Lyons, Sophie (1848–1924)

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Lyons, Sophie (1848–1924)

American swindler and society columnist. Born Sophie Levy on December 24, 1848, in New York City; died of a brain hemorrhage on May 8, 1924, after being beaten by thieves in Detroit, Michigan; daughter of Sam Levy and Sophie Elkins (alias); married Maury Harris (a pickpocket), in 1865; married Ned Lyons (a bank robber, separated and reunited); married Billy Burke (a thief); children: (second marriage) George Lyons (b. 1870); Florence Lyons; Esther Lyons; and one other son.

Was first arrested (1859); sent to Sing Sing prison for five years (1871); escaped and fled to Canada with Ned Lyons (1872); caught pickpocketing and returned to Sing Sing (1876); became first American society columnist, for the New York World (1897); published booklets on criminal reform; established a home for children with imprisoned parents in Detroit, Michigan; donated to various prisons a piano and money for libraries.

Dubbed "the Queen of Crime" by the New York City chief of police in the 1880s, Sophie Lyons lived an outrageous life that encompassed both sides of the law. Born and raised a brazen con artist, she made her fortune through all manner of crimes before renouncing the underworld and becoming a paradigm of reform.

She was born Sophie Levy in December 1848 in New York City to a shoplifter mother and a father who was usually incarcerated, a result of his predilection for breaking into homes. Sophie never attended school; instead, she was taught the arts of shoplifting and pickpocketing at an early age. Surrounded by crooks, she knew no other life. In a brief stand on principles brought on by a conversation with some other girls, Sophie once refused to shoplift, but a hot poker wielded by her father prodded her dutifully back to criminal behavior.

At 16, she married Maury Harris, who had dazzled her with his claims of pickpocketing artistry. But when Harris was caught and imprisoned, Sophie, unimpressed, left him. Soon after, she fell in love with Ned Lyons, an underground idol both in America and England. Criminal society of the era had its own class system, and pride in the "craft"; in that society, Ned Lyons was considered a very eligible bachelor. When he and Sophie married, he promised her that she would no longer have to steal, for he would provide everything. He was true to his word, and Sophie lived like any wealthy woman, surrounded by servants, expensive furniture, and fine china. When Ned came home each night, she was there waiting, but he soon discovered that she was leaving their Long Island home daily to pickpocket and shoplift in Manhattan. After the birth of their son George, Lyons gave up her activities, albeit for only six months. When caught and arrested for pickpocketing at a large New Hampshire fair, she put on such a convincing act, with trembling, tears, and declarations that it was all a terrible mistake, that she was released.

In 1871, Lyons' compulsive stealing landed her a six-month jail term. Ned's luck ran out shortly thereafter, and he faced seven years at Sing Sing. Weeks after Lyons was released, she was arrested for grand larceny and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, also at Sing Sing. Having planned her own incarceration as part of a scheme to be near, and eventually to liberate, her husband, Lyons quickly set to work securing a position as personal servant to the prison's head matron. Soon, she was frequently allowed to walk the matron's children outside the prison walls.

On one of these strolls, she connected with a member of her husband's old gang, and together they executed a plan that allowed Ned Lyons to simply walk out of prison only days later. Ned returned the favor by springing Sophie on December 19, 1872, the result of a maneuver involving a piece of wax with which Sophie made an impression of a prison door key. They fled to Canada, where, while still surviving on loot from robbed safes and vaults, Sophie tried in vain to convince her husband to forsake the criminal life. After a few years of constant arguing, they returned to the United States and promptly separated.

By 1876, they were reunited by their shared need to steal, but were quickly arrested picking pockets at the Long Island Fair and sent back to Sing Sing. This time, however, Lyons was determined to leave her husband behind and began hatching a plan to move herself up in the criminal world by turning to blackmail, con jobs, and well-executed bank heists. Having worked with some of the cleverest crooks of the time, the future Queen of Crime was more than prepared to begin her reign.

Fresh out of prison, Lyons found a new accomplice in Billy Burke. Although they would later marry, in business Sophie was the mastermind and Burke the assistant. Having a distaste for violence, Lyons instructed Burke that all their work would be accomplished through planning and guile. Together they carried out many clever heists, and Lyons began to get rich. Her reputation spread as her successes piled up, and Lyons took her craft to Europe. Using aliases such as Kate Wilson and Fannie Owens, she robbed banks and ran stolen jewels in virtually every major European capital.

By the 1880s, she had earned the title "the Queen of Crime" and, like legitimate royalty, enjoyed wealth and properties from the French Riviera to the American West. Lyons, never having learned to read or write, hired tutors to educate her in languages, art, and literature. With her new education and social graces, she began hobnobbing with moneyed Americans in Europe. Even the Vanderbilts accepted her as Mary Wilson, the daughter of a rich gold prospector. When Lyons was caught pickpocketing in Paris, her wealthy friends and even the American ambassador came to her aid, insisting that the arresting gendarme had surely made a mistake. Unruffled by the close call, Lyons soon pulled off another jewel heist in Paris which left her $250,000 richer.

Expensive living quickly depleted her riches, however, and Lyons found it necessary to return to the United States where she used her good looks to blackmail wealthy businessmen and public officials. At the same time, she reunited with Ned Lyons long enough to have three more children before finally leaving him for good. She later sent her two daughters to Canada to be raised in a convent; one daughter, Esther Lyons , was so ashamed of her mother's reputation she asked her to never visit there, and the two were estranged for the rest of Sophie's life.

By the 1890s, after many arrests and prison terms, Lyons' stellar criminal career was fading, and she retired. When she was swindled by an associate during her last crime, Lyons took it as a sign that it was time to reform, saying later, "I want something more than property. I want the respect of good people." She made several successful and legitimate real estate investments, and by 1897 had become America's first society columnist, writing for the New York World. Her intercontinental travels and social contacts provided her with a steady supply of high-society news. Lyons also published pamphlets advising criminals to change their ways, established a home for children with imprisoned parents, and donated money to help build prison libraries throughout America.

Lyons married her former accomplice Billy Burke, whom she also reformed, and they stayed together in Detroit until his death in 1919. Then one May evening in 1924, three men whom Lyons had been trying to reform came to visit the wealthy 76-year-old woman in her Detroit home. Provoked by rumors that Lyons' riches were hidden somewhere in her home, they viciously attacked her, shattering her skull. She was found in a coma by neighbors and died in a hospital that night. Lyons' estate was later estimated to be worth approximately $1 million. Her will was generous to all her children except Esther. To her, Sophie Lyons left only $100 and a purse to keep it in.


Nash, Jay R. Look For The Woman: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Female Prisoners, Kidnappers, Thieves, Terrorists, Swindlers and Spies from Elizabethan Times to the Present. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada