Sophie Lyons

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Sophie Lyons
Sophie Lyons in Professional Criminals of America.png
Born (1848-12-24)December 24, 1848
New York City, New York, United States
Died May 8, 1924(1924-05-08) (aged 75)
Detroit, Michigan
Nationality English-American
Other names Sophie Lyons-Burke
Sophia Lyons
Mary Watson
Occupation Criminal
Known for New York thief, shoplifter and confidence woman
Spouse(s) Ned Lyons
Billy Burke
Children 1 son, 2 daughters

Sophie Lyons (December 24, 1848 – May 8, 1924) was an American criminal and one of the country's most notorious female thieves, pickpockets, shoplifters and confidence women during the mid-to-late 19th century. She and her husbands Ned Lyons and Billy Burke were among the most sought-after career criminals in the United States and Canada, being wanted in several major cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal, from the 1860s until the turn of the 20th century.

She and Ned Lyons were also prominent underworld figures in New York City during the post-American Civil War era as associates of Marm Mandelbaum, Sophie Lyons being a member of Mandelbaum's "inner circle" during the 1860s and 1870s.[1] She eventually retired from criminal life and spent her later years involved in the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents, and providing financial assistance and housing for reformed criminals and their families. Her autobiography, Why Crime Does Not Pay (1913), was published and distributed by publisher William Randolph Hearst.[2][3]


Early life and criminal career[edit]

Lyons was born to a family of criminals: her grandfather was a known safe-cracker and both her parents had criminal records prior to immigrating to the United States from England. Her mother, Baltimore shoplifter Sophie Elkins,[4] was a "keeper of a disorderly house" in New York's East Side, and supposedly forced her out into the street to steal. Lyons claimed she had been first caught stealing at the age of 3 and tried at the Essex Market police court,[5] although she was again arrested for shoplifting at 12.

Sophie married another pickpocket when she was 16, a Maury Harris, but the marriage ended when Harris was arrested and sentenced to New York State Prison for two years. During her youth, she became known as a skilled pickpocket and confidence woman. She was considered a consummate actress who, even when caught by her victim, was able to "counterfeit every shade of emotion" to persuade them to release her.[6] According to one incident in 1880, she was able to convince a store detective that she suffered from kleptomania.[7]

She eventually married Ned Lyons, known then as "King of the Bank Robbers", and together they had three children. Two years after their marriage, Ned Lyons was able to purchase a villa on Long Island from his share in a major bank robbery. Although he tried to discourage Sophie from pickpocketing, she continued to do so and eventually both were imprisoned. Soon after Ned's escape from New York State Prison in 1872, he returned to New York to help Sophie escape from prison, by using a disguise to infiltrate Sing Sing and breaking through the wall of her jail cell. They escaped to Paris where Sophie Lyons lived under the name Madame d'Varney and the two continued their criminal activities.[6]

Court battle with George Lyons[edit]

On the afternoon of January 31, 1880, Sophie returned to the Essex Market police court where she brought her youngest son, 14-year-old George Lyons, before the magistrate. She claimed that he refused to attend school, often left home at nights to sleep in the streets and "was so generally unruly" that she requested that he be put in a juvenile correctional facility. After she had finished, George Lyons shouted "that woman is a thief and a shoplifter. I have seen her steal in Montreal and elsewhere". He denied his mother's charges, claiming she wanted to get rid of him, and that he had "recommendations showing his good character". He went on to make further criminal charges against his mother, continuing "Yes, you want to get rid of me, and you're my mother. How can I tell you are when you have two husbands with whom you go all over the country, stealing everywhere ?" These accusations caused a disturbance in the court room and the magistrate called for a recess to listen to both mother and son in private.[5]

Sophie Lyons confessed to her criminal past and being the wife of Ned Lyons, however she maintained that she had spent considerable time and effort trying to keep her son from becoming a criminal. She had sent him to three colleges in Canada (her two daughters attended schools in Germany [6]) but he returned to New York where he began frequenting underworld resorts, including Dan Kerrigan's infamous Sixth Street saloon, where he performed as a singer, and associating with known criminals. She also said that her son had obtained at least one of his recommendations by threatening a former employer, a Kate B. Woodward, with a carving knife.

After hearing of this incident, Sophie invited her son to their home on Montgomery Street and had him arrested by waiting police officers. George Lyons admitted he did have an argument with Ms. Woodward, who had withheld his pocket watch, but denied intimidating her to obtaining his recommendation. He did admit to picking up a carving knife during the argument, but did not use it towards her or use threatening language. He was reportedly disruptive while his mother made her statement, making claims of child neglect and abandonment. The magistrate ruled that George Lyons would be held in custody until the claims of both parties could be investigated. George, being informed that he would not be released, had to be escorted from the court room by police, and attempted to choke himself by swallowing a handkerchief.[5]

Last days in New York[edit]

Sophie Lyons spent much of the 1890s in the Midwestern United States as a member of a burglary gang led by Billy Burke, whom she would later marry. She returned to New York in 1895 and, after her arrest by noted police detective Stephen O'Brien,[8] she was put under close police surveillance by Brooklyn detectives, under orders from Superintendent McKelvey.[9]

On the afternoon of June 21, 1896, Lyons entered a dry goods store at Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. Lyons, then using the alias Mary Watson, was approached by store detective Mary Plunkett, who had recognized her, and who informed her she was wanted by local police. When Lyons dismissed her, Plunkett grabbed her arm, attempting to bring her in by force. A crowd began to gather as the argument escalated. Plunkett told the crowd that "one of the most notorious pickpockets in the world was standing before them". At that point, Lyons got free of Plunkett and left the store, with the detective in pursuit. Plunkett pursued Lyons onto a street car where she informed the driver that Lyons was wanted by police. The driver allowed Lyons onto the street car, replying to Plunkett it was none of his business. As they reached Eighteenth Street, Plunkett was able to call two patrolmen and had Lyons placed under arrest.

Lyons refused to be taken back to the dry goods store, insisting that she be searched to prove her innocence, but was instead arrested and taken to the Mercer Street police station. She was held at the precinct until her arraignment at the Jefferson Market police court on June 22. She was charged with the theft of a pocketbook from an unknown woman in New Jersey, which contained $12 and a railroad ticket, and it was requested by the court that she be remanded. Her lawyer, Emanuel Friend, successfully argued for her release, pointing out the largely vague circumstances of the charges, as well as the absence of the store detective. The magistrate agreed that the city had no evidence to prosecute Lyons and dismissed her case.[10]

Retirement and later years[edit]

Following her "retirement" from crime in 1913, Sophie eventually settled in Detroit where she wrote her memoirs, "Why Crime Does Not Pay", and became a known philanthropist and prison reformer. She also owned forty houses, not including vacant property, due to real estate and business investments worth half a million dollars.[11] She publicly offered to provide rent-free homes for any criminals with families who were brought to Detroit by the Pathfinders' Club reform group. On February 2, 1916, she announced at the Pathfinders' annual dinner that she would be donating land worth $35,000 to establish a building for juvenile delinquents.

The Pathfinders' Club operated a similar "character building" facility at Lafayette Boulevard at Twenty-Fourth Street. Lyons specified that the gift was offered on the condition that "The home is to be devoted to the work of convincing children who have begun to be criminals that they have chosen the wrong path, and also to training them so that they will have the strength to go alright. A secondary purpose is to provide a place in which adults who have fallen into crime may get a new start in life".[12]

In July 1922, the 73-year-old Lyons discovered her house had been robbed of between $6,000-$7,000 in bonds and $13,000 in diamonds. She had returned to her Detroit home after a day trip to Put-in-Bay to find her house "ransacked and the floor strewn with empty boxes, books and other articles". She claimed the diamonds were a gift from her son who had recently died in Seattle. She commented to reporters stating 'I have no idea who did the 'job,' and I am unhappy to think that men would do such a thing to an old woman who devotes a large income to prison relief work".[13] She died two years later on May 8, 1924.[14]


  1. ^ Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. (pg. 197) ISBN 1-56025-275-8
  2. ^ Indianapolis News. "Criminology: Sophie Lyons' Success". Vol. I. No. 1. South Whitney, Indiana: Atoz Printing Company, 1916. (pg. 14)
  3. ^ Segrave, Kerry. Shoplifting: A Social History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001. (pg. 3) ISBN 0-7864-0908-8
  4. ^ La Fountaine, George. The Scott-Dunlap Ring. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978. (pg. 113)
  5. ^ a b c "Burglar Lyons's Family; The Depravity Of Its Youngest Member. He Abuses His Mother In A Police Court --Rewarding Her With Curses And Filthy Charges--Sorrows Of A Woman Who Was Reared In Crime". New York Times. 01 February 1880
  6. ^ a b c Houdini, Harry. The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals. Boston: Harry Houdini, 1906. (pg. 75-76)
  7. ^ Abelson, Elaine S. When Ladies Go A-thieving: Middle-class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. (pg. 264) ISBN 0-19-507142-5
  8. ^ "Detectives In New Jobs; Important Changes Made in the Bureau at Headquarters. Five Sergeants To Patrol Work; Nine Men of Their Grade Asked to be Retired -- Eleven Lower Officers Reduced in Rank. Stephen O'Brien Head Of The Force; Records of Some of Those Who Have Been Degraded -- None Has Resigned". New York Times. 20 Jul 1895
  9. ^ "Must Catch Brooklyn Thieves; Captains Take on Paper Superintendent's Instructions-Pool Rooms and Policy Shops Must Be Closed". New York Times. 20 Dec 1895
  10. ^ "Sophie Lyons Again Arrested.; This Time There Was No Evidence Against the Woman". New York Times. 22 June 1896
  11. ^ "Queen Of Crooks Reforms; Mrs. Lyons-Burke Will Devote Half-Million to Aiding Convicts". New York Times. 13 April 1913
  12. ^ "Sophie Lyons Offers Gift.; Retired Thief Has Site for Criminals Home in Detroit". New York Times. 03 February 1916
  13. ^ "Rob Ex-Confidence Woman; Burglars Sack Sophie L. Burke's Detroit Home--Get $20,000". New York Times. 06 July 1922
  14. ^ Haskin, Frederic J. Answers to Questions. New York: F. J. Haskin, 1926. (pg. 133)

Further reading[edit]

  • Browning, Frank and John Gerassi. The American Way of Crime: From Salem to Watergate, a Stunning New Perspective on Crime in America. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980. ISBN 0-399-11906-X
  • Byrnes, Thomas. 1886 Professional Criminals of America. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969.
  • De Grave, Kathleen. Swindler, Spy, Rebel: The Confidence Woman in Nineteenth-century America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8262-1005-8
  • Gardner, Hy. Champagne Before Breakfast. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1954.
  • Horan, James D. and Howard Swiggett. The Pinkerton Story. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1951.
  • Voss, Frederick and James Barber. We Never Sleep: The First Fifty Years of the Pinkertons. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.