#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?'”






#13 William Ogle

William J. Ogle (1854-1889), aka Billy Ogle, Frank Somers — Burglar, forger

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Thirty-two years old in 1886. Born in New York. Medium build. Married. Height, 5 feet 7 inches. Weight, 148 pounds. Brown hair, brown eyes, fair complexion. Wears sandy mustache and sometimes side whiskers.

RECORD. Billy Ogle is a good general thief. He fell in with Charles Vanderpool, alias Brockway, some years ago, and worked with him up to the Providence job in August, 1880. He does not confine himself to any particular kind of work. He is a handy burglar, good sneak, and first-class second-story man.

Ogle was arrested in Chicago with Charles Vanderpool, alias Brockway, in 1879, for forgery on the First National Bank of that city. Brockway was bailed in $10,000, in consequence of some information he gave to the authorities, and the case never was tried. Ogle was also finally discharged. He was arrested shortly after, in 1879, in Orange, N.J., for an attempt at burglary, and on a second trial he luckily escaped with six months’ imprisonment.

Ogle was again arrested in New York City and convicted for uttering a forged check for $2,490, drawn on the Phoenix Bank of New York, purported to be signed by Purss & Young, brokers, of Wall Street, New York City. He was sentenced to five years in State prison by Judge Cowing, on June 14, 1880. His counsel appealed the case, and Judge Donohue, of the Supreme Court, granted him a new trial, and he was released on $2,500 bail in July, 1880. Andy Gilligan and Charles Farren, alias the “Big Duke,” were also arrested in connection with this forgery. While out on bail in this case, Ogle was again arrested in Providence, R.I., on August 16, 1880, with Charles O. Brockway and Joe Cook, alias Havill, a Chicago sneak, in an attempt to pass two checks, one on the Fourth National Bank for $1,327, and the other, of $1,264, on the old National Bank of that city. He was convicted for this offense, and sentenced to three years in State prison on October 2, 1880, under the name of Frank Somers.

His time expired in August, 1883. He was arrested again in the spring of 1884 for a “second-story job,” with John Tracy, alias Big Tracy. They robbed the residence of John W. Pangborn, on Belmont Avenue, Jersey City Heights, of diamonds and jewelry valued at $1,500. He was convicted for this offense on June 26, 1884. His counsel obtained a new trial for him in July, 1884, upon which he was tried and acquitted. Big Tracy was also discharged, and they both went West.

In the fall of 1885 Ogle was arrested in Tennessee, and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary for house work. He shortly afterwards made his escape from a gang while working out on a railroad, and is now at large. Ogle’s picture is a good one, taken in 1880.

William J. Ogle was one of (allegedly) twenty-one children fathered by Dr. Ralph Ogle, an Irish veterinarian who emigrated to New York. Several of those offspring likely did not survive childhood; and those that did came from two separate mothers. Dr. Ogle became one of New York’s leading horse surgeons; and enjoyed driving and racing horses of his own. His sons grew up in the world of the horse racing “fancy,”  Tammany ward politics, corner saloons–and criminals. Thomas, the sole son from Ralph’s first marriage, grew up to be a horseman and successful veterinarian like his father. However, the boys from the second marriage were a different story.

William J.Ogle, or “Billy,” was born in 1854, and was the next oldest brother of the clan to make it to adulthood. He was the first to run afoul of the law in 1879 as Byrnes indicates, both for a burglary in New Jersey and in Chicago for passing forged checks (supplied to him by Charles O. Brockway). Though he escaped conviction in both cases, he still chose to work with Brockway, passing checks in New York and later in 1880 with George B. Havill in Providence, Rhode Island. He was imprisoned for three years in that state, and returned to New York on his release in 1883.

In 1884, Billy and John Tracy were arrested for a house burglary in Jersey City, N.J.; once again, with the best lawyers his father could afford (the ubiquitous Howe & Hummel), Billy Ogle escaped prison. Byrnes indicates that John Tracy was arrested for the New Jersey burglaries with Ogle; but other sources say it was James “Big Kentuck” Williams. At any rate, Billy and John Tracy then went out west, and were caught during a burglary in Tennessee. Both Billy Ogle and Tracy were put on a chain gang and later escaped.


Even before Billy went west, his two younger brothers, Sam and George, were steeped in trouble of their own. In late 1882, the two brothers were entrusted with $100 meant to be delivered to a Twelfth Ward alderman, but instead stopped off at their favorite watering holes and started spending freely. Another loyal Tammany man in the bar questioned their honesty, and spat beer in George’s face. In the next moment, the man had a surgical scalpel poking through his heart. “You’ve killed me,” he muttered, and fell to the floor, dead.

Witnesses first claimed that it was Sam who used the weapon (which was never found), and he was arrested, but ultimately released once the witnesses were asked to verify their stories. Focus then shifted to George, who was tipped off and fled to Montana (or Texas, according to different reports). George returned in 1885 and was arrested for the murder. At his trial, his brother Sam was called as a witness, and tried to implicate himself–but the prosecution would not permit him to do so. Instead, brother George was found guilty of murder and sentenced to Sing Sing for life. Dr. Ralph Ogle had spent $19,000 trying to get him off.

Dr. Ogle thought he had $1000 left in the bank after that. But he received a notice that his account was overdrawn, and upon investigation, bank detectives found that his account had been emptied by a checked forged by his youngest son, Ralph “Harry” Ogle. There was little his father could do–the lad was arrested and sent to Sing Sing, joining his brother George. Within weeks, son Samuel succumbed to illness, and passed away at age 29.

Billy Ogle, the fugitive from the chain gang, reappeared at his parents house sometime between Samuel’s death in 1887 and 1889. However, disease struck him, too, and he died in 1889 at age 34. Dr. Ralph Ogle worked hard to make enough money to grease the wheels and got his son George pardoned from his life sentence in 1898. In 1887, the New York Sun ran an article on Dr. Ogle’s woes. It didn’t even mention Billy Ogle:




#116 Mary Holbrook

Mollie/Molly Holbrook (1838-?) aka Hoey/Hoy — Pickpocket, shoplifter

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Forty-eight years old in 1886. Born in Ireland. Married. Housekeeper. Medium build. Height, 5 feet 2 inches. Weight, about 135 pounds. Light hair, blue eyes, light complexion. Shows her age.

RECORD. Mollie Holbrook was in early life a resident of the West End, in Boston, Mass. She is well known in Chicago and in all the principal cities of the United States. She has served terms in prison in Boston, Chicago, and New York, and is without doubt the most notorious and successful female thief in America. She is well known of late years as the wife of Jimmy Hoey, alias Orr, a negotiator of stolen property.

Mollie was formerly married to one George Holbrook, alias Buck Holbrook, a well known Chicago gambler and thief. He kept a sporting house in Chicago, also a road house on Randolph Street, over which Mollie presided. “Buck” was arrested for a bank robbery in Illinois in 1871, and sent to State prison. He was shot and killed while attempting to escape from there. He had dug up the floor of his cell and tunneled under the prison yard, and was in the act of crawling out of the hole outside the prison wall, when he was riddled with buckshot by a prison guard.

In January, 1872, Mollie was arrested in Chicago, on complaint of her landlady, who charged her with stealing forty dollars from her. Mollie deposited $1,200 in money as bail, and after her discharge she came to New York City, fell in with Jimmy Hoey, and married him. She was arrested in New York City for robbing a Western man in her house in Chicago of $25,000, on March 3, 1874, on a requisition from Illinois, and delivered to a detective of the Chicago police force. While at Hamilton, Canada, on their way back to Chicago, Mollie threw herself into the arms of a Canadian policeman and demanded protection. She had the officer arrested for attempting to kidnap her. They were taken before a magistrate and Mollie was discharged. The officer returned to Chicago, and lost his position for his bad judgment. Mollie was arrested again in New York City on the same complaint on July 16, 1874, and returned safely to Chicago, where she was sent to prison.

She was arrested in Boston, Mass., on April 17, 1878, for picking pockets, and gave the name of Mary Williams (which is supposed to be her maiden name). She was released on $1,000 bail, and forfeited it. She was arrested again in Boston on March 19, 1883, for picking pockets at Jordan & Marsh’s dry goods store. This time she gave the name of Mary Harvey, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year in State prison, in April, 1883. After her sentence expired in Boston she was arrested coming out of the prison by New York officers, taken to that city, and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, on March 3, 1884, for the larceny of a pocket-book from Catharine Curtis, some years before. This time Mollie gave the name of Lizzie Ellen Wiggins. After her conviction she gave the District Attorney of New York some information that led to the finding of a number of indictments against Mrs. Mandelbaum, who. fled to Canada. For this she was pardoned by Governor Cleveland on January 5, 1885.

Mollie was arrested again in Chicago, Ill., on September 25, 1885, charged with attempting to pick a lady’s pocket in Marshal Field’s store. She gave bail, and is now a fugitive from justice in Windsor, Canada. She occasionally pays Detroit a visit, where Jimmy Hoey is located. Mollie Holbrook is looked upon by her associates in crime as a woman that would sacrifice any one to save herself from prison. It is well known that this woman has been in the employ of the police in a number of large cities, and has furnished them with considerable information. Her husband, Jimmy Hoey, is an unprincipled scamp, and lives entirely upon the proceeds of his wife’s stealings, often selling the plunder and acting as a go-between for Mollie and receivers, of stolen goods, he of late years not having sufficient courage to steal. Mollie’s picture is an excellent one, taken in March, 1883.

Widely acknowledged as the most notorious female thief in America from the 1860s through the 1880s. She was known to the nation’s police departments mainly as a pickpocket and shoplifter, but began her traceable career as a Clark Street “panel-room” brothel madam in Chicago, where clients were robbed while they were distracted by an accomplice hiding behind a partition.


Holbrook’s origins are unknown, as is her real name. Byrnes states that her maiden name was Williams and that she came from Boston’s West End, but without more information, that would be impossible to verify. She only came to public notice once she moved to Chicago and took up with Buck Holbrook, a street-tough thief. She was arrested under the name Mollie Holbrook several times in Chicago between 1868-1869 for operating a disorderly house.

In August 1869 (not 1871, as Byrnes asserts), Buck Holbrook went with a few of his pals to rob banks in western Illinois, but were captured and jailed in the town of Hennepin. The jail building was not secure, but a guard had been hired and told to shoot first and ask questions later. Holbrook and two other men managed to get past the buildings walls, but were spotted by the guard, who opened fire with a double-barrel shotgun. Holbrook was hit and dead before he hit the ground, his head and torso struck by seventy-eight pieces of buckshot. One of the others stopped and surrendered; the third was recaptured the next day.

Mollie came down from Chicago to retrieve the body of Holbrook, horribly disfigured. In Hennepin, she told those gathered around the body, “We all know that Buck was not on the square; but he was always a good and kind man to me.”  Which is about as good an elegy that someone like Buck deserved. Mollie gave Holbrook a fine funeral in Chicago, attended by over a hundred of the city’s thieves, roughs, and prostitutes.

Mollie then took up with one James “Jimmy” Hoye, with whom she worked as a pickpocket. Hoye served as the “moll buzzer,” following Mollie into crowds and taking the goods that Mollie lifted as soon as the act was done–so that Mollie would never be caught with the evidence. She was arrested in New York State by a Chicago detective Ed Miller in early 1874; he foolishly attempted to bring her back via the Grand Trunk Railroad which runs partly through Canada. In Kingston, Ontario, she leapt off the train and sought protection from the police. Ed Miller had no requisition papers, so the Canadian official refused to hand her over. She later contrived to escape across the river to the United States. A few months later, former-Detective Miller–in an effort to regain his job– brought a woman to Chicago from Troy, New York, that he claimed was Mollie Holbrook–but was proven wrong.

By the early 1880s, Mary was working northeast cities as a pickpocket. She was arrested several times in Boston and New York, but either jumped bail or got off through the talents of her New York lawyers, Howe & Hummel. She took her stolen goods to the infamous New York fence, Marm Mandelbaum. In 1884 she was rearrested on one of the old charges and sentenced to five years at the prison on Blackwell’s island. During her court appearances, she appealed once more to Mandelbaum to provide legal assistance, but it was not forthcoming. Mollie took revenge by negotiating with New York’s District Attorney to offer testimony against Mrs. Mandelbaum–it was due to this pressure that Marm Mandelbaum was forced out of New York and retired to Hamilton, Ontario. According to the New York Times, Mollie also offered the DA information on Chief Byrnes extra-legal arrangements.


In September 1886, Mollie and Hoey were arrested in Cleveland, Ohio. Mollie was placed in the county jail. Using a pair of scissors and a hairpin, Mollie and an 18-year-old young male prisoner were able to remove a section of wall bricks and crawl to freedom; this occurred just days after the sheriff had boasted that no one had escaped from his jail.

After 1886, traces of Mollie Holbrook disappear. Rumors suggested that she and James Hoey left the United States and went to Europe.