The Extraordinary “Mother” Mandelbaum
Wednesday, May 2, 2018 by
In honor of Mother’s Day, the Museum of the City of New York brings you the story of a different, but very New York kind of mother — New York City’s original “Mother of Crooks” Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum. This German-born New Yorker reigned as the most successful and notorious fence (buyer and seller of stolen goods) in New York City for over 30 years in the late 19th century. She was so associated with the city’s underworld that even her death was rumored to be fraudulent and, reportedly, there were pockets picked at her funeral. You can “meet” a virtual version of Marm Mandelbaum in the Port City gallery of New York at Its Core, the Museum’s award-winning exhibition devoted to New York City history from 1609-2012.
She was almost always referred to in the New York press as “Mother” Mandelbaum, cast as a sort of maternal figure to the city’s vast underworld of confidence men and women, pickpockets, shoplifters, burglars, and what were at the time called “sneak thieves” (who would enter through an unlocked door or window and slip away, undetected, with a family’s valuables) operating in and around her dry goods shop on the corner of Clinton and Rivington Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The network of criminals centered around Mandelbaum appears to have been a microcosm of the polyglot Lower East Side of the late 19th century. At the time, roughly 40% of the population of New York City was foreign born and the Lower East Side was the most densely populated place on earth. Streets teemed with German, Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants as well as Yankees and African Americans.
According to police inspector Thomas Byrnes in his remarkable 1886 book Professional Criminals of America, “known associates” of Mandelbaum included “burglar” Michael Kurtz (described as “A Jew. Born in the United States”), “pickpocket” Abraham Greenthall (“Jew, born in Poland”), “pickpocket, sneak, and shoplifter” Mary Hollbrook (“born in Ireland”), and “Pickpocket and Blackmailer” Sophie Levy (or Lyons), a young woman often called Mandelbaum’s special protégé (and who will be featured in the Museum’s summer 2018 exhibition Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism.
We know what these individuals looked like from what was then called the “Rogues’ Gallery.” City police used the relatively new medium of photography to capture images of people who had been arrested in order to help with later identifications, creating an early form of a mug shot. Many of these photographs wound up in Byrnes’s book, which contains detailed biographies and photographs of 204 “Professional Criminals.”
Mandelbaum had a reputation for being extremely loyal to this motley group. None other than the city’s Chief of Police, George W. Walling, wrote in his memoir, “She attained a reputation as a business woman whose honesty in criminal matters was absolute,” while her obituary in The New York Times noted, “her success was in a great measure due to her friendship for and her loyalty to the thieves with whom she did business. She never betrayed her clients, and when they got into trouble she procured bail for them and befriended them to the extent of her power.” And the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called her (perhaps with a tinge of irony) “a most respectable and philanthropic receiver of stolen goods in New York.”
For at least 30 years Mandelbaum operated her business with impunity and was well known both in New York City and beyond. By way of example, Walling noted, “the ramifications of her business net were so widespread, her ingenuity as an assistant to criminals so nearly approaching genius that if a silk robbery occurred in St. Louis, and the criminals were known as ‘belonging to Marm Baum,’ she always had the first choice of the ‘swag.’”
Much of what we know about Mandelbaum comes from Walling’s 1887 Recollections of a New York Chief of Police and from the 1913 memoir of Sophie Lyons, her special protégé, titled Why Crime Does Not Pay. In a chapter devoted to “the Extraordinary ‘Mother’ Mandelbaum, Queen of Thieves” Lyons writes, “Alas, I knew her well! Too well!” The book offers a detailed account of the mechanisms of Mandelbaum’s operations, including a diagram of her false chimney with a hidden dumbwaiter that could be filled with stolen goods should a policeman or thief approach the inner chamber of her shop.
Finally, in 1884, New York City’s new District Attorney Peter B. Olney (whom The New York Times described, with some irony, as “an eccentric person who honestly means to do his duty and enforce the laws”) apparently had enough. Instead of turning to the city’s police force (which, according to multiple sources, Mandelbaum had been bribing for decades ― Walling himself noted that she “knew where the wheels of justice could be clogged”), he hired the nation’s original private investigators, led by Robert A. Pinkerton, to set up a sting operation.
Pinkerton’s man Gustav Frank, working under the pseudonym Stein, took advantage of Mandelbaum’s generosity towards thieves, particularly those of her own German-Jewish background, and insinuated himself into her inner circle, eventually purchasing “marked” silks from her. Her arrest in July of that year and subsequent case was widely covered by the major New York papers, seemingly fascinated that a criminal figure so well known, who had evaded the authorities for so long, was finally coming to justice. The district attorney’s use of Pinkerton detectives was also of interest to the press and set off a feud between the district attorney’s office and city’s police inspector.
At the time of her arrest she already had the equally infamous attorneys William F. Howe and Abraham Hummel on retainer for a reported $5,000 a year. Jumping to her defense, Howe and Hummel did their best to argue for her innocence and to discredit the Pinkerton detective Gustav Frank, who, they suggested, might well have been a criminal himself, coming as he did from the murky world of private detectives.
Bail was set at the then-extraordinary amount of $10,000 ― $2,000 for each of five charges against Mandelbaum. One of her lawyers (probably Howe) argued in court that the bail for a well-known defendant indicted for murder was only $500. Nevertheless, the sum was paid, freeing Mandelbaum to fight her charges outside of jail. Despite round-the-clock surveillance of her home and shop by a thinly disguised group of Pinkerton detectives, on the morning of December 4, as Howe was waiting in court for his client, she simply failed to appear.
As described with narrative flourish by the Times: “District Attorney Olney sat, sternly imposing…Mr. Howe was plumply serene and ponderously gracious… The well-dressed gentlemen in the audience folded up their papers…directed their gaze to the various doors in the room in the fond anticipation of Mrs. Fredericka Mandelbaum stalking into the room in the manner which is peculiarly her own… ‘Frederika Mandelbaum!’…The words seemed to float over the heads of the merchants and lose themselves. There was no answer. Dead silence reigned…Then a little sound of something like disappointment was heard in the court, and Lawyer Howe rose to his feet. ‘The defendants are not here, your Honor.’”
By the next day, the New York press had located Mandelbaum in Canada. Since there were no extradition laws between Canada and the United States, she was able to live out her remaining years in relative peace and quiet there, despite a sincere longing for New York (she once told a reporter, “I am sorry that I ever left New-York, I should have faced the music”).
Mandelbaum’s death in 1894 brought a new round of headlines (some claiming that she was not dead at all and that her coffin was filled with stones, while other articles noted that several pockets had been picked at the cemetery) and renewed fascination with the woman who was still being called “Mother” Mandelbaum.
We can only guess why the nickname “Mother” stuck so securely to Mandelbaum’s name and persona. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers had an idealized image of “motherhood” that was promoted through advertisements and popular lithographs. It is possible that the press found a joke in the idea that a woman so often described, with what we now see as plain anti-Semitism, as “a German Jewess with large, coarse features, almost masculine in appearance, restless black eyes, and a dark, florid complexion,” would be called “Mother.”
It may also have been that her reportedly close relationship with the criminals she worked with endeared them to her, and her to them. Indeed, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle took the metaphor and ran with it in a report at the time of her arrest, declaring, “The silver lining of the cloud which overshadows Mother Mandelbaum is found in the protection and assistance she was always ready to afford to the thieves who did business with her….Many of her progeny must now be lamenting her arrest and the closing of her establishment and be gurgling the dear name of “Mother” with unaffected pathos. She has been rudely bereft of her children and many a dry goods thief in New York now feels himself an orphan in the world.”
Or, it could have been simply that Mandelbaum was, in fact, a mother of four (two boys and two girls) and apparently a devoted one at that. None other than Walling admitted, “As a woman and a mother she is spoken of with respect.” Her son Julius (who, Walling wrote, “clung to her as her alter ego”) played a large part in her business and was arrested alongside her in 1884, and one of her daughters was married to either a detective or a politician (this was reported differently in the press) and was, according to Walling, “deeply interested in the shadowy part of her mother’s ‘business’ transactions.”
But there was one incident, in particular, the reporting of which may have endeared her to the public as well as to her thieves. In 1885 article The New York Times ran the headline “Mrs. Mandelbaum’s Visit,” reporting that Mandelbaum’s youngest daughter, Annie, had unexpectedly died while visiting the city from Canada. The reporter recounts that “the thought of having her favorite child buried without taking a last look at her face touched a tender chord in the heart of the hardened criminal, and to gratify their wish she took the chance of falling into the hands of the police and passing her remaining days in prison.” The story goes on to chronical the extraordinary steps Mandelbaum took to return to the city undetected, but also the mother’s misery at the death of her child noting, “she showered kiss after kiss upon the cheeks of the dead girl, and her piteous cries brought tears to the eyes of the persons who witnessed the scene.”
Today Mother Mandelbaum’s story as reported in the press and in books by Walling and Lyons gives us a glimpse into the criminal underworld of late 19-century New York City. Her protégé Sophie Lyons insisted that the story of the “uncrowned ‘Queen of the Thieves,’” showed that “CRIME DOES NOT PAY.” Despite that, Mandelbaum herself emerges as a kind of folk anti-hero, winning the grudging admiration of her foes. Even as she failed to appear at her final court date, the prosecuting attorney admitted, “I suspected it…the old girl…was so awfully cocky. She had been in the business so long that she positively thought it was improper for us to arrest her.” And her lawyers, attributing her flight to “impulsive mania” did not “regard the unfortunate victim…with any degree of sorrow, for they laughed merrily and winked sympathetically.”
We hope you will come visit New York at Its Core and “meet” the “Extraordinary ‘Mother’ Mandelbaum.” Perhaps you can bring your own mothers. You can also learn more about the remorseful “pickpocket and blackmailer,” Sophie Lyons in Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism, opening at the Museum on July 17, 2018.