#132 Kate Armstrong

Alias Kate Armstrong (Abt. 1841-19??), aka Sarah Williams, Catharine Armstrong, Mary Ann Dowd, Becky Stark, Annie Reilly, Mary/Rebecca Colson/Colston, Annie/Rebecca Lewis, Rebecca McNally, etc. — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-five years old in 1886. Born in England. Married. Cook. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 2 1/2 inches. Weight, 200 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, florid complexion. Wears gold eye-glasses. Has a large space between upper front teeth. Vaccination mark on left arm.

RECORD. Mary Ann Dowd (right name Catharine Armstrong) is a very clever woman. She was arrested in the spring of 1876, during Moody and Sankey’s revivals, in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, for picking a lady’s pocket, and sent to Sing Sing for two years.

She was arrested again in Providence, R.I., on May 14, 1878, and sentenced to two years in State prison in June of the same year, for picking a woman’s pocket on the street. After her time expired in Providence she went West, and visited Chicago (Ill.) and St. Louis. Mrs. Dowd generally works alone, and confines herself principally to opening hand-bags, or stealing them. Her operations have been greatly aided by her respectable appearance and her perfect self-control.

She was arrested in New York City on October 20, 1884, charged with the larceny of a diamond, sapphire and pearl bar-pin, valued at $250, from the jewelry store of Tiffany & Co., New York, on July 7, 1884. The pin was found on her person, with the diamond removed and a ruby set in its place. For this she was tried by a jury, convicted, and sentenced to five years in State prison. She obtained a new trial in this case, which resulted in her discharge by Judge Cowing, on December 18, 1884.

She was arrested again in Philadelphia, Pa., at Wanamaker’s grand depot, in company of Harry Busby (135), on November 3, 1885, for picking pockets. Busby was discharged and Mary Ann was convicted, and sentenced to two years and six months in the Eastern Penitentiary on November 11, 1885. Her sentence will expire on September 11, 1887. Mrs. Armstrong’s, or Dowd’s, picture is a good one, taken in November, 1885.

None of the names offered by the woman Byrnes declared as “Kate Armstrong” might have been her real name. She was arrested most frequently under two names that Byrnes never mentioned: Rebecca Stark and Rebecca Colston. Several sources do agree that she came from England in the early 1870s, and that she was a pastry cook by profession–when not picking pockets. She was first arrested in Boston in January 1873 under the name Sarah Williams, but was later released.

She next appeared as Mary Ann Dowd, picking pockets as New York’s Hippodrome in March of 1876 (as mentioned by Byrnes) and sentenced to two years in Sing Sing. Byrnes and other sources say that she was arrested in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1878 and jailed for another two years–but if that occurred, her sentence was likely much shorter, for in April of 1879 she was arrested in Boston under the name Rebecca McNally. She was discharged on this occasion, but late in 1879 was taken in Boston again as Ann Riley, alias McNally, and sentenced to one year in the House of Correction.

According to Byrnes, she spent the years between 1880 and 1884 in St. Louis and Chicago, but no accounts from those years have surfaced. In October 1884, she was caught picking pockets in New York at Tiffany’s, and was arrested under her old New York alias, Mary Ann Dowd. She was later discharged.

In November 1885, she was caught in Philadelphia working with an English pickpocket, “English Tom.” She now deployed the alias Catharine/Kate Armstrong, aka Carrie K. Saunders. She was sent to Eastern State Penitentiary for 18 months, but was released early–and was quickly rearrested in October 1886 at the Chester County (PA) Fair under the name Annie Riley, alias Rebecca McNally. However, she was returned to Eastern State Penitentiary as Catharine Armstrong. According to authorities there, she feigned madness, but dropped the act when it proved ineffective.

When released in May 1887, she went to Boston, and was taken in on suspicion as Ann Riley, aka Rebecca McNally. She was discharged and told to leave the city, but instead left the country heading to England. She later claimed to have attended Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations, where she made a tidy profit.

She was rediscovered in Boston in September 1891 and arrested for her usual activities, after being identified as Ann Riley/Rebecca McNally/Kate Armstrong/May Ann Dowd/Rebecca Colston. She was punished with one year in the House of Correction. “Correction” was a misnomer, for she was caught in Boston in April 1892, jailed, released, and picked up again in December 1892. This time she was told to leave town.

She did leave Boston, but only for a little over a year. In April 1894 she returned and was arrested as Becky Stark, alias Colston, and was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction.

In May 1896, she reacquainted herself with New York city police. She was discharged, but not before biting the police photographer. Still, he was able to trick her into taking a photo while she was smiling. Her looks had changed little since she had posed eleven years earlier.

She was arrested twice in Boston in 1897; and once in Hoboken in 1898. By 1899 she had migrated to Brooklyn, where she was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for six months for vagrancy and drunkenness.

In September, 1902, she wandered to Boston again, and was caught picking pockets. She was arrested and tried under the name Rebecca Stark. Once again she was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction. The Boston Globe concluded an item about this episode with as good an epitaph as any:

“When she heard the sentence, ‘Becky,’ who had played the part of a feeble old woman whose heart was nearly broken and was being misjudged, straightened up, wiped away the tears which she had forced to flow, and in a manner that showed that she was anything but spirit-broken, exclaimed, “Six months! For the Lord’s sake! Six months for that!’ The expression on her face clearly denoted satisfaction and surprise that the sentence was not twice as severe.”



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