Abe Greenthal

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Abe Greenthal in March 1877.

Abraham Greenthal (1826 – November 17, 1889), aka "The General", was an American criminal known as one of the most expert pickpockets in the nation. He was a thief and fence for thirty years, and led a nation-wide ring of pickpockets.[1][2]

Greenthal was born in Poland in 1826, though like many Polish-Jewish immigrants of his era, he would later call himself German.[3] He emigrated to the U.S. at a young age and soon entered a life of crime.[4]

Greenthal made his home and base of criminal operations in New York City's Tenth Ward.[1][3] He led the Sheeny Mob, a syndicate of Jewish pickpockets who worked across the country; "sheeny" was a derogatory term for an untrustworthy Jew.[3] The gang's method was jostling into victims in crowded places, particularly train stations.[3] Among his criminal associates were Greenthal's own family members. At the time of his death, The New York Times wrote that "[a]ll the Greenthal family have turned out to be criminals, the women being shoplifters and the men pickpockets."[4] He also had "close 'business' relations" with notorious fence Fredericka Mandelbaum.[1][4] Greenthal and his gang were among the many underworld figures represented by defense lawyer William F. Howe.[5] He was arrested many times without being convicted, which The New York Times explained as the result of "the lavish use of money and the peculiar influences he could make use of."[4]

Abe Greenthal and his brother, Harris, and son-in-law, Samuel Casper, were all convicted in 1877 for robbing $1,190 in March 1877 from a farmer traveling by train. They had followed him from Albany, where the farmer had "flashed his newfound wealth," to Rochester, where the gang made a pretense of befriending him and helping him with his bags while Abe stole the farmer's pocketbook. They escaped from Rochester but were subsequently arrested in Syracuse. Abe was sentenced to twenty years hard labor in Auburn State Prison, Harris was sentenced to eighteen years, and Casper was sentenced to fifteen years.[3] Abe Greenthal was pardoned in 1884, however, by Governor Grover Cleveland, based on representations that his health was poor.[6]

Greenthal was next arrested in Brooklyn on December 30, 1885 by New York City chief of detectives Thomas F. Byrnes, for robbing a resident of Williamsburg of $795.[4] Greenthal pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny and was sentenced to five years in Crow Hill prison in Brooklyn.[1] His sentence began on March 23, 1886, and he was released in late 1889.[3] Greenthal died about three weeks after his release, at his daughters home in Harlem, of illness aggravated by his imprisonment.[7]

Greenthal was profiled by Detective Byrnes in his 1886 book Professional Criminals of America, which called Greenthal "one of the most expert pickpockets in America."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Byrnes, Thomas (1886), Professional Criminals of America, New York: Cassell & Company, pp. 224–225 .
  2. ^ Jay, Ricky (February 2011), "Grifters, Bunco Artists & Flimflam Men", Wired 19 (2): 92 .
  3. ^ a b c d e f Rockaway, Robert A. (2000), But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, Gefen Publishing House Ltd., pp. 95–96, ISBN 965-229-249-4 .
  4. ^ a b c d e End of a Criminal Career. Old Abe Greenthal Dies of Old Age—His Life Story, The New York Times, November 20, 1889 
  5. ^ Dornstein, Ken (1998), Accidentally, on Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 150, ISBN 0-312-17683-X .
  6. ^ The New York Times, November 20, 1889. Rockaway 2000, p. 96 says that Cleveland pardoned all three men, but does not explain his motivation.
  7. ^ The New York Times, November 20, 1889 (reporting his death as having occurred the previous Sunday). Rockaway 2000, p. 96 erroneously gives his year of death as 1895.