Part I of II
By Mel Freilicher
As the city’s premier fence, Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German-Jewish immigrant, accumulated more money and power than any woman in the Gilded Age, inconceivable for any woman engaged in legitimate business. A July 1884 New York Times article called her “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.”
Her quite infamous career began as purveyor of stolen wares to dry goods merchants, legitimate commercial establishments, and many individuals, some in the underworld: first as a pushcart peddler, then out of a storefront on the lower east side, connected to a warehouse chock full of purloined merchandise of all kinds. It’s believed she herself never stole anything, but worked strictly as a fence.
Marm was intimately connected to Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party’s utterly corrupt political machine. Later in her career, Marm financed some of the “most daring and successful bank robberies ever perpetrated,” as the Times stated. She also opened a school for crime, where young boys and girls were taught by professionals to be pickpockets, and sneak thieves, with advanced classes in safecracking and burglary.
She herself mentored major female crime figures of the era to be high class thieves and run confidence schemes. Quoted as saying she wanted to help any women who “are not wasting life being a housekeeper,” some contemporary feminist historians view Mandelbaum as a Gilded Age heroine.
And she got away with it all! It’s estimated Marm handled between 1 and 5 million dollars’ worth of stolen goods until she fled the country in 1884, while out on bail, with an estimated fortune of one million dollars. (Canada had no real extradition treaty with the U.S. until the 1970s.) Upon leaving, she even managed to transfer various real estate holdings–tenements and warehouses in New Jersey and Brooklyn mostly used to store stolen merchandise–into her daughters’ names so the law couldn’t touch them.
The obstacles Fredericka Mandelbaum faced were truly staggering. She and her husband, Wolf, originally emigrated from Germany in 1850 due to the potato blight coming on top of almost insurmountable anti-Semitism, following the failed 1848 revolution. Wolf was a peddler: his choice of occupations severely limited by anti-Semitic laws, including disproportionate taxes on Jews, even prohibitions on marrying. A Jewish man who wanted to marry had to purchase an expensive certificate, known as a matrikel, proving he was working in a respectable job.
Marm voyaged to America in steerage class with their one-year old daughter, Bessie. Being confined below deck to a passageway that was seven feet long, two feet wide with a ceiling of six feet was particularly difficult since Fredericka herself was nearly six feet tall and weighed over 250 pounds. The press was often vicious about her massive girth. A January 1884 New York Times article described, “a gross woman, a German Jewess, with heavy, almost masculine features, restless black eyes, and a dark, unhealthy looking complexion. Her stout figure was encased in a rich sealskin cloak … On her big hand were brown kid gloves … On her head rested a black bonnet with beads and bright colored feathers.”
Arriving safely in New York despite epidemics of cholera and dysentery endemic to steerage class, they were reunited with Wolf. But the infant Bessie died a few years later in the Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) slum where the Mandelbaums lived in one room, in a tenement with no indoor plumbing, heating or sewage disposal. Health Department records from the period indicated nearly 75 percent of children under the age of 2 died each year from rampant strains of tuberculosis, typhus, cholera, chicken pox, poor nutrition and sanitation. Sixty-five immigrant children died to every 8 non-immigrant children.
Husband and wife both became successful street peddlers. Continually expanding her contacts, it was said Fredericka never bought any stolen goods unless she already had a buyer in mind. By 1865, the Mandelbaums were able to move to a nearby clapboard house with a store and basement for storage attached. The highly industrialized six-block area of their neighborhood was home to more than 3,600 people as well as iron foundries, brick and sewing machine factories, and coal, lumber, lime and stone yards.
From all accounts, Fredericka was a devoted mother to her four children. When Wolf became seriously ill with tuberculosis in 1870, she dutifully cared for him for five years until his death. Seemingly, he had no part in the evolution of her criminal enterprise which dramatically accelerated after his death.
Remaining in her residence, just one block from a police station, Marm built an elaborate hiding apparatus within the store—a chimney with a fake back, behind which was a dumbwaiter operated by the pull of a secret lever–and dealt in just about everything that came her way: not just silk, lace, diamonds, gold and silver, but also horses and carriages. She ended up selling a large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 for a sizable profit.
Steadily building her clientele, while being schooled by some of the city’s top criminals, Marm’s efforts were greatly facilitated by the reign of Boss Tweed, ultra-corrupt leader of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine, and Mayor Fernando Wood who began as a reformist, and became, arguably, the most corrupt mayor in New York history. They controlled the treasury, and every money-making operation, including cronyism in city contracts, the judiciary, gambling dens, houses of prostitution.
Within 3 miles of City Hall were more than 4,000 prostitutes, inhabiting approximately 400 brothels, some of which established telegraphic communication with the police department to be warned of any impending raid, and to summon help. Between 1865 and 1871, Tweed and his gang stole anywhere from $30 million to $200 million from the city, with the Criminal Courts building project at the heart of their empire. Begun in 1861, it was supposed to cost the city $350,000. By 1869, nearly $11 million had been spent.
At the height of his power, Boss Tweed was the third richest landlord in the City: proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, and thanks to Jay Gould, a director of both the Tenth National Bank and the Erie Railroad, in which Gould had controlling interest due to his $1 million bribe to the New York legislature to legalize the issuing of $8 million in “watered stock” (stock not representing real value). The first time Tweed was in jail, his $1 million bail was posted by Gould who, like all the robber barons, had paid $300 for a substitute to go into military service, and started building their fortunes during the Civil War (many by selling shoddy materials to both sides).
In 1857, the New York State legislature passed laws to do away with the Municipal Police Force, controlled by Mayor Wood’s office, and replace it with a state run force. Wood refused to disband his department. When state officials tried to arrest him, his police force surrounded City Hall to protect him, and a riot broke out between the competing squadrons.
Even though he was driven from office, in 1860 Wood was reelected as a Democrat opposing the coming Civil War, openly siding with the Confederates (after which Wood spent 14 years in the House of Representatives where he vigorously opposed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery). “With our aggrieved brethren of the slave states, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy,” he told the press.
A sentiment evidently popular with much of the electorate. An estimated 50 to 70,000 people participated in the Anti-Conscription riots of 1863, a week-long orgy of destruction; some individual mobs swarming through the streets “contained as many as 10,000 frenzied men and women,” Herbert Asbury notes in his 1927 study, THE GANGS OF NEW YORK.
Descriptions in GOTHAM: A History of New York City to 1898 are horrifyingly vivid. The Armory was ransacked and burnt to the ground. Homes of wealthy Republicans were sacked, commuter trains stoned, a group of Irishwomen crowbarred up the tracks of one of the lines, neighborhoods were barricaded. Police were stoned, and killed. “As small isolated detachments of police reserves were sent into the area they were routed and stomped their bodies stripped, their faces smashed.”
Then the race riot began. “Bands of Irish longshoremen, with quarrymen, street pavers, teamsters and cartmen began chasing blacks, screaming ‘Kill all niggers!’” Waterfront tenements, dance halls, brothels, bars and boarding houses which catered to black workingmen were attacked. The 237 children (mostly under twelve years old) housed in the Colored Orphan Asylum were heroically rescued by a young Patrick McCafferty who shepherded them to the 20th Precinct house while “the crowd smashed pianos, carried off carpets and iron bedsteads, uprooted the trees, shrubs, and fences, then set the building ablaze.”
Black neighborhoods in lower New York were set upon; bands of boys would mark houses by stoning windows, then return with older men to finish the job. Black individuals caught on the street were shot, hung, lynched and lit on fire. Racially mixed couples were especially targeted.
Marm, who never publicly expressed an opinion on slavery, loved to throw lavish dinner parties a la Mrs. Astor where the criminal fraternity mingled with the social elite—judges, lawyers, politicians. Clearly, whether such lines had ever been more than theoretical, they were utterly obliterated by the rapaciousness of the robber barons and their political functionaries. In fact, Boss Tweed, who she’d been paying off for years, was Marm’s frequent dinner guest.
Finally given a 12-year prison sentence, it was rumored Marm financed Tweed’s escape, under guard, first to Cuba then to Spain. But the U.S. government arranged for his arrest at the Spanish border where he was recognized from Thomas Nast’s political cartoons in Harper’s Weekly. Tweed died in a New York jail.
Part II will appear tomorrow, Nov. 28
Longtime San Diego resident, writer, educator, and activist Mel Freilicher was the editor of the regional literary journal Crawl Out Your Window for 15 years and taught at San Diego State and in UCSD’s literature department for several decades. In addition to this, Mel has published in a wide range of publications and anthologies and he has 3 books published by San Diego City Works Press.