Light-fingered Sonya

M. D. Klefortov, Light-fingered Sonya: the Adventures of the Infamous Thief and Murderess, and her Imprisonment on Sakhalin. 1903

 

Sophia (Sonya) Bliuvshtein was one of Russia ‘s most colorful criminals. Pickpocket, suspected murderess, operator of an illegal still on the island prison of Sakhalin, her escapades captured the imaginations of millions. Her Russian nickname, “zolotaia ruchka,” translates literally as “the golden hand,” and she used what was apparently a golden body as well to get her way. Popular journalist Vlas Doroshevich, who interviewed her on Sakhalin, noted that postcards of her in chains were the most sought after of prison souvenirs. Tabloid readers followed her exploits, and fictional portraits such as this by Klefortov embellished her life. Her crowning moment came in 1914 when Aleksandr Drankov turned her adventures into Russia ‘s first movie serial. (The actress playing her, Nina Gofman, nearly matched Sonya’s light-fingered skills, lifting a watch from an unaware actor with the cameras rolling.) Too elastic for stereotypes, Sonya was neither heroine nor villainess. She personified both the thrill and the price of maneuvering beyond social boundaries and the law.

Original Source: M. D. Klefortov, Son’ka “Zolotaia ruchka.” Pokhozhdeniia znamenitoi vorovki-ubiitsy i eia prebyvanie na Sakhaline Izd. S. S. Poliatusa (Odessa: tip. Poriadok, 1903).

Sonya’s First Appearance and Her Acquaintance with the Merchant B.

It had been ages since the theater was as crowded as it was the evening of 3 February 18… The opera Demon was playing, and a famous actor who had never appeared on our stage was singing the title role. The bright electric lights seemed to flow into the diamonds and finery of the ladies seated in the box seats and loges. At last, the curtain lifted and the orchestra struck up the prelude. The audience watched the stage intently.

Little by little, however, binoculars and lorgnettes in the loges were turned to one side of the theater. A number of people who had been following the opera realized that the attention of many others was not on the stage, but on a loge close to it. Many seated in the upper rows became annoyed when a noisy whispering disrupted their beloved opera. During the intermission, all the talk was about the beautiful woman in the theater; everyone had forgotten the famous actor. “Who is that marvelous beauty?” people asked theater regulars. But no one could answer. Some said she was an Italian who had come with the actor, perhaps his fiancée. Others thought her the daughter of a wealthy marquis. No one knew the truth.

The son of the merchant B. sat in the loge opposite hers, and he could not tear his eyes away.

“Who is that beautiful lady?” he asked his uncle, the moneylender A., seated next to him.

“You must’ve heard of her. You know everyone in the financial world, so you must somehow know her.”

The moneylender A., as if awakened from a reverie, did not answer his nephew immediately.

“I know her very well. She’s the daughter of a trader I’m holding a lot of pawn tickets for,” said A. “I’ve proposed to her several times, but she’s turned me down firmly. I’m still hopeful, though. I’ll squeeze him more and then boom! she won’t escape me.”

“Anyway, Uncle, please introduce me to her.”

“It would be useless, my friend. Besides, she’s poor.”

“Why would I need wealth from her when she herself is gold?”

“Oh, you’re still young, Nephew, or you wouldn’t think like that.”

Despite his uncle’s refusal, the nephew met both the girl and her parents, who never left their daughter’s side. The elegant and reasonably handsome young merchant tried from the beginning to make a favorable impression on the beauty, “Sophie.” He trembled before her, and her dark, burning eyes penetrated him, smiling ironically.

The curtain went up for a second time, and “Demon” sang his famous aria to “Tamara”:

“You will be queen of the world.” The audience, exhilarated by the beauty, did not applaud him, but instead began shouting “encore” to her. The actor, not expecting such ingratitude from the audience, stopped on the last note, tears in his throat. “Tamara” was struck dumb, bewildered as to whether they were cheering her or the beauty.

Despite an excellent performance, the audience did not pay much attention to her all evening. At the end of the performance, B. invited the beauty and her parents to ride home in his carriage. They in turn invited him to visit.

B. began to court Sonya. Her parents considered the young merchant a suitable fiancé for their daughter, and they persuaded her to take advantage of the situation, not to drive him away. Sophia had many suitors whose hand she had refused. Therefore it would have been no surprise if she turned him down also, as her parents feared. Sophia had a very strong will; she did not like to be pressured. She was not especially tall, but had a stunning figure. Her dark eyes burned with fire and shot glances like arrows. Her skin was somewhat dull, but thick black hair poured over her neck like a lion’s mane. When she walked, she called to mind a tigress.

“How happy I am, kissing your golden hands,” said B., on his knees before her. “Promise me that you will belong to no one but me, that you will be my queen!”

“If I am to be your queen, then you must be my Demon,” Sophia answered. In a few months they were married. There was a flurry of rumors about the most beautiful woman ever seen and about how she had engrossed the audience that evening. B. took great pride in his queen, and they spent the first few months of married life abroad. She was stared at everywhere, like a supernatural creature. After six months abroad, Sonya began to grow melancholy. She stopped going out for walks. Her husband could not understand the reasons for her depression. She made excuses, told him that she was feeling the first pains of pregnancy, and that it was difficult for her to go out, even in a carriage. Fearing illness, or perhaps that she was homesick for her parents, B. took her back to Odessa.

The Stranger. Sonya Disappears

Not long after she returned to Odessa Sonya gave birth to a daughter. Despite this, she was still unhappy. No joy could chase away her blues. One lovely May evening, out walking with her husband, she passed a stranger; seeing him, Sonya grew pale and flinched. The stranger disappeared into the crowd. Something about this person who had caused his wife to almost faint bothered B. But she would tell him nothing. However, he began to grow suspicious in his heart, even though she had been a faithful wife until this point. He lay awake all night, thinking about the incident. He was being torn apart. The next day he was sick with depression, but refused to discuss his anxieties with his wife. Sonya understood what was tormenting her husband and, not wanting to bring any more suspicions upon herself, she decided to complete her plans immediately. In Warsaw agents were awaiting the arrival of their new patroness. Therefore she had to leave quickly. But what pretext could she use to travel alone, without a husband? Unable to think up an excuse, she stole away in secret. By evening her trail was cold.

The “Golden Hand” Commits Burglaries in Warsaw, Moscow, and Petersburg; and her Husband’s Pursuit

Searches were conducted all over the city, but no one could find her. Her husband puzzled over her disappearance. He informed the police, but in vain. She had vanished without a trace. He sent her description to all Russian cities, but no one had any information.

In the meantime Sonya, disguised as a marquise, and her gang were committing very successful robberies in stores, theaters, clubs, and banks. Emptying the pockets of many rich men, the incognito Sonya stayed in the most elegant hotels. Before leaving town, she would inform her the agents of her new destination. In Warsaw she successfully drew the attentions of an aging Polish count, who declared his love for her at first sight: “Oh, my dear, please let me kiss your golden hands!” She swindled him out of more than 20,000 rubles. Her husband arrived in town the very day that she slipped away.

In Moscow her agents met the “Golden Hand” in great style. There, she arranged several robberies and even participated in a murder. Then she moved on to Petersburg.

The “Golden Hand” appeared in Petersburg in her guise as a marquise. The elegant apartments she occupied corresponded entirely to her masquerade; no one would suspect that the marquise was a cunning thief. In just a few days she conquered the hearts of many society gentlemen who, when parting with her, also parted with their gold, diamonds, and even a few tightly packed wallets.

Her agents arranged for the “Golden Hand” to make the acquaintance of only very wealthy men; without money, it was impossible to court her. She organized many thefts in Petersburg before evading police capture. How was she able to escape undetected when the whole force was on the lookout for a clever crook? Quite simply. In every city, just before leaving, she would make herself up in a new disguise. Sometimes she was a beggar, at other times a nun or a pilgrim. Most often, though, she donned men’s clothes and melted into the background by traveling through villages peddling some sort of wares. Her husband followed her trail until at last he caught up with her in Petersburg. Here she came up with a way to elude him forever. But this involved a compromise: her husband, exhausted from the road and tormented by his constant sufferings, had just awakened when he heard a knock on his hotel door. Dressing hurriedly, he opened the door and met a well dressed gentleman. The man excused himself, asking for a few minutes of the husband’s time, emphasizing urgency and promising that he would be able to put him on the right track.

“Please, come in! I’m at your service,” said the husband B. excitedly.

“Here’s the story,” began the stranger. “Yesterday I met a woman claiming to be a marquise who had just arrived from Switzerland. When I was leaving, I realized that my billfold, which held about 10,000 rubles, had disappeared. I returned immediately to her hotel, but she had already left. At that time I learned from some other people there that you were looking for your wife, who resembled the marquise. Please forgive me for speaking so harshly about your wife. Therefore I’d like to offer you my services, so that you can get your wife back, and me my 10,000 rubles. Otherwise, I’ll have to go to the police. I don’t want this affair to turn into such a scandal that your wife gets put in jail, thus ruining forever the life of the husband who loves her so much. I learned that she is now staying in a hotel in Paris. You can take her by surprise there and insist on bringing her home. Tell her that if she doesn’t return my money, I’ll make her pay. Hurry! Remember, she’s using the name Marquise B. If you ask for anyone else, you’ll ruin everything.”

B. went to the hotel and asked for Marquise B. When she let him in, he went crazy with happiness because at last he stood face-to-face with his wife. He fell to his knees, begging for sympathy. But Sophia rang his emotions dry, and persuaded him that she would never give in to his wishes. Sitting him on the divan, she hypnotized him with passionate embraces and explanations. When he went under, she fled with his remaining capital. By the time he awoke, her trail had grown cold. He finally realized that his whole incident had been planned ahead of time, and that he must stop fantasizing that his wife would return. Thus the “Golden Hand” escaped her husband forever.

The “Golden Hand” Goes Abroad and Meets Failure

Eluding her husband made her all the more bold. Like a bird of prey she swooped down upon grandeur, hoping to feed upon gold. But there, after a series of failures, she suffered an unpleasant incident. Driving around the city in a coach, tended by a lackey, she decided to visit the jewelry stores. Chic, drenched in diamonds, she entered one store and demanded to see the finest diamond rings. They showed her a large selection of jewels, which she examined attentively. At this time a beggar came in asking for a handout. She, a rich woman, could not refuse to do her part …

Not able to find just the right ring, she returned them to the merchant and began to leave. Just then the merchant noticed that three of the most valuable were missing. (And it was evident that she knew her diamonds.) Not intimidated by the wealthy customer, he demanded a search. Upset, her eyes flaming, the “Golden Hand” at last gave into his demands, but to his great surprise, he found nothing on her. She threatened to take him to court for slander … You readers have no doubt already guessed that the beggar was one of her gang, and that the missing rings were passed to him as alms. From Paris she traveled around the world, visiting every capital, resort, exhibition, and other places where the public gathered. She considered it her duty to visit Monte Carlo, where the gold on the roulette tables shone brighter than sunlight. In Rome, she visited St. Peter’s for the first time on Palm Sunday, where she cleaned out the pockets of the wealthiest pilgrims, stuffing the goods into her own secret pockets. In the church, she stole a gold and diamond cross from around the neck of an abbot . In London she was caught after her first operation and brought to trial. But here the “Golden Hand” used her beauty to hoodwink; despite all the direct evidence, she was able to charm the judge and get off scot-free. Even when she was traveling, she did not waste the time on the train. Mesmerizing a passenger, she would pick him clean from head to toe, jump off at the station, change her make-up, and then continue on. She went from London to Antwerp and Hamburg, generating quite a commotion over her colossal thefts. She barely escaped to America, disguised as a poor immigrant. From there she went to Turkey, Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo, and Constantinople, where she used her feminine wiles to steal from the wealthy Turks, known to have a weakness for pretty women such as herself. Then on to Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania, and then Berlin, where she was caught following a major robbery. By this time the whole world knew about the cunning thief, and that she was a Russian citizen. The Germans were returning her to Russia under armed guard, but she escaped at the border.

The “Golden Hand” Returns to Russia: Capture and Trial

The “Golden Hand” grew homesick, though, and decided to return to Russia. Her return, though, was not a happy one. She landed in N-skoi prison. One of the guards fell in love with her, so she was easily able to escape. She seduced him and stole his uniform. Still, from this time on she suffered many failures and ended up in various prisons. Although she had several more great successes, at last fortune changed. She was arrested for the murder of a wealthy merchant on a train. This time the court treated her very severely, and she was sentenced to hard labor on the island prison of Sakhalin. She never fainted, showing her bravado throughout the trial. On a table lay the evidence against her, a mound of rings, bracelets, and watches. The judge asked one of her victims to select the things that had been stolen. The woman, her hands shaking, began to sort through the pile. The sarcastic voice of the “Golden Hand” rang out from the defendant’s table: “Don’t worry, Lady, those diamonds are fakes.”

The crowd applauded her boldness loudly. The evidence showed that she had committed more than five hundred significant robberies, to the tune of about a million rubles.

The “Golden Hand’s” First Ventures

After reading about so many thefts, you readers must be asking yourselves: Why did she continue such a dangerous life when she already enjoyed colossal wealth, knowing that on the morrow she might be forced to pay a high price?

It is very difficult to penetrate the soul of such a human animal. Therefore I will tell you briefly about her life from the beginning of her days as a thief. And you will understand how a person, traveling the wrong path, little by little becomes accustomed to evil and begins to think it the reason for existence. As you know, the “Golden Hand” was the only daughter of poor merchants. Her parents were unable to give her a good education, despite the fact that she picked up all the European languages immediately. She started off at a fourth-rate boarding school but did not graduate because she was caught stealing books, foreshadowing her future career. After this incident, her parents would not allow her out of their sight, unless she was visiting her only friend. Some people appeared at this friend’s house, and they asked Sophia to leave. But she could not understand the problem. Once, after a heated conversation with her friend, Sophia learned their secret: the friends parents and these mysterious guests were involved in shady deals, of which the friend disapproved. The secret consumed Sophia’s soul; day and night, she could not stop thinking about it. Fantasies about wealth and elegance suggested an ideal life for such a pretty girl. But how could she move freely? Her parents would not let her out of their sight! She did not want to run away because she loved her parents very much. However, at her friend’s house, she met a man who became her mentor. In the beginning, she would secretly elude her parents and walk around stores, stealing small items. But the young thief was soon apprehended and put back in her parents’ custody. From that time she did not have a free minute, until the evening at the theater. Nevertheless, her association with suspicious characters did not cease, despite her parents’ strict control. They wanted to save their only, but disgraced daughter, and they hoped that perhaps the right husband could put her back on the right path with his love. Sophia would never have agreed to tie the knot with someone who would deprive her of freedom if she had not been so devoted to her parents. Maybe she could have become an honest women, but the people with whom she had been involved continued to follow her. The man she met on the boulevard asked for her final decision: “yes or no?” He threatened death if she refused. The thirst for life overcame her love for her parents. She made her decision. Leaving everything behind, she abandoned herself to the passion for easy profit. However, sometimes she showed signs of humanity. Once on a train she made the acquaintance a bureaucrat’s widow traveling to St. Petersburg to petition for support for her many children, left penniless. The unhappy widow had received a one-time allocation of 5,000 rubles. The “Golden Hand” smelled the money lying nearby, and with no pity for the widow, she stole it and disappeared … Soon a notice appeared in the paper: Several days ago a widow with small children was robbed of 5,000 rubles and now she and her family are left with no means of support. She asked for information about the thief. The “Golden Hand” was moved to tears reading this. She immediately put the money in an envelope with the following letter: ” M. G. I read about your misfortune in the paper. Because of my thoughtlessness and passion for money, I caused you grief. I am returning your money with some advice: in the future, hide it deeper in your bag. Again, I ask your pardon and that of your poor orphaned children. N. N.”

The “Golden Hand” also spent great quantities of money on a school in England, exclusively for the children of her gang members, where they could study thievery.

The “Golden Hand” on Sakhalin

The damp prison, after her life of luxury, did not suit her. The talk in all the cells was about the new prisoner. But the “Golden Hand” managed to win the love of even the most hardened murderers, those who intimidated new arrivals. Still, her life at hard labor, especially at the beginning, was very unpleasant. She had to work with all the other prisoners, and this tortured her both physically and mentally … But she faced her punishment with the steadfastness of a gladiator going to battle. Once she tried to take off her irons and run away. She was caught and sentenced to whipping. The most violent executioner was chosen–a murderer, who was ordered to beat the beauty, Sonya, “Gold-hand,” as they called her. A crowd of the curious gathered. Cries began from all sides: “Ivan, beat her harder!” “Show no pity!” “There’s no blood!” “Don’t be timid! She’s a strong woman. She can stand it!” The executioner Ivan, encouraged by the ruthless crowd, upped the heat. Her body shook with every blow, and stifled cries arose from her breast. She finally passed out. This was not her only beating either … The whole prison took pride in Sonya, for her courage in standing up to the authorities. They might not have loved her, but they respected her, considered her the top woman. Nothing could break this criminal personality, not hard labor, not solitary confinement, not chains, not a bullet or the lash of a whip. Only nature could break her … In her final years, she grew very homesick. She dreamed of returning to Russia, for at least a glimpse of her home region. Whenever she met anyone from Odessa, she showered him with questions about her native city, where she had spent so many happy days. She asked about her daughter, who undoubtedly did not want to know anything about the existence of a mother who had disgraced her and the family so …

At last, during her final attempt at escape, before she had gone a mile, she collapsed. She was found and taken to the hospital. The doctor worked a long time to bring her to consciousness. When she came to, blood spurted from her throat and a fever set in. She was delirious for several days, her ratings terrifying the other patients. It was as if her eyes had left their sockets, her pupils darting to every corner of the room. They had tied her to her cot, and she tried to tear herself free, thinking that she was back in irons.

“Take off these chains! Why are you torturing me so! Let me go to my beloved daughter!” cried the “Golden Hand” in the throes of death. “You, Bogdanov, why are you looking at me like that? You want to hold me down and drink my blood? No, no! I won’t allow any more persecution. I paid for my sin. Now, enough already! Let me repent and cleanse my sinful soul. Don’t touch me again with those hands, stained with human blood!”

Thus ended the life of a person who had chosen the wrong path in life. In her final minutes, the same specters appeared before her that had surrounded her in life. Far from the city, in a deserted spot lies a wooden cross that the wind has blown away from the grave. A hand picks it up, someone no less sinful than she, but a still a caring person who watches over the remains of the unhappy victim of passion, the “Golden Hand.”

Source: James von Geldern and Louise McReynolds, eds., Entertaining Tsarist Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 261-268.

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