#115 Ellen Clegg

Ellen Maguire (Abt. 1845-????), aka Ellen Clegg, Mary Wilson, Mary Lane, Ellen Lee, Mary Gray, etc. — Pickpocket, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in United States. Lives in New York. Married. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 5 inches. Weight, 145 pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes, light complexion, big ears.

RECORD. Ellen Clegg is an old and expert pickpocket, shoplifter, and hand-bag opener. She was one of Mrs. Mandelbaum’s women, and is well known throughout the country. Her picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery in several of the large cities. She is a clever woman, and the wife of Old Jimmy Clegg, alias Bailey, alias Lee, alias Thomas, who was convicted and sentenced in Portsmouth, N.H., in April, 1882, for four years, for picking pockets.

This team has traveled through the country for years, and been arrested time and time again. Ellen was arrested in Boston, Mass., on December 6, 1876, in company of Tilly Miller, Black Lena, and four other notorious shoplifters, and her picture taken for the Rogues’ Gallery.

She was arrested again in Boston in 1878 for picking pockets, and sent to the House of Correction.

Again arrested in New York City on November 24, 1879, in company of Walter Price (197), under the name of Mary Gray, charged with shoplifting. (See record of No. 197.) She pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, N.Y., by Judge Gildersleeve, on December 16, 1879. Price went to State prison. Ellen’s time expired in this case on April 16, 1882.

She was arrested again in Boston on May 21, 1883, for shoplifting, and sentenced to one year in the House of Correction. Arrested again in Boston on December 22, 1885, and again sent to the House of Correction for one year. In this case Ellen was detected in the act of opening a lady’s hand-bag and attempting to remove a pocket-book. Her picture is a pretty good one, taken in 1876.

A few things can be said that can partially clear up the confusion over Ellen Clegg’s family. Byrne’s states that she was the wife of “Old Jimmy Clegg.” However, the Clegg she married was Alfred A. Clegg, alias James Bailey. Alfred Clegg came from a notorious family of pickpockets (father John Clegg, mother Susannah, from Yorkshire and Manchester respectively); brothers Alfred, James, and John Jr. came to America and thrived as pickpockets.

Ellen’s maiden name can only be found on documents relating to her children; and they are not consistent. Her son Charles’s baptismal record lists her maiden name as Maguire. The baptismal record of another son, George W. Clegg, gives a latin-ized rendering that is a letter soup: “Magrcis.” George’s Social Security application that came many decades later listed her surname as McInerney. The baptismal records are likely more accurate, so odds are her name was Maguire. Her given first name may have been Elenor; that was the name given to first child.

Ellen and Alfred Clegg had four children: Elenor Susannah (b. 1866), Alfred A. Jr. (b. 1868), George William (b. 1874), and Charles (b. 1878). They likely only spent a few years with their parents, who during these years made Boston their home. Ellen appears to have stopped using the name Clegg after the mid-1880s, preferring the alias Mary Lane.

As Byrnes notes, Ellen Clegg was said to be one of the favored proteges of Marm Mandelbaum. In 1916, during a period when there was a keen nostalgia for stories of the old crooks of the 1870s and 1880s, an anonymously-written feature article appeared in the New York Sun that tells a story of an adventure of Ellen Clegg’s that resulted in Marm Mandelbaum’s exile to Ontario. Some ancient anecdote might have inspired this story, but it is mainly a work of fiction. [As seen below it spells Mandelbaum as Mendelbaum]. Still, it illustrates how the professional criminals of the last decades of the nineteenth century captured the imagination of the public, and why they remain staples of popular culture:

Mother Mendelbaum and the Rawley Pearls: A Story of New York’s Most Notorious “Fence”

Some years ago there was an old woman known very widely as Mother Mendelbaum. Her photograph was in the rogue’s gallery at Police Headquarters, and her name off and on during each twenty-four hours was in the mouth of every detective between the Battery and the Golden Gate. Mother Mendelbaum was a “fence”–not a common, everyday pawn shop fence, but a national institution.

When a detective went out to get Mother Mendelbaum, as one did every little while, he made a lot of work for himself, but he did not get Mother Mendelbaum. Possibly he ended his quest by lying up in a hospital from a bullet wound and possibly he ended it by ending his career as a human being.

They used to say that the Czar of Russia was not so well guarded as Mother Mendelbaum. Perhaps that was so and perhaps it wasn’t. The fact remained, however, that year after year Mother Mendelbaum went on plying her trade and becoming richer and richer. In the course of time she turned the sixty year post and became so rich that her name was a byword in all the East Side–“Vy, he’s as rich as Mother Mendelbaum.”

One day three detectives whose names are as widely known now as the name of Mother Mendelbaum sat around a table in a Bowery saloon and complain in soft but strong accents that the profession was not what it once was; in short, they decided it was going to the dogs.

“Now, I’ll tell you what it is,” said one of these men, whose name shall be Jones, “there ain’t a criminal in New York that’s worth going after except one, and she’s a woman.”

“Who’s that?” said Squig.

The third detective, whose name may as well be Smith, glanced at Squig with a certain expression of contempt. Jones himself took the ragged end of a cigar from his mouth, spat upon the floor, and said with disgust, “Why you poor fish, wake up!”

A light of intelligence shone in Squig’s eyes. “Well if it’s Mother Mendelbaum you’re talking about, let me out right now. She ain’t a criminal, she’s a genius.”

Smith and Jones cast their eyes up and signified agreement. For the moment Squig had come out of water and was no longer a fish. There was no way of getting around the fact that Mother Mendelbaum was a genius. For a few minutes there was silence.

“Just the same,” Jones burst out finally, “there is only one criminal in New York who’s worth going after.”

“And getting you neck broke or your body punctured, eh?” said Smith.

“Quite right, my man,” rejoined Jones, “but think of the glory!”

“And I,” said Smith, who was not wholly wanting in a sense of the dramatic, “am the only man in New York who knows how to get her.”

That was the beginning of the last quest for Mother Mendelbaum, the most notorious fence New York has ever known. It was not, however, until six months after that the three detectives, Smith, Jones and Squig, had finally drawn their nets and were prepared to close in on the old woman.

Mother Mendelbaum’s shop was in Essex street. In the year 1880 there were still fashionable stores in Grand street, not far away, and it was not an uncommon occurrence for fashionably dressed women to wander into Mother Mendelbaum’s place. To judge by the window display she conducted a business in fine gowns, furs and rare silks. An interior inspection showed that she also dealt in costly Persian rugs, old silver, and bric-a-brac. For the theatrical trade she was also a jeweler. But there was no jewelry on display in Mother Mendelbaum’s store.

“Let me tell you, Ellen Clegg,” said Mother Mendelbaum one evening, “this is not a time to go to Boston. It is not a time to go anywhere–but to church.”

Ellen Clegg was about 40 years old, good looking, well-dressed, a woman of the world, one who could carry herself with ease in any place from a Bowery dance hall to an opera house. She was Irish, New York Irish, and as sharp as the tip of an Australian stock whip.

The two women were sitting alone in a little room just back of Mother Mendelbaum’s shop. It was a raw night outside and there was a roaring grate fire. Ellen Clegg was dressed in expensive clothes of the most recent style. Mother Mendelbaum wore her customary black silk gown and her wig of straight black hair parted in the middle and well-plastered down.

“And is it the cold weather,” rejoined Ellen Clegg, “that is giving you the chilblains, mother?”

“It is not the cold weather and you know it very well, Ellen; it’s the man who has been living beneath the lamppost on the corner for a month.”

Ellen Clegg laughed. It was a musical laugh. “Excuse me, mother, but can’t a poor beggar sell chestnuts on any corner within a mile without arousing your suspicions?”

“Not when it takes only half an eye to see that his whiskers are false and that he knows no more of roasting chestnuts than you do.”

“So that’s the game, is it?”

“It is,” said Mother Mendelbaum emphatically. “And I take it that you know me well enough to realize that I wouldn’t refuse all shipments and not take a chance on letting any one of my best men come here if there was not good reason.”

“But how about me, mother? I continue to come. Am I not one of your best women?”

A smile stole over the face of Mother Mendelbaum but did not soften its hard and cumming expression. “Yes, my dear, yes. But you’re in a class by yourself. You’re a sly one, Ellen, and so clever! And that is why you’ll give up this notion about the pearls in Boston and continue to say your prayers for a short time longer.”

“On the contrary,” said Ellen Clegg, rising, “that is why I shall not give up my notion. I’m here tonight to ask your blessing. I leave on the midnight train.”

“Impossible my dear, you would not think of it.”

Ellen Clegg picked up an exquisite sealskin coat and slipped it on. “Let me see,” said she. “This is Tuesday. You will receive on Thursday a little package by express. Do not refuse it, mother. It will contain the prettiest set of pearls even your old eyes ever looked upon.”

And with that Ellen Clegg walked out of the room into the shop and out of the shop into the street, where a poor man might have been seen selling chestnuts on the corner.

There was nothing in the figure of the chestnut man to arouse Ellen Clegg’s suspicions as she passed him and turned briskly toward the Bowery. It was a stooped figure, the figure of an old man, and it possessed the customary allotment of unalloyed dirt. But scarcely had Ellen turned her back on the chestnut man when he picked up his camp oven and hobbled feebly into the entrance of a tenement. A few moments later a tall and alert man stepped from that tenement to the sidewalk and walked hastily in the tracks of Ellen Clegg. A moment later another man appeared and turned in the same direction. On his heels came a third. They were Smith, Jones, and Squig. The chase had begun.

Mother Mendelbaum sat before the grate fire in her little sitting room mumbling unintelligible syllables to herself and slowly stirring a mug of ale with a hot poker. It was her notorious habit to sit before the grate fire and drink warm ale before retiring. Nobody knew Mother Mendelbaum better than Gen. Greenthal, that sly old crook, who frequently used the name of Myers on a check; and Gen. Greenthal has often testified to the mother’s habits.

But on this particular evening, the evening of the great adventure, Mother Mendelbaum was very nervous. It was a queer state for her, but there was something queer in the air, and, above all, there was something queer about the chestnut man on the corner which did not seem to permit the iron safe to rest as securely in the shadow as was usual.

Mother Mendelbaum tossed off the last of the ale and walked over to the safe. The combination twirled quickly back and forth between her gnarled old fingers. The tumblers clicked musically into place and the heavy door swung back. The mother reached in and drew forth a tray of sparkling diamonds, rubies, amethysts, turquoises, emeralds, and pearls that would have made the eyes of any Maiden Lane merchant dance with excitement. Long ago the settings had been dropped into the melting pot and had found their way to the Assay Office. the stones themselves had come from every center of wealth in the United States and Canada.

Second story men had risked their lives for them in San Francisco; shoplifters had gone after them in Chicago; notorious dips had snatched them in the opera jams in New York; Montreal, Quebec and Toronto had yielded up their share. And the collection was constantly changing. Year by year the old ones had gone and new ones had been added. Mother Mendelbaum bought them for a song from “her boys” and sold them at a thousand percent profit to any safe purchaser.

While mother was saying good night, as it were, to her choicest collection, Ellen Clegg was indulging in a little irritability toward Jennie, her maid. She lay on a sofa in the bedroom of her apartment watching Jennie place the wrong things in a neat leather bag.

“My dear,” said Ellen, “if your hands were as nimble as your eyes when the butcher calls you would not be doing this sort of thing.”

“Yes ma’am,” responded Jennie, who was a very trim little person, as was afterward recorded in its proper place.

“You would be wearing the most expensive clothes and going to the theater every night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And you would be spending the entr’actes in the dressing room, where nimble fingers are in demand.”

This was a bit beyond Jennie, but she replied with her usual formula. The little witticism as it appeared to be in Ellen’s eyes put her in a more affable humor. “And now,” said she, rising and speaking with mock seriousness, “for the great adventure. Did you put in my prayer book, Jennie? Then all is ready. My hat, dear, and a heavy veil. As the mother says, it is sometimes advisable to conceal one’s beauty.”

Ellen Clegg took a cab, a fact which, like the other facts in this story, has indebted the writer to George Dougherty, once, a Deputy Police Commissioner in this city. It might have been noticed that at the instant when she stepped into the cab three men stepped into another cab on the opposite side of the street. In a few minutes both cabs arrived at the station. A porter took Ellen Clegg’s bag. The three men, who were unencumbered by luggage, walked some distance behind her, chatting pleasantly among themselves.

“A ticket to Boston,” said Ellen to the ticket clerk.

“Round trip, madam?”

Ellen hesitated. “No, one way only, please.”

The three men were immediately behind her at the window. They also took tickets to Boston. There was the difference, however, that they purchased tickets back to New York.

One does not go to Chicago for the climate. Neither does one go to Boston for pleasure, especially from New York. It was by some such line of reasoning together with a pretty accurate though unsubstantial notion of Ellen Clegg’s means of livelihood that the three male travelers, to wit, Smith, Jones, and Squig,  arrived at the conclusion that business, big business, was at the other end of the line.

No sooner was Ellen Clegg comfortably seated in her section at one end of the car than the three detectives, who had engaged two sections at the other end, called for a deck of cards and played just one rubber. At the conclusion Smith and Jones went to bed in their section and Squig sat up in his. In due course Ellen retired, and in time dawn came. Later the Boston atmosphere was encountered and by noon a certain Boston hotel, which in those days was in high repute, housed four travelers from New York.

At precisely 2 o’clock in the afternoon a quietly though richly dressed woman stepped out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby. She waled quickly to the doors and out to the street. In one hand she carried a black leather handbag of rather large proportions for those days. In the other she had a black silk umbrella. Her gloves were of a light cream color, the shade of pearls.

She walked briskly along the sidewalk with the air of one who knew exactly where she was going and did not care to loiter on the way. Two men followed on the opposite side of the street. There was a puzzled expression on their faces. They had left a companion in the hotel lobby.

In 1880 there was a jewelry store in Boston which bore in a fashion the reputation that Tiffany’s enjoys today. A footman pushed open the swinging doors of this establishment and Ellen Clegg entered.

“What is it you wish, madam?” inquired an attendant who was standing just inside.

“I have heard,” she responded, “that you possess the Rawley pearls. I am a great fancier of pearls, and being here from New York should like to look at yours.”

At the mention of the Rawley pearls the eyes of the attendant moved instinctively to Ellen Clegg’s clothes. There was no doubt that she had the appearance of a woman of wealth. And there was in spite of Ellen Clegg’s underworld associations a mark of refinement in her features.

Instantly the attendant was all courtesy. He led the way to a counter in the center of the store. He himself stepped behind it and pushing back a sliding door reached into the case and drew forth the famous pearls. They were strung into a necklace.

Ellen Clegg placed her leather handbag well over to the rear edge of the counter. The umbrella she placed horizontally across the counter so that the handle remained close to her right hand and the steel end protruded just over the rear edge. The pearls were directly in front of her. Exactly on the other side was the attendant and at his left stood a clerk.

At the instant when this relative position of pearls, handbag and umbrella was established two men who had entered the store just behind Ellen Clegg approached a counter about twenty feet away, from which they were able to obtain an unobstructed view of Ellen Clegg, the pearls, and the two men behind the case. With a rapid sweep of her eyes Ellen Clegg saw them, saw everyone, in fact, in the store. There was a quick movement of her body, a movement of impatience. But immediately the two men became absorbed in the contents of the case before them and again Ellen Clegg glanced down at the pearls.

All this happened as things are thought and not as they are spoken.

“perhaps you know, madam,” the attendant was saying, “that the peculiar value of these pearls lies in their exact similarity.”

” I have heard so, ” said Ellen. As she spoke she reached forward with her right hand to pick up the necklace. But as her arm rose the umbrella, the handle of which had caught in the sleeve of her coat, swept to one side and carried with it the black leather handbag. It fell to the floor between the attendant and the clerk. Instinctively both of them stooped to pick it up.

Their heads disappeared beneath the counter. Ellen Glegg picked up the Rawley necklace with her left hand and dropped it into an ample pocket in the side of her sealskin coat. Simultaneously she opened her right hand, which had remained above the counter, and another necklace dropped onto the velvet pad. At that instant the attendant emerged with the handbag and placed it on the case. The clerk’s head bobbed up at the same moment.

“Thank you very much,” said Ellen Clegg, and picking up the pearls began to examine them closely. “They are exquisite stones,” she said.

Twenty feet away Smith nudged Jones and whispered “Well I’ll be damned!”

“Now, none of that,” responded Jones. “Just you keep your eyes on these beautiful watches.”

“Shall we take her now with the booty?” queried Smith.

“Look here,” said Jones. “What kind of a rube are you? Have we spent six months of our lives to get Ellen Clegg or to get Mother Mendelbaum? Now ease up and look careless.”

Smith did as he was told and both men waited somewhat breathlessly, wondering if the duplicate pearls would be detected. But both men knew in their hearts that they would not be, for Ellen Clegg was far too clever a woman to use imitation stones that would be told with anything but a microscope.

“Well of all the brass I ever saw!” burst out Smith, unable to contain himself. “The woman is looking over more of the stock.”

The attendant placed the duplicate necklace back in the case and drew forth other stones. Ellen Clegg stood there for ten minutes chatting pleasantly with him and inspecting various gems. Finally she was bowed out of the store and with her left hand resting lightly in her coat pocket began to retrace her steps to the hotel.

“Why it’s as simple as a dream after you know how to take hop,” said Squig after Ellen Clegg had been seen safely into the elevator and the three men were sitting together in the lobby. “This little bird will return to New York before nightfall and will take a cab directly from the station to Mother Mendelbaum to deliver the goods and collect her fee.”

“A very pretty idea,” said Smith, “but I’d rather let the mother have her liberty for a while longer and take Ellen while we’re sure on her.”

But Smith was overruled. While they were discussing the question, the elevator door opened and Ellen Clegg stepped out and walked to the cashier’s window. A bellboy was carrying her traveling bag. She paid her bill and was out of the hotel and in a cab before the three detectives fairly realized what was happening.

They dashed out of the seats simultaneously and ran to the street. There was not another cab in sight. “It looks as if we’ll have to hoof it and pretty fast, too,” said Squig.

Jones and Squig started to run and Smith stayed behind to pay a dinner bill that had not been settled. It was a good half mile to the station and Ellen Clegg’s cab traveled rapidly. Consequently the two men were breathing like a pair of porpoises when they walked into the waiting room a few seconds behind their bait and reached the ticket window just in time to hear Ellen saying pleasantly, “New York, please.”

The train left in five minutes, but the detectives were on it and so was Ellen Clegg.

“It’s my opinion,” said Squig as the two men settled back, “that we’re not making a howling success of this.”

“And why not?” asked Jones.

“Well, just between you and me that woman knows we’re shadowing her and has known it ever since we left New York.”

“if that’s the case,” replied Jones, “I’m no judge of the criminal love for detectives, for she looked square at me before hoisting the pearls and didn’t seem to care whether I saw her or not.”

Ellen Clegg retired early. Both detectives sat up all night unwilling to take even the slightest chance. They arrived in New York early in the forenoon and followed Ellen to her hotel. It was Thursday.

“So the daisy ain’t been to see Mother Mendelbaum yet?”

“Not so you could notice it,” replied Squig, who was not in the best of humor.

“I came by the mother’s on the way here,” said Smith, “thinking to find police headquarters moved down there. But I saw it hadn’t.”

“Did you see the old woman?” asked Jones.

“Couldn’t see through the shutters.”

“Through the shutters?” said Squig and Jones in one voice.

“The place was closed up tight.”

For a few minutes all three men puzzled over this situation.

“The place closed up,” said Squig finally, “and Ellen Clegg still here. Rather strange, but anyway we know where Ellen is and she’s sure to go to Mother Mandelbaum’s sooner or later.”

The day dragged on and night came. The three men took turns watching and sleeping. At 10 o’clock the next morning Squig went over to the mother’s place and found that the shutters were still up. It had come to have the appearance of an untenanted store.

The men became alarmed in earnest and one of them went down to headquarters to report to the chief for advice. In the course of an hour he came back with instructions to take Ellen Clegg and recover the necklace, and to let Mother Mendelbaum go for the present.

The prospect of real action was an unmistakable relief. Without a moment’s delay the three men filed from the hotel and ascended to Ellen Clegg’s apartment. Jones carried a warrant which had been secured a week before. They ranf the bell and Jennie opened the door. All three brushed roughly past her and into the sitting room. As they entered Ellen Clegg rose from a chair with an expression of infinite surprise.

“Sorry, Miss Clegg,” said Jones, “but the jig’s up. Hand over the pearls and put on your hat and coat.”

“You have made some mistake,” said Ellen without the least sign of excitement.

“Come now, ” Jones said, “there’s no use of a stall. We saw you hoist them up in Boston and we know you have them now. Here’s the warrant. You’re under arrest.”

They took Ellen Clegg to the Tombs and locked her up. She was beaten and she knew it. But they did not find the pearls. Two weeks later, when she had been assured of the mother’s safety, she confessed under the advice of counsel.

Immediately on reaching her room after taking the pearls she had wrapped them up in a small box brought along for the purpose and addressed them to Mother Mendelbaum with a special delivery stamp. Then she had summoned a bellboy and tipped him generously to drop the package in a letter box. In the package she had placed the following note:

‘Sorry to embarrass you, dear mother, but the bulls are on me. They are the usual dubs, however, and you will have plenty of time to run up to Canada for a visit. Anyway, dear mother, your temper needs a change of scene. Pretty pearls, aren’t they? –Ellen Clegg’

The package and note reached Mother Mendelbaum some time after Ellen’s arrival in New York and before Smith reached town. Her departure had undoubtedly been hurried, but she had taken time to empty her safe. For various reasons Mother Mendelbaum never returned to the United States but she lived to a ripe age in Canada and stirred her ale with a hot poker until the last.












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