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‘Marm’ Mandelbaum: Queen of the Fences

Overseeing an army of thieves and pickpockets on the Lower East Side in the late 1800s, she was ‘as adept in her business as the best stock-broker in Wall Street’

Allan Levine
May 18, 2023
Original image from ‘Recollections of a New York Chief of Police’ (1887), by George W. Walling
Original image from ‘Recollections of a New York Chief of Police’ (1887), by George W. Walling
Original image from ‘Recollections of a New York Chief of Police’ (1887), by George W. Walling
Original image from ‘Recollections of a New York Chief of Police’ (1887), by George W. Walling
Editor’s note: Chronicled and mythologized in scholarly and popular history books, novels, films, and plays, New York’s Lower East Side in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was overcrowded and teeming with peddlers, tailors, sweatshops, and barely livable tenement houses. By 1910, an estimated 540,000 Jews resided within the neighborhood’s 1.5 square miles. The poverty, hardships, and daily struggle to survive drove some Jewish immigrants to seek other ways to make a living, even get rich. Hence, the Lower East Side also had a vast collection of crooks, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, pickpockets, gangsters, fraudsters, forgers, arsonists, and hoodlums. Offered here and in future articles are portraits of some of these nefarious characters, who also left their mark on the Lower East Side’s historical legacy. 
This article is part of The Dark Side of the Lower East Side.
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“The woman has really been for more than twenty years the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York. She is believed to have furnished the capital without which extensive enterprises even of theft cannot be carried on. She is known to have been the ‘fence’ through which stolen goods were disposed of, and without the facilities thus furnished robbery as a business would have been impossible.”
—New York Times,
July 24, 1884

There was no ignoring Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum. At the height of her notoriety as the “Queen of the Fences” in the 1870s and early 1880s, she commanded attention. She was a charming, large woman, about 250 pounds. She had “a sharply curved mouth and extraordinarily fat cheeks,” according to journalist Herbert Asbury, “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.”

Mandelbaum portrayed herself as the owner of a modest dry goods and haberdashery store on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side; a widow after her husband, Wolf, died in 1875, the mother of four children, and a respected member of Congregation Temple Rodeph Sholom, then located near her store and home. (The store was on the ground floor and the family’s luxurious apartment was on the second and third floors.)

Yet in reality, for more than two decades Marm Mandelbaum was the premier “receiver of stolen goods” in New York City. Known throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, she operated an extensive criminal enterprise, supported by a small army of thieves, burglars, pickpockets, shoplifters, and “second-story” climbers who worshipped her. But she was protected or ignored by New York City police officers and detectives, who were willfully blind to her illegal activities, or were paid off by her. “For 25 years, Mrs. Mandelbaum has carried on a most successful business as a receiver of stolen goods,” commented Robert Pinkerton, the co-director of the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1884. “She is known at least by name to every thief and detective in the United States, and has received plunder from nearly every city in the country secured by traveling gangs of professional thieves.”

Mandelbaum also benefited from the fact that at the time it was difficult, if not impossible, to track and identify stolen goods, especially once tags, labels, and markings were expertly removed. Even on the rare occasion when she got into trouble with the police, she was skillfully defended by William Howe and Abraham Hummel of the well-known law firm of Howe & Hummel, who specialized in representing murderers, burglars, and criminals of every type. She paid them an annual retainer of $5,000 ($136,500 today) and they kept her out of jail—until she was caught in a sting operation in 1884 that put her out of the “fence” business.

For Marm, often described as a “shrewd” businesswoman, crime did, in fact, pay and she became as wealthy as any Fifth Avenue magnate. It has been estimated that during her more than two-decade reign (1862 to 1884), she bought and sold as much as $10 million worth of stolen property (approximately $273 million today) likely netting her a personal fortune of between $500,000 and $1 million dollars ($13.6 million to $27.3 million today). As George W. Walling, who served as the chief of the NYPD from 1874 to 1885 and was one of her biggest fans, put it in his memoirs, “she could have easily earned an excellent living simply by keeping a dry goods establishment. She preferred ‘minting’ money by dealing with thieves … and was as adept in her business as the best stock-broker in Wall Street.” She also owned property in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Albany, New York, and Passaic, New Jersey, which was mostly used for warehousing the plunder she acquired.

Mandelbaum’s rise to infamy in the New York crime world was a matter of circumstance. In 1850, 25-year-old Fredericka (Weisner) Mandelbaum joined her husband, Wolf Mandelbaum, who had journeyed to New York sometime earlier. They were among the 3 million German-speaking immigrants escaping economic hardship and restrictive government regulation who arrived in the United States in the period from 1820 to 1880, of whom an estimated 150,000 were Jewish. Many German Jews and non-Jews ended up in New York City, where, like Fredericka and Wolf, they settled in the crowded tenement houses of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), the East Side neighborhood.

In New York, the Mandelbaums initially eked out a living as peddlers selling cloth and trinkets, while Fredericka gave birth to two boys and two girls between 1860 and 1867. By then, Fredericka, who wanted more out of life, had gradually transformed herself into “Marm,” a maternal figure and teacher to impoverished children and teenagers, whom she trained as pickpockets and shoplifters. She bought whatever they delivered to her and in turn sold it to other dealers for a slight premium. This was the start of her career as a “fence.”

Marm’s criminal operations first came to the attention of the NYPD in 1862. Her background as a “German-Jewess” was often highlighted in later news stories about her; George Walling noted that while moving merchandise she was prone to haggle “enough to satisfy her race instinct.”

With the money she and Wolf made, they leased a building on Clinton Street near the corner of Rivington Street, where they established a dry goods and haberdashery store and resided with their family. By 1873, they owned the entire property. The business did well, but the building also had a long clapboard wing that for many years was used as warehouse for the stolen goods that were acquired. Later, she had other warehouses to store her ill-gotten booty.

Marm, who perfected her English-language skills, was in Walling’s opinion definitely the brains of the operation, “a thorough business woman”; he dismissed Wolf as a “non-entity.” With Wolf’s death, Marm soon reached the zenith of her position as the most prominent receiver of stolen goods—or “swag”—in the city.

New York’s steadily increasing population and the growth of its commercial enterprises, especially the textile business, provided ample opportunities for thieves and burglars. Marm took full advantage of this confluence of demographic and economic factors and cultivated a loyal cadre of rogues, men and women, who supplied her with an almost never-ending stock of stolen goods. Michael Kurtz—alias “Sheeney Mike,” a leader of the infamous Dutch mob pickpocket gang and an expert safe burglar—and Sophie Lyons, “perhaps the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced,” according to Asbury, were only two of dozens of crooks who sought out Mandelbaum for her assistance and guidance. She, in turn, watched over and mentored them, accepted their stolen goods (in later years, she contracted them to steal certain valuable items) entertained them at parties, dinners, and picnics, and most importantly, offered financial support and bail money when any of them were arrested. And, “if [her] efforts [to free them] were successful, she always taxed them double the expenses,” as a New York Times profile of her pointed out in July 1884. Presumably, none of the thieves complained about this tithe.

Mandelbaum knew good quality. Above all, she favored silk, a popular fabric in the 19th century for ladies’ dresses and corsets and men’s bow ties and handkerchiefs, among other fashionwear, and plentiful at New York City’s silk houses. Next on her list were sealskin handbags, gold and silverware, jewels, lace, and other precious goods—even horses and carriages. When her thieves and pickpockets—she trained and worked with female shoplifters who targeted such New York department stores as Lord & Taylor and A.T. Stewart—delivered the plunder to her, Marm bought it from them and profited from the subsequent sale. For silk worth $3 a yard, she paid the criminal supplier slightly more than 20%, or 65 cents, and then resold it for at least twice that much.

Ever careful, she completely trusted only a few individuals including her eldest son, Julius, who became integral to the family business and her chief assistant, Hermann Stoude (or Herman Stout). Often, when contacted about goods that had to be sold, she sent Stoude to evaluate them before any money changed hands. She was meticulous in ensuring that before stolen goods were resold, they were painstakingly examined for any identifying marks or tags. Because she knew that to stay out of trouble with the police, the goods could not be traced back to her or one of her thieves.

Despite these precautions, she was eventually ensnared. New York silk merchants were angry; they were losing $5,000 to $6,000 each year because of theft. In 1884, Peter Olney, the newly appointed district attorney of New York County, an anti-Tammany Democrat who was determined to end this crime spree as well as corruption in the NYPD, responded to the merchants’ plea for help. His target was Marm Mandelbaum. Olney was not naive. He knew that if he assigned officers of the NYPD the assignment of shutting Mandelbaum’s operation down, nothing would happen; the police had let her skirt the law for decades and that was not about to change. Instead, he enlisted Robert Pinkerton and his detective agency, which devised an undercover scheme to entrap her.

It required four months of planning. First, for three weeks, a Pinkerton operative named Gustave Frank was instructed by a silk dealer on the business of buying and selling silk. At the same time, secret markings, which even Mandelbaum and her team would not find, were placed on bolts of silk, product that was soon stolen. Posing as a crooked trader named “Stein,” Frank infiltrated Mandelbaum’s inner circle and gained her trust. During a three-month period, she eventually agreed to sell him 12,000 yards of silk, some of which had the secret markings on it. Once Olney was confident that he had a solid case against her, Mandelbaum was arrested, along with her son Julius and her assistant Stoude. In searching her house, Pinkerton detectives discovered a huge cache of stolen goods including more silk and jewelry.

Because she knew that to stay out of trouble with the police, the goods could not be traced back to her or one of her thieves.

Mandelbaum’s arrest and appearance in the Harlem Police Court received prominent coverage in the New York press. The Times even wrote an editorial about it, declaring that “the disgrace of this case is that in New York only has the receiving and sale of stolen goods been carried on for years as openly as if it were a legitimate industry. Mrs. Mandelbaum’s business has been as much under the protection of the law as the business of any one of the firms whose stolen goods constituted her stock in trade.”

Charged with possession of stolen silk, she posted bail and was released. She then ensured that Julius and Stoude also got out on bail. Back in court a week later, Mandelbaum pleaded her innocence. “I buy and sell dry goods as other dry goods people do,” she stated. “I have never knowingly bought stolen goods … I have never, never stolen in my life … I feel that these charges are brought out against me for spite. I have never bribed the police or had their protection. I never gave money to any person whatsoever to bribe or influence any officials, so help me God …. I never knew that any one piece of the silk was stolen … I got the property now produced … in an honest and business-like way.” Yet, she was hardly a victim and few people in the courtroom, including the judge and Olney’s officials, believed her.

A career criminal as clever and cunning as Mandelbaum was not about to be locked up. Her lawyers managed to drag on the proceedings for several months by requesting a transfer of the case to a higher court, which was granted. On Dec. 4, when the trial was to finally start, Mandelbaum was nowhere to be found. Despite Pinkerton detectives maintaining a 24-hour watch on her house, with the help of a servant who disguised herself as Mandelbaum, Marm managed to slip away. A day later, it was reported in the newspapers that she had crossed the U.S.-Canada border by train and arrived in Toronto wearing a “rich sealskin coat and cape.” Her son Julius and Stoude had accompanied her. Olney had a problem because in 1884 the crime for which Mandelbaum, her son, and assistant were charged with was not an extraditable offense. He resigned himself to the fact that unless Marm returned voluntarily, she would not face justice in a New York courtroom.

By Dec. 8, the trio had relocated to the city of Hamilton, Ontario, 42 miles southwest. Acting independently, the Hamilton police located them and after a search, they were arrested for vagrancy for allegedly bringing stolen diamonds into the country. It was a flimsy charge that did not hold up; the New York City jeweler who had claimed the diamonds had been stolen from his store traveled to Hamilton for a hearing, but was unable to positively identify them. Within a few days, Mandelbaum, Julius, and Stoude were released; it took several more weeks before the Canadian authorities returned the diamonds to her after she paid customs fees and expenses of $614.

Thereafter, Mandelbaum settled in Hamilton and lived a quieter life. For a time, she operated a small dry goods business. Rumor had it that she returned to New York only once in the following decade to watch from a distance the funeral of her youngest child, Anna. Even if the story was true, and she certainly had the gumption to take such a risk, she was not apprehended by the police. Following a long illness, she died in Hamilton on Feb. 26, 1894, at the age of 69. “Old ‘Mother’ Mandelbaum Is Dead,” The New York Times noted in a brief story about her infamous career.

Marm Mandelbaum was gone but not easily forgotten. More than a year later, The Great Diamond Robbery, a melodrama by Edward Alfriend and Andrew Wheeler about love and crime, opened at the American Theatre and received a positive review in the Times. During this five-act story of murder, a diamond robbery, young love, and conspirators at every turn, “Frau Rosenbaum” eventually makes her appearance, described by the newspaper’s reviewer as a “receiver of stolen goods of the Mother Mandelbaum type.” As historian Rona Holub, who has studied Marm’s career, points out, “theatergoers knew exactly upon whom the character was based.”

Historian and writer Allan Levine’s most recent book is Details Are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.