I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Organized crime is a man’s job, except when it isn’t. In nineteenth century New York City, Frederika “Marm” Mandelbaum ruled over a criminal enterprise.
From Prussia to New York
Friederika Henriette Auguste Wiesener was probably born in 1827 in what was then Prussia. Various dates for her arrival are tossed about but 1827 seems to be the favourite.
In about 1848, she married Wolfe Mandelbaum and the couple set about scratching out a living as itinerant peddlers. But, the pickings were thin, especially for a Jewish couple, so they did what many other poor people from Europe had done―they emigrated to America.
They arrived in New York City in 1850 and moved into the Lower East Side, a seedy neighbourhood at the best of times, and these weren’t the best of times. Their home was in what was known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) where many German Jews had already settled.
The couple took up the only trade they knew, peddling. Picking up bits and pieces and selling them, or buying them from scavengers and selling them on for a profit.
But, it was unrewarding work as Karen Abbott notes in The Smithsonian Magazine: “Fourteen-hour workdays might yield only $6 per week, and by then Marm and Wolfe had four children to feed, two sons and two daughters.”
The Panic of 1857
It was way back in 1546 that John Heywood coined a phrase that has come down to us as “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” And, so it was when an economic crash hit America in late 1857. Businesses closed, banks collapsed, and huge numbers of people lost their jobs.
Hunger stalked the streets and swarms of ragged children scrounged for anything to sell. Marm Mandelbaum spotted a business opportunity and cultivated friendships with these grubby urchins. Here, she saw the potential for a small army that could move on from picking up discarded items to picking up items not yet discarded. Some people might call it thieving.
One youngster is quoted in several Marm Mandelbaum narratives as having begun stealing at the age is six. Sophie Lyons said of Marm “I was very happy because I was petted and rewarded; my wretched stepmother patted my curly head, gave me a bag of candy, and said I was a ‘good girl.’ ”
By 1865, the business was going so well that Frederika and Wolfe signed a lease on a building on the corner of Rivington and Clinton Streets and opened a dry goods store. In reality, the shop was a front for trading in stolen goods.
Marm the Fence
The most charitable description of Marm’s appearance would be as homely. But, contemporary portrayals, no doubt coloured by a strong streak of anti-Semitism, were not charitable.
New York’s Police Commissioner George Walling said she was “greasy, fat, and opulent.” A man from the Pinkerton Agency called her “a gargantuan caricature of Queen Victoria with her black hair in a roll and a small bun hat with dropping feathers.”
She was a woman of ample proportions―six feet tall and 300 pounds on the scale.
She (Marm Mandelbaum) attained a reputation as a business woman whose honesty in criminal matters was absolute.”
New York Chief of Police, George W. Walling
So, she was no dazzling beauty but she was smart, with a feral intelligence that allowed her to keep one step ahead of the law. The bribes provided insurance from prosecution; politicians, police, and judges could all count on Marm’s generous contributions.
And, just in case someone forgot what the bribe was for, she retained the services of “Howe & Hummel, two of the most devious and successful criminal lawyers in the country, on a $5,000-a-year retainer” (The Daily Beast).
Anytime one of her nest of thieves was scooped up by police, Big Bill Howe could be seen at the local precinct spreading cash around to ensure the suspect came to no harm.
Wolfe Mandelbaum faded into the background and died in 1875; the trade in stolen goods was entirely a Marm enterprise.
The Grand Street Crime School
To feed the need for more criminals to supply her store, Marm Mandelbaum opened a place where “street rats” as her young protégés were known could learn advanced skills.
She brought in professional burglars and safe-crackers to teach the youngsters the dark arts of their trades. Those who showed an aptitude could take more advanced courses in blackmail and confidence tricks.
One of the school’s star students was Sophie Lyons who we’ve met before. She blossomed into an accomplished confidence trickster and became known as “The Princess of Crime.”
Marm Mandelbaum also financed George Leslie, known as “The King of Bank Robbers.” (There was clearly a fondness in those days for bestowing regal titles on notorious crooks.)
Leslie, supported by Marm’s money, spent three years planning what was, at the time, to be the country’s biggest bank heist. However, a few months before the planned robbery, George Leslie’s decomposing body was found in the Bronx.
But, the show must go on, so in October 1878, Leslie’s gang stormed the Manhattan Savings Institution and captured the janitor who lived in the building. With a gun pointed at his family, Louis Werckle was forced to open the bank vault.
The gang made off with almost $3 million, worth about $75 million in today’s money. However, most of the loot was in registered securities that could not be converted into cash. So much for the planning genius of the late Mr. Leslie.
I am Ma because I give them what a mother cannot sometimes give—money and horses and diamonds.”
Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum
Marm Mandelbaum’s Luck Runs Out
Unfortunately for Marm, New York hired a district attorney, Peter Olney, who actually took his oath to uphold the law seriously. Because he didn’t trust the police, he hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to set up a sting in which Marm was caught in possession of stolen goods.
In July 1884, the Queen of Crooks was taken into custody and, after punching the arresting detective in the face, protested her total innocence. Bail was set at $10,000 and the trial was to go before an incorruptible judge in December.
But, the day before her court date, Marm skipped bail and fled to Canada. She managed to take cash and diamonds with her valued at a million dollars that allowed her to live a well-financed life in Hamilton, Ontario. There was no extradition treaty between Canada and the U.S. at the time. However, she was plagued by ill health and died in February 1894.
Her funeral in New York City was a grand affair with all the community’s elites and politicians in attendance. There was also a strong contingent of criminals who came to say their farewells to their mentor and patron. Following the burial, several grandees are reported to have complained to police that their pockets had been picked during the funeral.
- One of Marm Mandelbaum’s favourite associates was a man known as Piano Charley Bullard. As his name suggests, he was an accomplished, classically trained pianist who frequently entertained Marm and her guests at the lavish dinner parties she frequently held. Piano Charley was also a skilled safe-cracker, but less competent at evading capture. In 1869, he was serving time for stealing $100,000. Marm recruited some of her crowd and rented a building near the prison. The men tunnelled into Piano Charley’s cell, bribed a couple of guards not to notice anything amiss, and Marm’s favourite escaped.
- Comparisons are often made between Marm Mandelbaum and Charles Dickens’s fictional character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Both were Jews and both schooled children in petty theft and picking pockets. But, Isaac Solomon, who was a receiver of stolen goods in London’s East End is probably the figure on whom Fagin was based.
- “The Life and Crimes of ‘Old Mother’ Mandelbaum.” Karen Abbott, Smithsonian Magazine, September 6, 2011.
- “Meet ‘The Queen of Thieves’ Marm Mandelbaum, New York City’s First Mob Boss.” J. North Conway, The Daily Beast, July 12, 2017.
- “Marm - A Gilded Age Mastermind.” William Bryk, New York Sun, December 22, 2004
- “The Extraordinary ‘Mother’ Mandelbaum.” Susan Johnson, Museum of the City of New York, May 2, 2018.
- “New York’s First Female Crime Boss Started Her Own Crime School.” Eric Grundhauser, Slate, July 14, 2016.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor