The Tal­ent­ed Mrs. Man­del­baum: The Rise and Fall of an Amer­i­can Orga­nized-Crime Boss

  • Review
By – July 1, 2024

Tabloid sen­sa­tion Fred­er­ic­ka Man­del­baum head­ed her own crime syn­di­cate in New York City from the 1870s onward, spe­cial­iz­ing in fenc­ing” stolen prop­er­ties and financ­ing bank bur­glar­ies. A pen­ni­less immi­grant bare­ly twen­ty years ear­li­er, Mrs. Man­del­baum enter­tained a var­ied crowd at her din­ing table: politi­cians and police, upper-class busi­ness lead­ers and their fash­ion­able wives, and some of her tonier under­world accom­plices. She was a Jew­ish wife and moth­er and report­ed­ly an enthu­si­as­tic mem­ber of her local synagogue. 

Draw­ing part­ly on Rona Holub’s bio­graph­i­cal research, Mar­galit Fox sets Mandelbaum’s life in the larg­er con­text of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry crime. Read­ers learn about the devel­op­ment of police depart­ments, the found­ing of Pinkerton’s, safe­crack­ing tech­niques, the cor­rup­tion of Tam­many Hall, the exploits of eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry mega-crim­i­nal Jonathan Wild, the Tiffany’s gum trick,” and a num­ber of improb­a­ble scams.

This local col­or” helps Mrs. Man­del­baum come alive, which is nec­es­sary because the actu­al details of her life are so scarce. We know that Mrs. Man­del­baum was heavy­set and favored tra­di­tion­al Vic­to­ri­an dress, swathing her­self in yards and yards of heavy black silk. Her home was one floor above her busi­ness (impor­tant for work­ing thieves’ hours) in Klein­deutsch­land,” a neigh­bor­hood on Manhattan’s Low­er East Side. She belonged to the Ger­man Jew­ish Rodeph Sholom syn­a­gogue in New York; lat­er, in Cana­da, she joined Anshe Sholom. She insist­ed that her daugh­ter have a Jew­ish bur­ial. She had a sharp busi­ness sense and made a lot of money. 

That we know lit­tle else about her is not sur­pris­ing. Mrs. Man­del­baum didn’t hob­nob with the literati, so we have only jaun­diced press accounts of her doings. She wasn’t an upper-class rob­ber baron like Andrew Carnegie, endow­ing libraries, so there are no details of her phil­an­thropy. There’s not much for a biog­ra­ph­er to work with, so Fox gives us Mrs. Mandelbaum’s world instead — which is very entertaining.

The prob­lem comes at the end, when Fox asks the big ques­tion: how did Mrs. Man­del­baum go from strug­gling immi­grant in the 1850s to New York City crime boss twen­ty years lat­er? Fox argues that as a Jew­ish woman, Mrs. Man­del­baum was almost expect­ed to work out­side the home to sup­port her schol­ar­ly hus­band. Ger­man Jew­ish wives in par­tic­u­lar were famous­ly entre­pre­neur­ial. But Mrs. Man­del­baum was a work­ing-class woman mar­ried to a ped­dler; both labored hard to feed their fam­i­ly. Would she have cared about social approval? Fox also notes that Mandelbaum’s tim­ing was per­fect. She entered the world of crime before it was mod­ern­ized and pro­fes­sion­al­ized, which would have blocked female advance­ment. Yet mod­ern­iza­tion in many work­places actu­al­ly led to women replac­ing men (in sec­re­tar­i­al work, for exam­ple) — so maybe that’s not the answer, either.

After being immersed in Mrs. Mandelbaum’s life and times, read­ers may decide there’s real­ly no need to explain her suc­cess; she was sim­ply one of a kind. It’s a trib­ute to Fox’s sto­ry­telling tal­ents that this unique and mys­te­ri­ous woman has come to life.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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