#117 Margaret Brown

Margaret Brown (18??-????), aka Old Mother Hubbard, Elizabeth Haskins, Mrs. Arthur Young, Eliza Burnham, Eliza Burns, Julia Burnham, Margaret Burnham, Margaret Hutchinson, Jane Hutchinson, etc. — Pickpocket, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Fifty-eight years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Married. Housekeeper. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 3 inches. Weight, 120 pounds. Gray hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Generally wears a long cloak when stealing.

RECORD. Margaret Brown, which is her right name, has been a thief for fifty years. She makes a specialty of opening hand-bags, removing the pocket-book, and closing them again.

She was arrested in Chicago, III, and sentenced to three years in Joliet prison, where, in an attempt to escape, she fell, and was nearly killed. She was discharged from Joliet in 1878, and after that operated in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities.

She was arrested in Boston, Mass., on March 24, 1883, in R. H. White’s dry goods store, for stealing a hand-bag, which was found on her person ; for this offense she served six months in the House of Correction there.

She was arrested in New York City on March 26, 1884, for stealing a pocket-book from a Mrs. H. S. Dennison, of Brooklyn, N. Y., in Macy’s store on Fourteenth Street ; for this she was sentenced to three months in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island on April 2, 1884.

On the expiration of this sentence on July 2, 1884, she was arrested again on a requisition from Boston, Mass., charged with the larceny of a satchel containing $260 in money from a store there. She was taken to Boston, and sentenced to two years in the House of Correction in the latter part of July. She was subsequently transferred to Deer Island, on account of her old age and infirmities. Her picture is an excellent one, taken in March, 1883.

Confirmation of Margaret Brown as “Old Mother Hubbard’s” real name remains lacking, and does her age. She once maintained her maiden name was Elizabeth Haskins. One source gives her birth year as 1818; another has her twenty years younger. Inspector Byrnes split the difference and gave her assumed birth year as 1828, birthplace Ireland.

A habitual shoplifter named Margaret Brown was active in New York City in 1859, and was sent to Blackwell’s Island for five months. In 1865, Margaret Brown was sent to state prison for a five year term for grand larceny.

Most accounts of Margaret’s career start with her being sentenced to Joliet Prison in Illinois sometime in the 1870s–accounts differ as to whether she entered in 1870, 1875, or 1877. Regardless, it seems that she was nearly killed during an escape attempt (the athleticism required for this attempt might argue for her birth date being closer to 1838 than 1818):

Nothing was heard from her until the sequence of events that Byrnes refers to: a jailing in Boston in 1883, followed by three months at New York’s Blackwell’s Island in 1884; and an immediate return to Boston to serve two years in the house of corrections. She was said to have been traveling with a gang led by another infamous shoplifter, Mollie Hoey.

In 1886 she was arrested in Brooklyn and sent to the county penitentiary for one year. She was caught in Brooklyn again in 1890. Another gap in Margaret’s record exists between 1890 and June, 1893, when she was arrested in Detroit. Accounts from this period forward indicate she was now married to a man named Young; but his first name was cited at different times as being William, Albert, or Arthur. Margaret was released in Detroit, and she and Young descended upon the Chicago World’s Fair, which attracted every pickpocket in the nation.

Margaret’s favorite trick was to visit waiting areas in rail stations or department stores and sit next to other women shoppers who had placed their bags on the bench. Margaret would sit down next to them with her arms swathed in a large fur stole. She would casually fling her stole over her neighbor’s bags, then work her hand underneath it to extract items from the shopping bag or pocketbook.

From Chicago (after a little trouble with police), she and Young headed to Toledo, where she was arrested. A judge there believed her to be insane, and had her confined to an asylum. With the help of a lawyer and her husband, Toledo sent her back to her alleged residence, Cleveland, where she was eventually released.

Margaret wasted little time leaving Cleveland on another foray, and was arrested in both Buffalo and Rochester in late 1894, but released in both instances

Nothing was ever published that indicated her demise.


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