Sophie Lyons (Dec 22, 1847 – May 8, 1924), I had never heard of her until I read Shayne Davidson‘s book. Full title: Queen of the Burglars, the scandalous life of Sophie Lyons. It is true crime, a historical overview of many criminal cases and procedures, and a biography.
With several husbands, children, accomplices, and tenants, Sophie led a busy life. No part of her life was easy. Not her childhood, not her teenage years, and not her married life. Nothing came easy.
Not having an easy life is however, not an excuse for crime. When you read this book, you will see how Sophie struggled with being a good person, being a good mother, and being able to provide.
When I read how she wrote about her life, I wondered how she really remembered all the events. Her memories seem interwoven with fantasy and dreams. In the epilogue, Davidson elaborates on Sophie’s mental state of mind. It is an excellent part to read.
On page 8, Davidson describes the first time that criminals were faced with the nightmare that is now social media: instant publicity. New York Police Inspector Thomas Byrnes wrote the book ‘Professional Criminals of America’ in 1886. He did not only describe their crimes, their disguises, and many aliases. He also added their pictures. On page 204 of his work, we find Sophie Lyons.
Some of the techniques that Sophie used on her victims are very intriguing. She would pose as a rich widow, stay in an expensive hotel, ask a real estate agent or a lawyer for help, and then invite them to her luxurious hotel suite for a follow-up. After they arrived, she’d suggest they get cozy, and when they do, she would throw their clothes out the window. Want them back? Pay up!
Another strategy that she applied was literally sitting outside a victim’s house for so long that she started to attract the neighborhood’s attention. People asked questions, from that came arguments, etc. As Byrnes’ wrote, she was a professional blackmailer. Sophie could ruin your reputation in a very short time without violence.
According to Dr. Campau, she died of natural causes. Coroner James Burgess agreed. Sophie died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 76 years old. Her death certificate is here. According to the book, Sophie was cremated and rests in the grave of her son, Carleton Mason.
With all the crimes that Sophie Lyons committed, it is easy to miss an important detail: Sophie held her own in a man’s world. Not just with robberies and pickpocketing, but also in real estate, smuggling, fencing, and investing. Unlike others, she didn’t gamble her proceeds and shares away and of course, that resulted later on in a battle for her estate. It was finally settled in 1929 after appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court. You can read all about that in Shayne’s book.
Shayne Davidson wrote an excellent book about a very complex woman. The book has a table of contents, a listing of aliases and nicknames used by the main characters, footnotes, an epilogue, chapter notes, a biography to encourage further reading, and an index.
The chapters are well-proportioned, the pace is good, and the font is eye-friendly. Every chapter is very well set-up beginning with a quote from Sophie’s own book ‘Why crime does pay.’ To facilitate reading and to make sure that the reader does not get lost in the many details, there are several sub-headers. In short, this is the type of book that I love.
The tone of the book is well chosen. Davidson writes without speculation, exaggeration, or sensation. That would have been all too easy with true crime. To her credit, she didn’t.
This is a book that gets you so curious that you want to look up more information. If you do, don’t forget academia as Sophie has been the subject of several dissertations as well.
Highly recommended reading!
About the author: ‘Shayne Davidson has more than 30 years of experience as a genealogist, illustrator and author. She investigates history through genealogical records, archival newspapers and vintage photographs and illustrations.’ Her blog is right over here. You can also follow her on Twitter.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My other book reviews are here.