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July 24: Marm Mandelbaum, Criminal Fence

Lawrence Bush
July 23, 2016

On this date in 1884, the New York Times described as “a queen among thieves” Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum — a “laconic, black-eyed, 250-pound, synagogue-going mother of four,” according to Karen Abbott in Smithsonian magazine. Mandelbaum was a notorious fence (seller of stolen goods) and crime boss in New York for some twenty-five years. After the Panic of 1857, she and her rather nondescript husband, immigrants from Germany, began cultivating relationships with street urchins, pickpockets, and other impoverished young people, who supplied the Mandelbaums with stolen goods. In 1865, they opened a dry good store at Clinton and Rivington Streets, which fronted for her black-market business. “Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter,” writes Abbott. “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 . . . 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 husband died in 1875. In 1884, she was arrested after her warehouses were raided; later that year, she skipped bail and fled to Canada.

“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 . . . Sophie Lyons, perhaps the most famous confidence woman in American history.” --Karen Abbott

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.