Mabel Tinley: Con Woman of a Thousand Names Part 3

Special thanks to Laurel Hill tour guide and author Tom Keels for providing us with this wonderful written account of the life and crimes of Mabel Tinley – featured on our True Tales from the Tombs tour on October 12th.

ACT II: QUEEN OF THE TOMBS

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The Tombs prison

Louise’s destination was the women’s wing of The Tombs, the notorious prison in lower Manhattan where criminals awaiting trial were detained.  In 1842, Dickens described the structure as a “dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama.”  An additional half century of heavy use had not enhanced its charms.

Louise Vermeule spent the next four months in prison, gaining the moniker of “Queen of the Tombs.” A smitten reporter for the New York Journal and Advertiser called her “one of the most fascinating prisoners The Tombs has ever held.  All who see her come under the sway of her peculiar powers.”  Speaking of Louise’s eyes, the reporter gushed that “her irises are dark leaves of lilies on a crystal lake.”  Even the lawyer representing some of the bilked retailers acknowledged the hypnotic power of the siren’s gaze: “When I ask my clients how she succeeded in obtaining their confidence, they reply usually that her eyes are fascinating.”

Louise used the Journal and Advertiser interview to embellish her image as a devoted mother. “My dear little boy is in good care, I know,” she assured the reporter. “But he hasn’t me, and this is Christmas and I intended to make the day so joyful for him that it would efface in advance years and years of the sad Christmas days that come to us!” With “tears like dew on her lashes,” she concluded by saying, “Bless his little heart! I hope that the maid will play with him all day.”

Unwilling to break bread with her fellow inmates, Louise had her meals brought in by a private caterer.  In exchange, she gave him a diamond-encrusted buckle which she said was worth $3,000.  He later sold it for $27.  The persuasive Louise even conned the thick-skinned matrons and keepers of The Tombs into lending her money.  “Talk of her passing bad drafts!” one keeper exclaimed.  “Why, that woman could pass Confederate money in this prison!”

Louise had to share the spotlight with another high-profile, sloe-eyed con woman.  Fayne Strahan Moore was awaiting trial for her badger game, where she and her husband framed an innocent married man in a compromising position and then blackmailed him.  The judge barred her from the courtroom during her trial because he too was afraid the jury would be swayed by her beautiful eyes.  The combination of the two temptresses – a fin-de-siècle version of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago – proved irresistible to high society.  Mrs. Charles Oelrichs and Mrs. Herman Oelrichs, sisters-in-law who were both members of the city’s elite Four Hundred, went slumming to The Tombs to meet the infamous duo.

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Roxie Heart and Velma Kelly

Louise Vermeule’s first trial for fraud ended in a hung jury, and she was acquitted in the second trial in what the District Attorney described as “a regrettable failure of criminal justice.”  At the end of April 1899, she was discharged on her own recognizance.  She was a free woman, but she was far from unscathed.  Other reporters, less vulnerable to her iridescent irises, had uncovered her checkered past as Mabel Tinley.  Richard W. Roelofs, who had announced that his wife had ruined him with her bogus drafts, finalized their divorce and assumed sole custody of their son.

Louise attempted to go back on the stage, writing a music hall sketch in which she appeared as an innocent victim surrounded by comically villainous lawyers and policemen.  Broadway yawned.  Louise was an exposed grifter and yesterday’s news, swiftly forgotten as New Yorkers rushed to such fresh excitements as Rector’s new restaurant and the opening of the Bronx Zoo….

 

Enjoying the story? Mabel is just one of the many stories buried in Laurel Hill, and autumn is the perfect time to come here and listen to as many as you can. We suggest beginning with our The 14th Annual Gravedigger’s Ball, or any of the wonderful programs on our complete fall lineup. Don’t forget to check back tomorrow to read part 5!

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