Female Criminals in the Age of Larceny

What a treat today! I’m welcoming K.B. Owen, author of historical mysteries starring the inimitable Concordia Wells. Her latest release is Unseemly Pursuits:

Unseemly Pursuits book coverA deadly secret that won’t stay buried…

It is the fall of 1896, and Miss Concordia Wells is hip-deep in the usual tumult of a lady professor’s life: classes, clubs, student pranks, and the unending drama generated by the girls she lives with on campus.  Complicating this normality is the new Lady Principal, whom the students have nicknamed “the Ogre.”  The woman seems bent on making Concordia’s life miserable.

And then there’s the exotic spirit medium, Madame Durand, who has befriended Concordia’s mother and has started a “Spirit Club” on campus.  Madame’s prognostications of doom are at first only mildly irritating – until events take a sobering turn.  An ancient Egyptian amulet donated to the college mysteriously disappears, the donor is found murdered, and his daughter – Concordia’s best friend – confesses to killing him.

Desperate for answers, Concordia unravels a 20-year-old secret, closely guarded by men now dead.  But such secrets can be dangerous for the daughters left behind, including Concordia herself.  Can she make sense of the mystery that has bound together their fates, before it’s too late?

Nice tease, eh?

As part of her craft, K.B. meticulously researches history — but not the boring stuff. No, no! She’s sharing with us today the juicy stuff about female criminals.

And now here’s Kathy!

Historian Timothy Gilfoyle, in “Street-rats and gutter-snipes: child pickpockets and street culture in New York City, 1850-1900,” (published in the Journal of Social History, Summer 2004), says: “the period from 1866 to 1887 might be described as the ‘age of larceny.’ During those two decades, larceny comprised between one-third and one-half of all crimes in New York State.” 

Julie and I thought you all might enjoy hearing about the women of the time who contributed to the “age of larceny.” Here are the most notorious of the lot:

Sophie Lyons (1848-1924):  Thief, Pickpocket, Confidence Woman

Sophie Lyons

Mugshot, sometime before 1886. Wikimedia Commons.

She started early in her life of crime. Her father was a safe-cracker, her mother a shoplifter, and Sophie carried on the family business. By one account, she was caught stealing when she was 3, although there’s not enough corroborating evidence to say for sure. Certainly, she was arrested for shoplifting at age 12, married a fellow pickpocket, Ned Lyons, who later became known as “King of Bank Robbers,” at age 16, and was imprisoned multiple times.

Once, her husband (who had just escaped from prison) managed to disguise himself and break her out of Sing Sing. After time spent in France, a return to New York, more arrests and near-arrests, Sophie Lyons retired from criminal life and turned benefactor, as described in the 1916 New York Times article below (apologies for the poor image quality):

Article re Sophie Lyons

Gotta love the title of her book:  Why Crime Does Not Pay. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. At the time, she was worth half a million dollars in real estate alone, and no doubt the book was making money, too. But I’ll try to keep my cynicism in check.

One last ironic note about Sophie Lyons – here’s an incident near the end of her life, recounted in a 1922 New York Times article. Call it poetic justice, if you will:

Article 2 re Sophie Lyons

How about that – the thief got robbed!

Bertha Heyman, “Confidence Queen”

Bertha Heyman

The following account of Bertha Heyman, from an 1886 book Professional Criminals of America, vol. 3, by Thomas Byrnes (pic above comes from the book, too), describes her best:

 Article re Bertha Heyman

Margaret Brown,

a.k.a. “Old Mother Hubbard”

The pic and description below also come from Professional Criminals of America:

Margaret Brown

Article re Margaret Brown

Sometimes, just catching the women was a challenge for the police. Here’s an account from Historical Sketch of the Police Service of Hartford, 1636-1901:

Hartford article

Hartford article 2

What a rich passage – plenty of favorite phrases to give us a great flavor of the time. “Totties and Lotties” is my favorite.

What famous female criminals can you think of in today’s society? Do they share any attributes with these women? Julie and I would love to hear from you.

Julie, thanks again for hosting me!

My pleasure!

Be sure to check out the Concordia Wells mysteries: Dangerous and Unseemly & Unseemly Pursuits.

K.B. OwenK.B. Owen taught college English at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A long-time mystery lover, she drew upon her teaching experiences to create her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells.

Unseemly Pursuits is the second book of the series. The first book, Dangerous and Unseemly, was published in early 2013.

K.B. currently lives in Virginia with her husband and sons, and is busily planning the lady professor’s next adventure.

Where to buy Unseemly Pursuits

Unseemly Pursuits book coverKindle: http://www.amazon.com/Unseemly-Pursuits-Concordia-Wells-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00H3JVSYI

Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Unseemly-Pursuits-Concordia-Mystery-Volume/dp/0991236807/

Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/unseemly-pursuits-k-b-owen-kb-owen/1117562781

Smashwords:  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/384345

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/unseemly-pursuits

iBooks:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/unseemly-pursuits-concordia/id775422084?mt=11&uo=4

An Unseemly Giveaway

Giveaway pictureDuring K.B.’s Unseemly Pursuits book tour, which goes through the first week of March, there’s a giveaway at each blog stop (including here!). The winner, randomly drawn from the commenters at each stop, will get a free ebook copy of Unseemly Pursuits. At the end of the tour, she’ll hold another random drawing from among the ebook winners for the final prize: a special Concordia Wells series swag package! It includes customized mug, keychain, JellyBelly mini-tin, and signed paperback copies of the first two mysteries: Dangerous and Unseemly and Unseemly Pursuits. You can read, sip your coffee, and snack on candy in unseemly style. Check the sidebar on the home page of kbowenmysteries.com for the full tour schedule and other info.

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25 thoughts on “Female Criminals in the Age of Larceny

  1. i love the newspaper descriptions – “Bertha Heyman, a very stout woman,” and then going on to say she weighed 245 pounds. I’d say that’s very, VERY stout, especially given she’s only 5’4″ tall. And she has a German face. Not sure what that means, since I am German myself, do I have a German face? Hmmm.

    I love the “modern day” Bonnie and Clyde story. That Bonnie, she was a slippery one.

    Good stuff, Kathy. I’m enjoying Concordia’s first story very much. Not quite finished (I’ve been staying up to watch the olympics instead of reading), but will post my review when I’m done.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    1. Hi Patricia! It’s so funny to read these descriptions nowadays, isn’t it? I have no idea what a “German face” looks like, but it’s clear that you and Bertha carry no resemblance, LOL.

      So glad you’re enjoying Concordia’s first adventure, and thank you for being willing to post a review! I’ve been up way too late watching the Olympics lately, along with my 13-year-old son, who just watches it to see them “mess up.” He says they all look alike until that happens…

  2. Hi Julie! I cannot imagine Kathy would bore us. lol. Interesting post. I have never heard of the term confidence woman before. I must live in a cave. lol. That Sophie was a case. And to think she got robbed. Live has a way of getting us back sometimes. So Kathy, would the term con, as in ex-con, come from the word confidence? See what you’ve done? You made me think, which can be very dangerous! 🙂

    1. Karen, you are absolutely right! The “con” is the shortened form of “confidence” – as in what the criminal is tricking us into believing about them when they run a scam of some kind. A gold star for you! 😉

        1. The “con” of “ex-con” does refer to “convict.” I read Karen’s note a bit too quickly! What I was thinking of was that the “con” of “con man” stands for “confidence.” Sorry about that! 😉

  3. Well, now I am dying to read the book! A college campus, a medium, and a murder mystery. I can’t wait! I love how you give us the interesting history on your blog (and here) Kathy. You remind me why I loved history in school. It really can be fun, especially when you take it to the personal level. I am going to try and follow that link and buy the book now. 🙂

    1. That’s super, Emma, thanks! I was a lit major in college/grad school, but the personal side of history has always fascinated me. So glad you stopped by! 😉

      1. I feel the same way, Emma. My bachelor’s is in history, and some people think that’s boring. But when you get into the personal stories, it SO fascinating. Although I never learned in school the kind of stuff Kathy covers here. Wish we had! Fun!

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