Part II of II. Part I can be found here.
By Mel Freilicher
Some of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum’s “little chicks,” as she called her pack of master criminals, cultivated after the Civil War, were themselves declasse bluebloods, like Charlie Bullard, boarding school educated and classically trained, with ancestors reaching back to the Mayflower. With long, nimble fingers, ”Piano Charlie” played the instrument like a professional, was an expert safecracker, and one of the city’s most skilled and daring burglars.
The invaluable Bullard entertained her dinner guests, playing anything from Beethoven’s “Sonata in C sharp minor” to the popular “Little Brown Jug” on the white baby grand that adorned Marm’s extravagant dining room. His skills as a butcher also provided the finest cuts of meat for her dinner parties.
When he was arrested during a train robbery, Marm wasn’t about to let him languish in jail. Her lawyers—she kept the city’s premier criminal defense lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, on a $5,000 a year retainer– failed to get “Piano Charlie” released, so Marm assembled a team of several proteges who successfully broke him out of the White Plains, New York jail: led by another key player, Max Shinburn, who called himself “the Baron,” wore expensive clothes, sometimes donning a full-length ermine cape.
Shinburn eventually sailed to Europe where by judicious expenditures he actually bought the title of Baron Shindel of Monaco. Eventually, though, he was sent to prison in Belgium, then again in upstate New York. Finally released in 1908, Shinburn wrote a history of safecracking, with the presumably unintentionally ironic title, Safe Burglary: Its Beginnings and Progress: deemed so instructive for novices it was never published, and remains to this day in the Pinkerton Detective Agency archives.
Marm was quite successful in planning and financing major crimes, especially bank robberies. She invested about $2,500 to purchase the most modern tools to carry out the 1878 Manhattan Savings Institution heist which netted approximately $3 million in cash and securities. Some of them were caught, but detectives could never link Marm to the robbery.
She also established a school for crime on Grand Street in lower Manhattan, again not far from police headquarters. Advanced level courses in burglary, safe-cracking, blackmailing and confidence schemes were free to the most astute students who were often offered salaried positions: Marm providing bail and legal defense, if necessary, and bribing police and judges on their behalf. This highly respected school for criminals was forced to close shop after 6 years, when Marm discovered the son of a prominent police official had enrolled.
She had mentored some of the most famous and successful women criminals, like Black Lena (Kleinschmidt) and the glamorous Sophie Lyon, fine-tuning their pick-pocketing and confidence skills: directing them to concentrate their attentions on merchandise from the highest class stores that could readily be turned into cash—cashmere, shawls, jewelry, sealskin bags, and especially bolts of silk.
But without paying the hefty percentage of her earnings owed to Marm, Black Lena moved to Hackensack New Jersey, and began modeling herself after her mentor—throwing expensive dinner parties, and climbing the Hackensack social ladder. Despite her newfound notoriety, she spent two days a week in New York, plying her trade, outside of Marm’s control. Lena was exposed when she showed up to her own dinner party sporting a diamond ring stolen from one of her guests. Lena died in prison in 1886.
It was said Marm treated her most prominent student like a daughter. Sophie Lyons, young and beautiful, came from an aristocracy of criminals. Born Sophie Levy in 1848, her father was a notorious burglar, her mother a renowned pickpocket and shoplifter; her grandfather an infamous burglar in England. Both parents were in jail when waif-like Sophie was 16, and Marm took it upon herself to complete her education.
Sophie is credited as the first to use the “kleptomaniac” defense, on advice of her attorney, William Howe. She wormed her way out of many other tight spots, including Sing Sing! She and her husband (the second of four), Ned Lyons, were both in the prison at the same time, and they managed to break each other out! Moving to Paris with her next husband, she hobnobbed with the upper crust: it was rumored the couple had been guests of the Prince of Wales.
Sophie didn’t learn to read and write until she was 25, but went on to learn four languages. Hiring tutors to help, also with art, music, and history, she passed herself off as a cultured lady of exquisite taste and upbringing, assuming the nom de plume of Madame de Varney–until she was caught trying to lift a diamond necklace from a host’s bedroom during a gala party.
After spending three years in a Detroit jail, Sophie decided to go straight. In 1897, “the Princess of Crime” became one of the first society gossip columnists in the country, writing for the New York World, and a Detroit real estate magnate, owning more than 40 houses. She dedicated the rest of her life to funding prison libraries and orphanages: credited with spending thousands of dollars on food, clothing and rent for the families of prisoners.
In 1913, as part of her rejuvenated image, Sophie wrote a memoir, entitled Why Crime Does Not Pay. This material, in public domain, was reissued by Combustion Books as part of their Rogue Gallery series, with the title, Queen of the Underworld. As the editor points out, it was the style at the time “to release these lurid and truthful descriptions of the joys of criminal life under titles that denounced the crimes within.”
Hilariously, Sophie (who writes harshly about Fredericka, a sinister and “very wealthy, fat, ugly old woman”) ends practically every passage detailing her zesty escapades with a homily about how crime does not pay. One chapter, for example, is entitled: “How I escaped from Sing Sing, and other daring escapes from prison that profited us nothing.”
In the 1880s, Marm and her son Julius staved off a number of indictments involving stolen goods which they had fenced. But Pinkerton detectives were out to nail Marm. While out on bail, she and her son fled the country.
But first, under constant surveillance, she managed to put her real estate holdings in the name of her daughters, also making it impossible for the courts to claim the property of her friends who’d put up their bail bonds. Two of them had used their homes as collateral. Marm arranged to have these properties transferred first to her daughter then summarily back to the relatives of the bondsmen. No property, no bail money.
When Marm and her son first got to Canada, they were arrested for smuggling stolen property across the border. Her initial attempts to bribe Canadian police failed, but when the owner of the Troy, New York jewelry store who had reported the robbery of diamonds, allegedly worth $4,000, was unable to identify the pieces as the stolen goods, charges were dropped. Marm paid a duty charge of $614 and settled into life in Hamilton.
She bought a two-story, whitewashed house along the main street, and regularly attended services at the Shalom Hebrew congregation. Her younger children moved to Hamilton, and sometime in 1886, she opened a small dry goods store. Although a reporter from the National Police Gazette noted all her merchandise came from New York, had no identifying labels, and was selling at incredibly low prices, Marm and her family were never hampered in Hamilton.
As in New York, Fredericka became a visibly active member of the Hamilton community; offering help and charity whenever possible, she became known for her kindness and generosity. When Marm died in 1894, at age 65, of kidney disease, the obituary notice in the Hamilton Spectator mentioned her criminal past, but called her “a woman of kindly disposition, broad sympathies, and large intelligence.”
Her body was returned to New York City for burial at the family plot in Union Fields cemetery in Queens. A huge crowd of mourners, including former neighbors and friends, legitimate businessmen, police, judges, reporters, curiosity seekers and a score of well-known criminals, all turned out to pay their final respects to the “Queen of Thieves.”
Note: The information here comes chiefly from J. North Conway’s QUEEN OF THIEVES: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and her Gangs of New York, and Edwin Burrows’ & Mike Wallace’s, Pulitzer Prize winning, GOTHAM: A History of New York City to 1890.
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.