Feb 15 2007

A Pickpocket’s Tale

Published by at 8:18 pm under Books,retro

Subtitle: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York
by Timothy J. Gilfoyle

The combined title and subtitle of this book provide a good summary of the its contents. The book is organized around the life of a pickpocket who became relatively famous and notorious in the late nineteenth century and provides an overview of NYC’s underworld during his lifetime.  George Appo, the pickpocket, was a half Chinese half Irish street kid who was abandoned when his father was convicted of murder.  George has to survive by his wits and almost necessarily becomes a thief, pickpocket, etc.  He remained physically very small and became a con man who preferred to avoid violence except in defense (and there was a lot of that).  Appo was apparently an odd character with a strong sense of ‘honor’, as he defined it, and it seems likely that he was very intelligent.  As an adult, he taught himself to read and write, and before he died he wrote an autobiography which was never published.  Short passages from that autobiography are used throughout this book to provide starting points for descriptions of aspects of his life, the NYC Underworld, and the society as a whole.

The book deals with the second half of the nineteenth century which corresponds to Appo’s prime crime years.  Judging by this book, NYC was a very wild place at that time.  Tammany Hall was in power.  What we would now call corruption was rampant: cops and judges had discretion as to which laws they would enforce and when they would enforce them.  Money regularly bought ‘justice’ and preferential treatment.  Billy clubs were used frequently and with gusto by the police.  Opium dens sprouted. Pickpockets flourished as the well to do flaunted their status in public.  Prisons were various combinations of a hotel, a factory supported by slave labor, and a torture chamber which were run by amateurs and political appointees.  Racism was commonplace and accepted.  In a way, the book ended up having an optimistic impact in that some of today’s problems don’t seem quite so bad, cruelty seems more subdued or maybe just more repressed, and justice and law enforcement seem less capricious.  Humanity may not be getting any better, but it may not be getting any worse either.

In summary, this book tells an interesting tale and seems quite informative about the period. It provides some context in which to view today’s situation and issues and reminded me of how much I tacitly assume situations and relationships to ‘have always been that way’ when they might be fairly new, but predate my awareness of them.  Example: prisons.  I never thought about how long they’ve been around, but prior to the early 19th century, punishments did not usually involve incarceration.  Instead quick and sometimes severe punishments were used; flogging, banishment, etc. Now, we have a huge incarcerated population that continues to grow.

Good book.

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