The Lady Swindles

The Lady Swindles

Mme. La Touche, the female Napoleon of Wall Street, who discovered a new system of finance that was based on the most profound and logical principles, is a martyr to the cause. She still remains in a dungeon cell in the Jefferson Market Police Court building, not one friend having come forward with the required real estate security for $2,500 bail, which is demanded as a condition of her release. And there, it is said, she is likely to remain until her trial in the Court of the General Sessions.

— The Evening World (New York City), December 10, 1887

Madame La Touche was born Marion Gratz in New Brunswick, Canada in 1846. The 19th century was a time when women criminals were rare and crime was primarily the domain of men. In 1886, when NYPD Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes published his book, Professional Criminals of America, only 18 ladies made the cut out of 204 rogues and Madame La Touche was not one of the chosen damsels. However Byrnes included her — she was criminal #345 — in the 1895 edition of his book.

In addition to being a female crook there was another feature that set Marion apart. In her long history as a swindler she never stole from men, at least not directly — instead she preyed solely on her own sex.

By 1873 she’d made her way to America and started her criminal career in Boston. She worked under the name Marion L. Dow, but no Mr. Dow was ever located by authorities. According to Byrnes, Marion enticed wealthy society ladies into her “coils by exciting their speculative proclivities.” She’d paint a “glowing picture of the facility with which the husbands of her intended victims acquired large sums of money through stock speculation.” After persuading the ladies to invest their own money with her, she disappeared with the cash.

Marion L. Dow_our rival the rascal

Marion (possibly a personal photo) from the book Our Rival the Rascal

“Marion L. Dow can probably boast of having assumed more names and characters than any other woman who has not been a professional actress,” wrote Boston police officers Benjamin Eldridge and William Watts in their 1897 book, Our Rival the RascalNo doubt they were relieved when, in 1880, things got too hot for Marion on their turf and she headed to fresher fields in New York City.

By means of fake investment bureaus, Marion swindled wealthy Gotham gals to the tune of $40,000. Moving on to Philadelphia, she took lavish apartments and outfitted herself in expensive clothes and jewelry. As an enticement to invest with her, she guaranteed her clients against loss of their investment in exchange for half of their profits. The money rolled in until the ruse was discovered and she spent four months in Philly’s Moyamensing prison.

After her release from prison she met and married a Pennsylvania-born forger and swindler named Royal La Touche. (The name was not an alias — it really was Royal La Touche). It turned out that Royal was already married to two other women besides Marion! Before the couple had much time to enjoy their wedded bliss he was sent to Sing Sing to serve a three-year term for bigamy.

Marion spent no time crying over Royal’s fate. Using a new alias, “Carrie R. Morse,” she returned to New York City and went right back to her old tricks. She opened a bogus brokerage office at 47 West Thirty-seventh Street and hired a woman who was required to pay $600 for the privilege of having the job. When the company proved to be a scam, “Carrie” was arrested in 1884. One of her victims told of how she sold her shoe store in order to invest and had been forced to put her four children in a poor house after losing her life savings. It took two trials but Marion was convicted of obtaining money through false pretenses and sentenced to four months in prison.

A sensible person wouldn’t risk another arrest in New York City, but Marion wasn’t sensible. In 1887 she took a partner in crime, Sophie Lyons, a notorious pickpocket, shoplifter and bank robber, and embarked on her most audacious scam. She called it the “New York Women’s Banking and Investment Company.” Marion promised clients $50 a month in income if they would invest $300 in her company. This time women from all walks of life were encouraged to participate.

The lease of the building on West Twenty-third Street and refurbishments, including a fake vault, to make it look like a real bank were done on credit. Stock certificates were printed in rainbow colors, because, according to Sophie, ladies appreciated color and preferred to select their stocks based on their favorite hues. Marion set Sophie up in a luxurious apartment and furnished her with expensive jewelry and a lavish wardrobe. Posing as “Celia Rigsby,” a woman made wealthy through her dealings with Madame La Touche, Sophie was the honey that lured the flies in.

When the scam was uncovered, Sophie scarpered back to her home base in Detroit, but Marion was arrested and housed in the “dungeon cell” at Jefferson Market Court in Greenwich Village. Financial crimes, then as now, are laborious and difficult to prove. When only one of the defrauded women was willing to testify against her, the D.A. dropped the charges for lack of evidence. Marion was free again.

After Royal was released from Sing Sing he and Marion reunited and lived together until his death around 1915. Sophie Lyons wrote in her 1913 memoir, Why Crime Does Not Pay, that her old pal “Carrie” had retired from crime and died penniless, but Marion was still very much still alive and swindling when the book came out. She continued her stock swindles, was frequently arrested and served three more terms in prison during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Marion at 85

Her final arrest came in the summer of 1931. Marion, by then an 85-year-old widow, who was, according to one news report, “hard of hearing, but retains that look of guileless sincerity which charmed money of out investors’ pockets almost fifty years ago.” Despite the recent stock market crash, her victim, a Harlem rooming house owner named Edna Mattice, gave Marion $300 to invest because Marion claimed to have confidential information from a high honcho on Wall Street. Mrs. Mattice said Marion was “always reading market reports” and she spoke “with awe-inspiring glibness and authority upon financial matters.”

Marion might have spent the rest of her life in a Harlem prison as a habitual criminal, but authorities hoped to find a way to be lenient due to her age. Help came from unexpected quarters — the Salvation Army! A spokeswoman for the charity said it was “deeply interested in Mrs. La Touche’s case, and if the court would permit, it would undertake to look after her for the rest of her life.” The judge agreed to the plan.

During the 1931 holiday season, people on the streets of Harlem likely had no idea that the hunched old lady ringing the bell by a red kettle and asking for their spare coins was the greatest lady swindler of the 19th century.

Featured image: reproduction of CDV mug shot of Marion L. Dow from “Professional Criminals of America” by Thomas Byrnes, 1895.

Cunning Conning Mugging

Cunning Conning Mugging

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., May 30. — Isma Martin, one of the most famous swindlers in the country, is wanted here for swindling Grand Rapids people out of $2,000 by a bicycle swindling scheme. She is the woman who robbed Mrs. Frank Leslie out of $8,000 worth of diamonds. She is a native of Detroit, and first came before the public there by shoplifting in Mabley’s store.


This was in 1893. In 1894 she was a reporter on the World. She returned Mrs. Leslie’s diamonds and was not prosecuted. Afterward she turned up in Denver, Colo., where she was arrested for forgery. She, through influence of her wealthy relatives in Detroit, secured her liberty. She came to Grand Rapids four months ago and entered good society, becoming a chum of Miss Gertrude Anderson, a government employee. She used Miss Anderson to secure orders for bicycles from her male friends, saying that her brother in Cleveland was a manufacturer of bicycles and she could get them $100 wheels at half the price. Every order Miss Anderson took from her had to be accompanied by the money. She got $1000 this way and fled.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 31, 1897

You know the old adage — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The trusting Miss Anderson and her friends apparently never heard the phrase, or if they did, they forgot to take it to heart. They found out the hard way when they were bilked out of $1000 in May 1897.

Moral: never trust a smooth-talking con woman who claims she can get you a bicycle (or anything else) at cost!

Ismena Theresa Martin, known as “Isma” was the middle child of seven, born to Irish immigrants Joseph Martin and Fanny Brennan Martin, on March 15, 1871, in Detroit, Michigan. The family prospered in America — Isma’s father started out as a bricklayer but worked as the sewer inspector for Detroit by the time he died of a heart attack in October 1896. His death may have been hastened by emotional distress over his daughter’s criminal misadventures.

Isma’s illegal activities stretched back to 1890 when she stole mortgaged furniture and china in Saginaw, Michigan. She showed up with a small girl at the railroad depot, claiming the child was hers and they were destitute and in need of railroad tickets. She got the tickets, using the furniture as security, all while using an alias — her mother’s maiden name.

In 1895 Isma was “working” as a reporter in Cleveland, Ohio, when she was given access to a valuable diamond brooch and asked to write an advertising copy about the item. Instead she tried to make off with the jewelry, but the theft was discovered and she was fired. Another favorite scam of Isma’s was to get into the good graces of wealthy individuals, often by claiming to be a distant relative. She’d move into her mark’s home and head out to upscale stores and obtain expensive items on credit (false pretenses) by virtue of her connection to her rich benefactor. By the time the ruse was discovered she was long gone.

When Isma’s misdeeds were uncovered, her family in Detroit paid her victims off to keep her out of the courts. Generally if the victim got his or her money or valuables back, they didn’t prosecute. Her criminal activities were written up so frequently in the Detroit Free Press during the 1890s that often the only headline the paper used was “Isma Martin Again.”

Isma fell into the clutches of the police, in Covington, Kentucky, in 1897, for the bicycle scam, and they decided she needed to be photographed, or “mugged.” She objected, supposedly based on advice from her attorney. The “Michigan adventuress fights like a tiger when an effort is made to photograph her” was a newspaper description of the chaotic scene. An officer had to work hard to keep Isma from breaking things up in the Bertillon room, but between “fights and twisting” the photographer got a photo. Unfortunately it was not of much use for identification, though a reporter noted that, “Miss Martin is far from pretty, but she has an intellectual face.”


Female prisoners at the Detroit House of Correction in 1899.

Sentenced to 18 months in the Detroit House of Correction for grand larceny, Isma applied for parole in 1898, claiming she was dying of a toothache. Parole was denied. Released in February 1899, she headed to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan “to engage in literary work at the up-lake resorts.” This working interlude was cut short when her typewriter and bicycle had to be confiscated to pay her bills.

Perhaps getting “mugged” in 1897 inspired Isma to go straight. Or maybe it was that stint in the Detroit HOC. At any rate, she stayed out of prison after 1899. Her obituary noted that she worked, under the name I.T. Martin, as a Catholic Correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, but there was no mention of her criminal career. She even wrote a couple of books. She never married and died of a stroke in Detroit on October 6, 1931.

Featured photo: Isma Martin, half-length portrait of criminal for police identification purposes, seated, facing front, 1897. Bail Collection, Library of Congress.