It is often said that jail/prison is somewhat of a crime school, where criminals become better criminals. Back in the day, Fredricka “Marm” Mandelbaum, New York City’s first female crime boss displayed great innovation when she opened an actual crime school, to school the young thieves that wished to work with her on the game.
In 1848, Marm migrated from her native Prussia to New York City, with her husband, Wolfe. Standing 6′ tall and weighing between 200-300 pounds, she was an imposing figure. The couple opened a general store, and early on Marm would build relationships with scores of wayward kids and petty thieves on the street, looking to get paid quick for stolen items. In 1865, Marm opened a new store on Clinton Avenue that would serve as a front for her fencing enterprise. Wolfe fell back and let Marm run the show. Thieves would bring Marm items ranging from furniture to jewelry, which she would buy cheap, then sell for a high markup. Once, she bought a herd of sheep, someone had stolen during the Great Chicago Fire. Marm’s favorite items to fence were bolts of silk and diamonds.
As her business grew, Marm went on to be a crime financier, funding bank robberies and other activities, such as blackmail, theft and burglary. She would pay off police, judges and politicians, which enabled her grow her enterprise into a million dollar business. “At some point, she came to understand the American system,” said J. North Conway, author of Queen of Thieves: The True Story of “Marm” Mandelbaum and Her Gangs of New York. “The American is system is, ‘You get what you pay for.'”
As she progressed on the streets, she decided to open a brick and mortar school to train thieves to work under her. Atlas Obscura reports:
Mandelbaum never got her hands dirty, instead building an inner circle of burglars, pickpockets, and robbers. To grow and support this network, Mandelbaum is said to have created a school that would train the many children living on the streets to be criminals. “The city was inundated at the time, with orphaned children. ‘Street rats,’ they called them,” says Conway. While no official transcripts of the curriculum seems to exist, Mandelbaum’s Grand Street School became maybe the first and most successful training center for crooks in the city, according to Conway.
The school was opened around 1870 behind a storefront on Clinton and Grand Street. Mandelbaum invited both young men and women to come and learn the criminal trades from professional thieves, pickpockets, and conmen. When young ne’er-do-wells enrolled in the school they started off learning about smaller crimes like pickpocketing and petty theft. They would be taught about things like misdirection and the finer points of thieving, then, if they had a knack for it, their training would advance. “If you were doing very well, you graduated up into other, more important things, which would include outright robberies and scams,” says Conway. Other higher level subjects included safe-cracking, blackmail, and burglary.
The star pupils would eventually move on to work directly for Mandelbaum. Her enterprise had a symbiotic relationship with the criminal community in that she needed a constant flow of thieves bringing her merchandise, and they needed a quick and reliable place to sell their ill-gotten gain.
Though training young people to steal on the streets is worthy of condemnation, Marm’s business and school stood out, because she trained and hired women, putting them on a career path beyond domestic work. One of her star pupils was master blackmailer and thief Sophie Lyons, who would go on to assume the title of the “Princess of Crime” (Lyons would later denounce Marm and say that she took advantage of youth). Conway explained, “Despite the fact that it was in the arena of crime, Mandelbaum was credited with being one of the first feminists, because she was able to get women jobs in which they made more money and were able to use their skills in better ways than they did working in factories or as maids.”
The Grand Street School was open for six years. Marm shuttered it when she learned that one of her students was the son of a police officer. Nevertheless, Marm’s business continued to thrive to the point that she needed two warehouses to store all of her stolen merchandise. The end of her reign as the “Queen Of Fences” came in 1884, when she purchased a bolt of silk that the Pinkerton detective agency had tagged. Marm blew trial and escaped to Canada with over a million dollars in cash and diamonds. She died there in 1894, and her body was returned to New York. At her funeral, a number of mourners claimed that they had been pickpocketed there.