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The Queen of Fences at 79 Clinton Street

“It did not seem possible that so much wealth could be assembled in one spot…There seemed to be enough clothes to supply an army. There were trunks filled with precious gems and silverware. Antique furniture was stacked against a wall and bars of gold from melted jewelry settings were stacked under newspapers. There were scales of every description to weigh diamonds.” – Journalist, upon discovering “Marm” Mandelbaum’s hideout

Born in Prussia in 1818, Friederike Henriette Auguste Wiesener may not have seemed like an underworld queen at first blush. At 250 pounds, with a ruddy complexion and beady eyes, she was no looker, but what she lacked in beauty she made up for in shrewdness. She set her sights upon Wolfe Mendelbaum, who she wooed with bland, easily-digestible cooking to cure his “chronic dyspepsia.” The two wed in 1847 and moved to New York City, with Wolfe going first to earn money for Freiderike’s travel. By 1854, the Mandelbaum’s owned the building at 79 Clinton at the corner of Rivington. From the first floor store, Wolfe ran a successful haberdashery. From the rest of the building, Friederike ran a criminal empire.

For over two decades, “Marm” Mandelbaum was the most successful fence in New York City. She would purchase stolen goods from her underworld connections at 1/5th the value, doctor the goods so they would be difficult to trace, then sell them at double or triple the purchase price. Her plush Kleinedeutschland home was made up of stolen furniture, draperies and artwork. She owned multiple warehouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn filled with stolen wares. A team of engravers was kept on call to modify pilfered jewelry. In 1871, she made over $1 million just from fencing goods looted during the Chicago fire. She kept the crooked law firm of Howe & Hummell on a $5,000 annual retainer to keep her out of prison, which they did mostly through bribery and other sub-legal tactics. From 1862 to 1882, the New York City Police estimated that she handled between 5 and 10 million dollars in stolen property.

In addition to being a fence, Mandelbaum had been a key underworld figure in other ways. She ran a “Fagin school” for young pickpockets on Grand Street. A magnanimous soul, Marm could always be counted on for bribing cops or paying bail to get her favorite thieves out of various jams. In the enormous dining room of her home, Mandelbaum would run “crime salons” for underworld elite where they could discuss the finer points of safecracking, pickpocketing, bank robbing, and fencing in an environment of refinement, and more importantly, security. Even corrupt cops and judges would attend these “networking” events.

Mandelbaum had her favorites, of course. Notable thieves Shang Draper and Western George came under her protection, as did Banjo Pete Emerson, Mark Shinburn, and George Leonidas Leslie, “the king of the bank robbers.” Adam Worth was also a frequent guest in his early days, before he moved to Europe and built up his vast criminal network of bank and art thieves. (He would be known as “the Napoleon of Crime” and become the direct inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.)

Mandelbaum was an equal-opportunity patron of crime, though, and had a soft spot for female crooks. Her roster of protogés included Sophie Lyons, the notorious confidence woman and burglar, and a number of pickpockets and sneak thieves, including Big Mary, Queen Liz, Old Mother Hubbard, and Kid Glove Rosey. One of her protegés became a criminal patron in her own right. “Black Lena” Kleinschmidt moved to Hackensack and posed as the widow of a South American mining magnate after a lifetime of blackmailing and thievery in Manhattan. She threw elaborate functions to rival Marm’s, to the point where Black Lena became known as “the Queen of Hackensack,” which incensed Marm to no end. Yet Kleinschmidt never gave up her old ways, and she would be caught when one of her dinner guests caught Black Lena wearing her stolen emerald ring. Upon hearing the news, Mandelbaum said “It just goes to prove that it takes brains to be a real lady.”

Mandelbaum’s downfall would come in 1884, when District Attorney Peter B. Olney set a trap for her with some marked silk. Her home was raided, where, with the help of the Pinkerton agency, they discovered the stolen silk and a treasure trove of stolen furniture, jewelry, precious metals, and art. After being bailed out by Howe & Hummell, Mandelbaum fled New York and moved to Canada, taking $1 million in cash and living out the rest of her days in comfort.

Marm Mandelbaum passed away in 1894, at the age of 76 and the weight of 350 pounds. Her coffin was carried back to New York, and the creme de le creme of New York City’s criminal element turned out for her funeral. Mandelbaum would have been proud to know that several attendees had their pockets picked during the ceremony.

TODAY: Yunnan Kitchen

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