Day 731: The Countess Of Cunning

originally published December 31, 2013

I’m hesitant to invest too much faith in tall tales from the pre-media age, particularly when the sources at my disposal are practically taunting me into the world of fiction. A mini-series about the notorious 19th-century jewel thief Sofia Blyuvshtein, a.k.a. Sonya Golden Hand, aired on Russian television in 2007, but its writer claimed his screenplay was “97% made up”, suggesting that the actual facts simply aren’t available. Even the Wikipedia page reads like a poorly-translated short story with a fragmented sense of narrative.

And so I’m left with shards of what might be truth or fiction, and only the vaguest reassurance that this woman even existed to begin with. But the romantic in me wants to believe that one of the greatest jewel thieves of the late 1800s was a devious and brilliant Russian seductress, and that her legendary acts of criminal genius were as genuinely baffling as the stories suggest.

Since my life will be none the poorer if these tales are false, I’ll simply accept them as true and bask in the wicked mind of Sonya Golden Hand.

Almost nothing is known about Sonya’s early life, or how she came to be a master manipulator of circumstance for her own ends. She simply drifted into Russian society, the first tales of her daring misdeeds giving off the impression of a sophisticated and well-trained criminal. She would eventually achieve a somewhat misguided Robin Hood aura, as her victims were often the wealthy and elite. Whether this was a genuine credo or a distortion of her perceived mystique, we’ll never know.

She was married three times. The first two men she left penniless and alone, and the third was a fellow criminal. She produced two daughters, and while one telling of the legend has her daughter Tabba joining Sonya in her profitable scheming, I’m inclined to believe this was not the case. No tell-all book was penned by anyone who knew her personally though, poising Sonya’s life story on the precarious brink of over-inflated folklore. Her daughters, whisked away into obscurity, never spread the legend firsthand. That leaves a whole lot of grey area.

A gorgeous woman walked into the prestigious von Mel jewelry store, introducing herself as the wife of a famous local psychiatrist. She tried on a number of pieces and, showing off an immaculate sense of taste, selected an impressive collection valued at about 30,000 rubles. She asked the jeweler to deliver them to her home, as she wanted to wear them that night. Payment would take place upon delivery.

The jeweler showed up as promised, and the beautiful woman answered the door. She invited the man to wait in her husband’s office and excused herself with the goods. When the psychiatrist came in and spoke with the jeweler, who complimented his wife’s taste and subsequently asked for payment, a team of tough orderlies stormed into the office and hauled the jeweler away to a mental hospital.

If this wasn’t the perfect crime, then it was a perfectly weird one.

After leaving the jewelry store, Sonya raced to the psychiatrist’s home and introduced herself as von Mel’s wife. She was frantic, claiming that her elderly husband had gone completely batty after years in the jewelry business, and had taken to roaming around town, asking for payment for deliveries he’d never made. She pleaded with the psychiatrist to help her, and even floated a bit of money as pre-payment for his services. The doctor agreed, but Sonya insisted a ruse must be put in place to lure her husband there, otherwise von Mel would never agree to a consultation.

So when the jeweler was demanding payment, the psychiatrist had his men in white coats ready to pounce, believing that the old man was operating under some kind of delusional psychosis. By the time the baffled marks figured out that they’d been had, Sonya had long since disappeared out the back door with the jewels.

The following autumn a banker named Mr. Dogmarov found himself in the delightful company of a beautiful woman aboard a Moscow-bound train. The two commiserated, and while we’ll never know if any carnal fluid-swapping took place, Mr. Dogmarov awoke in his compartment the next morning with about 43,000 fewer rubles than he’d had the night before. Sonya didn’t go for the small-time cons; she was all about the big score.

Calling herself a Courland baroness, Sonya dropped in to a jewelry shop on Petrovka Street in the summer of 1885 accompanied by her grey-haired father, baby girl and a governess. She picked out a selection of jewels then promptly announced she’d forgotten all her cash at home. No worries – she’d run home (with the jewelry of course) to get her money, and her family would remain behind as a guarantee of her return. When she didn’t show up, it took a miniscule amount of investigation to learn that her ‘family’ was simply a group of folks hired off the street to stand there and shut up. Sonya was long gone.

As Sonya’s exploits continued, her legend began to grow. When she found herself locked up in Smolensk Prison, she charmed a gendarme into helping her escape. Her targets were the wealthy, and when the situation called for it, her conscience would step in. After discovering that the person she’d robbed was a widow with two daughters, Sonya returned the money as swiftly and deftly as she’d taken it. A struggling actor whom she admired received an expensive pocket watch as a gift – a watch that had been plucked from a wealthy patron of the theatre in the lobby. Sonya was being recognized in the streets and praised as a hero of sorts.

Then it all fell apart. She fell in love with another infamous Russian criminal known as Wolf Bromberg, who would send her on heists with increasing risk to support his card-playing habit. She was eventually caught and sent to the island of Sakhalin as a punishment. She tried to escape three times, but eventually died there alone.

Sonya’s legend may have dwindled away with her, were it not for a significant meeting in 1890 with Chekhov.

No, the writer: Anton Chekhov. He was visiting various gulags and institutions while researching Russian prison reform when he met up with Sonya Golden Hand, clamped in leg irons and locked up in solitary confinement after one of her attempts to escape. Chekhov described her as possibly in her mid-40’s, but skinny, graying and with a crumpled, old woman’s face. The woman who had once utilized her sexuality to reap untold fortunes and even her freedom had finally been broken.

Sonya’s techniques – which again may have been subjected to the incalculable puffery of folklore – are the stuff of legend. She’d tuck jewels under her long fingernails, slip her score into a dress bag at her side, and she even used a monkey to swallow the jewels, which she’d later retrieve via enema. She was brilliant and charming, street-smart and well versed in the psychological manipulation of her victims.

I don’t know how much of all this I should believe, but deep down I hope the whole story is true.

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