#BookReview: Queen of the Burglars

The image shows author Shayne Davidson holding a copy of her book Queen of the Burglars.
Shayne Davidson

My Review

The image shows the front cover of Queen of the Burglars: The Scanalous Life of Sophie Lyons.
Click on the book cover to purchase from Amazon.

This will probably sound silly, but my immediate reaction to Shayne Davidson’s biography of 19th-century pickpocket extraordinaire Sophie Lyons was excitement over the citations. Every fact had a superscripted number with a corresponding endnote!!

In all seriousness, though, those citations represent Davidson’s extensive research into the life of Sophie Lyons and meticulous attention to documentation of sources. This is history scholarship you can trust.

At the same time, the writing is very engaging. I would go so far as to say conversational, which made for a smooth and enjoyable read. I also appreciated the interior layout of the book with plenty of boldface headings to keep the complexities of Sophie’s life and times from getting confusing.

Sophie Lyons was born in 1848 in Bavaria. She emigrated to the United States at the age of eight. Although she would claim in her 1913 autobiography that “crime does not pay,” when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1924, she left a substantial estate behind.

The following quotation from the introduction of Queen of the Burglars will give readers interested in picking up the book a good sense of what is in store:

“[Sophie] robbed banks, married bank robbers, seduced wealthy men (then blackmailed them), escaped from Sing Sing Prison, ran with a gang of thieves in New York, and committed crimes on two continents.”

Each chapter of Queen of the Burglars starts with an epigraph from Lyons’ autobiography, Why Crime Does Not Pay. I just found several full-text copies of Why Crime Does Not Pay on Internet Archive. I plan to read Sophie’s book; however, forewarned by Davidson’s scholarship, I plan to read it as a work of fiction.

A Swedish Mugshot

The image shows a booking photograph of Sophie Lyons after she was arrested in Sweden in 1912.
Photo Credit: Internet Archive

From Shayne Davidson: That wonderful mugshot was taken in Stockholm in 1912. Sophie had gone to Sweden to try and visit her husband, Billy Burke, who had been imprisoned there after being convicted of grand larceny. She was arrested as a “suspicious person” but not charged with a crime. That was the final mugshot taken of Sophie. It was only put online fairly recently.

More Mugshots

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The Inspiration

What inspired me to write the book: I was putting together a family tree on Ancestry.com for Sophie Lyons when I noticed a copy of “Professional Criminals of America” for sale at a rare book shop in Detroit, not far from where I live. The book was published by NYC police officer Thomas Byrnes in 1886. It was Byrnes’s attempt to catalog and describe all the serious criminals in America at the time. (This endeavor seems sort of humorous now.)
The book had “Florence Bower” written on the flyleaf. I realized that the previous owner was Florence Lyons Bower, Sophie’s oldest daughter. I went to the shop and purchased the book. Inside there was a note, signed by Florence, that read “Wrong will right itself dear.” Not really sure what the note meant, I was nonetheless very intrigued by it. (I’m still not sure what it means, but I think it was a message to Florence’s daughter and only child, Esther.) The note and the book became the inspiration for me to research Sophie’s life and write her biography. I’m convinced the book was originally owned by Sophie and Florence inherited it in 1924 when Sophie died. It sounds silly, but I felt Florence was reaching out to me from the grave to try and get me interested in her mother’s life.
I got very lucky and eventually found a large packet of documents at the Library of Michigan. The documents were from a lawsuit Florence brought after Sophie’s death in an effort to reopen her mother’s estate. There were depositions from Florence and from Sophie’s friends and neighbors.The documents provided so much insight into Sophie’s life, far beyond what I had been able to find in newspaper articles and books. Again I felt like Florence was pushing me to keep going in my research efforts.

The Rest of the Story???

The image shows the flyleaf of Sophie Lyons' autobiography, "Why Crime Does Not Pay."
Click image to read book on Internet Archive.


123 thoughts on “#BookReview: Queen of the Burglars

  1. Definitely a case of real life being more fascinating than most fiction. “Queen of the Burglars” sounds like a great book by a very accomplished writer, Liz, and your excellent review did the book justice. (Or perhaps criminal justice. 🙂 )

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t know which I like more: the story behind the story or the research behind the story! Either way, your review hooked me, Liz, and both Shayne and Sophie have given us a fascinating delve into history. Thanks to all.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I especially enjoyed reading about the inspiration for the book. I find things like that quite engaging as I often ask that question when reading someone’s book.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Truth is stranger than fiction. Intriguing and interesting lady. Thanks, Liz, for the introduction. Though I wouldn’t want to meet her on a cold, dark, wintry night or any night I guess. Great review as usual.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It sounds like Sophie was tougher than the mafia of the mafias. I wonder how she did it, being a woman. I could understand her life was fascinating. When you mentioned the endnotes, I visualized what I did for my dissertation already. I used the Endnote software for my dissertation. A great review, Liz. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Sophie was a tough cookie, all right. My mother would have called her incorrigible. Even with all the digital tools at our disposal, accurately citing sources takes a great deal of time and care. I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Miriam!

      Liked by 1 person

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