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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

judge-Berka

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.

Wayward Girls

Wayward Girls

She was down on her luck when she was arrested and photographed, in April 1913, on a charge of grand larceny. Despite the listing on her identification card, her name wasn’t Hazel Raymond and she wasn’t born in Washington. She looks world-weary in her mugshots. And it was no wonder, given all she’d been through.

The previous year she’d tried to commit suicide after she was arrested in her Seattle hotel room for indecent conduct. Claiming to prefer death to disgrace, she picked up a bottle of toothache medicine and swallowed all of it. Fortunately the arresting officers got her to the hospital in time and she was revived.

Her father, Otto, was born in Sweden and her mother, Charlotte, hailed from France. She was born and grew up in Utah, where her family joined the Mormon Church and her father became a missionary. She and her twin sister were the youngest of their large family and her dad, who sometimes traveled for work, was away from home for periods of time. Her mother found it a challenge to handle her youngest daughters on her own.

She worked as a waitress and her twin sister was employed as a clerk in Salt Lake City. Their parents moved to Washington State in 1910 and their older siblings had already gotten married and moved away.

She hoped to earn better money by trying her hand at prostitution. She worked, along with several other white women, at a place in Plum Alley, Salt Lake City’s Chinatown. It didn’t last long. After several police officers were dismissed for taking bribes to look the other way, police raided the house on March 5, 1910, and arrested the inhabitants.

Vɘ

Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, circa 1907.

On March 17, 1911, she and her sister, using the names Hazel and Pearl Raymond, along with another woman, were taken into custody after a raid on a “negro club” in Salt Lake City. Federal authorities believed the women had been brought from Wyoming and forced to work as prostitutes at the establishment. This was a violation of the 1910 Mann Act, sometimes called the White-Slave Traffic Act.

The Mann Act made it a felony to take females across state lines for immoral purposes. Though the law was supposed to combat human-trafficking and forced prostitution, primarily of white women, the act was ambiguous and led to arrests of people engaging in consensual sexual activity. By 1916 it was known as the “The Blackmail Act.”

The owner of the club was an African-American attorney and newspaper editor named Lawrence Marsh. Marsh — Utah’s first minority attorney — was not popular with the white community in Salt Lake City. He’d been lobbying for and finally succeeded in getting an equal rights bill for minorities into the state senate. The bill would have made it illegal for businesses to refuse to serve people based on their race.

Federal authorities declared that a white man in cahoots with Marsh lured the women, who claimed they’d been working as a vaudeville team, away from their theatrical troupe, and took them to Marsh’s rooms, or maybe it was his club — reports varied. Newspaper reports claimed that Marsh pulled a gun on the women, plied them with strong drink, made them smoke opium, and invited his friends to join him in subjecting the women to unspecified “abuses” while holding them against their will.

Supposedly the women escaped out a window, with the aid of a messenger boy, after a three-day ordeal.

Initially the women played along with the story of abduction and abuse. But when it came to testifying against Marsh in court, “Hazel” refused, claiming she feared she would incriminate herself. The other women followed suit. Apparently they worked willingly as prostitutes. It may be that Marsh had no connection with the brothel. The case fell apart, however the taint of it caused Marsh to be disbarred. On April 8, 1911, the women were released from jail where they’d been held during the trial.

The day after their release The Salt Lake City Tribune published a “pathetic letter” from Mr. and Mrs. O. J. Swenson of Aberdeen, Washington. According to the letter, Hazel and Pearl Raymond were actually the Swenson’s twin daughters, Grace and Zola Swenson. They had not been brought from out of state to Salt Lake City but were native daughters. The letter begged the “wayward girls” to return to their parents in Washington. They said they would comply.

Evidently Grace did head north to Seattle. There, again using her alias, Hazel Raymond, she tried to end her life after she was arrested for indecent conduct. Next came her 1913 arrest for grand larceny.

Hazel Raymond_front_marked

Hazel Raymond_back_marked

Criminal Identification card of Hazel Raymond, April 29, 1913. Collection of the author.

The story has a good ending. Grace ended up in El Paso, Texas, living with a man ten years her junior named Oliver Rice. Oliver was the breadwinner — he worked as an auto mechanic. He and Grace got married in 1926. For many years Zola, who never officially married, lived with her sister and Oliver in El Paso.

When Zola died of a stroke on January 10, 1943, her name was listed on her death certificate as “Zola Rice.” Apparently after the wayward Swenson girls settled down, they took their Mormon faith to heart and shared a husband.

Her Radiant Smile

Her Radiant Smile

Christmas 1907 was not shaping up to be a merry one for Pauline Lyons. The 26-year-old Texas woman was sentenced, just before the holiday, to spend the next eight years in San Quentin State Prison. To add insult to injury, this was her third trip inside. However no one would suspect that she was anything less than thrilled about the state of affairs, judging by her radiant smile when her mugshot was snapped on December 17th.

In fact four things stand out about Pauline in all her mugshot photos: she was attractive, well-groomed, fashionably dressed and she had a beautiful smile.

Born Ethel Wilson, her first recorded court appearance was on October 19, 1895, when she pleaded guilty to battery and was fined $20 for blackening the eye of Helen Lewis, a fellow Los Angeles prostitute. She was 14 years old at the time.

Pauline Lyons 2

1st Prison Stay: Ethel Wilson, San Quentin Prison Photograph Album, August 1, 1899. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Four years later, in May 1899, she was accused of robbing a client named Peter Jonssen of $10.17 in the tenderloin district of Los Angeles. This time she got more than a fine; she was sentenced to San Quentin for four years. With such a long sentence it’s likely she had other run-ins with the law that were not reported by the press. She served two years of her sentence and was released on August 1, 1902.

Sometime between her 1902 release from prison and 1906, when she was arrested again, she got married and changed her name to Ethel Lyons. Her husband, R. F. Lyons, was employed as a cook for the crew at the Oxnard sugar beet farm of Albert Maulhardt. Ethel worked as a housemaid for Mrs. Maulhardt.

In August 1906 Ethel pleaded guilty to stealing $500 worth of jewelry from her employer. She hid the valuables in her mouth in order to smuggle them out of the house.

Ethel was bound over, and the little court audience was visibly moved as Mrs. Maulhardt gently pressed the hand of the erring woman who sobbed as she was led away.

Oxnard Courier, August 3, 1906

Ethel’s husband was fired from his job as cook (though he apparently played no part in the theft) and she made another trip north to San Quentin. This time her sentence was one year, of which she served ten months. She was released on June 12, 1907. With two stints in prison behind her, she must have yearned to avoid another incarceration. Unhappily it didn’t work out that way.

Pauline Lyons1

2nd Prison Stay: Ethel Lyons, San Quentin Inmate Photograph Album, August 12, 1906. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

After getting out of prison for the second time Ethel decided a name change was in order and began calling herself Pauline Lyons. She remained in northern California, settling down in Oakland. The following month she and a companion, Joe Thompson, were arrested and jailed for setting a fire in West Oakland. The pair was also accused, in the confusion that followed the fire, of robbing Charles Valentine of a diamond valued at $300. Pauline pleaded not guilty but she was convicted and sentenced to eight years in San Quentin.

Pauline Lyons3

3rd Prison Stay: Pauline Lyons, San Quentin Prison Inmate Photograph Album, December 17, 1907. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

She was released from prison on April 17, 1913, after serving five years and four months of her sentence. Possibly Pauline Lyons became an upstanding citizen, keeping her nose clean thereafter. However an intriguing set of newspaper articles presents a different possible scenario.

In 1931 an African-American woman named Pauline Lyons was jailed in San Bernardino, California, accused of shooting a man named James H. Hoggans at close range with the intent to commit murder. Hoggans was wounded in the mouth, ear and arm. She claimed Hoggans threatened to hit her with a chair so she grabbed a .38 caliber revolver out of a nearby coat pocket “to bluff him” but evidently ended up shooting him instead. Her age was reported as 33 years, so if this was the same Pauline Lyons who was sent to San Quentin three times, either the reporter was in error or Pauline had shaved 17 years off her age. Hoggans recovered and decided not to press charges and Pauline was released from jail.

Assuming the two Pauline Lyons are one and the same, the attempted murder charge scared her straight because Ethel Wilson, aka Ethel Lyons, aka Pauline Lyons, stayed out of jail from then on.

Executed by Guillotine

Executed by Guillotine

Enrico (Henri) Pranzini was held to account for the gruesome 1887 murders of courtesan (high class prostitute) Marie Reginault and her servant, Annette Gremeret and Gremeret’s young daughter at Reginault’s Paris apartment in Rue Montaigne. Highly successful in her profession, Reginault lived a life of luxury. Some of her clients were said to be prominent men in the French government and army. The three victims’ throats had been slashed so badly they were nearly decapitated.

pranzini-and-the-victims

Enrico Pranzini and the three victims. Page from the “Album of Paris Crime” by Alphonse Bertillon. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A handsome, 30-year-old man with a muscular build, Pranzini was popular with the ladies and was described in the press as a “gigolo.” Born in Egypt, he was intelligent, worldly and spoke several languages. Prior to the murders he worked as an interpreter and translator and traveled widely throughout Europe and the Near East. The press described Pranzini as a “professional blackmailer” who used his good looks and charm to “make love to older woman, get them in his power and then compromise them if they refused to pay.”

Letters, cuff links and a belt found at the crime scene implicated another man, Gaston Geissler, as the murderer, however the police believed they had a better case against Pranzini, despite the fact that he had no history of violence. Salacious details about the murders were reported widely in the press and the public clamored for a scapegoat. Pranzini filled the bill.

pranzini-police-news

Reports of the murders in the press included illustrations, some of which were based on morgue photos and mug shots.

Pranzini maintained his innocence throughout his trial for the triple murder. The prosecution’s case was circumstantial—it was based on the fact that he left Paris on the night of the murders and that he gave jewelry similar to some that was missing from the murdered woman’s apartment to prostitutes in Marseilles in the days following the crime.

He was convicted and given the death penalty — execution by guillotine.

Pranzini marched from his cell to the scaffold with a firm step and defiant air. When the executioners seized him the murderer resisted and fought desperately, demanding they let him alone. The executioners overpowered him and threw him upon the machine and in an instant had him securely bound. Immediately the terrible knife was started. It descended with horrible slowness at first, but then its movement quickened and the head of the murderer rolled into the basket.

The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 1, 1887

After his public execution, Pranzini’s body, minus the head, was removed to a Paris medical school, where parts of it disappeared. Subsequently it was discovered that some of his skin had been removed and used to make wallets. Other parts apparently went to well-connected curiosity seekers.

If you are visiting Paris, you might drop by the Police Museum of Paris, where you can see not only a wax model of Pranzini’s head but also a display of Parisian policemen taking a rogues’ gallery photo, like the one of Pranzini at the top of the page.

Featured image: Enrico (Henri) Pranzini mugshot by Alphonse Bertillon. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.