Jewish mother turned crime boss in New York’s Gilded Age

Jewish mother turned crime boss in New York’s Gilded Age

The centuries-old tradition of Jewish women working so their husbands could be free to study Torah prepared a German Jewish immigrant in 19th-century in New York to oversee something far more ambitious than her own household: she created and ran America’s first major organized crime syndicate.

That’s one of the fascinating lessons of a recently published biography of Fredericka Mandelbaum, who spent years as a poor street vendor before becoming a fence (buyer and seller of stolen goods) and mastermind of bank robberies.

“A lot of the training that Mandelbaum and Jewish women of her time received was how to manage the economics of a family system,” Margalit Fox, author of the biography “The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum,” said in an interview.

“Fredericka Mandelbaum knew she had the skills to run a family economy on a much larger scale. It turned out to be a crime family.”

Born in Kassel, in what is now central Germany, in 18At age 27, Mandelbaum was 25 when she emigrated to New York, where she joined her husband who had arrived before her. By the time her husband died in 1875, Mandelbaum had raised four children and was already considered the queen of “the thieves on the street.” Described in the press as a simple woman with “almost masculine appearance,” she was 6 feet 1 inches tall, weighed 250 to 300 pounds, and wore dark silk dresses. She often wore jewelry that would be worth more than a million dollars today.

Contemporary illustrations depict the “German Jew” with stereotypical anti-Semitic traits.

Mandelbaum became so wealthy during her quarter-century-long criminal career that she could have lived anywhere in the city. But she chose to stay in a modest tenement in the Lower East Side neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. Until her downfall in late 1884, Mandelbaum used the building at Rivington and Clinton as her home and workplace.

On the ground floor, a haberdashery served as a showcase for the fencing business. The store sold fabrics, ribbons, lace, and trinkets at deeply discounted prices. His family lived in splendor on the upper floors. Fox describes the living quarters as a Versailles-style apartment with silk drapes, mahogany furniture, and the finest crystal chandeliers.

“She regularly gave the most sumptuous dinners, which were as elaborate as anything Mrs. Astor could give in the uptown neighborhoods,” the author said, referring to Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the Fifth Avenue socialite.

The Lower East Side gatherings at the Mandelbaum home attracted titans of industry as well as corrupt politicians, corrupt cops and what Fox called “the cream of the crop of crime…the biggest shoplifters, burglars and jewel thieves.” They were all happy to share bread together at the table of Marm Mandelbaum, as he was known.

An illustration of a “typical” dinner party hosted by Marm Mandelbaum, shown far right, from George W. Walling’s “Recollections of a Chief of Police of New York” (1887). (Wikipedia)

Mandelbaum fenced everything from silks to securities. As a fence, she “could estimate the value of a thief’s loot at a glance.” according to a 2011 article in Smithsonian Magazine. Mandelbaum specialized in luxury goods purchased by a network of thieves and then passed on to dealers in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. Some thefts were committed by female pickpockets. Mandelbaum had a weakness for female criminals, including shady women like Black Lena Kleinschmidt, Big Mary, Queen Liz, Little Annie, and a woman known as Old Mother Hubbard.

The success of Mandelbaum’s criminal enterprise was largely a product of the times in which it lived. The Gilded Age was a perfect storm of mass production, middle-class consumption, political bribery and police corruption.

Many who have studied her life consider Mandelbaum to be a business expert. J. North Conway, who wrote the 2014 Mandelbaum biography “Queen of Thieves,” told The Forward“If you were to make an organizational chart of his company, it would look like a very functional company today.”

Gary Jenkins, a former Kansas City police detective who is now hosts the Gangland Wire podcastsaid fences thrive when buyers prefer to turn a blind eye to the source of cheap goods.

“In a way, fences operate in this world of sanctioned crime,” Jenkins said. “Everybody wants cheap stuff. Everybody wants something that falls off the truck.”

Fox spent 24 years at The New York Times, where she was best known as an obituary writer, sending out people who are both famous and charming and obscure. His previous books include “Conan Doyle for the Defense,” which tells the story of how the creator of Sherlock Holmes helped solve a real-life case, and “The Confidence Men,” which chronicles the remarkable escape of two British prisoners of war during World War I. The film rights to the latter were acquired by Thunder Road Films, creator of the John Wick action films.

Fox lives in Manhattan with her husband George Robinson, a former staff member at New York Jewish Week. writer and critic. When looking for a subject for her next book, Fox has a ritual of rummaging through her private library, which is where she stumbled upon Fredericka Mandelbaum. A thick encyclopedia of trivia happened to open to an entry about the Grand Street School, where legend has it that Mandelbaum trained students to become successful thieves. It turned out to be an urban legend, but Fox had found the subject for her next book.

Margalit Fox found the subject of her new book while leafing through the pages of a crime encyclopedia. (Random House; Ivan Farkas)

“To my great delight, in addition to being a story about the missing women story, it was not a story about violence, but a story about business,” Fox said. “She was a genius entrepreneur. What she did was take the ad hoc, scattered, relatively low-revenue business of property crime and systematized it, regulated it, and hired the best people in the country to do it for her. She turned it into a well-oiled business.”

Fredericka Mandelbaum may have thought that “Thou shalt not steal” did not apply to her. She was nevertheless a committed Jew. Fox describes her as a “generous member” of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in its early years, when the synagogue was located on the Lower East Side. (The synagogue moved to its current location on the Upper West Side in 1930; the Clinton Street building is now home to Congregation Chasam Sopher.)

At the end of 1884, The law caught up with MandelbaumShe then jumped bail and fled to Canada, which did not have an extradition treaty with the United States at the time. She ended up in Hamilton, Ontario, with her son and an associate. She died, still on the run, ten years later, and was buried in Rodeph Sholom’s Union Field Cemetery in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Queens.

There is one aspect of Mandelbaum’s organized crime that Fox respects: It was almost entirely nonviolent.

“She didn’t have people beaten up,” Fox noted. “She didn’t have her men break people’s kneecaps with baseball bats. That came much later, in the early 20th century,” during the heyday of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s.

Yet Fox resists the temptation to treat Ms. Mandelbaum, talented as she is, as a role model.

“She made her living by having her henchmen steal other people’s property,” Fox said. “That’s an undeniable fact.”