“I am Ma because I give them what a mother cannot sometimes give—money and horses and diamonds.”
— Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum
The death of Fredericka Mandelbaum—better known as “Old Mother,” “Marm” and the “Queen of Fences”—made international headlines in February 1894. But was it Marm’s body in the coffin en route to New York City from Canada, or a heap of stones? Was it possible she was still alive and well and living in Ontario? Was she, as some sources claimed, calling herself “Madame Fuchs” and plotting a covert return to the Lower East Side? No one was certain. It wouldn’t have been the first time this laconic, black-eyed, 250-pound, synagogue-going mother of four decided to become someone else.
She was born Friederike Henriette Auguste Wiesener in 1827 in Hanover, Prussia. She married one Wolf Israel Mandelbaum, who immigrated to New York City, and she joined him there at age 23. They settled in a section of the Lower East Side known as Kleindeutchland (Little Germany), where 15 people squeezed into tenement apartments measuring just 325 square feet, breathing air not even sufficient for one. Children were warned never to enter the Orchard Street lairs of the Gypsy women, with their billowing skirts and gold flashing from ankle to teeth. But few fortunes in Little Germany were worth hearing anyway.
Marm and Wolf scratched out a living as peddlers, hawking everything from rags to broken timepieces to scraps of silk, carrying their wares on their backs and setting up each morning on the street. Vendors used all manner of tricks to attract attention—blowing bugles, arranging pieces of fruit in bright, precarious octagons, dressing their horses in trousers—but supply always exceeded demand. Fourteen-hour workdays might yield only $6 per week, and by then Marm and Wolf had four children to feed, two sons and two daughters.
Marm’s luck began to change after the Panic of 1857, when hundreds of businesses failed, banks closed and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs. Hungry children roamed the streets selling bits of old rope and slivers of coal, and eventually graduated to the less grim business of pickpocketing and looting vendors—activities often sanctioned by parents and caretakers. “I was not quite 6 years old when I stole my first pocketbook,” wrote Sophie Lyons, who would later become one of Marm’s most successful protégés. “I was very happy because I was petted and rewarded; my wretched stepmother patted my curly head, gave me a bag of candy, and said I was a ‘good girl.’ ”
Marm began cultivating relationships with these children, a female Fagin to a team of Artful Dodgers, buying their wares and reselling them for a profit. (As with Dickens’s controversial treatment of Fagin, descriptions of Marm were invariably anti-Semitic; many accounts of her rise to power call her a “German Jewess” whose “race instinct” spurred her to haggle.) She spoke English nearly as well as she did German, which made her a valuable associate to adult thieves as well. In 1865, she and Wolf signed a two-year lease for a building at Clinton and Rivington Streets, opening a dry goods store as a front and conducting her fencing business in the back.
Marm had the eyes of a sparrow, the neck of a bear and fat, florid cheeks. Her tightly rolled black hair was topped off by a feathered fascinator, which failed to distract from her homeliness. She spoke only when she had to, as if her words were as valuable as her plunder; her favorite saying, directed almost exclusively toward herself, was, “It takes brains to be a real lady.”
Police Chief George Washington Walling called her a “thorough business woman” and her husband a “nonentity.” Nell Kimbell, a prominent madam of the era, also dismissed Wolf as a “silent husband.” When he died, in 1875, leaving Marm with four children ranging from eight to fifteen years old, she expanded her circle of contacts, networking at her synagogue and the neighborhood beer and oyster halls. She became a familiar presence at the so-called Eighth Ward Thieves Exchange, a sort of Gilded Age Walmart in the Bowery, and befriended crooked cops and judges at the nearby Fifth District Court. Tammany Hall politicians recognized Marm’s growing influence in the Thirteenth Ward and always stopped by her store to say hello, reasoning she could help them rally the Jewish vote even if, as a woman, she wasn’t permitted to cast a ballot herself.
Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time.
As her empire grew, she hired a network of associates: engravers to doctor jewelry; hansom cab drivers for quick getaways, and, perhaps most vital, defense attorneys Big Bill Howe and Little Abe Hummell. Marm paid the renowned firm of Howe & Hummell an annual retainer of $5,000. In all her years in business, she took only one person into her confidence, a man aptly named Herman Stoude (often anglicized as “Stout”), who always accompanied her when she went to assess merchandise. One of her sons or daughters came, too, to keep watch for detectives.
On average Marm offered one-fifth of the wholesale price of goods. Sellers had to remain in her sight at all times during a deal, and money changed hands only when the goods were in her possession. After the transaction, Stoude would lug the goods to one of her numerous warehouses or to her home, where she had a series of hiding places. Her favorite was a chimney with a false back, behind which a dumbwaiter could be raised or lowered with the yank of a lever. In case of a suspicious knock on the door, she could gather up an armful of loot and drop it out of sight.
Always mindful of competition (especially from John D. Grady, head of the Grady Gang), Marm constantly scouted for fresh recruits. She allegedly opened a school on Grand Street, not far from police headquarters, where children could learn from professional pickpockets and thieves. Advanced students might take courses in burglary and safe blowing; the doctoral level offered training in confidence schemes and blackmail. The institution thrived until it enrolled a prominent police official’s son, which struck even Marm as too audacious. She shut it down.
By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”
Marm had an affinity for female crooks and encouraged the ambitions of a gaggle of noted pickpockets and blackmailers: Black Lena Kleinschmidt, Big Mary, Ellen Clegg, Queen Liz, Little Annie, Old Mother Hubbard, Kid Glove Rose and the aforementioned Sophie Lyons, perhaps the most famous confidence woman in American history. Certain favored associates enjoyed the benefits of her Bureau for the Protection of Criminals, a fund that provided bail money and legal representation. But she had little pity for the wives of thieves unlucky enough to get caught and sent to prison; she refused their pleas for money and insisted they work for it. Most women, she griped, were “wasting life being housekeepers.”
In the spring of 1884, New York District Attorney Peter Olson hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate Marm’s operation. Detective Gustave Frank, using the alias Stein, took lessons from a silk merchant on quality and pricing; after an introduction from a supposedly loyal client, Marm began conducting business with him. When the police raided her various warehouses, they discovered the silk Stein had sold her and enough loot to put her away for life. “It did not seem possible that so much wealth could be assembled in one spot,” one journalist marveled. “There seemed to be enough clothes to supply an army. There were trunks filled with precious gems and silverware. Antique furniture was stacked against a wall.”
Marm, son Julius and Herman Stoude were arrested that July. Marm issued a rare statement: “I keep a dry goods store, and have for twenty years past. I buy and sell dry goods as other dry goods people do. I have never knowingly bought stolen goods. Neither did my son Julius. I have never stolen anything in my life. I feel that these charges are brought against me for spite. I have never bribed the police, nor had their protection. I never needed their protection… I and my son are innocent of these charges, so help me God!”
On December 5, Marm jumped bail and fled to Hamilton, Ontario, where she set herself up as an ostensibly law-abiding citizen who donated to charities, joined the Anshe Sholem Hebrew Congregation and worked long hours in her hat shop. There were occasional reports that Marm had revived her career as a peddler, going door to door with armfuls of lace (sometimes calling herself Madame Fuchs, other times giving no name at all), and that she sometimes slipped back into the States. Legend has it that Marm, upon learning of the death of her youngest daughter, donned a disguise and traveled a circuitous route by train and private carriage back to New York. She supposedly watched the procession from afar and immediately returned to exile.
In 1894, ten years after her departure, Marm confided to a visitor: “I would gladly forfeit every penny of my wealth in order to once again breathe freely the atmosphere of the 13th Ward.” Shortly thereafter, as reporters speculated about the mysterious contents of a coffin heading south from Canada, she might well have been on her way. In any case, Marm never told.
Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).
Sophie Lyons. Why Crime Does Not Pay. New York: Oglivie, 1913.
George Washington Walling. Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1972.
Ben Macintyre. The Napoleon of Crime: the life and times of Adam Worth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Herbert Asbury. The Hangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
“Mother Mandelbaum.” New York Times, December 5, 1884; “Mother Mandelbaum Said to Be Alive.” New York Times, August 28, 1894; “Mother Mandelbaum’s Departure.” New York Tribune, December 6, 1884; “Mother Mandelbaum Missing.” New York Times, December 5, 1884; “Mother Mandelbaum’s Den.” The National Police Gazette, September 4, 1886; “A Queen Among Thieves.” New York Times, July 24, 1884; “Mother Mandelbaum’s Racket.” The National Police Gazette. August 16, 1884; “Mother Mandelbaum Said to Be Dead.” New York Tribune, March 23, 1893; “Mother Mandelbaum Alive.” The Hartford Courant. August 28, 1894; “Mother Mandelbaum Dead.” Boston Daily Globe. February 27, 1894; “Old Mother Mandelbaum.” Boston Daily Globe. November 11, 1883; “Mrs. Mandelbaum and Gustave Frank.” New York Tribune, September 16, 1884; “Mrs. Mandelbaum’s Statement.” New York Tribune, July 31, 1884.