Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

Thanks to NY Daily News for this:

On May 7, 1924, three men visited the Detroit home of Sophie Lyons Burke, 75, a little old lady who had devoted decades and thousands of dollars to reforming criminals.

Neighbors heard the woman cry out, “Quint, don’t do it!” Burke was later found crumpled on the floor and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the hospital. The men vanished.

People assumed that this soft-hearted granny, who never missed a church service, had fallen victim to the low-lifes she tried to help.

Never would they have imagined that she had once been one of them: Sophie Lyons, a New-York City-born slick-fingered beauty, known the world over as the “Queen of the Underworld.”

Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

“The most expert and dangerous woman crook I have ever met,” declared Thomas F. Byrnes, chief of the detective bureau in gaslight-era New York.

Shoplifting, embezzling, blackmailing, swindling, bank robbing, Lyons excelled at it all. Her beauty gave her access to worlds off-limits to crooks of lesser charms. She could easily persuade wealthy businessmen to take off their clothes, then sell the garments back, piece by piece while threatening to scream.

Born Sophie Levy on Dec. 24, 1848, she was a “crook of the blood,” lawmen said, with scoundrels on all branches of the family tree.

Before age 6, she had snatched her first purse, for which she received a bag of candy. Her first arrest, for shoplifting, came at age 12.

By the time she was 20, she had been to Sing Sing three times.

If she ever expressed doubts about stealing, her parents disciplined her with a hot poker or pin to her arm.

Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

In 1866, both parents went to prison, and the pretty 19-year-old came under the care of Marm Mandelbaum, the country’s most notorious fence. Mandelbaum honed the teenager’s technique and introduced her to a higher order of criminal.

A year later, she married “One Ear Ned” Edward “Ned” Lyons, a bank robber with only one ear (the other was the casualty of a bar brawl), a big red moustache, and an international reputation as a safecracker.

Soon after their wedding, Ned stole a million dollars in cash from a downtown bank. He promptly bought his young bride a Long Island home, and made a stab at respectability. She had everything a woman could want — jewels, servants, a carriage, beautiful clothes, and a baby, George.

It was not enough. Sophie missed thieving. She started lifting wallets from her husband’s buddies and sneaking into Manhattan to pick pockets, just for fun. Respectability slipped away.

In 1871, a botched robbery landed Ned in Sing Sing. At the same time, Sophie swiped some diamond rings from a jewelry store, which earned her a cell in the women’s wing at the same prison.

Bars could not contain them. They busted out and fled to Canada.

Five years later they were arrested picking pockets at a Long Island fair.

Despite all the good times, and three children, the marriage did not survive. Sophie left Ned in 1887, and he was never the same. The once famous safecracker died penniless and alone. As for the children, George would die young in Auburn prison and two daughters became nuns.

Sophie hired tutors to teach her to speak foreign languages and headed to Europe. Posing as a wealthy Southern belle, she plucked jewels from crowned heads, sold phony gold bricks, and fleeced wealthy Parisians of about $200,000 in a year. One day, a gendarme spotted the elegant thief slipping her hand into a man’s pocket. She feigned outrage at the accusation, her performance so convincing that the American ambassador intervened to demand her release and an apology.

For a time she ran diamonds between New York and Amsterdam, inventing hollow-heeled shoes to conceal her cargo.

Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

Back home, Sophie continued scamming and stealing into the 20th century and eventually took another husband, William (Billy the Kid) Burke, a world-famous jewel thief.

But the fun had gone out of the games, and sometime past her 50th birthday, after stints in 50 prisons, Sophie decided to go straight.

She settled in Detroit, began investing in real estate and preaching against the evils of her wild old life. In 1913, she penned a book, “Why Crime Does Not Pay.”

This did not sit well with Burke. In 1914, Sophie learned that her husband was the mastermind behind a million-dollar jewel heist in Egypt. She begged him to stop. “He only replied that I was a religious crank,” she told reporters, “and that he did not care to have anything more to do with me.”

Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

Sophie devoted her final years to the church and to “prodigal sons and erring daughters.” The old woman became as famous for her generosity as she had been for crime. “Once a thief always a thief is the blackest lie ever hatched,” she was quoted as saying. “Any crook who wants to go straight can do it.”

She spent so much time with shady characters that it seemed plausible she had died at the hands of lawbreakers. “Notorious Woman Criminal Slain By Pals,” was the Daily News headline the day after her death, but no one was ever caught.

In her will, she instructed that her wealth be used to establish a home for children of convicts and for a fund to purchase magazines and Christmas presents for inmates at Sing Sing, a place, she said, that had made her the happiest in her life and remained “very dear to my heart.”

Sophie Lyons biography

Sophie Lyons, famous Irish thief, died in Detroit 1924

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