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

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

Margalit Fox. Random House, $32 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-24385-5

Journalist Fox (The Confidence Men) pieces together a captivating biography of Fredericka Mandelbaum (1825–1894), who oversaw one of America’s first large-scale criminal enterprises. Characterizing Mandelbaum as a crook with a conscience whose “reputation [for] honesty in criminal matters was absolute,” Fox showcases how her skyrocketing success over several decades—which eventually propelled her into the highest echelons of New York society—was due to her careful masterminding of complex heists, talent for bribery, cultivation of loyalty among her associates, and innovation in the business of property crime, which Fox says Mandelbaum elevated from a scattershot local operation to a national network. Beginning with a stable of mostly female shoplifters, Mandelbaum, who worked behind the scenes as a fence for the stolen goods, expanded her operation to include home burglaries and bank robberies. Her greatest caper was the 1869 burglary of New York City’s Ocean National Bank (“a canonical example of the bank burglar’s art”), which netted $800,000 and required monthslong planning: a shell company rented an office below the bank, where a team of thieves invented new tools to cut through the cement ceiling. In the 1870s, Pinkerton private detectives began investigating property crimes on behalf of wealthy clients who distrusted corrupt police; Mandelbaum was arrested in 1884, but escaped to Canada before her trial. Fox’s detailed descriptions of intricate heists make for a transfixing tale. Readers will be swept up. (July)