#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:


“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?'”






#197 Walter Price

Walter D. Price (Abt. 1830-1894), aka George W. Henry, Charles Rodgers — Pickpocket, Policy Writer

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-seven years old in 1886. Born in United States. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 8 1/2 inches. Weight, 180 pounds. Sandy hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Sometimes wears a light beard; generally shaved clean. Quite a clerical-looking old fellow.

RECORD. Price is no doubt one of the most expert old pickpockets and shoplifters in America. He is known from Maine to California, and has served terms in prison in almost every State in the Union. This man generally works with a smart woman, doing the “stalling” for her; he, however, is quite handy himself, and does considerable work alone.

He was arrested in New York City, in company of one George Williams, for shop-lifting. He was charged with the larceny of a silver watch from a jewelry store. In this case Price and Williams, on a plea of guilty, were sentenced to six months in the penitentiary on February 18, 1875, in the Court of General Sessions. Price gave the name of Louis Lewis.

After this he is credited with serving another term in Sing Sing prison.

He was arrested again in New York City, on November 24, 1879, under the name of George W. Henry, in company of Mary Grey, alias Ellen Clegg (115), another notorious female pickpocket and shoplifter. The complainant testified that Price and Ellen visited his establishment on November 24, and while Price engaged the attention of one of the salesmen by exhibiting a sample piece of silk, stating he wanted a large quantity of the pattern, Ellen, who carried a large bag or “kick,” quietly slipped into its recesses $120 worth of silk which lay on the counter. As they were leaving the store, which was at No. 454 Broome Street, New York City, one of the salesmen missed the goods and caused their arrest. On the way to the police station, Ellen tried to drop the bag which was under her dress, but she was detected in the act. Both pleaded guilty in the Court of General Sessions, before Judge Gildersleeve, on December 16, 1879, when Price was sentenced to three years in State Prison at Sing Sing, and Clegg to three years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, New York City. Price’s picture is a very good one, although taken ten years ago.

Little can be said about Walter Price that would improve upon his obituary printed by the New York Herald, which shines a light onto aspects of New York City history that have faded into the shadows:

“This notice, which appeared in the Herald yesterday, tells of the death of one of the most remarkable criminals with whom the police of this and other cities have had to deal: ‘PRICE–On Monday, August 6, Walter D. Price, beloved husband of Margaret McKiernan, in his 65th year. Funeral from his late residence, 305 W. 126th St., on Thursday, August 9, at one o’clock. Relatives and friends invited. Interment in Woodlawn.’

“Price was born here, and grew up a Bowery boy in every sense of the word, except so far as outward appearances are concerned. He slipped into crime naturally.

“He was considered, in his prime, one of the most dangerous pickpockets living. He had a dozen aliases and had undergone arrest many times. Then, for a dozen years he made a princely income by conducting a policy shop [numbers lottery] in Vesey street, near Washington, and directly across the way from the market, until a few weeks ago, when his place was closed by the proprietor, who remodeled the building.

“The funeral party is expected to include many of the old ‘Gilhoolies and Rileys’ as they fondly term themselves, a group of whom were on the sidewalk in front of McKeever Brothers’ saloon, at 98 Vesey street, last evening, and talked over old times. Prominent among them was T. J. Gowan, head bartender, who used to be treasurer for both of the clubs. He was applauded vigorously when he remarked: ‘Any Gilhooly or Riley that don’t help bury him deserves to be buried, too.’

“Their feeling of friendship to Price, who was regarded by society at large as a most dangerous character, dates back a decade and a half, when he was conducting his policy shop, in the rear of a supposed hairdressing salon. Price didn’t make himself unduly conspicuous in those days, or in any others when he could help it.

“He was five feet, eight and one-half inches in height and weighed 180 pounds. His light complexion and smooth face went well with carefully-brushed sandy hair, and his gray eyes had a kindly expression. He always dressed in black, the cut of his clothing, especially about the collar, leading all but his intimates to suppose him to be a clergyman. Sometimes he wore a light beard, but nearly always his face was clean shaven.

“The police say his principal characteristic was ability to pick almost any pocket without being detected. Gowan, his friend, described him in these words: ‘When some married man died, he was always the first to ask, “Is the widder broke?” And then, he would go down into his clothes for a tenner or for twenty-five either. Many a poor woman will cry when she hears the news of him being dead, and so will men he has fed and kept alive until they got work.’

“The other old Gilhoolies and Rileys murmured assent at this, and to a question then asked Gowan replied: ‘Was he liberal? Well, he was. In the good old days, if you had a chowder he would take two tickets, or four, or six most likely, whether he intended to go or not. He got to be sorry for his pocket picking, but never denied it. I’ve heard several ask him about that life, and he’d say back, “Yes, I was a foolish young feller then. I done the things you spoke of.”‘

“‘But remember,’ chimed in another Gilhooley close by, ‘he reformed later and conducted a perfectly respectable policy shop next door.’

“‘Yes,’ added Gowan, ‘for years and years he did a tremendous business and was known as the King of Policy Shops. All the best butchers and other men in Washington Market played there regular. Then others crept in and cut up the business, so I don’t believe he left a dollar. It was all he could do to navigate around the last few months. Poor fellow! He was good and kind and nobly liberal.’

“‘So he was!’ chorused the others.

“It is said that Price never drank or gambled or cursed or smoked in his life.

“Superintendent Byrnes, however, placed a different estimate on Price’s value to the community. In a book he says Price was known as Henry, alias Lewis, alias Gregory, lifelong pickpocket and shoplifter, from Maine to California, as a dangerous character, and served terms in prison in almost every State in the Union. He generally worked with a smart woman.”





#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.


#184 Rudolph Lewis

Rudolph Reuben (1864-19??), aka Rudolph Miller, Frank Bernard, Frank Parker, Charles Fink, Joseph Philips, etc. — Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-one years old in 1886. German, born in the United States. Single. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, 130 pounds. Brown hair, hazel eyes, sallow complexion. Three dots of India ink on inside of left fore-arm. Large ears.

RECORD. Young Rudolph is, perhaps, one of the smartest young thieves in America. He has just started out, and from his career so far he is calculated to develop into a first-class man. He is pretty well known in all the Eastern cities, especially in New York and Boston, where his picture is in the Rogues’ Gallery. He is an associate of Frank Watson, alias Big Patsey, Little Eddie Kelly, Jack McCormack, alias Big Mack, and Charles Lewis, all notorious east side New York thieves.

Lewis was arrested in New York City on September 22, 1883, charged with stealing a piece of silk, valued at $100, from the store of Lewis Brothers, No. 86 Worth Street, New York. He forfeited his bail and went to Boston, Mass., where he was arrested for shoplifting, and sentenced to eighteen months in the House of Correction, on November 19, 1883, under the name of Rudolph Miller.

His time expired in Boston on April 25, 1885, when he was re-arrested on a requisition, and brought back to New York, to answer for the larceny of the piece of silk. Lewis pleaded guilty in the silk case, and was sentenced to two years in Sing Sing prison, on April 3, 1885, by Judge Cowing. His sentence will expire on December 30, 1886. Young Rudolph’s picture is a good one, taken in September, 1883.

Like many police detectives then and now, Inspector Byrnes relished catching talented habitual crooks; so he can be forgiven for predicting–perhaps even wishing–a great criminal career for “Young Rudolph” Reuben. As it turned out, Byrnes was correct: Rudolph victimized fine clothing and jewelry stores for over three decades–when he wasn’t serving prison sentences.

Rudolph was born in New York in 1864 to German immigrants Michael and Sarah Reuben. Rudolph grew up with three old sisters and four younger sisters; by the time that two brothers were added to the family, Rudolph was likely already spending most of his time on the streets of New York (and, for a few years, Detroit).

He was adopted as a trained shoplifter by Marm Mandelbaum, shortly before she was exiled to Ontario. From her he received the support to range out to steal in other cities. He was first captured in Boston in 1883; and upon serving eighteen months there as Rudolph Miller, was returned to New York to repose in his first visit to Sing Sing (for a crime committed prior to going to Boston.) He was imprisoned as Rudolph Lewis.

Undeterred, Rudolph resumed shoplifting as soon as he returned from Sing Sing. He was captured in February, 1887 purloining bolts of material at a silk merchant store. This time he returned to Sing Sing for another two years as Francis “Frank” Parker.

Reuben then apparently had a long string of luck eluding the police from 1889 until 1896. In 1896 and again in 1898 he was sent to Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary for short sentences as, respectively, Frank Roberts and Joseph Roberts.

In December, 1899, Rudolph returned to Sing Sing as Frank Bernard, this time for a three year term for larcenies committed at jewelry stores on Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan. He just completed his sentence there before stealing again and being banished to Blackwell’s Island in March 1902 as Charles Bernstine.

August 1904 found Rudolph back in Sing Sing as Charles Fink, serving two and a half years.

In 1909, Rudolph walked into a Brooklyn jewelry store and asked to see some rings from a case. He grabbed one and ran out the door; however, he was now a forty-five year old man in bad shape, and couldn’t outrun his pursuers. However, before being aught he did swallow the ring. He returned to serve a fifth term at Sing Sing as Joseph Roberts.

In 1913 he bounced back to Blackwell’s Island for a year as George Davis.

In his last years, Reuben appears to have tired of shoplifting, and stayed out of trouble. He had provided a sense of satisfaction to generations of New York police detectives.


#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.












#29 Charles Wilson

Paul C. Wilson (Abt. 1852–????), aka Charles Wilson, Charles Wilks, Little Paul — Sneak thief, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-three years old in 1886. Stout build. Born in England. Not married. Height, 5 feet 2 3/4 inches. Weight, 140 pounds. Brown hair, gray eyes, round full face, light complexion. Whiskers, when grown, are a little sandy.

RECORD. “Little Paul” is quite a clever sneak and shoplifter. He was sent to State prison in New York City in January, 1878, and again on June 18, 1883, for four years, for larceny in the second degree, by Recorder Smyth.

On November 14, 1883, in company of Frank Harrison, alias Frank Reilly (79), he escaped from the mess-room at Sing Sing prison early in the morning, by sawing off the iron bars of a window and crawling into the yard; they then went to the west end of the prison wall, which projects over the Hudson River docks, and there, by means of a convenient float, reached the shore outside the prison wall, where they left their prison clothes and put on civilian’s attire, that had been “planted” there for them some time before.

Paul was re-arrested in New Orleans, La., on January 26, 1884, and returned to Sing Sing prison in February of that year. His full time will expire on June 17, 1887. His picture is a good one, taken in 1878.

Wilson was gifted with a third stint at Sing Sing in November 1893 for Grand Larceny and sentenced to three years and two months.

However, in Wilson’s case, his criminal career is far less interesting than the Gordian’s knot genealogy puzzle he left for future generations. Here are the clues:

  • Despite Byrnes’s assertion, there are multiple sources that place his birth year at around 1852 in Philadelphia, not England.
  • He had the letter “P” tattooed on his right arm. Both Byrnes and Sing Sing registers maintain that his real name was “Paul C. Wilson.”
  • His earliest Sing Sing record, from May 1874, offers his name as Charles Wilks, and his father’s name as James Wilks of Philadelphia (no specific address).
  • His 1883 Sing Sing record uses the name Charles Wilson, and he lists a sister: Mrs. Mary A. Lodge of 715 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
  • His November 1893 Sing Sing record also uses Charles Wilson and lists a cousin, Mrs. C. R. Forepaugh of 303 N Fifth Street, Philadelphia.

And some items to ponder:

  • In 1883, the address 715 Sansom Street in Philadelphia included upstairs apartments: but also was home to the Miller & Sharkey Detective Agency.
  • There was a Mary A. Lodge living in Philadelphia in 1883, married to Louis Lodge. Mary’s maiden name was Farrell. Her paternal grandmother’s name was Mary Wilson. Mary had a brother, Joseph Farrell, born in 1852, whose fate can not be traced into the 1870s or beyond.
  • Mrs. Caroline R. Forepaugh married into the famous Forepaugh circus family. Her maiden name was Lachlan. Nothing can be traced beyond her mother and father’s names–making it possible to know the family names of any cousins.

While it’s fairly obvious that “Little Paul” came from Philadelphia; and used the names of real people as contacts; it also appears that he made something of a game out of hiding his identity.

#121 Mary Ann Watts

Mary Ann Watts (Abt. 1844-????), aka Mary Wilson, Mary Walker — Shoplifter, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-eight years old in 1886. Born in United States. Dressmaker. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 3 1/2 inches. Weight, about 145 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, ruddy complexion. Coarse features.

RECORD. Mary Ann Watts is a well known New York female thief. She is considered a very clever woman, and is known in all the principal cities East and West. She is credited with having served one term in the House of Correction in Boston (Mass.), one in Chicago and Philadelphia, besides two terms in New York State prison and two in the penitentiary.

She was arrested in New York City under the name of Mary Wilson, pleaded guilty to an attempt at grand larceny, and was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison, by Recorder Hackett, on December 19, 1873.

She escaped shortly after, and was at large until her arrest in New York City again for shoplifting. In this case she was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to three years in State prison, by Judge Sutherland, on April 6, 1876.

After this last sentence expired she had to serve out about two years she owed on the previous sentence, making about five years in all. This is a clever woman, and well worth knowing. Her picture is a good one, although taken ten years ago.

Mary Ann Watts was the oldest daughter of English immigrants Isaiah and Emma Watts. Isaiah Watts was a respected, very successful “intelligence agent,” i.e. an employment agency specializing in placing servants in wealthy households. In the late 1860s, she became the partner of a shoplifter going by the name Wilson (James or Joe), and Mary Ann started using the name Mary Wilson. The man Wilson apparently died in prison; Mary Ann then associated herself with David H. Levitt, aka David Goldstein.

In December 1873, Mary Ann was caught shoplifting silks from a Manhattan store and sentenced to five years at Sing Sing. One night in early April 1874, Mary Ann became one of the  few women to escape from Sing Sing (Sophie Lyons was another, in December 1872). She was an assistant in the prison hospital, and therefore was free to walk the cell corridors until 8 PM. With a duplicate key, she opened a door to a laundry room and locked it behind her. She took a ladder that was there (used for washing windows) and carried it outside to the prison’s stone wall. The ladder reached about eight feet, tall enough for Mary Ann to grab the top edge of the wall and pull herself up and over. The warden later reported that “Daniel Levitt” (David H. Levitt) had been present when she first came to the prison; and had been seen just in the nearby village just a few days before her escape.

Collection of Shayne Davidson

A week later, the warden arrested two prison officers implicated in supplying Mary Ann the duplicate key. The same guards were responsible for aiding an earlier Sing Sing escape by James Brady and Bill Miller (the husband of Tilly Miller).

Mary Ann remained a fugitive for the next two years, during which she likely assisted David Levitt and Tilly Miller in a silk-smuggling operation at Niagara Falls, immediately after her escape from Sing Sing. Levitt was caught, but escaped a day later, assisted by a woman who was probably Mary Ann.

In April 1876, Mary Ann was arrested for shoplifting in New York City. She gave her name as Mary Walker, but the arresting detective recognized her as the fugitive from Sing Sing, Mary Ann Watts. In court, she was sentenced to finish her original term, and also another three years for her most recent shoplifting crime.

A year and a half into her return to Sing Sing, seventy-seven female convicts were transferred to Brooklyn’s Kings County Penitentiary via a ship taken down the Hudson. During the voyage, many of the women passed time by whistling a jig and dancing in the ship’s hold, but Mary Ann stood by silently. A guard point her out to a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle who was along for the transfer.

“She stood leaning against the woodwork sullenly, would speak to no one, and took no notice either of the keepers or the convicts. ‘That woman was planning an escape,’ said Mr. Crummey. ‘She found out some time ago that she was to be removed down to Brooklyn, and she tried to smuggle a letter out to some of her friends in New York, but it was discovered. It informed them to be on the lookout for her when the boat landed and to try and effect her rescue. The matron told me about this, and I guess Watts knows it, and that’s the reason she’s so sulky. She’ll be one of the first to be locked up in the prison van. She threatened to cut Mrs. Hall to pieces one time at Sing Sing, and is one of the hardest of the whole crowd.'”

Mary Ann Watts served out her sentence. In 1895, Inspector Byrnes reported that she had reformed.






#30 David Goldstein

David H. Levitt (Abt. 1844-18??), aka Sheeny Dave, Daniel H. Levett/Leavitt/Lovett/Leavett, James Lewis, Louis Lewis, Herman Lewis, Louis/Lewis Ruebenstein, David Goldenberg — Smuggler, Sneak thief, Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-two years old in 1886. A Jew, born in Poland. Married. No trade. Stout build. Height, 5 feet 7 1/2 inches. Weight, 180 pounds. Dark complexion, black hair, dark eyes, cast in left eye. Black beard, when worn. Dresses well. Is very quick in his movements.

RECORD. “Sheeny Dave,” whose right name is David Levitt, is an old New York thief, and is pretty well known in all the principal cities of the United States. He has served time in State prison in a number of States.

He was arrested In Buffalo, N.Y., on January 26, 1878, in company of a man who reformed about six years ago, for shoplifting (working jewelry stores), and both sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in Auburn (N.Y.) prison.

When his time expired he was taken to Baltimore, Md., for a crime committed there, but was not convicted.

He was arrested again in New York City, under the name of James Lewis, on January 15, 1881, for the larceny of two pieces of blue silk from the store of Edward Freitman & Co., No. 473 Spring Street, valued at $140. For this offense, upon his plea of guilty, he was sentenced to two years and six months in State prison at Sing Sing, on April 12, 1881, by Judge Cowing.

He was arrested again in New York City on December 21, 1883, under the name of Samuel Newman, for the larceny of a diamond bracelet, valued at $500, from Kirkpatrick, the jeweler, on Broadway, New York. He was indicted by the Grand Jury on January 10, 1884, and forfeited his bail on January 15, 1884.

He was arrested again on September 30, 1884, in York County, Maine, for picking pockets, and sentenced to three years in prison at Alfred, Maine, under the name of Herman Lewis. For expiration of sentence, see commutation law of Maine. He is still a fugitive from justice, and is wanted in New York City. His picture is an excellent one, taken in January, 1878.

So successful was this felon in issuing aliases that his real name is only suspected to be David H. Levitt, determined by a consensus of arrest and prison records.

Dave’s traceable career begins in April 1874, when he and pickpocket Tilly Miller were caught on the Niagara Falls suspension bridge smuggling silks from Canada. He was taken to Rochester, New York, where he faced trial in a U. S. District Court and was sentenced to six months and a $500 fine, with the time to be served at the Monroe County Penitentiary. However, while waiting to be transported to the Penitentiary, he escaped from the Monroe County Jail with the help of a female accomplice, known on this occasion as “Julia Reilly”. Why Dave chose to be a fugitive rather than take a light sentence is a minor mystery.

Tilly Miller was separately detained. She had been in Canada after fleeing from New York authorities for her role in helping her husband, Billy Miller, escape from Sing Sing with the assistance of bribed guards. The other woman “Julia Reilly,” was likely Mary Ann Watts, a shoplifter that had taken up with Dave Levitt after the death of her common-law pickpocket husband, Joe Wilson. Mary Ann Watts had been residing in Sing Sing until March 1874 (just a month before the smuggling episode), when she escaped using the same accomplices that Tilly Miller had used to free her husband.

Dave Levitt enjoyed his freedom for over a year, probably in the company of his fellow fugitive, Mary Ann Watts. However, in November 1875, he was caught trying to sneak watches off a jeweler’s tray in New York City. He first gave his name as Louis Lewis, but was later recognized as the fugitive David H. Levitt. He was handed back over to U. S. Marshals, and was sent to Auburn prison to serve his time for smuggling.

After being released, Dave was on his own again (Mary Ann Watts had, in the meanwhile, been arrested and sent back to Sing Sing). Dave soon took a new mistress, known only as Teresa. He continued shoplifting from jewelry stores, making a successful raid in early January 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. He sent the loot to Teresa in New York for safekeeping. In late January 1878, he was apprehended in Buffalo after sneaking valuables out of  a jewelry store and was sentenced to one year in Auburn State Prison.

While Dave was in Auburn, Teresa’s step-father stumbled across the hiding-place where she had stored the stolen valuables from Baltimore. He took the loot for himself; Teresa discovered it gone and confronted him, and another man overheard the argument and went to police. After interviewing all the participants, Baltimore officials now had the circumstantial evidence they needed to charge Dave with the robbery. After his time in Auburn expired, he was taken to Baltimore, but the case against him was weak enough to secure his acquittal.

He was caught shoplifting silk in New York City in January 1881, resulting in a two and a half year sentence in Sing Sing. Soon after getting out, he was caught again sneaking objects from a jewelry store in December 1883. He jumped his $500 bail and once more became a fugitive.

Dave then went to Maine, where he was arrested for picking pockets in September 1884. Consequently, he was sent to Maine’s state prison for a three year term.

In the late 1880s, Dave somehow resolved his debt to New York courts, but how this was done remains unknown. In the 1890s, he became a special detective hired, as Byrnes indicated in 1895, “by a major sea resort near New York City.” This was almost certainly John Y. McKane’s Coney Island police force, which was notorious for hiring ex-convicts.

A newspaper item from 1897 mentioned that Dave was no longer alive; the exact date of his death and the name he was using at the time are not known.

#72 William Morgan

William B. Morgan (1852-1887), aka Billy Morgan, William Moran, William Brown, James Sweeney — Sneak thief, Shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-three years old in 1886. Born in New York. Medium build. Single. No trade. Height, 5 feet 8 inches. Weight, about 142 pounds. Brown hair, blue eyes, florid complexion. Has “W. B. Morgan” in India ink on his right arm; one dot of ink on left hand.

RECORD. Billy Morgan is considered one of the smartest till-tappers and shoplifters in the business. He has confined himself to till-tapping and work of that description of late years, and has been arrested in several of the principal cities in America, and is well known in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. He has worked with the best people in this line, and thoroughly understands his business.

He was arrested in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 16, 1880, with “Marsh Market Jake” (38), Little Al. Wilson, and George Williams (194), for the larceny of $2,200 in bank bills from one Henry Ruddy of that city. The whole party were convicted and sentenced to eighteen months in the Eastern Penitentiary at Philadelphia on April 26, 1880.

Since his release he has been traveling through the country working almost every kind of schemes to get money. He has been arrested in New York several times. An account of all his arrests would fill many pages. His picture is a very good one, taken while under arrest, in August, 1882.

Billy Morgan was a habitual, but not particularly notorious thief. He was arrested for grand larceny in 1870, at age 18, and sent to Sing Sing on a two-year sentence under the name William Brown in December 1870.

He was arrested again for attempted larceny, shoplifting clothing, in October 1874 and sentenced to Sing Sing again for another two years.

The April 1880 sneaking of bank bills in a gang led by Marsh Market Jake resulted in his arrest in Philadelphia under the name William Moran. [Charles J. Everhardt, on this occasion, used a little wit in giving his alias as “William Helburne.”]

No further criminal activities of Morgan are documented. In his 1895 edition, Byrnes indicates that Morgan died suddenly in New York City on November 5, 1887, at age 35. He left behind a wife, Hester Logan, and a daughter, Hester Morgan.

#149 John Williams

John Williams (Abt. 1852-1887), aka John Williamson — Pickpocket, Shoplifter, Fence

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-five years old in 1886. Born in New York. Single. Jeweler. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, about 140 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, light complexion. Generally wears a light brown mustache.

RECORD. Johnny Williams is a very clever New York pickpocket and shoplifter. He is also well known in every Important city in the United States. He is an associate of Poodle Murphy (134), Tim Oats (136), Nibbs (137), Big Dick Morris (141), Pretty Jimmie (143), Boston (144), Jersey Jimmie (145), Joe Gorman (146), and all the clever people. He is credited with purchasing almost everything that the New York thieves steal. Since his return from State prison he has been traveling around the country with a gang of pickpockets, and although arrested several times, he manages to keep out of State prison. He is now keeping a jewelry store on Sixth Avenue, New York City.

He was arrested in New York City on April 1, 1876, in company of John Meyers, charged with stealing a roll of cloth from the store of Albert Schichts, No. 88 Greenwich Street, New York City. Meyers and Williams both pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to five years each in State prison, by Judge Gildersleeve, on June 5, 1876. There were three other cases against these people, at this time, which were not prosecuted. Williams’s picture is an excellent one, taken in 1876.

The one specific conviction that Inspector Byrnes associates with John Williams was committed under the name John Williamson, although in the Sing Sing entry record, John offered his mother’s name, Ann Williams.

Given these bare facts, nothing more can be discovered about this man. Upon his death at an early age, he received a dismissive obituary:


Even his death provided little clue to his origins; no entries have been found for him in New York death records or burial records.