The Scams of Grandma Fence

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Most industries rely on middlemen to transmit their products to the consumer. This is also true of the underworld. Most theft would not happen without the plunder’s efficient redistribution through the receiver of stolen property, popularly known as the fence.

According to Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, most 19th-century fences operated small shops, such as dry goods stores. Of course, these usually discouraged legitimate customers, who would have been a distraction from the real business at hand. The earliest reports of fences in New York predate the Civil War. Asbury notes that Ephraim "Old" Snow, who owned a dry goods store at Grand and Allen Sts., took pride in handling any kind of stolen property. He was renowned for once disposing of a flock of stolen sheep, driven overland from a Westchester farm to the fence’s shop.

Many thieves, however, disdained subterfuge. For many years, according to Luc Sante’s Low Life, thieves and fences met at the Thieves’ Exchange, a kind of open-air market at Bowery and Houston (Asbury suggests Broadway and Houston). There they openly dickered over prices for stolen loot. Politicians and policemen somehow always looked the other way.

After the Civil War, Old Snow and his ilk were, as Asbury wrote, "eclipsed by (a newcomer’s) brilliant successes." Amidst an underworld dominated by Christian men, the most successful fence in New York’s criminal history may have been a Jewish woman. Her contemporaries found this inexplicable, but it’s actually quite simple: Within the context of her business, she was scrupulously honest. Moreover, as John Lardner and Thomas Repetto observed in NYPD, "Like any other successful power broker, she was a first rate judge of people." At the height of her power, most New York thieves knew their best chance to realize their ill-gotten gains was to trust Mother Mandelbaum.

Frederika "Mother" Mandelbaum, also known as Marm, was born around 1830 in the German principality of Hesse-Kassel. Her name reportedly first appears in police records in 1862, when she was peddling stolen goods door to door. She shortly began managing teams of young pickpockets, processing their takings while providing bail and legal defense. By 1864, she was able to purchase a three-story building at 79 Clinton St. at Rivington. The ground floor contained a haberdashery managed with the assistance of her husband, Wolfe, their son and their two daughters. The back wing of the store ran down Clinton St.: Here she did most of her real business, managing a massive stolen-goods ring. Eventually, she resold vast quantities of stolen goods from all over the East Coast to middlemen in New York and elsewhere through a network of warehouses across the city. From 1862 to 1882, Mandelbaum processed between $5 million and $10 million of stolen property.

Discretion came with time: After the first few years, Marm rarely went near the swag. An operative would examine the loot at a neutral location. Her clients understood that she had first choice from their robberies or burglaries. If she took the goods, all labels, tags and private marks had to be removed before delivery. Whatever she didn’t want could go to other fences.

The Mandelbaums lived on the upper two floors of 79 Clinton St., in one of the city’s most elegantly furnished private residences. Indeed, it should have been–the furniture and draperies had been largely obtained from some of New York’s finest mansions through the efforts of her clients.

Marm weighed more than 250 pounds–say, at least one-eighth of a ton on the hoof. Asbury describes her as having "a sharply curved mouth and extraordinarily fat cheeks, above which were small black eyes, heavy black brows and a high sloping forehead, and a mass of tightly rolled black hair, which was generally surmounted by a tiny black bonnet with drooping feathers."

She was a lavish and generous host. Sante calls her the social leader of the female criminal set. Her dances and dinners were attended by some of America’s most celebrated criminals as well as her friends among the politicians and the police.

Some contemporary feminist historians see Marm as a heroine for her willingness to help women criminals get their careers off the ground. One protege, Sophie Lyons, was among America’s most successful confidence women. Another, Black Lena Kleinschmidt, became a gifted thief, pickpocket and blackmailer. Lena later moved to fashionable Hackensack, NJ, where, posing as the wealthy widow of a South American mining magnate, she became a local doyenne by giving elaborate parties in imitation of Marm. Meanwhile, according to Asbury, Lena kept up her game by spending two days a week "in New York replenishing her coffers." Black Lena’s career ended when a guest recognized a jeweled ring on Lena’s finger (Asbury stated it was emerald, stolen from the guest’s handbag during a Manhattan shopping trip; Sante: diamond, burgled some years before).

The Gilded Age, the years immediately after the Civil War, saw numerous entrepreneurs–Vanderbilt, Gould, Fisk, Rockefeller–amass enormous wealth through ambiguous means. Marm was merely less ambiguous. From managing pickpockets, she began financing and directing the operations of many–Asbury states the majority–of the city’s gangs of bank robbers, shoplifters and store burglars. And always, whenever one of her boys got in trouble, she was there to back him up with her money and connections.

She allegedly ran a school on Grand St. in the manner of Dickens’ Fagin, where small boys and girls were taught useful trades by professional pickpockets and sneak thieves. Asbury claims she also offered advanced courses in burglary and safe blowing, with postgraduate work in blackmailing and confidence schemes.

According to Lardner and Repetto, Marm financed one of New York’s greatest bank robberies, the Manhattan Savings Institution caper of October 1878. Planned by George Leonidas Leslie, also known as Western George, the heist was three years from concept to execution. Leslie, although less famous than Jesse James, was more successful in a business way. An elegant, literate man-about-town, known for his tailoring, exquisite manners and membership in some of the town’s most select clubs, Leslie simultaneously commanded a remarkably sophisticated gang of professional bank robbers. Armed with a practical understanding of mechanical engineering, Leslie plotted robberies that went far beyond the usual stick-’em-up. They were sometimes years in the making, usually involving the procurement or creation of architects drawings of the banks to be robbed and the fabrication of customized burglar tools for each job. At the height of Leslie’s career, other gangs consulted him in planning their robberies. In roughly 10 years, Western George is believed to have organized and conducted more than 100 robberies.

Leslie began planning the Manhattan Savings Institution in 1875. With Marm’s money, he was even able to purchase a duplicate of the bank’s vault to test for its weaknesses. His major concern was cracking the safes within the vault: Using explosives would disturb the residents of neighboring houses. By bribing a bank watchman, Patrick Shevlin, Leslie was able to hold practice runs inside the bank after business hours.

Leslie disappeared in February 1878. Four months later, a partially decomposed body with a pearl-handled pistol beside it was found on Tramp’s Rock in the Bronx, near the Westchester County line. Marm sent Wolfe up to inspect the body. It was Leslie’s. He had been murdered. Lardner and Repetto suggest either that he had been fooling with the wife of one of his gangsters, or that he had been indiscreet in conversation. Asbury and Sante believe it was the latter, and that Leslie had been killed by his gang as a punishment for talking too much. In any event, Marm paid for his funeral.

Leslie’s death was no barrier to the execution of his plan, which worked nearly to perfection. What they had not expected was that most of the $2.75 million in loot was in the form of registered bonds, registered in the owner’s name on the books of the issuing corporations, that could not be freely transferred. As such, they were merely so much fancy wallpaper to the gang. Only $12,000 was in cash and $250,000 in bearer bonds, payable to whoever had their physical possession and hence, freely negotiable. Still, a quarter million was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, the captain of the local precinct, Thomas Byrnes, was no flatfoot. He interrogated Shevlin, the watchman. Given that Shevlin had been promised $250,000 for his help and received only $1200, and further given that Byrnes was both a master of psychology and of the third degree, Shevlin talked. Byrnes, who would be the city’s first chief inspector, arrested most of the thieves and their accomplices, although then, as ever, he couldn’t quite put the touch on Mother.

Some questioned Marm’s odd exemption from police action. One of them was New York County District Attorney Peter Olney. He hired Pinkerton detectives to investigate because he mistrusted the police. Apparently, Marm was set up. The Pinkertons reportedly attached identifying marks to property that was stolen by Marm’s clients. She just didn’t notice.

On July 22, 1884, Marm and her son were arrested at home, and the house was searched. Marm was released on $21,000 in bail, supposedly secured by her real property.

She was represented by the finest criminal counsel of her day, William F. Howe and Abraham Hummel, popularly known as Howe the Lawyer and Little Abe. She had afforded herself of their services as long before as 1870, when she first put them on a $5000 annual retainer to keep herself and her own out of jail. Perhaps it was a measure of her success: She was joining a client list that included Charles O. Brockway, the counterfeiter; General Abe Greenthal and the Sheeny Gang; Peter De Lacey, the bookie; various madams, and Western George–all criminals whom Richard Rovere called "the upper crust of the lower order."

Just before her long-delayed trial in December 1884, Marm skipped for Canada, with which the United States then had no extradition treaty, reportedly with more than $1 million in cash. Strangely, when the authorities attempted to seize the property that had been pledged for her forfeit bail, they found that its title had apparently been transferred to her daughters years before. Little Abe had fraudulently backdated the title documents. He had taken care of Howe & Hummel, too. Rovere, their biographer, states, "In the course of being interviewed by the Herald on Mother Mandelbaum’s bail-hopping, Howe and Hummel were asked if she had left town without settling her account with them. Howe, replied, according to the story, by looking ‘toward the ceiling and jingling some silver in his pocket. Lawyer Hummel, also looking heavenward, softly hummed a tune.’"

Marm lived in Canada for the rest of her days, dying in Hamilton, Ontario, on February 26, 1894.


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