The Femmes Fatales of Detroit

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A distraught Sarah Lewen just after her arrest for murder in 1921, a scene captured by a Detroit News photographer. News photo in the Author’s collection.
A distraught Sarah Lewen just after her arrest for murder in 1921, a scene captured by a Detroit News photographer. News photo in the Author’s collection.

As you know, we here at Crime Capsule love a good, solid crook. The more flagrant, the better: in recent weeks we’ve been pleased to showcase Sacramento’s most salacious citizens, and more recently, we took a look at the malicious men of Alabama (and their moustaches). But having first tipped our hats to the gents, we couldn’t help but ask: what about all the ladies?

Thankfully, as author Tobin T. Buhk has unearthed in his book Wicked Women of Detroit, the Great Lakes State has given us a catwalk of canny criminals. Ambitious, daring, cunning, silver-tongued and sticky-fingered: these women deserve their place right alongside Ma Barker and Bonnie Parker. Speak for yourself, but we wouldn’t cross these ladies for anything!

A fierce forger

San Francisco Police mug shot of a notorious check forger from Detroit who went by several aliases. A repeat offender, she went to San Quentin in 1908 following her second California arrest. Before the advent of protective features on fiscal paper, check forgery became a popular endeavor among early twentieth-century women offenders, and such petty criminals made up the majority of female inmates inside the old Detroit House of Correction. Author’s collection.

Con Artist Carrie Perlberg

Mug shot of Carrie Perlberg, circa 1903, a confidence artist and thief who once rented a baby to score sympathy points with the all-male jury at her trial—a gambit also used by Isma Martin. Author’s collection.

Morphine Eater Sophie Lyons

Sophie Lyons, sophisticated society lady and dreamy-eyed scammer with bedroom eyes. When she first came to Detroit, Sophie was known as a heavy user of morphine, a habit that earned her the epithet “the notorious Detroit morphine eater.” On a few occasions, she used her sex appeal to entice respectable men to her hotel room and then blackmailed them with exposure if they didn’t pay up. Unidentified artist circa 1887. Albumen silver print. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Pinkerton’s Inc.

Diamond Thief Isma Martin

In her 1897 mug shot, Isma Martin—pickpocket, check forger, and skilled diamond thief—clowned for a frustrated police photographer. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Criminal Chameleon Mother Elinor

The criminal chameleon known in Detroit as “Mother Elinor,” the scion of a religious group known as Flying Rollers, poses for a photograph, sure to show the cameraman, and the viewer, the sizable ring on her finger. She once told a reporter that material wealth did not matter to her. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Husband-Killer Mary Ford

Hand-signed wedding announcement that May Ford handed to “Kansas City Ed” when they discussed the plot murder her husband, Ney Ford. Newspapers across the nation reprinted this wedding photograph in coverage of the case. 1922 Underwood and Underwood news photograph in the author’s collection.

As ever, there’s more where that came from in Buhk’s book — just remember, next time you visit Motor City, be sure to watch your back!

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