Bertha” Liebbeke.

Bertha was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in March 1880 to William and Mary Liebbeke. William was a cobbler and an immigrant to the United States from Germany. Mary was born in Switzerland. Bertha’s parents met and married in Pottawattamie, Iowa in 1870. The Liebbekes had nine children and seven of them, including Bertha, lived to adulthood. William died in 1896.

Soon after her father’s death Bertha was diagnosed with Saint Vitus Dance (now called Sydenham’s chorea), an infectious disease that results in uncontrollable twitching and jerking movements of the victim’s face, hands and feet. Her diagnosis was likely what caused her to be sent to the Iowa Institution for Feeble-Minded Children in Glenwood. Possibly due to age restrictions she was transferred to the Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda, where she remained for less than a year.

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane in Clarinda

Iowa State Hospital for the Insane, Clarinda, Iowa.

Between hospitalizations Bertha claimed she was seduced by a man named Gunther who schooled her in the art of “larceny from the person.” Despite her psychiatric problems, she was an excellent student. Not only was she good at getting the goods, she developed a unique approach to her profession, taking full advantage of her blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks and stylish appearance. Bertha would get into a crowd of people and swoon. The gallant gentleman who came to her rescue by catching her got a reward he wasn’t expecting — his pockets were picked. It was done so adeptly that most didn’t realize their loss until Bertha was long gone.

Bertha became notorious. She took trains to all the big midwestern cities, robbing train conductors and passengers along the way. She not only robbed individuals, she used her nimble fingers to steal from large department stores, such as Marshall Field & Co., in Chicago. Her photo was said to be in every rogues’ gallery in the Midwest by the early 1900s. It was reported that three times she had plans to marry, but the engagements were broken when she couldn’t stop thieving. Despite all that, she looked pleased as punch to be photographed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary, as inmate #5693, for her undated mugshot.

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Bertha Liebbeke, undated mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Histrical Society.

Unfortunately for hospital and prison officials, Bertha was not only good at stealing cash, watches, furs and jewelry, she had a talent for lifting keys and picking locks. By 1907, she’d been housed in seven separate Midwest penitentiaries and asylums and she’d escaped a dozen times from those institutions. She’d attempted suicide at least once. Back and forth between hospital and penitentiary she went. No one wanted her, but the question of what to do with her remained.

She was sent to the Asylum for the Chronic Insane in Hastings, Nebraska. At Hastings, three physicians from the Nebraska State Insanity Board examined her as part of a report to the governor, Chester Aldrich, in 1911. The following description of Bertha was part of their report.

The evidence (is) that she has delusions or hallucinations as shown by her talking to imaginary persons and having the sensation of insects creeping under the skin. Immediately after physicians left her she became violent, which is a daily occurrence, running up and down the hall, bewailing her condition and position, running from one room to another to evade the physicians and berating them because of her belief that they would not look after her welfare.

The doctors weren’t sure of whether or not Bertha was insane, but they were unanimous in their opinion that she needed to be in a hospital, not a prison. The governor disagreed and sent her back to the Nebraska State Penitentiary to finish her latest sentence, specifying that “special quarters” be provided for her.

After her release from the penitentiary, in 1913, Reverend Charles W. Savidge of the People’s Church in Omaha offered her a home in the church. A safe room was prepared for her and someone from the congregation was available to be with her at all times. The congregation prayed for her and she renounced her bad ways. With the help of religion, Bertha’s “modern devils” might be cast out! The experiment didn’t work and the congregation gave up on her. By 1914 she was in custody in Milwaukee on a charge of vagrancy.

She was sent to the Lincoln State Hospital For Insane in Yankee Hill, Nebraska. She fell out of the news until 1919, when she attacked a nurse, throwing formaldehyde at the woman’s face and partially blinding her. We can only guess at what treatments Bertha endured in an effort to control her violent outbursts. She lived in the asylum for over 20 years and died there on May 5, 1939.

Her obituary in the Lincoln Evening Journal noted, “When arrested she would readily admit what she had done, and would gloat over men being easy marks. At the hospital it was reported that she had been a very difficult patient, and had caused the authorities much trouble.”

Featured photo: Bertha Liebbeke, carte de visite mugshot. Collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Alias Dorsey Doyle

Alias Dorsey Doyle

When a federal census worker counted his family in 1880, George J. Doyle lived with his widowed father, John, and four siblings in the poverty-stricken Five Points section of lower Manhattan. The Doyle family’s tenement, located at 86 Mulberry Street, housed 19 families, 68 souls total, all with Irish roots. The building probably had six or seven apartments, no indoor plumbing and was less than a block from Mulberry Bend — one of the most dangerous areas in the slum-infested Five Points. George, soon to be known by the nickname “Dorsey,” was 14. He and his younger sister, Katie, were still in school while the rest of the family worked at low-paying jobs.

At the age of 14 Dorsey Doyle was likely already sharpening his skills as a pickpocket and readying himself for life as a gang member and career criminal.

Dorsey Doyle prison record

Description of George J. “Dorsey” Doyle, New York Sing Sing Prison Admission Register. New York State Archives; Albany, New York; Box 8; Vol. 23.

In 1887, when he was 21, Dorsey pleaded guilty to robbing a man of his watch and chain on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was sentenced to two years and three months in Sing Sing Prison. The prison entry for him lists six scars — most of them on his face — a testament to a life of violence, despite his youth. Sing Sing was known for whippings, solitary confinement, poor rations and a requirement of total silence from inmates. Rehabilitation for prisoners was decades in the future and many tried to escape, attempted suicide or went insane. Dorsey emerged from Sing Sing a full-blown, hardened criminal.

Dorsey was a member of the Whyos, a gang of Five Points Irish mobsters that hit its peak in the late 1870s and 1880s. While earlier New York criminal gangs spent most of their time fighting each other, the Whyos had the entrepreneurial spirit. Naturally they were involved in general thuggery, but they added extortion, prostitution and murder for hire to their menu of criminal activities. They were rumored to have a price list for the criminal services they supplied, ranging from $1 (punching) to $100 and up (“doing the big job”). By 1888, four of the Whyos members had been convicted of murder and hanged at the Tombs jail in lower Manhattan.

After his release from Sing Sing, Dorsey branched out from New York City and, in 1893, earned a three-year stay for grand larceny at the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (Al Capone did a year at “ESP” in 1929.) By 1895 Dorsey’s flourishing career earned him spot #521 in Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes new edition of his book, Professional Criminals of America. Byrnes described him as “well known throughout the eastern country, as he follows the races, fairs, etc.”

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Dorsey Doyle, May 1887; Professional Criminals Of America (1895) by Thomas Byrnes.

After an unsuccessful attempt, in 1898, at robbing a passenger of a gold watch and chain on a Broadway cable car in New York City (Dorsey shot at the policeman who eventually caught him) he received a second sojourn at Sing Sing. Shortly after his second release from Sing Sing, he and three other men were observed trying to pick pockets on an electric car in Manhattan. A mad chase by police ensued during which he jumped off the moving car and was the only man captured. He was convicted of attempted grand larceny and sentenced to Sing Sing for the third time!

At the turn of the twentieth century, with his Whyos pals dead or in prison and with a face that was well known to the New York police, Dorsey moved west. In 1908 he was arrested with another man for lifting a diamond stud off a man boarding a train in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When he was arrested in Pittsburgh in 1915, the newspaper described him as “John Dempsey, alias Dorsey Doyle, aged 50, of Toledo.” He was one of a “mob” of clever pickpockets, all of them younger than Dorsey.

Fifty is ancient for a pickpocket — a skill necessitating quick reactions, nimble fingers and fast feet. Dorsey was never mentioned in the news after 1915, so he may have retired from crime and led a quiet, law-abiding life in Ohio. The days of the Irish gangs of New York were, after all, long gone, and no one, even a notorious criminal, wanted to risk a fourth stretch in Sing Sing.

Featured photo: Dorsey Doyle, carte de visite mugshot, circa 1892, by John Rosch. Collection of the author.