#128 Sophie Lyons

Sophia Elkins-Levy (1847-1924), aka Sophie Lyons, Sophie Burke, Sophie Brady – Pickpocket, Moll

Link to Byrne’s text on #128 Sophie Lyons

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.

“‘Sophie Levy.’

“‘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

 

 

 

 

#123 Ellen Darrigan / #180 William Darrigan

Ellen Rodda (1845-????), aka Ellen Darrigan, Annie Derrigan, Ellen Matthews, Kate Friday, Ellen Mahaney, Mary Reese, etc. — Pickpocket, Shoplifter

William Darrigan (Abt. 1847-????), aka Billy Darrigan/Derrigan, Hugh Derrigan, William Davis, W. Darrington, etc. — Pickpocket

Link to Byrnes’s texts on Ellen Darrigan and William Darrigan

Ellen Rodda was born in late 1845 to Thomas and Elizabeth Rodda of Penzance, Cornwall (home to pirates of many kinds). The family emigrated to the United States and settled in northern New Jersey in the early 1860s.

In October 1866 Ellen married James Badham. Four months later, Badham–a bad man–was caught breaking and entering in Essex County, New Jersey, and sentenced to the New Jersey State Prison for five years.

While Badham was in prison, Ellen Rodde cavorted with gambler Jere Dunn, who made his fortune running gaming dens and saloons in Chicago. Dunn was a sporting man, heavily involved in the boxing world and in horse racing. Dunn was “married” several times, though he disdained churches and paperwork; he defined marriage on his own, somewhat fluid, terms. In 1869, Dunn was on the run from police and eluded them by traveling around the country with a group of pickpockets, presumably including Ellen Rodda. Dunn was known to have employed the alias “John Matthews” during this time. There is no evidence that his dalliance with Ellen Rodde was ever recognized as even a common-law marriage. Dunn was arrested in late 1870, and sentenced to four years in Sing Sing for killing another man in a saloon fight.

When John Badham was released from prison in late 1870, he sought and obtained a divorce from Ellen. The same month the divorce was granted (January 1871), an infamous sneak thief named John Mahaney was released from Sing Sing. Ellen married Mahaney two months later, in March 1871. Mahaney went by several aliases, and was known by the public as “Jack Sheppard,” a name that invoked the memory of the most famous thief of 18th-century England. But Mahaney was also known as John H. Matthews, the same alias used by Ellen’s previous beau, Jere Dunn.

Ellen used the same surname in her alias of this period: “Ellen Matthews.”

This time, Ellen’s matrimonial bliss lasted a bit longer, but in April 1872, Mahaney stole a load of silks in Philadelphia, shipped them to New York, and was caught there by detectives. He escaped from a New York City police station and fled west to Illinois, where he was soon arrested and sent to Joliet prison for several years.

Chief Byrnes indicates that Ellen was arrested in December 1875 for shoplifting, resulting in a sentence of four years in Sing Sing. However, no newspaper reports or prison registers seem to match that event. On the contrary, there is a marriage record for her from January 1876, when she was united with Billy Darrigan. Byrnes also mentions that Billy broke her nose in December 1875, after she had sliced his ear. This would make more sense as an event that ended a marriage, not preceded it.

If Ellen was sent to Sing Sing for four years, it must have been under an unknown alias, and occurred either between 1871-1875, or between 1877-1885, periods when her activities are not known.

William “Billy” Darrigan, born in New York in 1847, was a known pickpocket by the late 1860s. He married the infamous female pickpocket known as Louise Jourdan. Their attachment did not last; In 1867, Darrigan went over to Europe with Red Leary and Fatty Dolan, and the three pickpockets were arrested in France as soon after they got there. Louise then partnered with Tom McCormick.

Billy was arrested in New York City in February 1872, for picking pockets, and sentenced to four years in Sing Sing prison, under the name of Hugh Derrigan. Upon getting out, he married Ellen Rodda. Nothing is known about the length and nature of their marriage other than the anecdote about the fight resulting in her broken nose. Billy went back to Sing Sing for a year in 1880. By 1885, Ellen was described as a “grass widow,” implying they were no longer together.


Ellen was arrested with Mary Bell for shoplifting in a New York dry goods store in April, 1885, and sentenced to five months at Blackwell’s Island penitentiary as Ellen Darrigan.

She was arrested again with a partner identified as Sarah Burke, alias Daly alias Maria Bourke, in February 1888, for shoplifting from a Brooklyn dry goods store. She gave her name as Mary Connolly. They skipped bail. The same pair were arrested a year later in New Haven, Connecticut. This time Ellen used the name Mary Reese.

In December 1889, Ellen and another woman (likely the same as above) were arrested in Washington, D.C. Ellen now used the alias Kate Friday. While under indictment in Washington, a detective from Rochester, New York arrived with a requisition to be used if the pair were not convicted in Washington. They were placed on trial in February 1890. During the court proceedings, a blonde girl of about ten was seen rushing to and hugging Ellen. One newspaper identified Ellen as “Durriger” and claimed that she had assisted Billy Porter and Mike Kurtz in the 1884 robbery of a jewelry store in Troy, New York. Kate was sentenced to two consecutive one year sentences at the state prison in Albany, New York.
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Ellen went to prison, but her sharp lawyer noted that the federal government’s contract with states to house prisoners only applied to sentences over one year, and that as Ellen had been sentenced to two sentences of precisely one year, her sentencing had been invalid and had to be set aside. She was released in October 1890.

Billy Darrigan’s last misadventure came in the fall of 1890, when he was arrested for burglary, but had the charge reduced to assault. He was sent to the penitentiary for one year.

In 1891, Washington officials tried to retrieve Ellen from Coney Island to bring her back to face additional indictments for which she had never been tried, but the political boss of Coney Island arranged for her to be set loose from their custody.

Billy and Ellen were never heard from again, but there is a curious note: in Chief Byrnes’ 1895 edition, he updated his profile of Billy Darrigan and charged his name heading to “W. Darrington.” Darrington was not Billy’s real name, and was not a name that had been used in any of his arrests.
However, a William Darrington and wife Ellen did live in Brooklyn in the early 1890s. In June 1891, the pair had an argument in their apartment and William Darrington threw his wife to the floor and kicked her severely. He was arraigned. In 1895, Ellen was in turn arraigned for attacking her husband with a teapot, “a probable fracture of the skull.”

Somehow it would seem satisfying to know that Ellen and Billy were there to comfort each other as they aged.

#131 Louise Jourdan

Louisa Farley (184?-19??), aka Little Louisa, Louisa Jourdan, Louisa Bigelow — pickpocket, moll

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. Born in England. Married. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 3 inches. Weight, about 135 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, dark complexion, round face. Is lady-like in manner and appearance. Wears good clothes.

RECORD. Louise Jourdan, alias Little Louise, is an expert female thief, well known in New York, Chicago, and all the principal cities in the United States as the wife of Big Tom Biglow, the burglar. She was born in England. Her father once kept a public-house in Manchester, England. She served a term in an English prison for larceny. Upon her release she went to Brazil as a companion of a wealthy Spanish lady. While in that country she stole all her mistress’s diamonds, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to receive forty lashes at the whipping-post, and was condemned to have the lower part of her right ear cut off. She wears her hair over her ears to cover this deformity. Louise afterwards appeared in New York City as the mistress of Billy Darrigan, a New York pickpocket. She was arrested for shoplifting at A. T. Stewart’s dry goods store, and sent to Blackwell’s Island.

After her release she operated in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities. She was married several times after leaving Darrigan; first to Tom McCormack, the bank burglar, who killed Jim Casey in New York, some years ago, while disputing over the proceeds of a robbery. After him, she took up with Aleck Purple, an Eighth Ward, New York, pickpocket; then with Dan Kelly, who was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in State prison for a masked burglary, with Patsey Conroy and others. After that she lived with a well-known New York sporting man, and finally married Big Tom Bigelow, and has been working the country with him since. She has been in several State prisons and penitentiaries in America, and is considered one of the smartest female pickpockets in this country. Louise Jourdan was arrested again in Cincinnati, Ohio, under the name of Mary Johnson, on May 19, 1886, in company of Sarah Johnson, a tall, blonde woman, charged with picking the pocket of a woman named Kate Thompson of $90, in one of the horse-cars. They both gave bail in $1,000, and at last accounts the case had not been disposed of. Her picture is an excellent one.

Chief Byrnes’ profile of Louisa prefers the last name Jourdan, but she adopted that name in the late 1860s, when she was the companion of sneak thief Johnny Jourdan. A few facts are known about her origins, but there is (as yet) no definitive proof of her real name. Though she traveled with many different men, her only documented marriage was to the bare-knuckle champion prizefighter, Young Barney Aaron. On that Chicago marriage application, she gave her last name as Farley–a name which is not in any of her arrest records or newspaper mentions as an alias. This might lend credence to “Farley” being her true name.

In her younger years, she was described as being very attractive, and dressed stylishly. In her later years, she cultivated comparisons to the elderly Queen Victoria–and may have assumed that as a style.

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According to several reports, Louisa was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England–sometime between 1842 and 1844. Byrnes indicates that she was 42 in 1886; however, an earlier article from 1878 said that she was then 36. There are apocryphal tales of her early years in England: she began stealing at 10; married a burglar at an early age and was imprisoned; after her release, she became a maid to a wealthy Brazilian woman. In Brazil, she stole the woman’s diamonds and was caught; her punishment included “ear-cropping,” i.e. the cutting off of the lower part of her right ear–a mark that police detectives in the United States delighted in discovering, knowing who they had captured. [Note that ear-cropping was not a standard form of punishment in Brazil, so that story is suspicious.]

She arrived in the United States in the mid-1860s. An 1867 Philadelphia newspaper indicates that she was already recognized by police as a professional pickpocket. However, as Byrnes’ profile suggests, what distinguishes Louisa’s career is her talent for hooking up with bad men. Starting in the mid-1860s, she was associated with:

  • William “Billy” Derrigan/Darrigan (#180 in Byrne’s book), a New York pickpocket known to have mistreated another woman in his life.
  • Tom McCormick, a bank robber
  • William J. Sharkey, an infamous burglar, pickpocket, and gang leader who committed murder in 1872 and escaped from jail with the assistance of Johnny Jourdan’s sister, Maggie Jourdan. Sharkey fled to Cuba, abused Maggie (who fled back to the US), and was never heard from again.
  • Aleck Purple, a colorfully-named New York pickpocket
  • Dan Kelly, aka “Dan the Rioter,” a masked house burglar.
  • Patsey Conroy, another masked burglar.
  • Johnny Jourdan, the bank sneak thief often seen with Rufus Minor and George Carver.

After Johnny Jourdan was sent to prison in the early 1870s, Louisa migrated to Chicago and married the English bare-knuckle prizefighter, Barret “Barney” Aaron. Claiming abuse, she divorced him in 1878. She quickly rebounded by becoming the common-law wife of Big Tom Bigelow, a bank thief. She lived a comparatively quiet life with Bigelow in Windsor, Ontario, until his death in New Orleans in 1886.

Louisa’s final known paramour was a villain of many names, known in the east mainly as James Maguire. Maguire tried to possess Louisa’s properties in Windsor, and was said to have abused her. However, it was an assault on a man that sent Maguire, aka Frank West, to a prison in Canada. He escaped, fled to Australia, and for several years committed robberies under the name George Walter/William Russell aka W. G. Burton.

Louisa made a habit of combing the crowds at World’s Fair exhibitions as a pickpocket. She was arrested a final time in 1899 on suspicion, but was released, claiming that she had retired from crime sixteen years earlier.