A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

W. W. Norton & Company
480 pages
5.5 × 8.2 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-32989-6

Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Professor of History
Loyola University, Chicago

In George Appo’s world, child pickpockets swarmed the crowded streets, addicts drifted in furtive opium dens, and expert swindlers worked the lucrative green-goods game. On a good night Appo made as much as a skilled laborer made in a year. Bad nights left him with more than a dozen scars and over a decade in prisons from the Tombs and Sing Sing to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he reunited with another inmate, his father. The child of Irish and Chinese immigrants, Appo grew up in the notorious Five Points and Chinatown neighborhoods. He rose as an exemplar of the “good fellow,” a criminal who relied on wile, who followed a code of loyalty even in his world of deception. Here is the underworld of the New York that gave us Edith Wharton, Boss Tweed, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge.


In 1840 New York City had no professional police force, a low murder rate, and no bank robberies. Within decades, however, this changed; serious crime proliferated and modern law enforcement was born. By 1890 Gotham’s police budget had grown more than sixteenfold and became New York City’s single largest annual expenditure. Detective work was transformed into a public and private specialty. The murder rate had doubled, and larceny comprised one-hall to one-third of all prosecuted crime in the state. Newspapers regularly reported that illegal activities were rampant, the courts and police powerless. New York City had become “the evillest [sic] spot in America.” For the first time, observers complained about “organized crime.”

A new criminal world was born in this period. It was a hidden universe with informal but complex networks of pickpockets, fences, opium addicts, and confidence men who organized their daily lives around shared illegal behaviors. Such activities, one judge observed, embodied an innovative lawlessness based on extravagance, greed, and the pursuit of great riches. A new “class of criminals” now existed. Many of these illicit enterprises were national in scope, facilitated by new technologies like the railroad and the telegraph, economic innovations like uniform paper money, and new havens for intoxication like “dives” and opium dens. For the first time both criminals and police referred to certain lawbreakers as professionals.

George Appo was one such professional criminal. At first glance Appo hardly seemed a candidate for any criminal activity; his diminutive size and physical appearance evoked little fear. By age eighteen he stood less than five feet five inches in height and weighed a slight 120 pounds. Everything about him seemed small: his narrow forehead, short nose, compact chin, and tiny ears that sat low on his head. Although Appo’s face displayed features of his mother’s Irish ancestry, his copper-colored skin reminded some of his father’s Chinese origins. Appo s brown eyes were less noticeable than his pitch-black hair and eyebrows, the latter meeting over his nose. The tattoos E.D. and J.M. were inscribed on his left and right forearms, respectively.

But Appo was one of New York’s most significant nineteenth-century criminals. A pickpocket, confidence man, and opium addict, he lived off his criminal activities during his teenage years and much of his adult life. On successful nights during the 1870s and 1880s, he earned in excess of six hundred dollars pilfering the pockets of those around him. equivalent to the annual salary of a skilled manual laborer. Even more lucrative was the elaborate confidence scheme known as the “green goods game.” The most successful operators—”gilt-edged swindlers” according to one—accumulated fortunes in excess of one hundred thousand dollars. By 1884 America’s most famous detective, Allan Pinkerton, identified the green goods game as “the most remunerative of all the swindles,” “the boss racket of the whole confidence business.

Appo made money, but his life was hardly a Horatio Alger tale of self-taught frugality and upward mobility. The offspring of a racially mixed, immigrant marriage, Appo was separated from his parents as a small child. Effectively orphaned, the young boy grew up in the impoverished Five Points and Chinatown neighborhoods of New York. He never attended school a day in his life. Appo literally raised himself on Gotham’s streets, becoming a newsboy and eventually a pickpocket and opium addict. This new child culture of newsboys, bootblacks, and pick-pockets, fed by foreign immigration and native-born rural migration, mocked the ascendant Victorian morality ol the era. New York needed no Charles Dickens to create Oliver Twist or Victor Hugo to invent Jean Valjean. Gotham had George Appo.

Appos youthful adventures persisted into adulthood. For more than three decades he survived by exploiting his criminal skills. Appo patronized the first opium dens in New York, participated in the first medical research on opium smoking, and appeared in one of Americas first the theatrical productions popularizing crime. On at least ten occasions he was tried by judge or jury. As a result he spent more than a decade in prisons and jails. Therein he experienced New York’s first experiment in juvenile reform with the school ship Mercury, as well as the lockstep, dark cells, and industrial discipline of American penitentiaries. He personally witnessed the lunacy found in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the easy escapes from the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary, and the corruption associated with the nation’s largest jail: New York’s “Tombs.” During various incarcerations Appo’s teeth were knocked out, and he encountered a wide array of prison tortures. Life outside prison was even bloodier. On the street Appo was physically assaulted at least nine times, shot twice, and stabbed in the throat once. More than a dozen scars decorated his body.

Above all George Appo was a “good fellow,” a character type he identified and wrote about. A good fellow engaged in criminal activities while displaying courage and bravery, “a nervy crook,” in Appo’s words. Good fellows like Appo did not rely on strong-arm tactics to gel their way Instead they avoided violence, employing wit and wile to make a living. Theirs was a world of artifice and deception. When successful, a good fellow lavished his profits on others. He was “a money getter and spender.” Such mettle, pluck, and camaraderie implied a level of trustworthiness, mutuality, and dependability. Above all a good fellow was loyal, willing to withstand, in Appo’s words, “the consequences and punishment of an arrest for some other fellow’s evil doings both inside and outside of prison.”…

Read the entire Preface here.

Tags: , , , , , ,