The Scams of Grandma Fence

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

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

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.

"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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.