On Feb. 1, 1879, Elizabeth Dillon was arrested in Providence and sent to the state prison in Cranston, where she was to serve two years. It wouldn’t be her first arrest and imprisonment in America, nor her last. The 38-year-old lady thief would eventually become famous for her crimes.
Born in Ireland, Elizabeth stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighed about 145 pounds and had brown hair and eyes. Her thick lips and high cheekbones made for an attractive pickpocket.
Three years prior to her incarceration in Cranston, she had been arrested and jailed in Boston where she was going by the alias Elizabeth Cole. She went on to serve two prison terms at Blackwell’s Island in New York and was arrested numerous times in other states across the country.
Elizabeth told authorities that although she had come to America as a child, she hadn’t started picking pockets until she became an adult. Known for being very quick at her game and hard to catch, she used seven different names during her long crime spree.
In 1883, she was arrested along with her new husband, Martin Rafferty, as they picked pockets together in New York. She later married Patrick McNally and picked pockets with him. Another husband and co-thief was Francis Corrigan.
Police in Boston witnessed her stealing a pocketbook in 1895 and she was given another two-year prison sentence. The year after she got out, she was arrested again and sentenced to prison for another year. In 1900, she and Francis were both arrested but were spared jail time.
In August 1901, while picking pockets in full mourning attire at a funeral being held at St. Margaret’s Church in Boston, Elizabeth was caught and given three years behind bars. Four more years at the house of correction in Boston followed. With barely time to get used to freedom, in the fall of 1908, she was arrested for picking pockets at the Dudley Street Car Terminal.
The year 1909 brought her an arrest for vagrancy, for which she served four months. In 1912, she was sentenced to six months for attempting to snatch the handbag of a woman carrying a child. In the spring of 1913, she served three months for picking pockets at Revere Beach and later, in September, a year for vagrancy.
During the fall of 1918, Elizabeth spent another eight months in prison in Boston. She was back the following year, doing 12 months for picking pockets in a department store. In May 1920, she again faced vagrancy charges.
Elizabeth was very honest about her criminal tendencies, telling police that Catholic churches and department stores were her preferred locations.
“I go to churches for two reasons,” she said. “One is to steal and the other is because I’m happiest when I’m there.”
She explained her compulsion as something she didn’t understand but could not stop herself from indulging in. Over the years, she would steal thousands of dollars and numerous pieces of expensive jewelry.
By 1920, Elizabeth Dillon was the most well-known female pickpocket in the country, called “Queen of the Dips.” The 69-year-old was brought before a Boston judge that May on yet another charge of vagrancy. It was explained to her that, despite witness testimony claiming she had been trying to pick pockets on the streetcar, the only charge against her was vagrancy. She responded, “Yes, I know. I didn’t intend to steal that day. I was only going to look in the store windows for bargains.”
The judge told the court that Elizabeth’s criminal history was far too long to get into. There didn’t seem to be any end to it. Then, the sheriff had an idea. During her many, many stints in jail, Elizabeth had spent her time doing beautiful needlework. He wondered, would she be content to give up stealing and take an honest sewing job he had inquired about for her? She said she would.
The judge thereby agreed to suspend the six-month sentence so long as she went to the nice home that would be provided for her and did honest work for her money. No further arrests can be found for Elizabeth. No death record can be found for her, either. Perhaps she assumed another alias and went back to picking pockets. Or perhaps the elderly woman adopted a quiet, law-abiding life that brought no further attention at all.