Sophie Lyons Burke learned to steal at the age most children start riding a tricycle. She was born into a criminal family and was brought up to steal at age three. Some sources report that if Sophie had some doubts or refused to steal, her would parents hit her with a hot stick or jab her arm .
Before her sixth birthday she had already snatched her first purse and for this she received a bag of candy as a gift. Six years later she was arrested for the first time on charges of shoplifting.
At 16, she married for the first time to Maury Harris, a well-known pickpocket, but the marriage was short and ended when Harris was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison. From a young age, as well as being a professional thief, she was able to camouflage her emotions and play different roles as a consummate actress. Thanks to these qualities in 1880 she was able to convince a detective in a shop that she stole because suffering from kleptomania. In 1886 both of her parents went to prison, and Sophie now 19-years old went under the protection of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, the most famous “fence” in the country.
It was Mandelbaum who helped to refine the criminal technique of the teenager and to introduce her to rich and famous outlaws of the era.
It was a year before Sophie married Edward “Ned” Lyons also known as the “King of the Bank Robbers”. Ned, who had lost an ear in a bar brawl and wore big red mustache, had the reputation of being an international safe cracker. He was skillful and fast as well, even hardly safes weren’t able to resist his expert hands. Ned’s Big One arrived two years after his marriage to Sophie when he stole a million dollars from a New York downtown bank and then bought a mansion in Long Island for his wife. Sophie had everything, servants, jewels, a great coach, beautiful clothes and a wonderful baby, George, but she terribly missed her lawless life and just like that she started to steal again. She pick pocketed the wallet of a friend of her husbands who was on a visit to their home. Then she continued to steal, especially in the area of Manhattan where there were businessmen and ladies of high society. Of course she did not need the money, but she enjoyed her criminal activities.
In 1872 Ned was imprisoned in Sing Sing for a botched robbery. In the same period, in the women’s wing of the same jail his wife was locked up for stealing diamonds from a jewelry store. Just one year later Ned was able to escape with his wife and quickly fled back to New York. When they were free again, they moved to Paris in France, where Sophie lived under the name of Madame d’Varney.
After some years, when things cooled down, they came back to New York and that’s when the dispute began between Sophie and her first son. George had became a rebel and an angry teenager. 31 January 1880, Sophia went to the police station in Essex Market and asked that her son be sent to a juvenile correctional facility . The son accused his mother that she was worse than he was as well as accusing her of being a thief, only interested in getting money and trying to get rid of him at all costs.
The magistrate decided to listen in private the mother and the son. Sophie confessed her criminal past but now she was making many sacrifices for her son and the other two daughters. All her children had had the opportunity to attend excellent schools, and especially George had signed up in three different colleges in Canada, but he refused to go to school and had begun to attend the well-known salon on Sixth Street, the infamous Dan Kerrigan’s. Sophie, thanks to her skills as a seductress, and referring to the magistrate an episode where her son had threatened a former employee with a knife after the two had a fist fight. The magistrate decided to keep George in custody, after this decision, Sohpie’s son tried to kill himself pulling a handkerchief in his mouth and attempting suicide. But life was marked and a few years later the young man would end up dyeing in prison while both his sisters became nuns.
Sophie left her husband in 1887. She took a tutor to learn foreign languages and then headed to Europe. There she was involved in several illegal activities with known criminals and was estimated to have earned about $ 200,000 a year, $ 5,135,000 today. For a while she also traded with diamonds hiding in the heels of her shoes while traveling from Amsterdam to New York. But this was not the only incredible stunt Sophie pulled off, many sources report that she was the first to use the trick of the “sliding drawer panel”. The trap was simple! It was enough to make a hole in the room adjacent to the height of the drawer and then cover the hole with a panel, so that when someone placed their jewels in the drawer, one just has to remove the panel, reach the drawer slide, remove the goods and run away.
Back in the Usa, she continued her illegal activities during which she married William (Billy the Kid) Burke, a famous jewel thief. When she turned 50 years old, she retired from her criminal activities and decided to live the rest of her years without committing any further crimes.
She settled in Detroit and started to invest her money buying real estate and soon, thanks to the rapid development of the auto industry the city had a few years later, they acquired value so quickly that nobody could ever have predicted how good the investments turned out to be. Meanwhile she started to write a book that was published in 1913 by a New York publisher titled “Why Crime Does Not Pay“, a sort of autobiography in which she explained the reasons why illegal activities were to be considered insufficient to live a life full of satisfaction and happiness. The book probably can be counted among those cathartic works that many criminals towards the end of their days felt the need to write in order to get rid of their sins. It’s strange to think that a woman whom the modern criminologists would perhaps classify as an adventurer who took pleasure from her unlawful acts, like a drug where she craved the adrenaline rush of stealing, suddenly decided to retire and live instead a life of service to people in need. But likely, Sophie was able to transform her feelings of heroism from the Queen of Underground to becming a “folk hero” of sorts.
The last years of her life, Sophie spent trying to help other criminals out of prison , people living under difficult conditions or needy families. Sophie’s niece, Esther Bower claimed: “There was never a friendless girl who came to my grandmother and did not receive a welcome, there was never a tenant who was out of work who was asked for his rent.”
The conversion, however, didn’t save her from a violent death. It was in 1924 when three men forced their way into the house and killed her. Her neighbors heard her cry and pray “Don’t, don’t do it!”, but there was no mercy for her. Sophie was found lying on the floor, shot in the head. The cerebral hemorrhage was unstoppable and she died a few hours later in the hospital. Many people thought at first that the sweet old lady had fallen victim to one of the criminals who had tried to help. The following day the Daily News would have entitled her article “Notorious Woman Criminal Slain By Pals”. It was then revealed Sophie’s true identity, but no one was prosecuted for the crime and nobody ever found who killed the “Queen of the Underworld”. In her will she carefully dictated which of her assets were for building a facility for children of prisoners and to set up a fund for the prisoners of Sing Sing so that they could receive gifts for Christmas .