Sophia Elkins-Levy (1847-1924), aka Sophie Lyons, Sophie Burke, Sophie Brady – Pickpocket, Moll
The life story of Sophie Lyons–intricately connected to the careers of her other erstwhile husbands: Maury Harris, Ned Lyons, Jim Brady and Billy Burke; not to mention other notable friends and lovers–involves a huge swath of American criminal history. She was more than a notable member of the underworld community, she was one of its foremost chroniclers. Sophie never honestly told her own story, and her criminal reminiscences were only infrequently based on her own recollections, and otherwise relied on other sources (like Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America), and a large dose of fabrication.
A full, accurate, well-researched biography of Sophie’s life has never been published, but it may not be long before one appears. Much was written about her long before her career was over, and those articles also were full of mistakes and untruths. Offered below is a typical example from a very atypical source (which makes it such an oddity): the lawyer who represented her in several early scrapes, William F. Howe, of the infamous firm Howe & Hummel.
It is a minor mystery why, in 1897, William F. Howe would have written this article (the first of two) on Sophie for the National Police Gazette. There were dozens of other criminals he could have written about–including his foremost client, Marm Mandelbaum–but Howe chose only to write about Sophie. A decade earlier, in 1888, he had written a book with Hummel about the New York underworld, Danger!: A True History of the Great City’s Wiles and Temptations, but it carefully avoided naming active professional criminals.
One might expect that Howe–a legal genius–would pen a dispassionate, clear-eyed history of Sophie, but instead he engaged in romantic myth-building as enthusiastically as any eager young yellow journalist. One of Sophie Lyons’s qualities was the ability to encourage in others the image of her as a bandit queen, born to be a thief, and not driven to thievery by necessity–and to ignore any pain she inflicted on victims of her crimes. William F. Howe’s puffery (based on anecdotes he heard, true or false) is a prime example:
“FAMOUS SOPHIE LYONS, PRINCESS Of CRIME
“If ever there was a woman who was worthy of the title of high priestess of crime and queen of blackmailers, that woman is Sophie Lyons, who has made victims on two continents contribute to her purse; and who, perhaps with the exception of ‘Little Annie’ Reilly, has stolen more money than any other woman in the world. Thomas Byrnes, once Superintendent of Police of New York, says that she is the most expert and dangerous female crook he ever met, and her record shows that he knows what he is talking about.
“There is really no reason why Sophie Lyons should have been anything else than a thief, for her grandfather was one of the most daring cracksmen the sleuths of Scotland Yard ever had to deal with, and he gave them more trouble than any other lurcher who ever roamed London at night looking for a crib to open. Her mother was Sophie Elkins, as slick a shoplifter as ever dropped a bolt of silk into a bag, and her father was a blackmailer who could give points on trickery to any nobsman in the business. If that choice bunch wasn’t enough to put criminal blood into a woman, then nothing ever would. So you see that there was an excuse for her, and that, according to the law of heredity, it wasn’t really her fault that she became a crook. When she became a star in her chosen profession she reflected credit upon her parents.
“She was taken in hand when she was very young, and as she grew up it became very natural for her to look around for a ‘good thing.’ But there was something besides her cleverness which helped her, and that was nature. She was a pretty girl from the start, with big, gray, sympathetic eyes that could make anyone fall in love with them if she willed it, and as she grew into young womanhood she developed a figure that was superb in its wonderful loveliness. She was a woman to win a man’s heart and take his purse from under his very nose, but from the first she hated small purses. Sophie Lyons never lowered herself to petty larceny. She had been taught that it was infinitely easier to get away with a large bank roll than a few dollars, and she faithfully followed that teaching all her life.
“So to her parents and associates Sophie has always been a credit. And why wouldn’t she, when it is asserted that her parents burned her arms with hot irons to force her to steal. She learned the lesson better than they thought she would, and when she had no more to learn she began to teach others.
“She married a famous burglar–it is seldom that these women are really married–and she raised children for him. He was Ned Lyons. They had children and there is every reason to believe that Lyons was the father, for she was true to her crib-cracking spouse. As a result of the union there were two boys and two girls. The boys both became thieves, and the daughters were placed in a convent in Canada. She took great pride in her oldest son, George, who inherited the thieving instinct. He wasn’t as lucky in his operations as he might have been, and he died while serving a term in Auburn prison.
“But it will be better, perhaps, to begin at the beginning of the woman’s career–to begin, for instance, at her birth, and go with her through her calendar of crime. Everything can not be known, however, for Sophie has turned tricks which have never seen the light of day, and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why she is worth $50,000 today.
“Forty-six years ago her father was in hiding from the detectives and her mother was in prison for shoplifting when she was born. She saw prison bars as soon as she opened her eyes, and it seemed to have been rather a pat introduction into the world for her. But she wasn’t really heard of until she was about twelve years old. Then she was caught picking a pocket. She was so young and she looked so innocent that the magistrate couldn’t believe her guilty, so he discharged her. But it didn’t stop her. She kept her hands in folks’ pockets with great success, for she had been made more shrewd by her first fail.
“At the extremely tender age of fifteen years she had her first love affair, and it is perhaps one of the most romantic affairs in the life of this remarkable woman. She went out walking on the avenue one fine afternoon looking for ‘graft.’ As usual, she was alone, for even at that tender age she made up her mind she could work better alone than with any ‘pals.’ She came to a street corner where a horse had fallen down and where a crowd had collected.
“She couldn’t have wished for anything better, and in a few minutes she was among the people, pushing and shoving with the rest, only she didn’t care a rap what all the excitement was about. All she was looking for was plunder. In a few minutes she had spotted a school boy of about seventeen years who wore a heavy gold watch chain on his vest. She edged her way over to him, and when she started back a few moments later she not only had his watch, but she had the chain, too. That was all she got that afternoon, and on her way home she looked at her booty. Upon the case of the watch was engraved the boy’s name and address, and for the first time in her life a great feeling of sympathy came over Sophie Levy for one of her victims. She remembered that the boy was very handsome, that he had big blue eyes and a manly way with him that appealed to her, and the result was that when she arrived home she said nothing about the watch, but kept it hidden in the bosom of her dress. She couldn’t get the boy’s face out of her mind, and it haunted her day and night, until finally she took to hanging about the house where he lived. One day, by accident, he met her on the avenue and he smiled on her.
“That is the way it began, and that is how they became acquainted. While they walked and talked she could feel his watch ticking against her breast, and it seemed to her as if everyone on the street could hear it.
“After that they had a great many meetings, and at last the boy became so infatuated with her that he wanted to marry her.
“She was willing, so he took her to the grand house where he lived so that he could introduce her to his father.
“‘What is your name?’ asked the old gentleman.
“‘You’re a very nice little girl, but I think you’re too young to marry. Besides, when my son marries he shall marry his equal. Here is a present for you,’ and he held out a $10 bill. ‘Now run away home.’
“She took the money, threw it on the floor and trampled on it angrily. ‘I don’t want your money,’ she screamed, ‘and I’m going to marry your son just to spite you.’
“‘Come, come, none of that. You must go out of here and not raise any row.’
“He took her by the shoulders and began to push her towards the door, but she flew at him like a tigress. She fought him back to the center of the room and then she said: ‘I’ll go now because I am ready to go. Good bye.’ And she started out.
“She got $20 from a fence for the watch and chain and she was willing to get rid of it now her romance was over. But she had her revenge.
“Three times in as many weeks she picked the old gentleman’s pocket. Once she got his watch, twice she fished his purse out and then she wound up by nipping his diamond stud from his ample shirt front. In telling of this afterwards she said she ought to have stolen the old fellow’s clothes off his back for breaking up her first love affair. If she had married the swell kid Sophie Levy might today be a leader in a social set, instead of a woman who is constantly under the surveillance of the police.
“When she was seventeen years old she was a decided beauty, and it was then she met old Mother Mandelbaum, the notorious fence, who years later took refuge in Canada from the inquisitive police. Mother Mandelbaum had no use for anyone but a high-class crook, and when she took little Sophie Levy up it made her reputation at once. Levy was her name before she married Ned Lyons. The Mandelbaum woman put new ideas in her head.
“‘You are beautiful, my child,’ she said to her one day. ‘You ought to do very well. Men will like you and that is the best of all, for you can do with them as you please, and with your face it will not be necessary for you to nip their clocks–they will give you anything you want.’
“That set Sophie to thinking, and she concluded the old mother of crooks was right. So from that time on she began to play upon the sympathies of men, and it is on record that she was never once known to fail.
“She was in the hey-day of her youth and beauty when she met Ned Lyons, the man who was destined to become her husband–the man who stole millions and who eventually drifted into the worst kind of poverty; the man who was as handsome as an Adonis, but who lost his looks with his luck.
“Lyons’ father was an honest weaver, who came to New York with his family in 1850 from Manchester, England. The boy fell among among thieves and it wasn’t long before he was working with them and turning a trick as good as the best of them. At the beginning of the war he was a young man, handsome, daring and athletic, and he turned his talents to robbing drunken soldiers until the game became risky and then he became a full-fledged bounty jumper. It was his boast that he enlisted and deserted in New York alone eighteen times within one month. That was pretty fast moving, and so, in order to escape the bullets they generally throw into a captured bounty jumper, Lyons moved westward.
“He did not return east until 1866, and then it was known that he had turned off altogether about $150,000, most of which had gone into the faro bank, for which he was a good thing. But when he struck New York he was still ‘flush’ enough and was far from broke. With the rest of the criminal push he wandered to Mother Mandelbaum’s.
“One night he was sitting there when a handsome young woman came in. ‘Who’s the moll?’ he asked.
“‘Sophie Levy,’ was the answer.
“‘I think I’ll make a play for her,’ he remarked, as he walked over to where she was. He was introduced by Mrs. Mandelbaum and he began his courting by saying to her, ‘I rather like your looks. What do you think of me?'”
End of FAMOUS SOPHIE LYONS, PRINCESS Of CRIME