Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

AFFIRMED.—The case of the state vs. Elizabeth Wohlman, for grand larceny, was affirmed in the Supreme Court yesterday, and the defendant committed to the County Jail for safe keeping until such time as it is convenient to take her to the Penitentiary. The defendant, together with Catharine Martin and Augusta Goetz, living in Belleville, came to this city on the 8th of November 1861, and visited many stores for the ostensible purpose of purchasing goods. They visited the jewelry stores of Cappel, Crane, Jackard, (sic) and others, and the hat and fur store of Mr. Gray. From each of these stores they stole jewelry, and were detected in the store of Eugene Jaccard, in the act of putting some jewelry in the basket which one of them carried.

Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), April 27, 1864

Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and worn close to her head in a tight bun. One hand peeks out from a heavy, striped shawl that’s draped across her shoulders and pinned over a knotted scarf around her neck. From her pierced ears hang beautiful earrings, possibly made of gold. Yet something is off about the photo. The woman’s expression is worried and frightened, even a touch angry, and one of her eyes seems to stare directly at the viewer, while the other gazes disconcertingly off camera.

Elizabeth back photo

Back of Wohlman ambrotype, which reads: Mrs. Wohlman-Shop Lifter, 29-years of age-5 foot 6 inches-Brown hair and-Gray eyes, German-Lucker. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Her name was Elizabeth Wohlman, and it’s no surprise she looks unhappy. Shortly before her likeness was captured, she and several family members were arrested at gunpoint outside of Eugene Jaccard & Co., a luxury goods store near the St. Louis riverfront. After being unceremoniously hauled off to the city jail and searched by police officers on that fateful day in November 1861, Wohlman was charged with shoplifting.

This extraordinarily detailed image exists because the St. Louis Police Department began taking photographs of suspects and criminals for the purpose of identification in October 1857. The portraits were hung in a public place in the police station, and citizens were encouraged to walk through and examine what soon became known as the “rogues’ gallery.” Many other American cities followed St. Louis’s lead and started rogues’ galleries of their own, but few of those photographs still exist today.

St. Louis jail

St. Louis City Jail, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A group of nearly 200 photos from the first 10 years of the St. Louis rogues’ gallery miraculously survived and was donated to the Missouri Historical Society by the police department in 1953. Several of the images, including the ambrotype of Wohlman, are identified with handwritten notes on the reverse side.

I discovered the collection while searching for mid-19th-century photos of “typical” German immigrants living in St. Louis, with the goal of getting a better understanding of what my ancestors, who immigrated to St. Louis during that period, looked like. The rogues’ gallery, which includes the likenesses of immigrants and native-born Americans, fascinated me, so I decided to research all the identified people using genealogical resources.

Elizabeth Wohlman is special for several reasons. She’s one of only three women in the collection and the only woman identified by name. Additionally, few women anywhere were photographed for rogues’ galleries because mid-19th-century Americans found it difficult to accept the idea that women committed crimes. This makes Wohlman’s photo exceptionally rare.

There’s more to know about Wohlman’s life, her crime, and the price she paid for it, along with many others whose photos were taken for the “illustrious collection,” as one St. Louis newspaper described it. Grab a copy of Captured and Exposed to begin exploring their stories on your favorite eBook device, then head to the Missouri History Museum to see their portraits on display once again (September 22, 2018 – March 10, 2019) in the new Atrium exhibit, The St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery.

Featured photo: Sixth-plate ambrotype of Elizabeth Wohlman, November 1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

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. 

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