Pickpocketing is an old New York tradition. An urban phenomenon, it requires big crowds and lots of people with reams of cash, which aren’t to be found in quiet rural areas. It probably dates back to the very first cities. In his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, Sir Philip Sidney declared, “I am no pick-purse of another’s wit,” which shows that the trade must have been flourishing in the streets of Elizabethan England. And the duc de Saint-Simon in his famous memoirs tells how Louis XIV, on horseback, saw a pickpocket emptying the pocket of the duc de Villars, one of the king’s greatest generals, at which point His Majesty rode up to the thief, hit him with his cane, and had him arrested; so even the royal presence did not deter this profession. In fact when, after much debate with his advisers, the king opened Versailles to the public, so as to dazzle his subjects and all the world, it meant opening the palace and its grounds to that same age-old profession. ATTENTION AUX PICKPOCKETS warn signs in Versailles even today.
|The Conjuror, by Hieronymus Bosch. But more than conjuring is going on here. |
Can you find the pickpocket?
So of course the gentle art has always been practiced in New York. In the years following the Civil War a host of Sunshine and Shadow books authored by journalists were published to satisfy the public’s appetite for information about the vast city on the Hudson, the Sunshine segment dealing with splendid buildings, parks, theaters, and the arts, while the Shadow segment dealt with crime and vice and corruption, including every kind of thievery.
These books catalog in detail what I call the Ladder of Thieves, a hierarchy acknowledged by the thieves themselves and rising from the ranks of the lowest to the highest. So let’s take a glance at the Ladder, before focusing on pickpockets. On the lowest rung were hat and coat and boot thieves, who took any loose object in sight; they were devoid of skill and ran few risks. Likewise the hog thieves, who grabbed a hog running loose on the street, tossed it in a cart, and dashed off. Those above these lowest of the low held them in the utmost scorn. (About those omnipresent hogs: they really did belong to someone, but the owners let them range freely about the streets so they could gat free eats gobbling up edible garbage.)
At the next level up were the pickpockets and shoplifters, whose trade required real skill, and above them the second-story sneaks who, while a family were all downstairs at dinner, scaled a pillar of the front stoop to enter a second-story window and help themselves to any valuables, jewels above all, to be found in the empty bedrooms.
On the next rung up were the bond thieves. Dressed respectably, a bond thief would pass through the railing in a broker’s crowded front office with a pen behind his ear and a paper in hand, and with a comment like “Permit me one moment” or “Excuse me, sir” would penetrate the back office with ease, the busy brokers thinking him one of their clerks. The intruder would then scoop up any cash, bags of coin, or negotiable bonds deposited on a desk or in a safe left carelessly open, and merrily depart. The chagrinned brokers often negotiated with the thief to get half the valuables back on condition that they not prosecute.
At the very top of the ladder were the safe busters, whose occupation required great daring and skill and much advance planning. Entering quietly at night, some blew the safe open, snatched the contents, and left within minutes. But subtler ones pried the safe open with special instruments, making no noise whatsoever. To these aristocrats of crime went the greatest spoils, and of course the envy and admiration of all the city’s other thieves, those denizens of the rungs below them.
The pickpockets had to learn their craft, were educated in schools by experienced professionals. They dressed well, had delicate hands with long, slender fingers. Pleasing in appearance and speech, they plied their trade in stages and horsecars, at crowded ferry docks and theater entrances, in churches, among throngs watching a parade or a fire or a street fight, or wherever crowds of people jostled together in confusion. The experienced pickpocket had a delicate touch, never searched for anything, knew exactly where the coveted object was and how to get it. He or she was observant, well aware that people entering or leaving a bank often feel their purse in a pocket, telling the thieves exactly what they needed to know. And their skill was such that they were rarely apprehended.
The female of the species might follow a lady into a shop, sit beside her, chat with her, waiting for the victim’s moment of distraction that would give the thief her opportunity. Or she might ride a Broadway stage, courteously ask a gentleman sitting next to her to raise or lower a window, and as he did so relieve him of his watch or wallet, thank him graciously, and promptly get off. But perhaps the crowning act of effrontery of a female thief was to attend a funeral all in black, veiled, perhaps weeping copious tears into a black silk handkerchief, so as to lift valuables from the mourners or even the dear departed. No doubt about it, the pickpockets of that era, male and female alike, were cunning, industrious, and daring.
A notorious New York pickpocket was Sophie Lyons (1848-1924), whose pedigree included a grandfather safe buster and a shoplifter mother who was also the “keeper of a disorderly house” on the East Side. Sophie’s first husband was a pickpocket who vanished into a state prison, following which she married a bank robber named Ned Lyons. A skilled pickpocket and consummate actress, if caught by a victim Sophie could register every shade of emotion and often persuaded the victim to let her go. Sent to Sing Sing in 1871, she was rescued the following year by Lyons, who got into the prison disguised and broke through the wall of her cell, following which they vacationed for a while in Paris, visiting their skills upon that cosmopolitan metropolis. Returning to New York, Sophie continued her colorful career, and in 1880 hauled her 14-year-old son George into court, requesting that he be sent to a juvenile facility because of his unruly behavior. A family shouting match followed, with George screaming that his mother was a thief and shoplifter who had two husbands and went all over the country stealing. The judge ruled that the son should be held in custody while the claims of mother and son could be investigated. How the matter was finally resolved is unclear, but one suspects that Sophie was not the ideal mother.
In 1913, at age 65, after many ups and downs in her career, Sophie Lyons retired from crime, wrote a memoir, Why Crime Does Not Pay, that was published, and became a philanthropist and prison reformer in Detroit. Honesty seems to have paid for her, since her real estate and business investments came to half a million dollars and she owned 40 houses. In 1922 she came home to find her house ransacked in her absence and bonds worth $7,000 and diamonds worth $13,000 missing. She died in Detroit in 1924.
Another pickpocket who achieved, for a while and at cost, considerable renown was George Appo (1858-1930), a street kid who slipped naturally into pickpocketing, and whose memoir has to date been published in part, with commentary. A pickpocket from an early age, he graduated into the green goods game, a swindle in which the victims paid good cash for a satchel of what they thought was counterfeit money, only to find, when they opened it later, sawdust or shredded paper or bricks. Those swindled could hardly complain to the police, being would-be circulators of counterfeit money, and the swindlers reveled in the thought that they had broken no law, since their operation involved no genuine counterfeit bills. And who were the victims? Appo chronicled Southerners embittered by the recent war and eager to defraud the federal government; debtors; farmers afraid of losing their farm; small businessmen trying to stave off bankruptcy; and even a black preacher from Florida who needed funds to build a church. Though aware of the game, the police did not interfere, since cheats were cheating cheats.
Less lucky than most pickpockets, in the course of his eventful career Appo achieved intimate familiarity with the Tombs, the penitentiary on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island, and the notorious state prison of Sing Sing, whose lockstep and rule of silence he detested, and whose torture in the form of the Paddle he has vividly described: a naked inmate was fastened to a board and beaten with a perforated paddle whose holes acted like suckers and raised blisters on his flesh, or even tore parts of his flesh off, following which he might be sent back to work or, if in a state of collapse, confined to the “Dungeon,” a tiny, dark cell where his only companion was a slop bucket.
|Sing Sing in 1855, showing the lockstep that Appo so hated.|
Fame came to Appo in 1894 when, eager to leave the crooked life, he appeared before a state senate committee investigating police corruption in New York City, where his testimony created a sensation. Further fame came later that same year when he appeared in a melodrama about crime, playing himself in one short scene, and his name was plastered on billboards all over the city. Here, long before the reality shows of TV today, fact and fantasy met, just as in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which for a season featured Sitting Bull and his braves, the future nemesis of Custer. But Appo was brutally wrenched back into the totally real when the police, angered by his testimony, assaulted him and framed him, and his lawyer, to preserve him from further retaliation in prison, had him declared insane and lodged for a while in a state hospital for the criminally insane, from which he was finally discharged in 1899. In his later years he lectured merchants about street crime, worked as an undercover agent for the Society for the Prevention of Crime, and started writing his autobiography. Having survived more than a dozen physical assaults, including bullets in the stomach and head, and scars from a knife attack on his throat, he died of old age in 1930.
Everyone needs a break from their work, and the New York thieves were no exception. Their balls were often held in a Fourth Ward dive kept by an old housebreaker, the proceeds going to hire a lawyer for a comrade who had been arrested. Thieves of every level attended, the distinctions between them momentarily forgotten. To the screechy music of a fiddle and a banjo, such luminosities of crime as Mother Roach and Big Nose Bunker might be seen cavorting together, or Scotch Jimmy with Wild Maggy, or Baboon Connelly with Sugar Nell, in a rapid succession of Virginia reels and round dances that toward the end of the evening achieved a climactic frenzy.
Now let’s fast-forward to the twentieth century. Was the trade flourishing in these more modern times? You bet. Pickpocketing was still a profession for which one had to be trained. A veteran thief would train five initiates who would then go on to acquire experience and each in turn train five more, and so the occupation continued. Initiates needed a steady hand, patience, and a light touch. One has told of entering one such school in 1969 and finding a room filled with half-dressed mannequins. A bell was installed on each mannequin, and the trainees had to lift a wallet without ringing it. As the teacher said, “You have to be a pianist.” The pickpocket who told this story worked the city streets in a suit or casual clothes and on a good day pulled in $2,000. He took great pride in lifting wallets from women in the revolving door at Macy’s; the victim would go on into the store, while he would exit onto the street and hail a taxi.
This would seem to indicate that pickpocketing is alive and well in New York City today, but in the twenty-first century this is not the case. Pickpocketing is, in fact, a dying art. If there were 23,000 cases of pickpocketing in the city in 1990, by 1995 the number had fallen by half, and by the year 2000 it was under 5,000. What accounts for this? The proliferation of surveillance cameras; longer sentences; among younger would-be thieves, a lack of the patience required, and a preference for robbing at gunpoint; and above all the widespread use of debit and credit cards, so that people carry much less cash on their person. Result: the old apprenticeship system has withered away.
|Watch out for those sly geezers.|
Not that pickpockets have vanished completely. There are still occasional reports: a woman in Queens whose purse was taken by a young man while two confederates chatted with her about her baby; a woman robbed in the East Village by a suspect whom a bank surveillance camera revealed to be a harmless-looking young woman in “hipster” glasses who, having swiped a wallet, then uses the ATM card in it to drain the victim’s bank account; a proliferation of pickpockets flocking to crowded stores in downtown Flushing, where the business community is working with the police to fight the invaders; and middle-aged male pickpockets of the old school who work the subways, using razor blades to deftly cut pockets and remove money and mobile phones without so much as scratching the victim, one thief being 80 years old, and some with over 30 arrests on their record. “Surgeons with a razor blade,” the police have termed this latter group with grudging admiration, while numbering them, as of November 2011, at exactly 109.
A pickpocket with a difference is Pierre Ginet, a Frenchman who gave up his law studies at the Sorbonne for sleight-of-hand performances. A veteran of the Cirque du Soleil, in 2013 he performed at the Big Apple Circus at Times Square, where he invited circusgoers onto the stage and robbed them while the crowd looked on. His preferred targets were men with a jacket, preferably with glasses or a tie as well, and with facial hair, since the hirsute are, in his opinion, more fragile. He sees the tourist crowds in Times Square, their wallets stuffed with money and their bags with valuables, as especially vulnerable, all the more so since their attention is focused elsewhere. And subway straphangers are a pickpocket’s dream, since they hold on to the high bars and thus leave their jackets hanging open and their bags exposed. So watch out, commuters. M. Ginet always returns what he steals, but other practitioners might not be so considerate.
Quite apart from magicians, the art of pickpocketing is in decline, but it still makes sense to be wary in crowds and keep your valuables deep in inside pockets. Not for nothing do the greenmarkets mount signs BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS, but in noticing such signs avoid the instinctive gesture of patting your wallet reassuringly, since that tells pickpockets just what they need to know. And above all don’t pass out drunk or fall asleep while seated in the subway; you may wake up minus your wallet and five stops past your station – it happens all the time.
Source note: Selections from George Appo’s autobiography, accompanied by commentary, appear in Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York (2006). It is well worth a read.
Monsanto: Followers of this blog know that Monsanto is the company I love to hate. And I am not alone: on Saturday, May 24, there was a global demonstration against Monsanto in over 400 countries, with some 2 million people attending worldwide. Demonstrators called for a permanent boycott of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), food transparency (foods with GMOs to be labeled), and a transition to local, organic, and sustainable agriculture. In the U.S. there were demonstrations in 47 states; in New York, protesters marched from Union Square to Brooklyn. GMOs are now at least partially banned in many countries, though not – of course – in the U.S., where Monsanto people hold important positions in government. And what did the New York Times say of all this? To my knowledge, nothing. And WNYC, our local NPR station? Again to my knowledge, nothing. For them, I guess, this wasn’t worth reporting.
|Demonstrators in Vancouver.|
This is New York
Coming soon: Remarkable Women: Ayn Rand. Her books are still read today. Why?
© 2014 Clifford Browder