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.

She Resisted

She Resisted

Alleged Shoplifters Held

Two women, both of whom are suspected of being professional shoplifters, were arraigned at the Central Police Court yesterday. The defendants said their names were Annie Mitchell and Ellen Joyce, but they refused to tell the magistrate where they lived. Detectives Swan and Knox of Marks Brothers’ Store arrested the women on Monday after they had, it is alleged, stolen several pairs of gloves and a silk skirt. They were held in $600 bail for trial.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1900

The news article supplies only a dash of information, however the remarkable photo of Ella Joyce, taken on January 22, 1900 when she was arrested, speaks volumes. She resisted having her picture made, so the arresting officers held her hair and chin to get a clear picture. Even then, Ella closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to make sure to ruin the photo. Perhaps it was her comment on the police and their practice of photographing people who hadn’t been charged with wrongdoing, much less found guilty of a crime.

Ella Joyce_back_lowresThe back of Ella’s CDV card provides a few personal details. She was 27 years old, slender and tall — almost 5’8” — with black hair, blue eyes and a medium complexion. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She had a small scar above her right eyebrow and another on her right thumb. She worked as a domestic. Her Bertillon measurements were recorded on a separate piece of paper that was glued to the CDV.

When the federal census was taken on June 9, 1900, six months after her arrest, there was only one young woman named Ella Joyce living in Philadelphia. Ellen “Ella” O’Donnell Joyce was a married woman who lived with her husband, William, in East Germantown in the northwest section of the city. They’d been married four years and had no children. William worked as a gardener and Ella was a housewife. Both were American-born children of Irish immigrant parents.

There was no follow-up in the newspapers about the shoplifting case of Ella and her pal Annie. Marks Brothers, the store where Ella was arrested, was founded as a millinery shop and was well-known for its women’s goods. The store opened at the southwest corner of Eighth and Arch Street in the 1860s and the building was reconstructed after a fire in 1889. It closed for reorganization in 1902 and reopened at a different location in 1904.

Marks Brothers Store

Marks Brothers, undated photo by Frank H. Taylor, Free Library of Philadelphia

Officer Knox, one of the policemen who arrested Ella, was temporarily kicked off the force, in 1905, after he “got in trouble at a picnic.” Officer William Swan, the other policemen involved in Ella’s arrest, worked as a detective assigned to keep an eye on the Marks Brothers store between 1895 and 1902. The Philadelphia Inquirer is full of stories of Officer Swan’s exploits, such as the time he nabbed Samuel Hoffman, a boy still in knee breeches, for stealing the pocketbook of Mrs. Huldah Katz. A few months later he detained Mrs. Maud French and Mrs. Alice Incas for shoplifting coats and shoes. Both women had babies in their arms at the time. The young, the old and the female comprised the majority of those Officer Swan arrested at Marks Brothers.

Marks Brothers, unable to compete with larger stores in the vicinity of its new location, closed its doors forever in 1909.

Ella and William continued to live in the same East Germantown tenement and were still childless when a census worker recorded them in 1910. William was employed as a steamfitter and Ella was without a profession. On September 13, 1911 — the day before her 38th birthday — Ella died at home of cirrhosis of the liver and exhaustion.

It was a cold day in late January 1900, and Ella Joyce needed a pair of gloves and she wanted a silk skirt, but she couldn’t afford either. Or maybe it was a misunderstanding and she intended to pay. Though we’ll never know exactly what she was thinking when her mug shot was taken, as a piece of photographic history, it is priceless.

Featured photo: Ella Joyce’s CDV mugshot, collection of the author