Date of Degree

10-2014

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor(s)

Shifra Sharlin

Subject Categories

Legal Biography | United States History | Women's Studies

Keywords

Biography, Crime, Detroit, History, New York City, Women

Abstract

Sophie Lyons was a nineteenth-century American pickpocket, blackmailer, con-woman, and bank robber. She was raised in New York City's underworld, by Jewish immigrant parents who were criminals that trained their children to pick pockets and shoplift. "Pretty Sophie" possessed a rare combination of skill at thievery, intellect, guts and beauty and became the woman Herbert Ashbury described in Gangs of New York as, "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced." Newspapers around the world chronicled Sophie's exploits for more than sixty years, because her life read like a novel. Her mentor was another forgotten woman who held a position of power in the underworld, Fredericka Marm' Mandelbaum, a Jewish immigrant who became New York's millionaire "Queen of Fences." Sophie was married to some of the most notorious burglars in America, escaped from Sing Sing Prison with one of her husbands, wore elaborate disguises, used her sex appeal to steal from wealthy men, invested a fortune in real estate and gave it away. Today Sophie is forgotten, but for a few lines in criminal history narratives. This thesis comprised the first five chapters of a forthcoming biography of Sophie Lyons and examined how she was a creation of the economic and social realities of nineteenth-century New York and the effects of industrialization, immigration, capitalism, poverty and innovation, which were beginning to transform America. This thesis was also written to restore Sophie to her rightful place in criminal history, as a woman who excelled in a man's profession, achieved power and

found a voice that enabled her to challenge society's conventions of womanhood, motherhood and sexuality. Ultimately, she was a resilient and conflicted woman, who always longed for the acceptance of legitimate society and overcame tremendous obstacles to reinvent herself as a philanthropist and advocate for those who had no voice, women, children, African-Americans and prisoners.

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