Make of it what you will that the woman crowned the “Queen of Hackensack” was a petty thief with high-flying social aspirations and a taste for small yippy dogs who was eventually brought down by her gaudy taste in jewelry. It was in the 1860s, long before The Real Housewives of New Jersey, that Lena Kleinschmidt acquired her title. Born in Germany and known also as Black Lena, Kleinschmidt came to New York and fell into a business relationship with Prussian émigré Fredericka Mandelbaum, an imposing woman running one of the world’s most prolific criminal fencing operations—who was also one of the city’s most popular hostesses. Kleinschmidt combined a magpie’s eye with a pickpocket’s sleight of hand, making a specialty of stealing all that shimmered.
She was a known jewel thief who had already been arrested multiple times before she relocated, in 1863, to New Jersey. There, she built and lavishly outfitted a mansion for herself and her six tiny lap dogs, arriving in what an early issue of The New Yorker would later describe as “a magnificent coach,” gaudy gold and sped by four white horses and a silver-trumpet-blowing footman.
Like so many big-city exiles to the suburbs, Kleinschmidt decided she was awfully sophisticated compared with her new neighbors and decided to present herself as the worldly heiress to a British spice magnate. By then in her late twenties, a voluptuous beauty with a large personal jewel collection, Kleinschmidt began modeling herself after Mandelbaum—throwing parties and climbing the Hackensack social ladder five days a week. She spent the other two days back in Manhattan working (a true socialite’s work-life balance), visiting department stores and jewelers to pick up new loot (both to wear and to sell).
But worlds collided, as they inevitably do. A jealous lover—and his jealous wife—followed Kleinschmidt on one of her trips into the city. The man was satisfied to see that she wasn’t visiting another man, but the wife followed her a second time and watched the Queen of Hackensack pick a pocket like a common street urchin. After a bit of consultation with the police on how best to entrap her prey, the woman chose her moment of revelation carefully: At a grand ball hosted by Kleinschmidt, she accused her, loudly, of being a thief. For proof, she pointed to the emerald ring on Kleinschmidt’s finger, which she said was one of her own. With all of Hackensack society looking on, Kleinschmidt panicked and hid her finger. For once (and for good), it was precisely the speed of her hands that did her in.