A Good Fellow and a Wise Guy

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, United States on 2017-03-13 01:41Z by Steven

A Good Fellow and a Wise Guy

The New York Sun

William Bryk

Book Review
A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York
by Timothy J. Gilfoyle

George Washington Appo, the once notorious Asian-Irish-American petty criminal who flourished during the last quarter of the 19th century as a pickpocket and swindler, had pretty much faded into obscurity at his death in 1930, aged 73. Even the street where he lived, Donovan’s Lane (better known as Murderer’s Alley) is gone, buried with the infamous Five Points slum beneath the federal courthouses in Foley Square.

Appo resurfaced in Luc Sante’s 1991 best seller, “Low Life,” which briefly presents him as a buffoon, incompetent even as a crook. If Timothy J. Gilfoyle’sA Pickpocket’s Tale” (W.W. Norton, 460 pages,$27.95) serves any purpose, it corrects this slur on Appo’s reputation. Appo practiced pick-pocketing as others practice dentistry or law: He was a thorough professional who picked thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pockets during his career, usually making as much money in a day as the average workingman then made in a year. He was imprisoned four times for pickpocketing, all while still relatively young. He apparently accepted jail as an inevitable cost of doing business…

Read the entire review here.

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

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Biography, Books, History, Law, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-03-29 01:54Z by Steven

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.

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“A Problem for Which There Is No Solution”: Eurasians and the Specter of Degeneration in New York’s Chinatown

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-10-21 19:10Z by Steven

“A Problem for Which There Is No Solution”: Eurasians and the Specter of Degeneration in New York’s Chinatown

Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 15, Number 3, October 2012
pages 271-298
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2012.0022

Emma J. Teng, T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations; Associate Professor of Chinese Studies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 1898, journalist Louis J. Beck offered the reading public what he saw as a valuable case study in “heredity and racial traits and tendencies.” This case study was none other than the infamous “half-breed” criminal George Washington Appo (1856–1930), whose name was virtually a household word for New Yorkers of the time. Born to an Irish mother and the “Chinese devil man” Quimbo Appo, a notorious criminal in his own right, George Appo was a preeminent celebrity criminal of the 1890s. A notorious pickpocket and “green-goods man,” George was catapulted to national fame after appearing as a star witness in the dramatic Lexow Committee investigation that brought down New York’s Tammany Hall. Taking sensationalism to a new level, the “king of confidence men,” as the Boston Globe called him, had even appeared on the stage, playing himself in George Lederer’s theatrical melodrama In the Tenderloin to national acclaim. To cap it all off, the World voted Appo among “The People Who Made the History of 1894.”

But Beck was not much interested in the details of New York police corruption, nor in the new low point to which American theater had sunk: his true concern was the Chinese Question. Beck was the author of New York’s Chinatown: An Historical Presentation of Its People and Places, published by the Bohemia Publishing Company in 1898. Part tourist guidebook, part amateur ethnography, part muckraking exposé, this amply illustrated volume was the first full-length book on New York’s Chinese Quarter, and would in time become a frequently quoted source for Chinatown history. Beck promised his audience that his book would shed light on the vexed Chinese Question by presenting the city’s Chinese residents through the unbiased lens of the reporter. At the heart of the Chinese Question was this—could the Chinese in time become assimilated, and patriotic, American citizens, or did their “racial traits” render this impossible, warranting their exclusion from the nation? Beck offered George Appo’s biography as food for thought:

George Appo was born in New York City, July 4, 1858 [sic], and is therefore an American citizen, and should be a patriotic one, but he is not. His father was a full-blooded Chinaman and his mother an Irishwoman. He was an exceedingly bright child, beautiful to look upon, sharp-witted and quick of comprehension. For ten years he was the pet of the neighborhood where his parents dwelt. . . . At the age of ten he became a pickpocket.

Beck’s decision to dedicate an entire chapter to the celebrity criminal stemmed from his conviction that this “noted Chinese character” was “well worth investigating,” not only for the light his story shed on the operation of the green-goods business, but, more important, “because he is the first one of the new hybrid brood” to gain public attention. As such, Beck argued, “The question which naturally presents itself to the thinker is: ‘What part will the rest of his tribe take in our national development?’”

It was a question that was on the minds of many journalists, social reformers, travelers, and others as they toured America’s Chinatowns and saw growing numbers of “half-castes” on the streets and in doorways. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, such “mixed” children could be found virtually wherever Chinese immigrants had settled across the country. When pioneering Chinese American journalist Wong Chin Foo reported on the New York Chinese for the Cosmopolitan in 1888, he asserted that there were over a hundred “half-breed” Chinese children in that city alone. Although their absolute numbers were small, their anomalous looks drew attention and aroused curiosity. Observers attached a special significance to these children that went beyond their numbers. For many, they represented the future shape of the Chinese American population, for better or worse. Some regarded these “hybrids” as living specimens that offered a chance to see firsthand the…

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