A Brooklyn Christmas CarolOn December 25, 2019 by Elyse
As any child knows, stealing—especially if a creepy elf is watching from a shelf—usually lands you on the naughty list. However, in the case of poverty-stricken mother Anna Lobell, Santa Claus might want to check his list twice.
Two women were arraigned. . . in Brooklyn yesterday, both charged with shoplifting. One of them was well, even richly, dressed, and one was not. One carried a coat draped over a plump arm, the other hugged a nursing baby in arms that were thinly clad, or cuddled and soothed it with hands red from hard work and harsh weather.– The Sun, December 24, 1914
But the contrast did not end there. One of the women had been arrested in a Fulton street department store for stealing a gold filled watch, according to the charge; the other for stealing a shirtwaist and a pot of jam. Yet the one who was charged with the larceny of the trinket found a bondsman in the person of State Senator Heffernan, while the mother, whose only thought had been her children—the six-months-old baby and a three-year-old at home—went to jail on her plea of guilty in default of $500 bail, after admitting that she stole to get a Christmas dinner for her babies.
Anna explained in court that her husband had been out of work for months, causing great hardship for the family. Her testimony could have been taken word for word from any Dickens novel:
Yesterday we had only a crust of bread in the house. . . I gave it to my little girl, Annie, who is only 3. . . I was desperate. I had had no breakfast either—and my baby feels that, you know. . . I drifted to the stores, and saw so many pretty things that I was tempted to steal. I meant to pawn what I took to get food for a Christmas dinner. And Annie is so fond of sweet things, too. But she hasn’t had any for a long time. That was why I took the jam.– Anna Lobell, quoted in the Sun, December 24, 1914
Annie wasn’t the only one hungry. A medical professional at the scene diagnosed the baby as “suffering from malnutrition, which is another word for starvation.” The setting may have been 1914 Brooklyn, but the injustice rankles just as much as Tiny Tim’s potential demise in a Victorian slum.
Fortunately, there was no need for visitations from Christmas spirits that year. Like every good holiday story, Anna’s tale of woe warmed the hearts of more than a few anti-Scrooges:
In response to the story that appeared in THE SUN Thursday morning about Mrs. Annie Lobell of Brooklyn, who was arrested on a charge of shoplifting, a check for $25 has been received from [newspaper businessman and future politician] Medill McCormick of Chicago. . . Mrs. Lobell’s pathetic situation brought quick responses from other readers of the THE SUN. . . Thanks to these contributions [$67 total] and the kindness of Mrs. Lobell’s landlord, who appeared early yesterday to offer $500 bail, Mrs. Lobell, her sick husband and their two babies will have a Christmas dinner today and even a few toys.– The Sun, December 25, 1914
Anna’s Christmas miracle continued into the new year:
. . . the Justices of the Court of Special Sessions yesterday paroled Mrs. Anna Lobell. . . in the custody of a probation officer until March 26. . . The court intimated that sentence would be suspended on the young mother at the termination of her parole.– The Sun, January 21, 1915
Anna disappears from the pages of the Sun—and history—after that. In fact, she didn’t have much of a paper trail to begin with; I can’t find any documentation of her family in federal censuses or vital records.
The Lobells may be as fictional as the Cratchits, but that’s beside the point. Just like I can always eat one more Christmas cookie, in a season already saturated with tales of redemption and goodwill, there’s plenty of room for one more feelgood story.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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