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She posed as a nurse during the 1918 flu pandemic and went on a crime spree

Julia Lyons preyed on the sick and dying in Chicago

Mask-wearing women holding stretchers wait near ambulances in St. Louis during the 1918 flu pandemic. (Library of Congress/Reuters)

Julia Lyons portrayed herself as a busy visiting nurse in Chicago during the great flu pandemic of 1918. But “Slick Julia,” as she came to be known, was no Florence Nightingale.

The 23-year-old Julia, “a woman of diamonds and furs, silken ankles, gem-studded fingers and aliases by the dozens,” was posing as a “flu nurse,” ripping off home-bound patients for cash and jewelry as they suffered and even died, the Chicago Tribune reported in late 1918. “With her rose-lipped smile and pearly teeth,” she “performed various miracles at getting ready money.”

A century before the coronavirus crisis, the 1918 flu was a killing machine, taking the lives of more than 675,000 people in the United States and 50 million around the world. Just as in the current pandemic, nurses were on the front line caring for the sick. Chicago, like other cities, was desperate for nurses to care for victims in their homes.

Julia Lyons saw an opportunity. Figuring nobody would have time to check her lack of credentials, she signed on at a home-nurse registry under various names. In late 1918, the Tribune chronicled the fake flu nurse’s escapades like a dime detective novel.

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“While influenza patients died or lived, Julia, clad in nurse’s uniform, plundered their homes,” the paper reported. After one woman called for a nurse, Julia went to the drug store for her to fill a prescription for oxygen that cost $5 but told her patient it cost $63, equal to $85 and $1,077 today. “Julia tarried briefly, taking when she flew two rings, two lady’s suits, a pair of oxfords and a breast pin.”

Sometimes she worked with an accomplice. “In comes an M.D. known to the police as a dope seller and narcotic supplier,” the Tribune wrote. “He writes a prescription, she hustles out and gets it filled. The family is stung for $25 for what proves to be a dime’s worth of Cherryola.”

When one elderly man became suspicious, Julia turned on her charm.

“Don’t you remember me? Why when I was a little girl l used to hitch on your wagons.” The man used to have wagons. He couldn’t exactly place her, the Tribune reported, “but it made it mighty easy to touch him $28 for oxygen and $22 for the Cherryola.”

When police detectives came calling, the man, “right horrified at the idea that this beautiful, smiling, pearly teethed model nurse might be a crook of the deepest dye,” said: “Why I’ve known her for twenty years. When she was a little girl, she used to hitch on my wagons.”

“That night Julia vanished, taking for further good measure a wristwatch, some money and certain other things.” The next day, the man told the detective, “By golly, I guess I was wrong.”

The cops finally traced Julia via a friend named Eva Jacobs, who lived in a flat with “Suicide Bess” Davis, a con woman. The house was known as a “hangout for thieves,” the Tribune wrote.

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The police tapped the phone and learned Julia lived nearby. Detectives trailed Julia. One day she set off to marry Charlie the Greek, who ran the Victory Restaurant on West Madison Avenue. Before vows could be exchanged, Julia was in handcuffs.

“How long you known this dame?” said one detective to Charlie at the jail.

“Ten days!” replied Charlie. “That is, I thought I knew her.”

That night Julia and Eva slept in adjoining cells. “We thought it was easy money,” said Eva — the phone tap revealing they were partners.

The next day in the police station Julia came face to face with the widow of a former patient the fake nurse had abandoned. “You killed my husband! There is no punishment too terrible for you,” the woman cried. Julia was arraigned under charges of larceny, running a confidence game and obtaining money under false pretenses.

But “Slick Julia” wasn’t done. The next day Deputy Sheriff John Hickey volunteered to take Julia from the county jail to court. One detective on the case advised Hickey: “Keep your eyes peeled. She’s pretty slippery. Better put irons on her.”

“Oh, she won’t get away,” Hickey said.

Instead of transporting Julia to the courthouse in a patrol wagon, the deputy sheriff took her on a street car. In court, some 50 victims testified against her. She was held under $13,000 bond, the equivalent of more than $190,000 today.

Deputy Hickey started back to the county jail with Julia in tow. An hour and a half later he called the police and “excitedly” told them she had jumped from a moving street car and hopped into a waiting automobile. Based on the reported location, one official speculated Hickey and his prisoner had been going to cabarets.

Hickey then changed his story to say Julia wanted to go to a bank to withdraw money. While there, he said, “I turned around for just a second — and Julia was gone.” That night Hickey was jailed on suspicion of accepting a payoff.

Soon Julia was back at her old tricks. In March 1919, the police traced her through the nurse registry to a home on Fullerton Boulevard. When Julia answered the door, the police nabbed her.

“Flu Julia,” who “walked away one November day from former Deputy Sheriff John Hickey, walked back into custody, involuntarily last night,” the Tribune reported.

She faced a new charge — her 20th — bigamy. Though already married, Julia had gotten hitched to a young soldier.

“I met him while clerking in a delicatessen on the south side,” Julia said. “It was so romantic. We only knew each other four days when I became his bride. We went to papa’s farm on our honeymoon.”

Finally, in April Julia went on trial for larceny. She testified “she had been the victim of a band of thieves who had forced her to commit acts against her will,” the Tribune reported. She even fainted in court to show her distress.

The jury didn’t buy it. Before sentencing, Julia pleaded insanity, but physicians testified she wasn’t insane. In July, “Slick Julia,” the fake flu nurse, was sent to the state penitentiary for one to 10 years.

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