by M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
It was December, 1923, when headlines blasted "Seek 'Cat-Eye Annie' for Surdam Gem Theft". You may ask who is Cat Eye Annie? She was one of the most notorious jewel thieves of the early 20th century.
Her real name was Lillian McDowell but she also went by the aliases of Elsie Webb, Martha Conners, Lillian Redmond. She was 40 years old and she had earned her moniker of "cat eye" because of the one unique feature she possessed. Her eyes were pale blue, but one of them was part blue and brown. She weighed only about 120 pounds and stood 5 feet 4 inches tall. Cat Eye was a plain woman with brownish hair streaked with gray.
Her last theft was worth $75,000 of gems from the home of Louis J. Sudram who lived at 464 Linwood Avenue. She stole them using a ruse which had worked many times in the past for her. The police termed the M.O. "maid robbery." By then the authorities in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and other cities were seeking the elusive jewel thief. She had also skipped out on a $2,000 bail bond.
Annie no doubt was a rogue, but she was an ingenious one.
One of her last heists started when she arrived in Cleveland after leaving Detroit. She rented an apartment on the West Side, close to the Surdam home. Annie advertised in the newspaper for a maid who could furnish excellent references. She would specify that there were no children, no washing to be done and the pay was good.
When the applicants came forward, she took the names of the references furnished by the applicants and told each of them to come back in a few days. She then used the references when she applied for a position at the Surdam home. Mrs. Surdam immediately engaged her. Within six hours of starting her position she had fled with the jewelry, but that was after she had tied Mrs. Surdam to a chair.
Ironically Cat Eye had been convicted about a dozen years before of a robbery a block from the Surdam property, at the home of Edward Hofeller. Then she was given a suspended sentence after she stole more than $3,000 in jewelry. She had gained entry into the household the same way by applying for a position.
Little was known about Lillian's early history, but her criminal record started when she married John McDowell, alias H. Grant a well known western criminal, who police believed helped his wife in the Surdam theft.
The couple's first crime occurred in Pittsburgh on December 20, 1906, when they threw a brick through the window of a jewelry store and grabbed handfuls of gems. Grant was caught two blocks away and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. Lillian eluded capture for 2 weeks, until she was found in Chicago and returned to Pittsburgh where she was found not guilty.
There was another story that appeared on the same date which coincided much closer with the methods that Lillian "Cat Eye Annie" would use successfully for many years after this.
The story read:
$4,000 In Jewels Stolen
It was around then that she became a "maid thief" and the police did not hear from her until December 23, 1910, when she stole $6,000 worth of jewelry from a St. Louis home where she had been employed. She was acquitted even though identified as the thief, because the jewelry was not found.
While waiting for this trial to conclude Chicago police notified St. Louise they wanted "Cat Eye" for stealing jewelry valued $3,000 from another home where she had worked. In Chicago her luck turned and she was convicted and sentenced to serve 1 to 10 years in Joliet prison.
While serving time, Mr. Hofeller identified her as the servant that stole jewelry valued at $3,000. Once released the Buffalo Police Department picked her up. The jury returned a verdict of guilty however the judge deferred sentence and allowed her to go free.
It wasn't until April, 1924, that Cat Eye Annie was arrested in San Francisco, and she was turned over to the Los Angeles police department to answer to a burglary charge.
A circular with her picture was sent to various police departments. With her 20 aliases it was difficult to verify who she was. The authorities verified that none of the Surdam jewels had been found. But there was a good reason for this, because who they had arrested was not Cat Eye Annie. It was only another female thief that was copying her methods, and had been successful in pulling off four jobs. She convinced the authorities she was not Annie because she did not possess the pale blue eyes with the lower part of the left pupil cleft with brown.
Then the newspapers headlined with "Where is 'Cat-Eye Annie'?"
Not until February, 1925, did another headline related to Cat-Eye Annie surface, and again it detailed her arrest in Baltimore on a robbery charge.
It was reported that this time she had an accomplice named Edward Lewis, 58 who supposedly aided in the Surdam robbery. Again there was no sign of the jewels. Prior to this she had stolen jewels in Buffalo valued at $75,000 and then $100,000 for a Boston job.
Then three days later the police retracted their report, when they realized they had the wrong person and Cat Eye Annie was still out and about.
It was September, 1925, and authorities in Milwaukee said one of their detectives had noted a woman with two-colored pupils riding on a street car. He followed her to an "ultra fashionable east side residence" and arrested her. She was using the name of Mary McCoy.
Within days two detectives from Buffalo were headed to Milwaukee to pick up Cat Eye Annie.
Lillian McDowell, was intelligent and persistent. When the detectives from Buffalo were taking her from the city hall to the jail after her arraignment, she had not been handcuffed, and upon reaching Franklin and Church Streets she broke away from the officer and ran. She was overtaken easily. It was reported that when brought into the detective bureau she slumped in a faint, however it was known this was one of her stalls.
Any questions that were posed to her, she would answer with, "I can't remember." When appearing before the judge she gave her name as Julia Archer, as well as Harriet Ginther, Mary McCoy and Lillian McDowell. She pled not guilty and was remanded to jail for trial.
Her "fainting fits" were so common that Detective Fitzgerald who brought her back from Milwaukee remarked, "I'm becoming a human elevator for the woman. All I do is carry her around."
On October 14, 1925, she pled guilty to a charge of first degree grand larceny. The maximum penalty would be ten years in Auburn prison. She pretended to faint, and then again made a sprint for liberty but was captured by a deputy. She was sentenced to 10 years.
Everything connected to Cat-Eye Annie made the papers including the death of Kathryn B. Gunn, chief of Buffalo's policewomen. In her obituary it was mentioned that she she'd once been a pharmacist and dentist, and of course that she was one of the policewomen who brought "Cat-Eye Annie" back from Milwaukee.
Once jailed, Cat Eye obtained privileges by becoming an amiable prisoner. She was permitted to do her own ironing, and within weeks of starting her sentence she slipped a piece of rubber into the lock at the end of the cell corridor and then went to bed. She was missing the next morning. In her bed, jail guards found some clothing wrapped in a coat to form a dummy This of course was to trick anyone looking into her cell that she was still there.
She made a getaway after the matrons left the corridor to change watches. Going through the door in which she had placed the piece of rubber, she reached a stairway leading to the sheriff's office. She dropped from a window and landed on Delaware Avenue and vanished. Except the fall broke her ankle and she limped to a trolley stop. She took a car to the suburbs where she hid in an unoccupied house, waiting for the ankle to mend. Workmen found her there, and the law soon followed.
Anxious to done with the jail-breaker the sheriff asked that she be taken immediately to Auburn which was the state prison. For her troubles she was placed in solitary confinement.
Lillian McDowell aka Cat Eye Annie made her escape from solitary confinement in Auburn prison by digging through an 18-inch wall. For weeks she chipped away at a hole in back of her bed using a spoon and fork stolen from the kitchen. She loosened the brick and mortar wall, and hid the pieces in her mattress. Sleeping on the rubble did not deter from making an escape on May 10, 1926. She scaled the high wall enclosing the prison by climbing up a plank she had carried from the prison greenhouse. The guards still couldn't explain how she obtained the tools she used. Since she had a slim body she wriggled through the opening she made into the prison yard.
The weather though worked against her, since the temperature was very cold. All she was wearing was a light prison dress. Annie
3+- was discovered by a farmer the following day in a hay field on a farm near Weedsport. She tried to endure the frigid cold by burying herself in a pile of hay but she suffered from exposure and was close to developing pneumonia.
In March 1927, she was committed to the insane asylum at Mattewan. It was unknown what caused the prison to send her there, perhaps it was the fact she had been kept in solitary until then. Among the inmates there was a saying that covered Mattewan, Dannemora and the other State institutions which was "they never come back!" However in the case of Annie they allowed "one eyelid to drop just a trifle, 'Matteawan is easier to beat than Auburn'"
Expectations were that Annie would try to escape from Mattewan.
It was rumored among the inmates that the reason Cat Eye stayed free as long as she had was because she worked alone, or what was called a "lone wolf". She didn't have pals to "squeal, and there was no 'cut' on the 'swag'". She pocketed all the proceeds. Previous to her first arrest, the description of Cat Eye was wide and varied, but after the first "pinch" it gave the "dicks" the first description of her. This is when they took the first photograph. What it did for Cat Eye is that it gave her the first prison to "beat."
In May, 1930, the intrepid Cat Eye Annie cut the lock from her cell, put on the warden's hat and coat and made a getaway. She had already made trousers from a blanket. Among her talents Cat Eye was a born mimic. She walked briskly to the main gate just the way the acting warden did every day. At the gate she saluted and nodded as he did. She headed east walking through fields until she reached the Sennett Road. She was no fool and knew the alarm was already raised, however she risked hitching a ride. But luck was not on her side that day. George Gronan picked her up and recognized her immediately. Another witness was the wife of a state trooper that saw her getting into the car. Before long roadblocks were set up.
Gronan tried to take her back to Auburn, and she pulled out a pair of scissors and threatened him with them. His ordeal ended when they stopped at a state police roadblock. It's not clear if 2 or 7 years were added to her sentence.
In 1933, all the female prisoners were transferred to Bedford Hills from Auburn. It was said the Salvation Army had converted Annie to Christianity.
In 1935, after serving her 10-year sentence, she was sent to St. Louis to start serving an 8-year one.
Cat Eye might have found Jesus, but she hadn't lost her desire to become free. In 1937, she took a 20-foot drop from a bathroom window which injured the 55-year-old, and instead landed her in the hospital. She had taken a bed-sheet, and at 2:30 a.m. slid out the window. A shout from a yard guard caused her to release her grip on the sheet, and she fell down. This was her second attempt, only two months after she arrived at the prison.
Some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s she was released. This time she escaped into anonymity, and her fate remained unknown.
There is reason to believe her real (maiden) name was Lillian or Lilly Harte. She was born in 1881 and wed John Donar or Dorwar a corruption of McDowell on December 25, 1881, in Manhattan. She was 16 years old and her husband 22. However with Cat Eye's penchant for subterfuge all this information could be false, or a corruption of her true name.
Cat Eye Annie was one who understood very well the power of anonymity.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer