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A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York Paperback – August 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
George Appo, the antihero of this fascinating historical study, was a pickpocket and con man who gained notoriety after testifying in 1894 about police corruption and even played himself on Broadway. Historian Gilfoyle, who in City of Eros wrote about prostitution in New York, uses Appo's autobiography as a starting point for an exploration of the urban demimonde and the varieties of criminal experience in the Gilded Age. We follow Appo through Gotham's teeming sidewalks and streetcars as he casually picks pockets for spending money and then smokes it away in opium dens where the classes and races mingle. Sooner or later he runs afoul of New York's police and court system, almost as corrupt and chaotic as the criminal subculture they regulate. Then he's off to an archipelago of correctional institutions, from a shipboard reform school to Sing Sing, a prison-industrial hellhole where convicts are contracted out as factory laborers and disciplined with such tortures as the "weighing machine." Gilfoyle paints a Hogarthian cityscape peopled with gang ruffians, gentleman swindlers, dirty politicians, cunning shysters and evangelical reformers, all depicted with a sympathetic understanding of the rigors of life on the margins. The result is a colorful, evocative social history. 60 illus. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Preserved in a previously unpublished memoir, the tale Gilfoyle regales concerns one George Appo (1858-1930), a New York scam artist of the Gilded Age. Intrigued by Appo's apologia, Gilfoyle, an urban historian, found extensive traces of Appo in records of New York's justice system, which he expands into a larger work about its corrupt and brutal condition during Appo's journeys through it. The son of a Chinese man and an Irish woman, the social product of New York's notorious Five Points neighborhood, Appo encountered everything crooked under New York's sun, including bribes, beatings, and railroad justice. His regular incarcerations in New York's penal institutions--Sing Sing, the Tombs, and others--furnish Gilfoyle's cues to describe their capricious operations. The physically small Appo endured an appalling variety of assaults from guards, police, victims of his swindles, and fellow crooks vengeful for Appo's testimony before an anticrime commission. Not merely an incorrigible criminal or a victim of society, Appo and his story acquire meaningful context in Gilfoyle's professional historical reconstruction. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Appo grew up on the streets, selling papers and learning to pick pockets. New York in the nineteenth century was just the place for a pickpocket to make a living. There were plenty of crowds, and people crowded into streetcars where jostling was taken for granted. Appo was tough, but his toughness extended to his being able to take punishment from other criminals or from legal authorities, not in physically harming his victims. He worked in the realm of crooks who thought themselves "good fellows": they worked carefully, with dexterity and guile rather than muscle; they spent lavishly on themselves and their cronies, and they never squealed, even when wronged. There was truly some honor among these thieves. Appo generally made a good living, but with thousands of pickpocketing attempts, he was going to be caught some of the time. Much of Gilfoyle's history tells about his many and varied incarcerations, within the reform school ship _Mercury_, the Egyptian-style Tombs prison in New York City, and Sing Sing, the prototype for making industrial laborers of convicts, who suffered from filthy conditions, overcrowding, and torture from stupid and untrained guards. Appo rightly charged that it drove prisoners to insanity, death, and suicide. He graduated from pickpocketing to bunco schemes, but eventually testified to a government committee not against his fellow "bunco steerers", but about the schemes in general and especially the complicity of the police that allowed it to continue unhindered.
His testimony before the committee was his turn to go straight. Appo also had served as an opium den guide to Dr. Henry Kane who did the first medical investigation of the effects of opium addiction. In 1895 he went on the stage, playing himself in the melodrama _In the Tenderloin_, a play that portrayed criminals as something more complicated than simple bad guys. By the time of his release from his last imprisonment, his "underworld universe no longer existed". Those who had organized on a national scale the green-goods game had all been rounded up, and the customary support from venal policemen was giving way to the first of the police reform movements. Appo underwent a religious conversion (though one has to wonder whether this was merely the only career move he could make as an older criminal whose world had moved on without him), but evangelical reformers gave him only half-hearted support, and seemed to believe that he like all criminals was beyond real reform. For a while he worked at $6 a month as an undercover agent for the Society for the Prevention of Crime. He died of old age in 1930, at age 71, not a hero, not an urban Jesse James, "neither a latter-day Robin Hood nor a Jack the Ripper", just an ordinary guy compelled to specific crimes because of specific social conditions. It's a great life story, and Gilfoyle has used his skills as a historian and storyteller upon its episodes to give fascinating histories and essays about penal institutions, social philosophy, and criminal styles of the time.
Born in poverty in 1856 (or -8), Appo began as a newspaper boy, then graduated to the career of pickpocket. He served time in all kinds of detention centers, from Sing Sing to Eastern State Pen in Philadelphia, to a stint on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island, to a short period in the Matteawan Hospital. The book gives its reader an in-depth look at everything from street crime in the Five Points district up to Appo's short-lived careers in acting and law enforcement.
Appo was an obscure figure who was given a one-sentence mention in Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York, but Appo really was an archetype of his time and situation. What was amazing to me was that, even though he was nearly illiterate for a long period and never went to a day of school in his life, he still managed to write a memoir of his extraordinary life. In all I thought this was an excellent book about the crime life of New York City in the nineteenth century and is better perhaps even than Herbert Asbury's classic book.
Appo survived on the streets like thousands of boys from Five Points and eventually learned to read and write in prison - fortunately for today's readers. George's gentle nature and philisophical view of his life and his situation is very apparent in his writing, but contradicts the sum of his experiences as a prolific pickpocket and con man.
The combination of the author's well researched presentation along with Appo's humble first hand account of his life is fascinating. A special opportunity for a glimpse into a wild and exciting era not really that long ago.
You will enjoy this book.