1879: Novelas of New York

In the process of doing research for the New York City sourcebook, I’ve discovered a story worthy of a telenovela, with tempestuous romances, betrayals, affairs, robber barons consorting with criminal masterminds, and a cast of characters so over the top nobody will believe they’re actual historical figures. In the midst of all this stands George Leslie, so close to being a supervillain that he could have stepped out of the pages of a comic book. If you’re interested in George, let me recommend King of Heists by J. North Conway, and A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh. In order to tell the story of George, though, I first have to introduce a cast of characters around him, and set up the environment that he strode into when he arrived in New York City looking to make an illicit fortune. Permit me to rehearse some of this material, then, as I work toward figuring out how to present it in the sourcebook.

Let’s start with Marm Mandelbaum, a German Jewish immigrant who quickly found that laundering stolen goods was far more lucrative than running a sundries store. Frederika and Wolfe Mandelbaum arrived in New York in 1850, launched a dry goods store on Clinton Street, and by 1854 were using it as a front. By 1880, Mandelbaum had multiple warehouses, and was fencing millions of dollars of stolen property each year. She also had a luxurious set of apartments behind and above the dry goods store (which Wolfe still operated as an attempt at cover that nobody believed), furnished in the latest style with items burgled from all over the country. Here, she held formal dinners and salons that everybody who was anybody attended. Financiers from uptown, judges on the Circuit Court, and police officials rubbed elbows with safecrackers and blackmailers, and sometimes one might have a little trouble telling one from another, given the practices of the times. Mandelbaum’s criminal empire financed bank robberies, trained pickpockets, and directed multiple gangs.

Speaking of financiers, let’s bring in Jubilee Jim Fisk, one of the men for whom the term “robber baron” was coined. Fisk and his partner Jay Gould owned the Erie Railway, and had done Cornelius Vanderbilt out of his share of the company in a stock fraud scheme that cost Vanderbilt over a million, not exactly pocket change, and left thousands of lesser investors out their life’s savings, never to be recovered. Give a man a gun, and he can rob a bank, but give a man a bank, and he can rob a nation. Fisk owned the Grand Opera House, partly because he was a loud, expansive man given to sweeping theatrical gestures, and partly as a ready source of showgirls with whom to cavort.

Fisk settled finally on Josie Mansfield, a clever woman who knew exactly what Fisk wanted and how to leverage her considerable physical charms to get what she wanted. Mansfield got herself a townhouse of her own, with the title in her name, halfway down the block from the Grand Opera House, lavish gifts of jewelry and fancy dresses, and squired around on Fisk’s arm to all sorts of hoity-toity social functions when he was in town. When he wasn’t, which was often, the Cleopatra of Twenty-Third Street spent her time with a number of other men and a few women, amusing herself however she liked, knowing she had Fisk wrapped around her little finger and just needed to not leave evidence where he couldn’t ignore it.

“Black Lena” Kleinschmidt also knew how to leverage her charms, but rather than keeping men dancing attendance on her and waiting to see what gifts they’d provide, Lena spent her efforts getting hold of solid evidence of their dalliances, then blackmailed her former inamoratae into providing her with the spoils she desired. A graduate of Marm’s training, Black Lena swiftly came into her own, and just as swiftly got too full of herself and crossed oars with her former mentor. Lena set up a house across the river, in Jersey, and started holding salons, following Marm’s operational model. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Mandelbaum let this pass. But then Lena got in with Johnny Walsh, aka Johnny the Mick, head of the Walsh Gang in the Bowery, who’d been trying to compete with Mandelbaum in the fencing racket for a while with no real success. With Lena established in Jersey, The Mick saw an opportunity to set up a rival outfit in an area outside of Marm’s control, and then to use that outfit to muscle into New York and take over Mandelbaum’s turf. It might have worked if Lena and The Mick hadn’t both had big mouths and poor judgement about shooting them off.

And where is George Leslie in all this? Dead center. Heir to a small fortune from a brewery in Cincinnati, and a successful architect in his own right, Leslie sold off and closed up his hometown operations when his parents died and set off for New York, not quite sure what he was going to do but knowing that it would involve a lot of money obtained by illicit means. He already had a prototype device that would record the combination of a safe tucked away in his wallet. That got lifted by a pickpocket. Leslie contacted the police, put out a tidy reward, and lo and behold, the wallet, with all the papers and the prototype but sans cash, turned up in a matter of hours. Leslie got an invitation to Mandelbaum’s next soiree and knew he’d better take it if he was going to get off on the right foot with the people who might be able to leverage his genius. And sure enough, at the dinner, Marm had him sat down right next to her, displacing Shang Draper, who never forgave the offense and hated Leslie for as long as the two knew each other. Leslie got introduced to a number of important people – Fisk he already knew from Delmonico’s and Mansfield in the biblical sense – and then Marm took him aside for a private interview. She knew about the prototype in his wallet. Of course she did, who else could have gotten the wallet back to him so quickly? She had a pretty good idea what it was for. The two danced around the subject a little, then got down to business. George needed a gang and local support if he was going to pull off his first bank robbery. Mandelbaum needed someone who could rob a bank at a good profit margin. Shang’s last attempt netted barely more than it cost to set up. Marm was tired of people who drilled safes, blew them open with dynamite, and generally were loud and made a mess of things. George had a plan.

George also had a date, with Black Lena. Several dates, as a matter of fact, with Fisk in town and Mansfield off limits. The bank robbery plan was in danger of getting delayed. This was the last straw, as far as Mandelbaum was concerned. She had Johnny Irving, a talented pickpocket who would later become a pivotal member of Leslie’s gang, lift an emerald ring from a frequent attendee of Lena’s soirees. She put it in a fancy gift box, and sent it off to Lena with a card saying it was a gift from George Leslie. Lena wore it to her next soiree, where the owner spotted it. One report to the Pinkertons later and Lena was doing hard time in Sing Sing, having no good explanation for the rooms full of stolen items. The Mick blew his stack. He’d sunk a lot of money and time into building the network around Lena. He was mad at Lena, he was furious at Mandelbaum, and he was even pretty ticked at George Leslie, whose involvement with Lena had been the catalyst for her downfall.

George, heedless of all this, would go on to become the most successful bank robber New York, or the United States for that matter, had ever known. His $800,000 payday (about $15 million in today’s currency) at the Ocean National Bank set the city on its ear, and made his reputation as a cool, clever planner capable of putting together and pulling off a serious heist. By day, Leslie would continue to hobnob with high society, known among the hoi polloi as a rare books collector, a talented architect, a well mannered gentleman whose etiquette was carefully rehearsed on a daily basis, an attendee of the Grand Opera and One Of Their Own. By night, though, he would be in a warehouse, running his gang through a full scale mockup of the next bank, drilling them on the plan until they could do it perfectly in the dark (in case the power failed). Or he’d be off to San Francisco, paid $20,000 to mastermind a robbery there that would have gone a lot better if the local gang had stuck to his plan. When Ace Marvin got anxious, though, and decided to go back in to the bank a day early to clean it out, Leslie checked out of his hotel and hopped the next train heading East. Marvin didn’t get arrested, but he didn’t get much out of the bank either, and Leslie was well clear by the time things went sour.

Over the next few years, Mansfield would take up with Ned Stokes, a series of scandalous lawsuits would erupt between her and Fisk and Stokes, and finally Stokes would shoot Fisk on the grand staircase of the Central Hotel. Mansfield would move to Paris with Annie Hindle, the great Courtesan Josie apparently swearing off men, at least for a while. The Mick would watch and wait, not patiently, for his opportunity to get some of his own back, and take Marm down a peg. And Leslie would do the tour, Baltimore, Scranton, Boston, back to New York, leaving a trail of emptied banks and baffled police in his wake. This was a new sort of bank robbery, a quiet one that took its time and didn’t leave much in the way of clues. And then came the Manhattan Savings Institution job, which netted over $50 million in today’s currency and made Leslie, the King of Bank Robbers, a legend in his own time. The police had dismissed him as a suspect early on – such a fine, upstanding man, a pillar of the community. Nobody would suspect Lex Luthor, er, George Leslie of evildoing.

How did Leslie, in the game world, survive to run the Manhattan job himself, when in our actual history he was gunned down by a member of his own gang before the robbery was committed? Did Walsh ever get back at Mandelbaum? What became of Lena? And how did Jay Gould and Jim Fisk’s attempt to corner the market in gold, nearly crashing the economy, fit into all of this? The answers to these questions and more on the next episode of As The Apple Turns!

Tally Ho!

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