In 19th century Russia, one woman became the country's most notorious and successful criminal. She ran a criminal enterprise, stole from the rich, slipped in and out of disguises, and became Russia's very own kick-butt Robin Hood. It's time more people knew about Sonya Golden Hand, the clever, glamorous "Queen of Thieves."
Very few facts are known about Sonya Golden Hand's childhood, though we do know that her real name was Sofia Blyuvshtein. She was either born in 1846 or 1851 and her birthplace was the town of Powzki in Warsaw, Poland. Anything else could be speculation...and possibly fabricated by Blyuvshtein herself.
Blyuvshtein got her mysteriousness from her mama and her papa. Her Jewish parents, descended from the Solomoniak family, apparently named her Sheindley-Sura. Sonya's father Leib might have been a hairdresser, but she claimed that she was born into a family of smugglers. Based on her criminal history, I’d go with that one.
Sonya’s house was usually full of shady foreign characters. For most kids, this would not be a plus, but for the tyke who wanted to run Russia's criminal underground, it was perfect. Thanks to the rotating door into her family home, Sonya learned to speak five languages. This would prove invaluable when Sonya started to hustle and scam. She could easily pose as foreign women and aristocrats. Get that paper, Sonya.
When she and her sister were still quite young, tragedy struck. Sonya's mother passed away. Not long after her death, Sonya's father quickly remarried, but then he died too! The Blyuvshtein girls were now orphans in the care of their strict stepmother. Uninterested in nurturing the girls, she sent them to a school in Odessa.
Blyuvshtein allegedly began her criminal undertakings when she just 13 years old. The young thief would steal items from third-class rail cars. Her antics earned her the now-legendary nickname Golden Hand. According to legend, Sonya's older sister Feiga was also a thief...but she wasn’t as talented.
When Sonya was 12, she ran away from home and got a job working for the circus performer Julia Pastrana, also known as Bear Woman or Lady Monkey. Pastrana had ape-like features and her body was covered in thick hair. At the time, people thought she was a freak, but now we know the truth: She had a rare genetic disease known as hypertrichosis.
When Sonya remained with Pastrana, she learned to enjoy the finer things and got used to a life of luxury. Unfortunately, these good times weren't going to last. Pastrana died of complications from childbirth when Blyuvshtein was just 17. Starting her hustling career young, Sonya then used her charms to an admirer to give her money.
When her beloved Pastrana passed away, Sonya knew it was time to start hustling. She borrowed money from a young Greek heir and persuaded him to travel abroad with her. They even got romantic, but sadly, their love didn’t last long. Sonya's beau went back home to his parents, but their quick affair taught Blyuvshtein a very important lesson. She didn't want to rely on men anymore and so she decided to get rich or die trying.
The nickname Golden Hand wasn’t uncommon in the world of Russian crime. It means the equivalent of “Honored Thief” or “Honored Pickpocket of the Russian Empire.” But the fact that Sonya Blyuvshtein got this nickname is noteworthy for another reason. Normally, people called men Golden Hands. Sonya was the rare woman to earn the honorific.
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Sonya Golden Hand was the original Bond Girl. She could get away with virtually any crime because she was so charming and seductive that men were powerless in her wake. From prison wardens to princes, men would risk everything to give Sonya what she wanted. With her boy toys wrapped around her finger, Sonya could evade the law time after time.
Not counting her unsuspecting Greek boy toy, Blyuvshtein’s first official victim was a trader from Odessa named Isaac Rosenband. Our golden-handed girl met Rosenband when he caught her at the crime scene, but instead of reporting her, Sonya somehow charmed him into, drumroll please, marrying her instead. Iconic.
Blyuvshtein tried to be a proper wife and mother, but after about 18 months, Sonya decided that she'd been a good girl for long enough. She left her husband and even her baby daughter Sura-Rivka and stole 500 rubles to resume her adventures. Sonya fled to Moscow, but she wasn't alone: She brought a lover along for the ride.
Utterly ingenious methods and brilliant plans helped Sonya rise to the top of Russia's underworld. But the very best of these schemes was her use of a little monkey. While Sonya distracted merchants by negotiating prices for jewels, her monkey would get to work swallowing the stones. Once they returned home, the monkey would pass the jewels. Gross, but crafty!
When it came time for one of Blyuvshtein’s first train robberies, she knew exactly who she wanted to target: a wealthy banker named Dogmarova. She waited until he left his compartment and put sleeping pills in his chocolates. Once he fell asleep, Sonya allegedly stole thousands of his rubles. When she was done, Dogmarova was sluggish...and with much lighter pockets.
In time, Blyuvshtein became so good at her trade that she was allegedly invited to join a famous criminal gang called the Club of Hearts of Jack. According to some stories, she didn't just sign up to work with her fellow fraudsters, she actually ran the organization for several years. Other rumors insist something else: Sonya created and ran her own gang, thank you very much.
In a famous story, Sonya stole money from a widow...only to learn that the woman was struggling to support herself and her daughters. Once she learned the heartbreaking truth, Sonya anonymously returned the money she'd stolen, and added a little extra to help the poor widow.
But one act of charity doesn't make Sonya a virtuous maiden. She had absolutely no sympathy when it came to wealthy jewellers. She robbed virtually every major jeweller in Russia, walking away with countless valuables. So how did she manage to steal these jewels without getting caught? Why, with the help of her vast network of accomplices, of course.
The jeweller robberies were ingeniously crafted, but they didn't go according to plan all the time. Sonya’s crew would dress elegantly, then trickle into an unsuspecting jewelry store. With the store suddenly busy, Sonya would ask to see some diamonds in private. After closely examining the diamonds, Blyuvshtein purchased a pendant and attempted to leave. But everything was about to unravel...
Just as Sonya opened the door, the merchant noticed that some stones were missing. He called the cops, but after searching all of the customers, they found nothing. Feigning offence, Sonya left. But little did the merchant and police know, she was taking the precious gems with her. Sonya would hide them in places that nobody would dare to search, including under her long nails and even under her tongue.
A tip about the jewels brought the police to Blyuvshtein’s apartment. As they walked in and rifled through her drawers, their jaws dropped. Along with a closet full of Parisian hats and fur capes, they found a custom dress with multiple pockets for hiding jewels. Her dresser also contained false eyebrows, wigs, and a stolen blue diamond hanging on a velvet ribbon. Busted!
By the time the police discovered the diamond, Blyuvshtein was already at the Central Train Station in disguise. She dressed as Countess Sofia Ivanova Timrot, a noblewoman who’d flirt with the wealthy gentlemen...then drug them, wait for them to fall asleep, and steal their money. Hey, once a hustler, always a hustler.
Once, Sonya Golden Hand allegedly stole 22,300 rubles worth of jewelry with a brilliant scam. She claimed to have forgotten her money at home. So, as collateral, she left some of her own relatives behind with the merchant. After hours of waiting for Sonya to return, the merchant called the police and discovered the truth: her "family members" were actually hired actors.
Sonya may have found marriage boring, but that didn’t stop her from marrying twice more. Her second marriage was to Sheloma Shkol'nik whom she also supposedly robbed blind. Her third union was to railroad thief Michel Blyuvshteyn. She used his name on all of her documents, and the couple had two daughters, but don’t let that fool you. Their marriage was far from happily ever after.
When Sonya's husband Blyuvshtein learned that his wife would use her sensuality to commit crimes, he didn’t take it well. As the story goes, his reaction was bone-chilling. He killed a rich old widow in his anger, got caught, and was sent to do hard labor on Sakhalin Island where he tragically died.
In addition to her daughters, Blyuvshtein is also rumored to have had a son...when she was just 15 years old. His official name was Murdoch Blyuvstein, but he went by Joseph Dolphin. He earned the street name “the bronze hand” and was a successful criminal before being arrested and deported to Warsaw. After that, he disappears from records. No one knows his true fate, but it doesn’t sound good.
One of the most fascinating things about Sonya Golden Hand is that despite her hundreds of crimes, she could never be linked to any of them. She allegedly murdered a rich shopkeeper, stole 56,000 rubles from a merchant, was part of a vodka smuggling ring in prison, and so on. There was never a dull moment with Sonya.
As good a thief as Blyuvshtein was, during one of her robberies, she actually left money instead of taking it. She found a man sleeping on the couch with a loaded gun. On the table beside him, she discovered a heartbreaking letter. In it, the man explained to his mother that he’d gambled away the money for his sick sister’s treatment. Feeling sorry for the man, Sonya placed 500 rubles under his gun and quietly left.
Further proof of Blyuvshtein’s shamelessness is the time she supposedly paid a lawyer...with something she’d stolen from him. As a thank you for defending her in court, she paid him with his own valuable watch. She also reportedly gifted a gold watch to an actor after stealing it from someone in the theater’s lobby.
In 1866, Sonya’s luck nearly ran out. She was caught stealing a suitcase from the military officer Mikhail Gorozhansky but by the time the police arrived, she already had a plan to get out of the pinch. Sonya insisted that she was also a victim of theft and that she grabbed the man’s suitcase in error. The police totally bought her bogus story and released her without charges.
One of Sonya Golden Hand's most famous moments is the Von Mel heist. In this scam, Sonya posed as the wife of a famous psychiatrist. She invited a jeweller named Von Mel to her home to show her his wares and promised that her husband would pay him for the jewels later. And this is where the story gets really insane.
When Sonya's fake husband turned up, he brought two orderlies with him...and had Von Mel committed on the basis of insanity! Sonya had met the psychiatrist earlier that day and told him that she was Von Mel’s wife. She claimed that her "husband" had gone mad and was demanding payment for jewels he’d never sold. But that wasn’t even the end of this crazy story.
Sonya did in fact pay the psychiatrist in advance for committing Von Mel, but that was a small price compared to the fortune in diamonds that she managed to steal. By the time the men figured out that they’d been had, Sonya Golden Hand was long gone, with her sparkly treasure in tow. Impressive!
Tabba Blyuvshtein, the middle daughter of Sonya and Michel, was raised in an orphanage once her parents were gone. The girl had a beautiful lyric-coloratura soprano voice and successfully toured throughout the Russian Empire under the name Tabba Imomortal. Like her mother, Tabba used her diva status to swindle wealthy gentlemen.
One day after a performance in Ekaterinoslavl, an admirer offered to show Tabba his wide array of jewels. After viewing his selection, she promised to come back to purchase her favorite necklace. After Tabba and her companion left the shop, the jeweller made a cruel discovery: some of his gems were missing.
The jeweller notified the police of the theft, suspecting Blyuvshtein’s friend of the crime. The investigation revealed that Tabba was the daughter of the infamous Sonya Golden Hand, and the friend was her younger sister Michelina. They evidently inherited their mother’s charm, because they were never charged.
Sonya Golden Hand only fell in true love once, but when she fell, she fell completely. When Sonya met the 18-year-old thief Wolf Bromberg, nothing could keep her away. He gambled away all of the money that she made playing cards, and she started taking on increasingly risky jobs. It was only a matter of time until her luck ran out...
However, there's another version of Sonya's undoing, and it's so much darker. Apparently, her young lover Bromberg heartlessly sold her out to save his own skin. The story goes that Bromberg secured a fancy blue diamond with a fake mortgage and thousands of rubles. When he tried to double dip by returning a fake diamond to the jeweller, he got caught and coldly blamed Sonya. The police arrested her for Bromberg's crime. Jerk!
At Sonya Golden Hand's trial, the prosecution presented a selection of stolen watches and jewels as evidence. When the judge asked a victim to point out which items were hers, Sonya dropped the mic. She announced in a sarcastic tone: "Don’t worry, Lady, those diamonds are fakes.” The audience loved it, and they applauded her chutzpah.
But no amount of charm could get Sonya out of this pickle. At the end of the trial, she was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. After spending approximately five years in the harsh prison, she decided to escape. She seduced one of the guards and convinced him to leave with her. They avoided capture for five months...until they got sent to Smolensk. But never fear, Sonya escaped from there too.
After her Smolensk escape, Sonya got captured yet again, but this time, her punishment was harsher than ever before. She was sentenced to hard labor on the prison island of Sakhalin—the very same island where her first husband perished. Sakhalin was a penal colony for criminals and political prisoners, and it made Siberia look like a vacation.
At first, Sonya lived like the other women in a free apartment outside the prison, but all that ended when she tried to escape not once, not twice, but three times. The first time, the guards caught her and put her in shackles. The second time, they publicly whipped her as her fellow prisoners squealed with glee. After her third failed attempt, the guards put her in a tiny cell for nearly three years.
Life in a Russian prison isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but poor Sonya underwent something even worse than physical torture. A photographer took humiliating pictures of the shackled "Queen of Thieves" and turned the images into a popular postcard. Blyuvshtein described it as “the greatest punishment” and as “human degradation”.
Sonya was so adept at evading capture that people refused to believe that it was really her in prison. They were convinced that the state had a substitute. Even the authorities didn’t quite believe that they had the real woman, and rumors swirled that Blyuvshtein was continuing her exploits in Europe the whole time.
Writers like Anton Chekhov and Vlas Doroshevich visited Sonya in prison. As they entered, they were utterly shocked by what they saw. A far cry from the beautiful charmer who they were expecting, Sonya was exhausted and severely aged. The only part of her that Dorsoshevich recognized was her eyes which he’d seen at her trial.
When her sentence was up, Sonya actually stayed on Sakhalin Island as a free woman. She sold kvass (a fermented Russian drink) and traded forbidden vodka under the table. She also supposedly ran a gambling hut, organized an orchestra, and staged dances. There was never a dull moment with Sonya Golden Hand.
Despite searching Sonya three times a week at all hours, police couldn't find any trace of the illegal vodka that she smuggled. They searched under her floors, in her walls, and anywhere else they could think of, but all of their efforts were to no avail. Nobody knew how or where she stored it.
In the last years of her life, Sonya hooked up with a vicious man: the nasty murderer Nikolai Bogdanov, who allegedly beat her. Escaping from him might have been what prompted her third escape attempt from the island. Already in poor health, she couldn't travel far, but things would get so much worse. Sonya caught a cold and tragically died.
Some versions of Sonya's story say the legendary conwoman is buried in Moscow's Vagankovo Cemetery. Beside the unmarked grave is a headless, armless statue which attracts both criminals and tourists. Visitors write down their wishes and leave them on the grave, hoping that Blyuvshtein will make them come true.
Blyuvshtein’s go-to move was the vicious "Guten Morgen Method." She would dress up as a noble woman, check into a hotel, sneak into guests’ rooms in the middle of the night, and steal their valuables. If the victim woke up, she'd cry and proclaim her innocence. However, if her victim was a man, she had something much more twisted in store. She'd seduce him and finish the robbery once he fell asleep.
Not surprisingly, Blyuvshtein’s legend only grew after her death. Over the years, she's been the subject of multiple novels, a silent melodrama, a mini-series, and a TV movie series. So little has actually been proven about her life that there’s no way of measuring their accuracy, but it sure is a cool story!
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