The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

The Rise and Fall of an American Organized-Crime Boss

About the Book

America’s first great organized-crime lord was a lady—a nice Jewish mother named Mrs. Mandelbaum.

“A tour de force . . . With a pickpocket’s finesse, Margalit Fox lures us into the criminal underworld of Gilded Age New York.”—Liza Mundy, author of The Sisterhood

In 1850, an impoverished twenty-five-year-old named Fredericka Mandelbaum came to New York in steerage and worked as a peddler on the streets of Lower Manhattan. By the 1870s she was a fixture of high society and an admired philanthropist. How was she able to ascend from tenement poverty to vast wealth?

In the intervening years, “Marm” Mandelbaum had become the country’s most notorious “fence”—a receiver of stolen goods—and a criminal mastermind. By the mid-1880s as much as $10 million worth of purloined luxury goods (nearly $300 million today) had passed through her Lower East Side shop. Called “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime,” she planned robberies of cash, gold and diamonds throughout the country.

But Mrs. Mandelbaum wasn’t just a successful crook: She was a business visionary—one of the first entrepreneurs in America to systemize the scattershot enterprise of property crime. Handpicking a cadre of the finest bank robbers, housebreakers and shoplifters, she handled logistics and organized supply chains—turning theft into a viable, scalable business.

The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum paints a vivid portrait of Gilded Age New York—a city teeming with nefarious rogues, capitalist power brokers and Tammany Hall bigwigs, all straddling the line between underworld enterprise and “legitimate” commerce. Combining deep historical research with the narrative flair for which she is celebrated, Margalit Fox tells the unforgettable true story of a once-famous heroine whose life exemplifies America’s cherished rags-to-riches narrative while simultaneously upending it entirely.
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Praise for The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

“A tour de force . . . With a pickpocket’s finesse, Margalit Fox lures us into the criminal underworld of Gilded Age New York, with excursions into the art of larceny and the finer points of safecracking. The portrait of Marm Mandelbaum is irresistible: In Fox’s lush prose, you can feel the softness of the silk and see the brilliance of the diamonds she amasses and profitably passes on. This book is pitch perfect.”—Liza Mundy, author of The Sisterhood

“Fox effortlessly pulls the reader into the grimy world of Gilded Age Manhattan. At the center of it all, we meet one of the most distinctive lawbreakers I’ve ever encountered—Mrs. Mandelbaum was not only a schemer but a dreamer, who saw running a crime ring as the rare way a woman could get ahead in a ruthless metropolis. This book is so full of twists, it makes you want to break out the popcorn.”—Rachel Syme, staff writer at The New Yorker

“Margalit Fox has a delightful talent for breathing life into the dead to illuminate some of the world’s most fascinating people, and Fredericka Mandelbaum may be one of her most interesting subjects yet. A true-crime saga from America’s golden era of graft and grift that reads like the prequel to Oceans 11.—Daniel Schulman, author of The Money Kings

“Who but Margalit Fox could have come up with this delicious Gilded Age tale of Marm Mandelbaum, a diamond-laden Jewish mother who ran America’s biggest crime syndicate, and her decades-long battle of wits with those trying to bring her down? Filled with the most outlandish characters imaginable, this book brilliantly explores a culture ruled by greed, graft, and inequality, with more than a few unsettling similarities to today.”—Lynne Olson, author of Empress of the Nile

“Margalit Fox constructs a heist of her own in this richly detailed, captivating portrait of a penniless woman who rises to the ranks of criminal mastermind in Gilded Age New York.”—Graham Moore, Academy Award–winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game and author of The Last Days of Night
 
“Fox succeeds in rescuing a once-notorious public figure from historical obscurity. . . . An engrossing portrait of an unlikely criminal mastermind.”Kirkus Reviews
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Excerpt

The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

Chapter One

“The Mere Privilege of Breath”

She came here with nothing.

One of seven children of Samuel Abraham Weisner and the former Rahel Lea Solling, Fredericka Henriette Auguste Weisner was born on March 28, 1825, in Kassel, in what is now central Germany. Her family, which appears to have included itinerant peddlers, had been part of the region’s Jewish community—numbering fourteen to fifteen thousand in a population of just over half a million—for several generations.

Jewish life there was far from easy. Restrictive laws in many German states of the period governed what trades Jews could ply and where they could live, which by extension restricted whom they could marry. Physical violence against Jews by their Gentile neighbors was not unknown: Jews sometimes paid protection money to keep themselves and their families safe.

“Jews occupied a distinct and inferior status,” a twentieth-century history has noted. “Except for a tiny, wealthy elite who had gained the special favor of Christian rulers or aristocrats, the Jewish people of Central Europe remained what their ancestors had been for centuries past: traditional, pious, generally poor Dorfjuden—village Jews. . . . With agriculture, most guild-based crafts, and other more secure and lucrative occupations traditionally forbidden to them, Central European Jews overwhelmingly earned their often meagre livelihoods as minor traders, small-scale moneylenders, or petty artisans in such crafts as tailoring.”

As a girl, Fredericka would have had a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, taught either at home or at a local Jewish elementary school. She would also have received training, standard for Jewish girls of the day, in childcare and domestic arts, which typically included sewing, spinning, knitting, lacemaking, laundering and cooking. “Whatever the precise circumstances,” the historian Rona L. Holub has written, “she developed a keen intellect, a strong work ethic, and confidence in her own abilities.”

In 1848, Fredericka married Wolf Israel Mandelbaum, an itinerant peddler a few years her senior. Wolf, possibly with Fredericka helping him, spent days on the road each week, peddling in the countryside before returning home in time for the start of the Sabbath on Friday nights. Whether gained from direct experience or simply from knowledge of her husband’s trade, Mrs. Mandelbaum’s understanding of the mechanics of salesmanship would greatly abet her career in the criminal underworld.

The birth, in 1849, of the Mandelbaums’ first child, Breine (also known as Bertha or Bessy), would have further strained their precarious finances: The region was in the midst of an economic depression and was affected by a potato blight. In 1850, the Mandelbaums joined the thousands of European Jews who had emigrated to America in search of economic opportunity: “Das Dollarland,” some Germans called the United States. Wolf left first, traveling overland to Amsterdam, where he embarked on the Baltimore, arriving in New York in July 1850. After traveling to Bremen with baby Bertha, Fredericka boarded the bark Erie.

The Atlantic crossing, a voyage of six weeks or longer under sail, was rigorous enough for the first-class passengers, who paid roughly $140 U.S. for cabin accommodations. Mrs. Mandelbaum traveled in steerage, paying twenty dollars to live below deck, crammed together in a low-ceilinged, badly ventilated space with scores of other immigrants, an arrangement that made spectacularly good business for owners of the shipping lines. Steerage passengers would have been supplied with only meager food and narrow wooden bunks in which to sleep—structures that Herman Melville, writing in 1849, described as comprising “three tiers, one above another . . . rapidly knocked together with coarse planks.” He added: “They looked more like dog-kennels than any thing else.”

In September 1850, Fredericka disembarked in the Port of New York. At the time, “New York City” denoted a far more modest entity than it would even half a century later: It comprised only Manhattan, with a population of just over half a million. The city, which had been expanding slowly northward since colonial times, had by 1850 advanced only about three miles from Manhattan’s southern tip. Most of the population lived below Fourteenth Street; above, the island remained partly pastoral.

From Fourteenth Street down to the Battery, the city teemed. The sidewalks teemed with pedestrians; the streets teemed with pushcarts and a tangle of horse-drawn vehicles—wagons, carriages, streetcars, omnibuses, hearses—the harbor teemed with ships and barges. On the Lower East Side, where the Mandelbaums settled, congestion was especially fierce, with slum tenements crammed alongside industrial buildings like factories, foundries and slaughterhouses. And while few immigrants, if any, believed the folk saying that New World streets were paved with gold, they were almost certainly unprepared for streets filled with ordure: garbage and manure lying uncollected, snapped at by bands of roaming pigs; sewage overflowing; horses, dead of overwork, lying where they fell, their rotting carcasses swarming with flies. As Charles Dickens observed dryly after an 1842 visit to America, New York was “by no means so clean a city as Boston.”

Let Dickens recount his tour of Five Points, the Lower East Side quarter that a modern history calls “the world’s most notorious slum.” Touring the neighborhood (an excursion he felt it necessary to make in the company of two policemen), he recoiled in bourgeois Victorian horror. In modern parlance, he was slumming, his visit of a piece with the voyeuristic tours of the district that well-off New Yorkers had begun making in the 1830s, and which became even more popular after Dickens’s account of his outing appeared in print. But while Dickens was clearly discomforted by the neighborhood’s myriad houses of prostitution—and by the lively social mixing of its white and African American residents—the poverty he described was real enough:

This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. . . .

What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread?—a miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. . . .

Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game . . . ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.

The Mandelbaums found lodgings in Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”), an immigrant enclave on the Lower East Side covering about a square mile and eventually spanning the city’s Tenth, Eleventh, Thirteenth and Seventeenth wards. The couple lived at various addresses during their first decade and a half in the city—including 383 East Eighth Street, on a tenement block between Avenues C and D in the Eleventh Ward, and 141 East Sixth Street, near the Bowery in the Seventeenth—before settling permanently in the Thirteenth Ward in the mid-1860s.

In the tenements—dark, flimsy, badly ventilated structures—twenty families or more might occupy a single small apartment house. There was no running water: Residents hauled water up the stairs from pumps in the streets and relieved themselves in shabby, back-alley wooden privies. “The most modern and sophisticated” of the city’s plumbing facilities, a historian explains, “connected the outdoor toilets directly to sewer lines, flushing sewage directly and immediately away from the tenement yard. But . . . in 1857, only one-quarter of the city had sewer lines. . . . Raw sewage thus often sat festering in the backyards of the tenements for weeks or months at a time.”

Amid the crowded, unsanitary conditions, diseases like consumption, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria and scarlet fever were rampant. Among immigrant families, infant and childhood mortality rates were especially high. And indeed, in haunting absence, little Bertha Mandelbaum’s name is missing from census records of the period: It is likely that she succumbed to one such disease.

For all its privations, Kleindeutschland—the first of the country’s large foreign-language settlements—offered much succor. “German New York was the third capital of the German-speaking world,” a historian has written. “Only Vienna and Berlin had larger German populations than New York City between 1855 and 1880. When the German Empire was created in 1871, the single New York city neighborhood of Kleindeutschland . . . would have been the empire’s fifth-largest city.

About the Author

Margalit Fox
Margalit Fox originally trained as a cellist and a linguist before pursuing journalism. As a senior writer in The New York Times’s celebrated Obituary News Department, she wrote the front-page public sendoffs of some of the leading cultural figures of our age. Winner of the William Saroyan Prize for Literature and author of three previous books, Conan Doyle for the Defense, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, and Talking Hands, Fox lives in Manhattan with her husband, the writer and critic George Robinson. More by Margalit Fox
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