Sonya Golden Hand
(1846ish - 1902ish CE)
Russia's Princess of Crime
It’s telling that even after police captured the infamous Russian thief Sofia Blyuvshtein (better known as Sonya Golden Hand1 Also spelled as Son’ka or Sonka – and that’s before getting into the alphabet soup that are the alternate spellings of her real name), nobody was 100% sure it was actually her. After all, she’d escaped from countless prisons – including one in Siberia! – and went through fake identities like a shark through water. It’s little wonder that her body disappeared after her death, reportedly to be buried by her confidantes in an unmarked grave in Moscow — a grave that even now serves as a spot of worship for aspiring thieves.
For Sonya Golden Hand is their saint.
Little is concretely known of Sonya’s early life – or even her later life, for that matter. She claimed, in a court transcript, to have been born in Warsaw to Jewish parents, but who knows?2 Reader Cykuta actually chimes in with some additional info on this:
She was born in Powązki (the “ą” bit is important). Nowadays, it’s a district of Warsaw, but around the time of her birth, it was a village of 8 buildings (there’s a 1856 document testifying that), owned by a rich Jewish proprietor, and adjoining a military base. (Russian army, since this at the time Poland was partitioned and technically part of Russia). Powązki was formally added to the Warsaw administrative district in 1916. She was not exactly the world’s greatest truth-teller. It’s uncertain how she even got started as a criminal. More certain is that she was friggin’ spectacular at it.
Better living through fake marriages
Probably the most illustrative story of her overwhelming criminal chutzpah is the Von Mel heist. The scam started with her pretending to be the wife of a famous psychiatrist, and in said guise, asking a jeweler named Von Mel to come by their house with some of his wares. She met Von Mel there and took the jewelry, telling him that her husband would be there soon to pay him. When the psychiatrist showed up, though, he came with two orderlies and had Von Mel committed, on the grounds that he’s crazy.
Now, you may be asking, why would the psychiatrist do this? Was he in on it? Not exactly. Turns out Sonya had just an hour or two earlier met up with the psychiatrist, claiming this time to be Von Mel’s wife. She told the psychiatrist that her poor beleaguered husband had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was demanding random people pay for jewelry he’d never sold them. She paid the psychiatrist for Von Mel’s treatment and said she’d bring him by the psychiatrist’s office to be committed.
By the time the two figured out what she’d done, she was long gone, almost certainly practicing her best strut.
The devil’s own resume
There’s a ton more stories about her. Here are a few, of varying verifiability:
- She married an excessive number of times – some, say judges, might even say too many times! — regularly swindling her unwitting husbands out of money. The low-end estimates had her at 3 times, upper-end (reported in American newspapers, who also thought she was actual Russian nobility) at 16.
- She would regularly dress as an upper-class woman, go into strangers’ hotel rooms early in the morning, and steal things. If caught, she’d claim she was confused as to what room she was in, apologize, and leave. She called this act the Guten Morgen.
- She ran the largest gang of thieves in St Petersburg, organizing different groups to steal and fence the stolen goods. From the sound of it, she was basically elected to the post.
- She stole exclusively from the rich, and would refund the less-fortunate whom she’d accidentally target. This may have been a later invention.
- By the end of her career, she was so well-beloved by the average person that crowds would spontaneously hinder police from catching her.
- She once stole 22,300 rubles of jewelry from a store, leaving her relatives as collateral — only for the storekeeper to soon find said “relatives” were hired actors.
- She had special prosthetic fingernails, under which she could hide stolen goods.
- She had a pet monkey she’d trained to swallow valuables — with the goods to be recovered later via enema. It is the firm and unsubstantiated belief of this author that said monkey absolutely hated her.
- When chatting with a lawyer who was to defend her in court, she thanked him for his services with an expensive watch — which she had just stolen from him.
Additionally, she was linked to a number of different crimes to which nobody could ever directly link her — the murder of a rich shopkeeper, the robbery of a banker on a train, the theft of 56,000 rubles from a Jewish merchant, a vodka smuggling ring inside of prison, on and on. Evidently, she got bored easily.
End of a Life, Beginning of a Legend
In the end, she was betrayed by one of her lovers, a man named Wolf Bromberg – and let’s be honest, that’s partly on her for trusting a guy named “Wolf.” She was sent to prison in Siberia, which she escaped by seducing a guard into running away with her. Then she was recaptured and sent to Smolensk, which she also escaped. Finally she was sent to a prison on the island of Sakhalin, which she escaped three times, only to be caught repeatedly.
Sakhalin was brutal on her. While in prison, she was visited by writers Anton Chekhov and Vlas Doroshevich, who each reported on the torturous conditions she endured. After a period of sadistic whipping, she was left in manacles for 32 months, which left her arms withered and constantly in pain. A photograph of her being shackled was made into a popular postcard, which she described as the greatest punishment: “This is such a picture of human degradation! They tortured me with these photographs.”
After her death, her stature grew even more. She was the subject of a series of novels, silent movies, a 2007 TV show, and a sequel show about her later life. The headless, armless Moscow statue that supposedly marks her grave became a pilgrimage point for thieves, and even today you can see messages like “Sonya, help us to become good thieves!”
|↑1||Also spelled as Son’ka or Sonka – and that’s before getting into the alphabet soup that are the alternate spellings of her real name|
|↑2|| Reader Cykuta actually chimes in with some additional info on this:
She was born in Powązki (the “ą” bit is important). Nowadays, it’s a district of Warsaw, but around the time of her birth, it was a village of 8 buildings (there’s a 1856 document testifying that), owned by a rich Jewish proprietor, and adjoining a military base. (Russian army, since this at the time Poland was partitioned and technically part of Russia). Powązki was formally added to the Warsaw administrative district in 1916.
Getting the art done on this was pretty torturous, for reasons I’ll elaborate on in a separate post. But here’s some of the callbacks:
- She has literal “golden hands” from her gloves. Her monkey has just whipped off one of said gloves to show she has an empty hand (with prosthetic fingers).
- The composition is meant to draw your eye to her bare hand, while her other one displays a necklace she’s just stolen.
- The besotted guard that helped her escape is screen left, and Von Mel (being escorted away by psychiatric orderlies) is next to him. Both are figuratively in the palm of her hand.
- In the background, some townsfolk are preventing cops from getting through to her.
- In the far background, almost silhouetted, is Sakhalin prison (which wouldn’t be near the city, but hey).
- The sign on the right says “Rejected Princesses” in Russian. At least, if Google Translate is accurate.
- The art composition is built around a spiral, redirecting your eye away from her thieving hand.
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
This unconventional explorer proved it was never too late to start traveling – until she met her end at the hands of a previously-covered Rejected Princess.