Moll Buzzing

Moll Buzzing

A lady slipped on the pavement in a street in Philadelphia and was aided to arise by a very polite gentleman. She thanked him kindly and was struck by his handsome eyes, which haunted her until she missed her pocket-book and discovered through the police that a noted pickpocket known as “Baltimore Pat” was their owner, and that his attentions were part of his daily duty of “buzzing.”

The Wilmington Daily Herald (Wilmington, North Carolina), January 31, 1860

Imagine her embarrassment, not to mention discomfort, when she lost her footing and fell to the ground on a busy city street. Like every well-off woman in 1860, she wore a tight corset and an unwieldy hoop skirt. How did she get up without entirely losing her dignity?

Godey-april-1861

1861 day dresses, Godey’s Lady’s Book

Her tears were on the verge of overflowing when a young man came to her rescue. He leaned down and offered her his arm. She gratefully accepted and he easily pulled her to her feet. He smiled at her and asked if she was all right. With a blush she answered that she was fine. He nodded his hat, wished her a good day and vanished into the crowded street. She brushed off her skirts, reinstated her dignity and continued to her destination.

She arrived at the shop and selected an item to purchase but she couldn’t find her purse anywhere. Embarrassed, she left and went to the police station where she reported that her purse had been stolen. The police told her that she’d been “moll-buzzed” and showed her some photos in their rogues’ gallery. Suddenly it dawned on her why the striking-looking man had been so helpful. She pointed to a photo labeled “John William, alias Baltimore Pat.”

Pickpockets who specialized in preying on women were called “moll-buzzers.” Baltimore Pat’s good looks no doubt helped him professionally. Numerous articles describing his thievery and arrests appeared in newspapers between 1857 and 1862.

John Williams aka Baltimore Pat arrested as pickpocket - Newspap

— The Daily Exchange, Baltimore, Maryland, April 4, 1860

If a female victim was not available he was willing to prey on men. One Saturday night in 1862 he picked the pocket of a Baltimore merchant, B. J. Sutton, to the tune of $1,240 ($30,956 in 2018).

The arrests didn’t slow him down. He worked on trains and streetcars — a pickpocket’s paradise — where people were crowded together affording plentiful opportunity for stealthy theft. Allan Pinkerton warned about moll-buzzers in his 1884 book Thirty Years a Detective.

The scene is an ordinary street car, and the seats are all occupied. The thief enters and at once takes up his position immediately in front of the lady, with one hand he grasps the strap hanging from the roof, and the other hand is seemingly thrust into his coat pocket. I say seemingly, for really the hand of the thief is thrust through his coat, the end of which is resting carelessly on the pocket of the lady. With the hand which is pushed through his coat, the thief quietly pulls up the edge of the overskirt worn by the lady, little by little, so he can reach the pocket…and then catching hold of the pocket-book, he draws it up and into his own pocket and then steps away.

His photograph ended up in a police rogues’ gallery, likely in Baltimore or Philadelphia. Whether it helped end his pickpocketing is a matter of conjecture.

Featured photo: “John William, al Baltimore Pat, Pick pocket” from Rogues, A Study of Characters by Samuel G. Szabó. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Maid on the Make

Maid on the Make

Lizzie Muehlman, the prettiest, neatest and cleverest thief the Detective Bureau has entertained for a long time, was arrested to-day, but it took quite an aggregation of detectives to nab her. Credited with the job are Lieuts. Howry, a Greek; Unger, a Jew, and Dietsch, a German. They were assisted after the capture by a Swedish patrolman and an Irish sergeant.

The Evening World (New York City), August 9, 1907

That’s a lot of NYPD man-flesh needed to arrest one young girl who weighed in at 113 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall! Not to mention all the nationalities and religions that were required.

The detectives began searching for her after a woman came to police headquarters complaining about a girl she’d hired as a maid. The girl told her she’d left her references in her trunk at home and would bring them in the next day. Instead she vanished with some of her employer’s jewelry.

“She was so cunning, with her fresh complexion, her trusting eyes, her white snug shirtwaist, her little high-heeled patent leathers, that she always got the job. She never kept one for more than a day. If there was no loose jewelry around the house she would depart unobtrusively and her employer would wonder what happened to her. If there was loose jewelry she would depart just as unobtrusively and so would the jewelry,” noted one newspaper article describing the maid’s adventures.

She was a fast worker. In June Mrs. Elizabeth Sandorf of West Ninety-Third Street hired the “charming little girl” to work as her maid and in less than half an hour she made off with two diamond rings and a pair of diamond earrings worth $600. In late July she stole a $500 diamond brooch from another employer, a Mrs. Irving Van Loan of Seventh Avenue. She completed that job in under an hour. She immediately pawned the brooch in Harlem for $100. That kind of cash would have bought a working-class girl a lot of pretty shirtwaists and patent leather shoes, not to mention that fabulous hat!

Mrs. Van Loan went to the police and lodged a complaint. She gave them a description of the thief and detectives kept an eye out for her.

She was finally arrested after detectives noticed her “tripping in and out of apartment houses in the vicinity of 120th Street and Lenox Avenue.” She looked so innocent that the officers thought they’d made a mistake, especially after she put up a tearful protest. But once they got her to the police station she broke down and confessed to half a dozen robberies. The following day almost fifty women who’d been robbed came around to the station to see if they could identify the maid.

The maid’s name was Lizzie and her crime was listed as being a “dishonest servant.” She was 20 years old and born in New York. Frank Lennon, who was described as a “theatrical man,” was her live-in boyfriend. He was arrested as an accomplice, though the role he played in the crimes was not specified. The police searched the couple’s East Fourteenth Street flat and found twelve pocketbooks and ten pawn tickets. Lizzie had pawned some of the things she’d stolen and then sold some of the pawn tickets to a Third Avenue pawnbroker named Samuel Trigger. Trigger was charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lizzie and Frank were arraigned at the Harlem Police Court and locked up in the courthouse jail. Neither got a prison term, according to the records of New York State’s Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842–1908, but they no doubt cooled their heels in jail for quite awhile.

Lizzie Muehlhauser back_marked

She told police that her last name was Muehlhauser (The Evening World paper got the spelling wrong), but I believe that wasn’t her real name. According to news reports Lizzie said her mother lived in Maspeth, Queens. There was a widowed German immigrant named Elizabeth Muehlhauser who lived in Queens and was the right age to be Lizzie’s mother, but she had no children.

Lizzie might have worked for Elizabeth at some point and didn’t like her, so she used her unusual surname as an alias — knowing it would be reported in the newspapers — to embarrass the older woman.

stjosephsasylumMy best guess for who she really was is a girl named Lizzie Mulgrent, who was born in New York in 1888. By 1900 she was either orphaned or an abandoned child because she lived at the St. Ann’s Home for Destitute Children on 89th Street and Avenue A in New York City (previously named St. Joseph’s Asylum). If I’m right, she was one of about 300 girls living at St. Ann’s. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and housed children primarily of Irish descent. Think Jane Eyre but move the setting from England to New York and you get the picture.

What happened to Lizzie after her release from jail is anyone’s guess. She isn’t listed on the 1910 federal census under the names Muehlhauser, Mulgrent or Lennon. But she looks like a girl who could fend for herself, doesn’t she?

Featured photos: Lizzie Muehlhauser, NYPD Bertillon card photos taken August 9, 1907. Collection of the author.

Knock-out Drops

Knock-out Drops

If you watched the second episode of The Alienist on TNT recently, you may have wondered about the harrowing experience of John Moore (played by Luke Evans) after knock-out drops were put in his drink.

Moore, a newspaper crime illustrator and friend of the alienist, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, takes a trip alone to the “boy whorehouse” in lower Manhattan, where Giorgio Santorelli, the teenage victim whose brutal murder Kreizler is investigating, worked before his death. He hopes to interview Giorgio’s employers and coworkers in an effort to prove his detective skills to Kreizler. However he gets more than he bargained for when the bartender spikes his drink with a powder. The episode ends with Moore falling paralyzed on a bed, unable to move or speak, as the brothel’s young male prostitutes swarm over him.

Is there any truth to this part of the plotline in the show? Did bartenders actually spike their patrons’ drinks with paralytic drugs?

Crooked bartenders did, in fact, spike drinks with knock-out drops or powders (probably chloral hydrate) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, usually for the purpose of robbing the victim. A case in point is a bartender named Dennis Houlihan, also known as “Happy Hooligan” and “Knock out” who was active in Fort Wayne, Indiana in August 1901.

Dennis, an Irishman with a florid complexion, was described in the news as a “grafter, dispenser of knock-out drugs and all round thing man.” He worked as a bartender at the Shamrock Saloon, a tavern owned by a man named Jack Cain. Dennis was arrested on suspicion of having “relieved the pocket” of Shamrock customer Thomas Otis of $17. However Thomas, who’d had plenty to drink, along with possibly a bit of the old knock-out powder, wasn’t able to say for certain where his money went missing, so the case against Dennis was dismissed.

Police were informed that Dennis and Jack previously ran a notorious “joint” in Cleveland, where sailors were regularly given knock-out drops and robbed of their cash. Unwilling to let Dennis off scott-free, they immediately rearrested him for “flim flamming” a man out of a twenty-dollar bill at a different bar. This time the charges stuck and “Knock out” got what was described as the stiffest sentence ever handed out in Fort Wayne — $200 and six months in the workhouse. If unable to pay the fine, which is quite likely, he became the guest of the Fort Wayne police for a whopping 495 days.

Police suspected Dennis might move his operations elsewhere, so they shared his details with police detective bureaus in other cities. The card that survived (back shown below) is from St. Paul, Minnesota.

Dennis Houlihan_back

A final story about Dennis appeared in an Indianapolis newspaper, in 1907, after he was arrested for knocking down a drunken friend, stealing the man’s watch and pawning it. Initially he denied the accusation but later he admitted his guilt. “A man will do anything when drunk,” he commented, “even to his best friend.” And as John Moore discovers in The Alienist, a sober bartender’s enemy suffers the most severe consequences of all.

Featured photos: Dennis Houlihan’s mugshots from his Bertillon card dated August 12, 1901. Collection of the author.

The Prizefighter’s Wife

The Prizefighter’s Wife

A number of fur dealers who were robbed during the winter appeared at Central Station today in an effort to identify Mrs. Ethel Goodwin, divorced wife of Abe Attell, the former boxer, and five men who are under arrest on suspicion of having been concerned in thefts of furs worth $3,000,000.

The Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), March 21, 1922

Police Lieutenant Carlin pounded on the door of a room at Philadelphia’s swanky Majestic Hotel. Ethel Attell, the room’s occupant, refused to open it. She claimed she was only wearing a negligee and that she needed to speak to her lawyer first. The lieutenant prevailed and the door swung open. Inside he found Ethel with a man named Frank Lewis. Both were suspected of being involved in a recent spate of fur robberies from wholesale fur dealers in the city. Frank put up a fight and was knocked out by the lieutenant.

Hotel-Majestic.5-Lobby

Ethel Goodwin_back_marked

In order to protect her identity she gave the police an alias, Ethel Goodwin. She was immediately unmasked and her real name, Ethel Attell, was published in news reports of her arrest. Reporters realized she was the ex-wife of “The Little Hebrew” Abe Attell, the retired prizefighter who’d recently been accused of fixing the 1919 World Series. Sporting a pearl necklace, fur coat and a hat covered in fake grapes, Ethel’s mugshots were snapped by the police.

She was suspected of providing stolen burglar alarm wiring diagrams for several wholesale fur companies to a gang of thieves. The police foiled the gang’s recent plans to rob an Arch Street fur warehouse. After their arrests they gave up Ethel’s name and address.

This was the second time in three months that Ethel had been in legal hot water. In December 1921 she and two male accomplices — small-time thugs with multiple aliases — were arrested on suspicion of stealing 1.5 million dollars worth of cancelled Liberty Bonds, chemically altering them to remove the cancellation marks and trying to resell them. Ethel was caught trying to pass one of the bonds at a Seventh Avenue deli in New York City. She claimed she’d paid $300 for the $500 bond, having bought it innocently from an actor friend who’d fallen on hard times. She also told police she was 27 years old when she was actually 37. A full opium kit was found in Ethel’s upper west side apartment after her arrest.

Elizabeth Egan and Abe Attell were childhood sweethearts. They were married in 1907, at the height of his boxing career, in Santa Ana, California. At some point shortly after her marriage, Elizabeth decided she preferred the rhyming cadence of “Ethel Attell,” so she changed her first name.

Abe and EthelAbe lost his featherweight title in 1912 and the marriage spiraled into quarrels over Ethel’s spending on clothes and jewelry and Abe’s losses at gambling. Fortunately the couple had no children, but the quarter million dollars Abe had made in the ring had all been squandered. A few days before Christmas in 1914, Ethel was forced to flee from her husband’s wrath. She left their Chicago hotel room half naked and all her jewelry remained behind. With the marriage in tatters, Ethel filed for divorce, charging cruelty. She demanded $200 monthly alimony from Abe’s earnings in vaudeville, a career path he’d switched to after his days as a pugilist ended. She also wanted her jewelry back. The divorce was finalized in 1915.

By 1922 Abe had emerged from a cloud of suspicion after charges against him related to the series fix — the Black Sox Scandal — were dropped due to insufficient evidence, though he almost certainly was involved. By the time Ethel was in legal trouble Abe was the co-owner of a shoe store, The Ming Toy Bootery, which specialized in novelty footwear for celebrities, located in Manhattan’s theater district.

Ethel either got lucky or she hired one of her ex-husband’s mobster lawyers. At any rate she wasn’t charged with wrongdoing in the Liberty Bond or the fur theft cases. She wisely kept a low profile after that. She died in 1966. True to form, her tombstone lopped eight years off her age.

Featured photos: Ethell Attell, 1922 mugshots. Collection of the author.

Murder in Sacramento

Murder in Sacramento

He came up to the room. He had the clothes on his arm. He said that he beat a woman on L street out of them, and finally said he got them off Mrs. Gibson. He said he got her drunk and that he “croaked” her. I do not understand what croaked means. He never told me what it meant. He told me he killed the woman, and that the d — old — would not tell any tales on him. I put the clothes on the bed and afterwards on the rocking-chair. They lay there till the next day. There was a watch and a gold locket among the jewelry. The locket was of a small size and carved. I believe the dresses were all wrapped up in one when he brought them in. The jewelry was in the pockets.

— Testimony of Carrie Spencer, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1873

After Charles Mortimer was arrested for the brutal murder of Mary Shaw Gibson, the Sacramento police took a photograph of him. That photo, along with a rogues’ gallery photo of Mortimer taken sometime before the murder, may be the earliest example of the police using photography to help convict a criminal suspect.

Carrie Spencer_flatOn the morning of September 20, 1872, a passerby discovered the body of Mrs. Gibson at her Sacramento business. Mrs. Gibson, a 45-year-old widow from Ireland, sold groceries and liquor from the front room of her property on Jibboom Street and lived in the back room. Her head was lying in a pool of blood from a deep knife wound to her neck that had severed her jugular vein. She was fully clothed and there were signs that she had put up a fierce struggle with her assailants, because reddish-brown hairs were found tightly clenched in her hand. The police believed she had pulled the hairs from the beard of her attacker during the deadly assault. Cash had been taken from the dead woman’s pocket and clothing and jewelry were missing from her room. A glass of beer on the bedside table was taken as evidence and later found to contain strychnine.

Suspicion quickly focused on an ex-convict named Charles Mortimer and his prostitute “moll,” Carrie Spencer. The pair had been seen drinking in Mrs. Gibson’s establishment on the day of the murder. Dresses and jewelry belonging to the dead woman were found in the couple’s room at the Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel and Mrs. Gibson’s ring was found in Charles’ possession. Charles claimed he purchased Mrs. Gibson’s belongings from a man named “George.”

Mechnic's hotel

Mechanic’s Exchange Hotel, undated photo, Library of Congress

Most damning of all, Charles had a fresh injury to his face and he was missing some of his whiskers. He’d been to the local barber to get his beard trimmed to try and make the missing facial hair less noticeable. Police also found a partially empty packet of strychnine powder in his pocket.

The couple was arrested for the murder and photographed by the police. A comparison of a pre-murder photo of Charles to one taken shortly after the murder clearly shows that he normally sported a beard and it had recently been shaved off. His facial hair was described as being reddish-brown in color.

Charles Mortimer was born Charles Flinn in 1834 in Vermont. He was the eldest of five brothers. His family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, when he was still a child. By the time he was 14 he was in the state reform school in Worcester, where he was described as “idle and dissolute.” He moved west around 1860 and served a one-year sentence at San Quentin Prison in 1862 for a robbery he committed in San Francisco.

Another arrest for assault and robbery followed in 1864. At that time Charles claimed to have reformed and offered to show the police where he buried some stolen loot in exchange for leniency. While pointing out the spot to an officer, who bent down to get a better look, Charles knocked him over the head, grabbed his gun and beat him with it until he thought the man was dead, then made his escape. (The officer eventually recovered). The following year he teamed up with another escaped convict and committed a series of robberies under the name George Foster. These crimes landed him back at San Quentin for a seven-year stretch. Shortly after he was released, in 1872, he met Carrie at a dance hall in San Francisco.

In order to save her own skin, Carrie became the chief witness against Charles at the murder trial. He threatened to kill her if she testified against him, but she had little choice but to cooperate with police if she wanted to avoid being charged as an accessory. She pinned the blame squarely on him, claiming that she knew nothing about Mrs. Gibson’s murder until afterwards, when he showed up at their room with the cash, clothing and jewelry.

Charles was convicted and sentenced to hang. After his conviction he told his version of the story to the press in exchange for money to pay his lawyers. He admitted that he hit Mrs. Gibson with a beer mug, cutting her face and causing her to fall over, but it was Carrie, he insisted, who dealt the deathblow by cutting her throat while he held down the victim’s hands.

A month before the execution date an armed stranger tried to enter the Sacramento Jail, where Charles was being held, in the middle of the night. He was shot and killed by the officer guarding the jail entrance. The man was William John Flinn, Charles’ younger brother. Though he hadn’t seen his brother for many years, William traveled more than 3,000 miles from his home in Massachusetts to Sacramento, hoping to rescue Charles from the gallows.

Charles feigned insanity after the death of his brother but it didn’t help his cause. He was hanged on May 15, 1873. It took him 13 minutes to die. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery, near the brother who died trying to save him.

Carrie returned to her previous pimp, James Willis, and resumed her career as a prostitute. In September 1873 she was arrested in Sacramento for trying to entice a young girl into a “house of ill fame.” Later that year, Carrie and James, who had been convicted of vagrancy and asked to leave the city, boarded a train to Stockton. They were seen in San Francisco, where it was reported that James was fined $300 for violently assaulting an African American woman after she refused his offer of drugged beer.

Mrs. Gibson’s family initially was unable to locate her will and were uncertain about how to divide her $13,000 fortune. Her will was finally found in March 1874 among a pile of papers taken from her house. Rather than leaving her estate to all six of her siblings, she left it only to the ones who had followed her instructions and immigrated with her to California, cutting out those who had remained in Ireland.

Featured photo: Charles Mortimer, before and after the murder of Mary Gibson, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

Photo of Carrie Spencer, courtesy of Graham Pilecki.

The Family Gems

The Family Gems

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., July 13–Paroled from the Pontiac reformatory, Arthur Groves, alias Harry Williams, a negro, has repaid former Governor Yates, his benefactor, by stealing $3,000 worth of diamonds from the former executive’s handsome new residence in Washington Park. The robbery occurred on June 7 last, at a time when the former Governor was in Kentucky attending the Powers trial as an associate attorney. News of it has only just leaked out through local police officers.

The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), July 14, 1905

Mrs. Yates

Mrs. Yates, early 1890s

After discovering that her jewelry was missing, Helen Yates, wife of former Illinois governor, Richard Yates, searched the coat of her servant, Harry Williams, and found her brooch pinned in the lining. This “confirmed her suspicions that someone about the place has committed the robbery.” Rather than calling the local police, she telephoned Superintendent Mallory, a family friend who ran the Pontiac State Reformatory where Harry had been incarcerated before he was paroled and hired to work as a coachman for the Yates family. She told Mallory she suspected Harry of stealing the family gems, consisting of “solitaires, brooches and clusters of diamonds.”

Harry disappeared from the Yates’s newly built, architect-designed mansion before Mallory arrived to investigate. Mrs. Yates stated later that when she called the superintendent from the first floor phone in her home, she suspected Harry had been on the second floor, eavesdropping on the phone extension, therefore he realized she suspected him of the theft. Or maybe she called from her bedroom and Harry listened in on the first floor phone. Reports varied about who was on which phone.

Though he was last seen working in the carriage house behind the main house, the fact that Harry went missing after the phone call confirmed his guilt as far as the newspapers were concerned. Mallory offered a reward of $100 for Harry’s capture and the Yates family upped the ante with $150 of their own cash.

A local police detective was sent to try to locate and arrest Harry. He tracked him to several cities in northern Illinois but lost him en route to Chicago.

Harry Williams_back_marked

It was reported that Mallory found Harry in Louisville two months later and “it was necessary to shoot him to capture him.” Harry survived the shooting and was sent back to the state reformatory on a stretcher. There were no reports on whether or not he recovered from his injuries.

Mallory found a couple of the stolen rings in the possession of a Chicago woman named Carrie Washington, however the rest of the loot, according to Carrie, had been pawned. Mallory recovered most of the jewelry from a State Street pawn shop and returned it to Mrs. Yates.

The Yates family lived in their Springfield mansion until 1928. A ghost, it is said, now inhabits the house, pacing the attic on nights when the moon is full, possibly in search of lost family gems.

Featured photo: Harry Williams, 1905 Bertillon card. Collection of the author.

Photo of Mrs. Yates from the collection of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

100 Stolen Hats

100 Stolen Hats

The detectives accordingly returned to the house, and found another hat in the yard, which they say was thrown out by Pearl Wolf. She was accordingly arrested on a charge of petit larceny. A lot of silk hats and other goods which were found in the flat were taken to headquarters. A number of merchants who were robbed will call this morning to see if they can identify the stuff. Pearl Wolf denies knowing anything about the stuff found in the flat.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, April 30, 1898

Police were called to Moore’s dry goods store in Cincinnati on April 29, 1898, after an alert clerk noticed a woman wearing a cloak that had been stolen from the shop the previous week. The woman, Anne Ernstein, alias Annie Campbell, claimed she purchased the cloak from a peddler, however the police didn’t swallow her tale, so they locked her up for shoplifting. Her companions, Pearl Wolf and Laura Butler, were not charged. Both women boarded with Anne.

Detectives went to Anne’s apartment where they discovered a large collection of stolen items, including hats from Appel’s millinery store. They also found Pearl trying to get rid of the evidence by throwing it out into the yard, so took her into custody on a shoplifting charge.

Pearl Wolf back_markedPearl, a local butcher’s daughter, had been in trouble with the police before. She and her roommate Laura (the other woman in the store when Anne was arrested) had been detained a few days earlier. The pair had been out drinking with a “traveling man” and he claimed they robbed him. It’s possible that sex for hire was involved and one of the women stole his money while he was “distracted” by the other. The man refused to press charges, likely because he didn’t want his name published in the newspaper.

What’s clear from her rogues’ gallery photo is that Pearl appreciated a nice hat. (Did she steal it or buy it?) During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most women adored beautiful hats and never went on an excursion, jail included, without one. The police allowed Pearl to keep her pretty chapeau on her head in both the front and side photos — normally the hat would be removed for the side shot. She went to trial for larceny but the press didn’t cover the outcome of her case.

appel store ad

There was another attempt to rob Appel’s millinery store a few days later when young woman went into the shop wearing an inexpensive tam o’ shanter (a beret with a pom-pom on top) and tried to walk out with a $25 confection fit for a queen on her head. She was caught when she aroused the clerk’s suspicions by asking to buy some cheap roses to put on “her” expensive hat. Harry Appel, the shop’s owner, decided not to prosecute after the young woman’s employer pleaded for mercy. However the exasperated Appel complained that more than 100 hats had been stolen from his shop in the previous two months and noted that he intended to hire a private detective for his store.

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Pearl Wolf. Collection of the author.