Queen of Thieves

Meet ‘The Queen of Thieves’ Marm Mandelbaum, New York City’s First Mob Boss

During the Gilded Age, the city’s first crime ring came into power under a leader who taught the best criminals, bribed those in power, and made a fortune. Meet ‘Marm’ Mandelbaum.

New York City Streets were infested with “street-rats” during the Gilded Age—orphaned or abandoned children without any formal education who lived on the streets, slept in alleyways, vacant buildings, and warehouses, and were left to fend for themselves, scavenging for food, destined for a life of desolation. But Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum saw in them an opportunity to grow her own criminal enterprise.

She opened a school for crime on Grand Street, where these young street urchins of all ages and both genders were taught criminal trades by professional sneak thieves and pickpockets. The more accomplished students took classes in safe-cracking, burglary, blackmail, and confidence games.

The Grand Street school became the most highly esteemed institution for young criminals in the country. The best and brightest graduates were offered salaried positions with Mandelbaum, but they had to turn over everything they stole directly to her and no one else.

This was just one of the means through which Mandelbaum, a German-Jewish immigrant, became the most influential crime figure in New York City during the Gilded Age, accumulating more money and power than any woman of her era and at a level inconceivable for any women engaged in legitimate business. As the country’s premier fence (receiver of stolen property), she became the head of one of the first organized crime rings and was a driving force behind New York City’s festering underworld for more than twenty-five years. A July 1884 New York Times article called her “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.”

Mandelbaum’s rise to infamy began in 1850, when she left Germany for America. Mandelbaum began her climb to the top of the crime world as a peddler on the rough-and-tumble, bustling streets of New York City. Because of her height (she was close to six feet tall) and her massive girth (she weighed nearly 300 pounds), she easily stood out among the throng of street vendors. But it was more than just her physical presence that drew people to her. She quickly established a reputation as a fair trader among legitimate customers as well as a trusted ally to criminals trying to sell their stolen goods. It was this latter quality that led her to become one of the most sought after fences in New York City, propelling her to a place of prominence in the criminal world.

Mandelbaum was savvy enough to realize, even in the earliest years of her climb to power, that she could not carry on her business without the support of the corrupt political powers, the judicial system, and the police—from the cop walking his beat to those in command of the city. Knowing full well the power of the almighty dollar and how it fed the ongoing corruption at every level, she religiously paid bribes to these three forces (politicians, police, and judges), which allowed her criminal operation to grow unabated over the years.

By 1864, her enterprise, buying stolen merchandise from criminals and reselling it at a profit, had become so successful, that she was able to move off the streets and buy a three-story building at Clinton and Rivington Streets, where she opened a haberdashery shop on the ground floor. For decades, this served as a respectable front for the biggest fencing operation in the history of the country.

To help protect her operation, Mandelbaum kept the prestigious law firm, Howe & Hummel, two of the most devious and successful criminal lawyers in the country, on a $5,000-a-year retainer. Whenever a member of her gang got into trouble, she offered bail and legal defense if it was needed and bribed police and judges to fix the case. She called her well-organized cadre of criminals her “little chicks,” and they called her “Marm,” which was short for “mother,” because, like a mother hen, she hovered over them, guiding and nurturing their notorious careers. “They call me Ma because I give them money and horses and diamonds,” Mandelbaum reportedly said.

Among all the up-and-coming criminals that Mandelbaum nurtured and trained, she was partial to helping young women get a foothold in her illicit world. She was once quoted as saying that she wanted to help all women who “are not wasting life being a housekeeper.” Because of these efforts, even if they did involve the world of crime, some contemporary feminist historians view Mandelbaum as a Gilded Age heroine for her willingness to assist women finding work and helping them make more money than they could have as housekeepers, maids, seamstresses, or factory workers.

In another of her “mother hen” moments, Mandelbaum once arranged a successful jail-break to get her favorite piano player, Piano Charley Bullard, out of prison since she missed the piano concertos he played at her extravagant parties. Bullard, a handsome, raffish, classically educated piano player, was also a notorious safecracker who squandered his ill-gotten gains on wine, women, and gambling. But most importantly, he was one of Mandelbaum’s favorite “little chicks.” While Bullard was serving time for stealing $100,000 worth of merchandise, Mandelbaum’s henchmen rented an office building across the street from the jail, tunneled into Bullard’s cell, and, after bribing two guards, successfully executed his escape.

By 1880 Mandelbaum had become the premier receiver of stolen merchandise in the country and one of the most powerful figures in organized crime, amassing a personal fortune estimated at more than $1 million. She owned tenements in the city as well as warehouses in New Jersey and Brooklyn, where she stored stolen merchandise that she openly bought and sold. As her business flourished, Mandelbaum furnished her second floor living quarters with expensive furniture, draperies, paintings, and silverware that had been stolen from some of the finest homes and mansions in New York City. Polite society, for its part, begrudgingly accepted the Queen of Thieves, as she was known, despite everyone’s knowledge of her criminal enterprise. She held ostentatious dinner parties at her home where many of the country’s most celebrated criminals mingled freely with the members of New York City’s fashionable elite, including judges, police, legitimate businessmen, and politicians. Two of the most shady and powerful politicians of the era: Mayor Fernando Woods, considered the most corrupt mayor in the city’s history and William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the prototypical unscrupulous political boss, were frequent visitors to her home, But it wasn’t just the city’s crooked element who enjoyed her hospitality: everyone who was anyone cherished the opportunity to be invited to one of her many soirées.

In order to grow her operation, Mandelbaum opened the Grand Street school of crime, where she met and trained her top protégé, Sophie Lyons. One of the schools most infamous students, Lyons became a top confidence woman in the country and was known appropriately enough as “The Princess of Crime.” Mandelbaum, tall, fat and unattractive, was drawn to the waif-like beauty of Lyons and saw in her the image of how she wished she had been. Since the crime boss forbid her own daughters from engaging in any criminal activity, she wanted to have someone, a woman in particular, learn the ropes from her. Lyons was her choice.

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Beautiful, daring and smart, Sophie managed to elude arrest on many occasions. During one incident, the police were beside themselves thinking they had finally apprehended the notorious Sophie Lyons in the act of stealing. Lyons managed to talk her way out of arrest by claiming that the real Sophie Lyons would have been too smart to have been caught by such inept police officers. She reportedly told them, “Sophie Lyons is a hardened criminal, and too smart to be caught like this.” And it worked. She wasn’t arrested but was summarily escorted out of town. Despite her long and close relationship with Mandelbaum, Lyons turned against her benefactor and mentor in her book, Why Crime Does Not Pay, published in 1913, portraying Mandelbaum as a criminal predator, someone who had coerced and seduced her into a life of crime.

Mandelbaum also financed some of the greatest bank robberies in America, fronting the operations of George Leslie and his gang of burglars. Leslie, was known as “The King of Bank Robbers,” a title given to him by criminal associates. A criminal mastermind, Leslie was credited by police for being responsible either for planning or for personally carrying out 80 percent of the bank robberies in the country during the early part of America’s Gilded Age. In October 1878 his gang broke into the Manhattan Savings Institution and stole close to $3 million in cash and securities, comparable to approximately $75 million in today’s currency.

Mandelbaum’s reign as the Queen of Thieves came to an end in 1884 when New York City’s avowed crime-fighting district attorney, Peter Olney, with the help of Pinkerton detectives, caught her in a sting operation. Undercover detective Gustav Frank sold Mandelbaum several bolts of stolen silk that had been secretly marked. When detectives raided her store and found the silk in her possession, they arrested her.

On July 22, 1884, detective Frank, with an arrest warrant in hand, approached the carriage in front of Mandelbaum’s haberdashery shop. Inside was Mandelbaum, her twenty-four-year-old son Julius, and her most trusted confidant, Herman Stoude. Detective Frank had spent five months working undercover to catch her. Stepping into the carriage, flanked by a cadre of Pinkerton detectives, Frank waved the arrest warrant in her face and triumphantly proclaimed, “You are caught this time, and the best thing that you can do is to make a clean breast of it.” Mandelbaum responded by punching Frank in the nose and knocking him from the carriage. “So you are the one who is at the bottom of this, you wretch you!” she snapped. The other detectives had to restrain her to keep her from striking him again.

Mandelbaum and the others in the carriage were arrested and transported to the Harlem Police Court for arraignment, and she was released on $30,000 bail. Even with several judges on her payroll, Mandelbaum was not able to squirm out of the charges. District Attorney Olney saw to it that her case was heard by an incorruptible judge, and it became clear that, despite all the legal wrangling by her lawyers, and after calling in every political favor she was owed, nothing could be done to stop the case from going to court in December. According to her attorneys, it looked like she would be found guilty.

Between the time of her arrest and the pending trial in early December, Pinkerton detectives were on around-the-clock surveillance of Mandelbaum’s home, keeping tabs on her every move. On the day before the trial, Mandelbaum came out of her house dressed in all black, the feather plumes on her small hat bobbing in front of her face. She waved to the detectives, who by now acknowledged their cover had been blown. She climbed into her carriage and went to her lawyers’ office. The detectives followed close behind. She exited the carriage and went inside. She had made several trips to visit her lawyers during the time she was out on bail and there was nothing unusual about it. She stayed for a time, came back out, waved again at the detectives, climbed back into the carriage and was driven home, with the detectives following.

But it wasn’t Mandelbaum who had exited her lawyers’ office; it was her maid who climbed into the carriage and sped off with the detectives in hot pursuit. The maid was approximately the same height and weight as Mandelbaum and was dressed exactly like her, including the tiny hat with the plumes covering her face and her true identity. After it was determined that the coast was clear, the real Mandelbaum exited the law offices, boarded a waiting carriage, and made a clean getaway. She jumped bail to Canada, with more than $1 million in cash and diamonds, and settled in Hamilton, Ontario. Canada had no extradition agreement with America at the time, so New York City’s most powerful criminal was able to live out the rest of her life comfortably, snubbing her nose at the long arm of the American law.

In November 1885, the sudden death of her eighteen year-old daughter, Annie, brought Mandelbaum back to New York City. Whether or not District Attorney Olney, Pinkerton detectives, or the police took pity on Mandelbaum’s situation is unknown, but what is known is that she put her daughter to rest in a public ceremony and was unhampered by the law. She returned to her Canadian home following the funeral.

During the ensuing years, Mandelbaum was besieged by a series of illnesses. She died on February 26, 1894, at the age of sixty-five. Although her obituary notice in the Hamilton Spectator took note of her criminal past, it called her “a woman of kindly disposition, broad sympathies, and large intelligence.” Her body was returned to New York City to be buried in the family plot in the Union Fields Cemetery of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Queens. A huge crowd of mourners, including old friends and neighbors, businessmen, police officials, politicians, judges, newspaper reporters, curiosity seekers, and a score of well-known criminals, all turned out to pay their last respects. In a true tribute to the Queen of Thieves, several dozen mourners reported to police that their pockets had been picked during Mandelbaum’s graveside service.