On International Women’s Day
I’m reading Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure, a novel set in Manhattan in the 1870s. It’s always a bit of a gamble to read novels set in approximately the same time and place I’m writing about. If the novel is poorly done I can put it aside and forget about it; if it’s well done I’m wracked by curiosity.
The Virgin Cure is extremely well done. The story is about Moth, a little girl raised in the worst slums the city had to offer until her mother sells her to a rich woman to be trained as a lady’s maid. It would be a very short novel if the rich woman treated Moth well and trained her as promised. Or, to quote Jim Thompson: There’s only one plot: things are not what they seem.
Moth escapes that bad situation to find a place for herself among the city’s low life, setting out to become a first class thief. This is as far as I have got in the novel, and anything else I could say would be conjecture. The story has definitely kept my interest, but I have to confess that what really makes me eager to read is the historical detail.
It’s professional curiosity that gets in the way of just enjoying the story. I keep coming across things that take me by surprise, and I have to stop and wonder where McKay found the details. Some of it will be invention, but some of it will be drawn from her research.
So for example, a friend directs Moth to the best fence in the city (the word fence was used then as it is today, someone who will purchase stolen goods from a thief and makes a profit by finding a way to get the stolen item back into circulation). In this novel the person is Marm Birnbaum, whose Fancy Goods and Haberdashery is located at 79 Clinton Street.
Because I’m familiar with the period I saw right away that McKay had based the Birnbaums on Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a German immigrant who did in fact have a fine dry goods shop at 79 Clinton Street. Marm Mandelbaum and her husband were hugely successful both as shopkeepers and patrons to the criminal element. From a Smithsonian article very much worth reading:
Marm didn’t so much join the underworld as tweak it to her preference, treating crime itself as a commodity to barter. No mere receiver of stolen goods, she was, according to the newspapers of her day, “the greatest crime promoter of all time,” the person who “first put crime in America on a syndicated basis,” and “the nucleus and center of the whole organization of crime in New York City.” She dealt in plunder of all kinds—silk, lace, diamonds, horses, carriages, silverware, gold, silver, bonds—and could estimate the value of a thief’s swag with a quick and ruthless scan. A large portion of the property looted during the Chicago fire of 1871 ended up in and out of her possession, for a sizable profit. Her own hands, of course, remained unsullied; she cracked no safes, picked no locks, dodged no bullets. A student of the law, she understood that uncorroborated testimony meant little, and so took care to deal with one crook at a time. […] By 1880, Marm was inarguably the most successful fence in the United States, selling to dealers in every major city along the East Coast and Canada. Over the course of her career, she handled an estimated $5 million to $10 million in stolen property. Dozens of preeminent bank robbers and thieves sought her business, and she mentored those who displayed exceptional cunning. Through Marm’s patronage and connections, Adam Worth became a notorious international art thief known as the “Napoleon of Crime.”
When you’re writing historical fiction you can’t follow every interesting lead, or you’d never finish anything. For McKay this particular minor character was worth pursuing, so I would guess that she sought out every source provided in the Smithsonian article, starting with a thesis:
Rona L. Holub. The Rise of Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum: Criminal Enterprise and the American Dream in New York City, 1850-1884. (In Partial Completion of the Master of Arts Degree at Sarah Lawrence College, May, 1998).
At this point I have to talk myself out of getting hold of this unpublished thesis. It is relevant to what I’m writing, but not relevant enough (or at least, that’s my story and I’m trying to stick to it) to interrupt the flow of writing. To which I have to return. Right now.