#119 Lena Kleinschmidt

Magdalina/Madaleine Warner [or Levi] (Abt. 1830-????), aka Black Lena, Lena Kleinschmidt, Bertha Kleinschmidt, Bertha Kleinsmith, Betty Smith, Mary Morris — Shoplifter

From Byrnes’ text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-one years old in 1886. Born in Germany. Married. Housekeeper. Stout build. Height, about 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, about 150 pounds. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark complexion. Wrinkled face.

RECORD. Lena Kleinschmidt, or “Black Lena,” is a notorious shoplifter. She is well known from Maine to Chicago, and has been arrested and sent to prison several times, three times in New York City alone.

She was arrested in New York City, in company of Christene Mayer, alias Mary Scanlon, alias Kid Glove Rosey (118), on April 9, 1880, for the larceny of 108 yards of silk dressings, valued at $250, from the store of McCreery & Co., Broadway and Eleventh Street. The property was found on Lena; and other property, stolen from Le Boutillier Brothers, on Fourteenth Street, New York, was found on Rosey. Kleinschmidt gave $500 bail, and left the city, but was re-arrested and brought back, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to four years and nine months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island on April 30, 1880, by Recorder Smyth. Rosey was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years, the same day. Lena’s picture is a good one, taken in April, 1880.

“Black Lena” Kleinschmidt (so-called for her typical dark garb and black hair) was famous for being one of Marm Mandelbaum’s favorite shoplifters (along with Sophie Lyons). Marm Mandelbaum and Lena likely came to New York from Germany within a year of one another, in 1850-51, if Lena’s account is to be believed. Lena said that she, at age 16, arrived on the same ship, the bark Salon, as her soon-to-be husband, Adolph Kleinschmidt. However, there is no woman on the passenger list that seems to fit that age; and in several later occasions, she indicated her birth year as 1829, not 1835.

Lena’s marriage record for her union with Adolph Kleinschmidt has not surfaced, though her 1867 divorce announcement was printed in the newspaper. Adolph was a peddler/tinsmith by profession, and apparently did not join Lena’s shoplifting outings. However, Adolph, Lena, and Marm Mandelbaum were all arrested together in Brooklyn in December, 1859 in a house full of stolen items. Lena’s shoplifting forages were already far-flung; two months earlier, in October 1859, she was taken by detectives from her property in Hackensack, New Jersey and sent to Chicago to face grand larceny charges. She escaped conviction in that instance, too.

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An anecdote about Black Lena’s exploits in Hackensack was first related by Detective Phil Farley in his 1876 book, Criminals of America, and then reprinted many times: by NYPD Chief Walling in his book of reminiscences; by Herbert Asbury in Gangs of New York; and in a 1932 New Yorker feature article. These stories do not place Lena in Hackensack until 1863/64, which is at least five years off the mark. Also, the premise of these stories is that Lena had hoodwinked the whole town into believing her feigned respectability; in fact, she had been exposed as a notorious shoplifter in local newspapers by 1859, if not earlier.

Lena’s lifestyle wore on Adolph. In 1866, while Lena was out on a $2000 bail for shoplifting, and they had a dispute: she accused him of abuse; he accused her of running off to Charleston with a man named John Joseph Heinrich (likely a shoplifting partner of Lena’s). Adolph had the bondsman revoke her bail, and she was taken to New York City’s Tombs detention center. Following this misadventure, Adolph instituted divorce proceedings against Lena. The divorce was finalized in June 1867, but Adolph had already taken the liberty of marrying another woman in March, 1867.

In July, 1870 Magdalina Kleinschmidt remarried to John Schneider. Their marriage record gives a possible clue as to her birth name: Magdalina Warner, daughter of Georg and Rosina Warner. However, there is no corroborating evidence; and counter to this, evidence exists suggesting her maiden name was Levi/Levi. By this time, Lena was known to be working with her alleged sister, Amelia Levy, who later became known as “Black Amelia.”

In 1875, Lena and a young “English” (as opposed to German) shoplifter named Tilly Miller were arrested for shoplifting in Brooklyn and locked up in the Kings County jail. They were said to be working on behalf of a “male firm” of receivers, not Marm Mandelbaum. Before they could be examined by a grand jury, they were smuggled tools and a rope, and escaped from the jail. Aiding them was Charley Perle (husband of Augusta Harris of the Greenthal gang of fences) and John Nugent (perhaps the same man as husband #2, John Schneider). Brooklyn detectives chased them to Montreal and attempted to arrest them, but they refused to budge–no extradition treaty existed with Canada that covered larceny.

With Brooklyn and New York City detectives held at bay, Lena and Tilly Miller ventured into New York state on shoplifting visits. Meanwhile, Charley Perle and John Nugent were caught trying to sneak $1000 from a Canadian bank. John Nugent reportedly died after six months in prison.

In December 1876, Lena, Tilly Miller, and alleged sister Amelia were among a host of noted female shoplifters that convened in Boston, apparently drawn by assurances of a corrupt detective that they would be unmolested. Instead, Lena and Tilly were arrested and sent to Brooklyn to face charges they had escaped from more than a year earlier. In Brooklyn, they were sentenced to four and a half years in the penitentiary. Lena was released on bail pending an appeal of her conviction in August 1878 (an unusual occurrence); to everyone’s surprise, she showed up at her appeal, only to have it denied. However, the governor of New York pardoned her in December, 1879.

Just four months later, Lena was caught shoplifting along with another infamous figure, Mary Scanlon, alias Kid Glove Rosie. Lena was sentenced to Blackwell Island for a term of four years and six months. She was released early for good behavior, and left the east coast for Chicago, where she teamed up with members of the Reinsch-Weir gang of shoplifters.

Lena Kleinschmidt was mentioned as being a sister of the matriarch of the Reinsch family of thieves, Henrietta Reinsch, whose maiden name was Levi/Levy.  Another member of the Reinsch gang, the same generation as Henrietta, was Eva Geisler, whose maiden name was also Levi/Levy. Were the four professional shoplifters: Pauline Reinsch, Eva Geisler, Amelia Levy, and Bertha Kleinschmidt all sisters? It is a tempting theory, but not one without issue.

Amelia Levy’s ethnicity was often described as Jewish. Black Lena, too, was sometimes described as Jewish, but not as often. The Reinsch and Weir families were not Jewish; Pauline Reinsch was buried in a German Lutheran cemetery. In one interview, Black Lena recounts growing up in a German Catholic village, and feeling guilt from the presence of statues of Jesus. She also related that she had conversations with the prison priest. Possibly the four sisters named Levi/Levy came from a family that no longer identified as Jewish; but that in itself would be outside the norm. The identification of Lena and Amelia–or any other professional criminal–as Jews served as fodder for antisemitism.

Lena was arrested in Chicago along with Emma Weir (nee Reinsch) In November 1883; and again in December. Her  trial was delayed, but in March 1884 she was sentenced to three years at Joliet for larceny. Another five  years was tacked on later, which kept her in Joliet until July 1889. A month later, in August, she was caught again; and in October sentenced to another four years at Joliet.

She was free again–for just two weeks–in March 1893. Once again she was captured stealing items in a store accompanied by Emma Weir. She escaped conviction but was nabbed in both Milwaukee and St. Louis within a few months, paying fines to avoid jail.

By 1896, Black Lena was back in trouble in Chicago. She was arrested for shoplifting, assisted by Martin Weir. She plead guilty and was sentenced to three months in Cook County jail, while Martin was sent to Joliet.

Lena joined Martin in Joliet in 1897, after once again failing to control her habits. While there, she was interviewed by criminologist J. Sanderson Christison, and named simply as “Bertha.” That interview has been reprinted on the Historical Crime Detective site. She expresses contrition, and admits she can’t help herself.

Lena was released from Joliet in 1899. By 1901, a Chicago detective spoke of her being dead, but no record has yet surfaced of when or where that occurred.

 

 

 

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