A sharp, beguiling pair of eyes cuts through the din of the crowded dining room at Odessa’s luxurious Petersburg Restaurant, the plates of wealthy land owners, industrialists, and judges loaded with Black Sea caviar and their mouths stuffed with talk of flaccid corruption.
The following day, the same individual glides elegantly amid the weekend crowds along the sun-drenched, cosmopolitan Nikolaevskii Boulevard. Sheltered from the sun by the frills of an umbrella and face partly covered by the arc of a wide-brimmed hat, a single gesture immediately slows the pace of a pram pushed along by her teenage nanny as the flower sellers happily interrupted the hawking of their wares to dote on the infant. She is accompanied here by what appears to be a former army general, the military pride glinting on his chest suggesting a brush with the armies of Napoleon, or perhaps a role in the brutal sacking of the Caucasus, as he looks wistfully beyond the flotilla of boats scattered in the harbor.
Later unaccompanied, her arm gently brushes the pages of The Odessa Post as she heads into the ‘Ladies’ Salon’ at the back of the stylish Café Fankoni. As its sophisticated clientele are voyeuristically transported by reporters into the murky world of the nearby suburb Moldavanka, the same sharp eyes exchange knowing glances with dancer Kitty Florence and the ‘Queen of Thieves’ Ol’ga D’ichanko, who had also arrived a few days earlier, dividing the moustachioed gentlemen on the veranda between them without uttering a single word. (1)
Everything about the life of Son’ka ‘Golden Hand’ remains shrouded in seductive mystery. Only a few pieces of evidence litter her trail–a signature, perhaps even forged; a handful of blurry photos displaying her array of different disguises; Son’ka’s nickname, earned through her proclivity as a teenage pickpocket during her rural upbringing in a small town outside Warsaw in the early 1850s. By the time she hit her early twenties, whispers of this name would accompany her travels between Moscow’s swanky Aquarium Nightclub and St. Petersburg’s elegant Balabinskaia Hotel, stretching even further afield to the European capitals of Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin.
The balmy summertime air and melting pot of crime and corruption which characterized the fin-de-siècle port city of Odessa undoubtedly provided the perfect working retreat for the leader of the criminal gang known as ‘Jacks of Hearts.’ (2) Allegedly, this group was comprised from a procession of Son’ka’s former lovers, many of whom she had stolen from such as her first husband, the merchant Isak Rosenbad. Once duped, they were happy to work alongside her as they made their money back multiple times over.
Not that Son’ka was ever incapable of working alone. Arriving at the imposing doorways of dynastic family homes and asking to see the master, waiting alone in the drawing room provided the perfect opportunity to search for whatever money and valuables she could lay her hands on. On the infrequent occasions she was interrupted, a quick costume change would see her silk and jewelry removed in one swift movement as she escaped dressed as a cook or maid through the servant’s quarters. (3)
Despite her nickname being earned through the art of pickpocketing, Son’ka received the most infamy as the reported innovator of a crime which would become known as ‘Guten Morgen.’ (4) During her stay in Odessa, this meant creeping softly down the hallway of the extravagant Londonskaia Hotel, felt slippers on top of her shoes, and trying the handles of 20-Ruble-a-night luxury suites usually occupied with male guests sleeping off a potent cocktail of vodka and baccarat. If any of her dozing marks happened to wake, Son’ka would slip off her clothes as if in her own room before acting embarrassed for the mistake. Appealing to their leniency and drunken lust, Son’ka would invariably leave with the stolen goods after sex, an increasingly popular crime in the late Imperial Russian Empire known as khipesnitsi. (5)
On one occasion, however, she came across a middle-aged man passed out on the couch astride a loaded revolver. Underneath a burning candle on the accompanying table sat a pile of letters, sealed and ready to be posted. Only one envelope remained open, containing a letter explaining to his mother how he had gambled away the money sent to pay for the treatment of his sick sister. Reaching into the lining of her dress, Son’ka took out 500 Rubles, placed the pile of notes gently under the cold handle of the revolver, and left as if she had never entered. (6)
This apparent clemency did not, however, extend to high-end jewelry stores, as Son’ka would stakeout the shops of Odessa’s Deribasovskaia Street before looking to distract the clerk with the help of more accomplices, hiding the gems under her deliberately grown fingernails. She would sometimes replace the diamonds with cheap forgeries and, on other occasions, hide them in a plant pot on the counter to collect the following day.
When a tip-off eventually led the police to her ramshackle apartment on Moldavanka’s Old Free Port Street, they found a wardrobe full of Parisian hats, fur capes, and a bespoke dress with multiple pockets to conceal even the tiniest gem. Her dresser was cluttered with the nefarious flotsam of false eyebrows, wigs, and, sitting proudly among them, a blue diamond hanging on a velvet ribbon stolen from the noble Langeron family by her lover, Wolf Bromberg.
By then Son’ka had disappeared, however, via the hustle and bustle of the Central Train Station. Appearing in the guise of ‘Countess Sofia Ivanova Timrot,’ she flirted with wealthy aristocrats about their potential investments and waited for them to fall asleep, drugging them with opium or chloroform if need be, and continued to steal from carriage to carriage as she hurtled back toward the perceived shelter of Warsaw. (7)
Although her heart would be perpetually drawn back to the chthonic alchemy of Odessa, Son’ka would only return on one occasion to the ‘City of Thieves.’ Approaching her late thirties, this fateful trip saw her arrested following one of Wolf’s property scams in which the Italian jeweler Galiano paid part deposit of a necklace for a house overlooking the fashionable Langeron Beach. Sentenced to exile following her Moscow trial in December 1880, Son’ka’s recapture following her escape from a small Siberian village saw her dispatched to hard labor on the desolate penal colony of Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific, where temperatures would reach a perishing -20 degrees in winter.
Living on the exile settlement, Son’ka oversaw the running of a café-chantant (singing café), casino, and carousel which paid homage those in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but her frequent escape attempts alongside the suggested murder of the shopkeeper Nikitin saw Son’ka savagely beaten by the frayed rawhide lash of the executioner Komlev and thrown into solitary confinement.
Odessa now came to her as the sprightly and suave, if somewhat controversial, journalist Vlas Doroshevich visited the island to interview her, where he described her shackled in a famous image. Lamenting the loss of her daughters, who had been sent to finishing school in Paris, Son’ka’s final act of sorcery was to create the illusion that she may have switched places with a fake stand-in and that her death, recorded on the island in 1902, might not have even been her at all.
Dr. Mark Vincent
More of Mark’s writing can be found at: http://www.cultoftheurka.wordpress.com
Follow him on Twitter @VincentCriminal
Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris/Bloomsbury)
(1) References to Kitty Florence and Ol’ga D’ichanko, along with a number of locations, taken from Roshanna Sylvester’s wonderful book: Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2005), p.56 & 122.
(2) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’ Against the Past or Toward the Future?’, New Zealand Slavonic Journal, 44 (2010), p.123.
(3) Gregory Breitman, Prestupnii Mir, (Kiev: 1901), p.47.
(4) Katz & Pallot, ‘From Femme Normale to Femme Criminalle in Russia’, p.123.
(5) Sylvester describes khipesnitsi as a con game which involved seducing and blackmailing respectable middle-aged ‘family men’: Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa, pp.94-95.
(6) Brietman, Prestupnii Mir, p.43.
(7) Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p.113 & 139.