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

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"A remarkable tale."—Chicago Tribune
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.

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Editorial Reviews

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 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At a time when hagiographic works on such figures as Franklin and Jefferson have come back into vogue, Gilfoyle (history, Loyola Univ., Chicago;City of Eros) sheds light on an entirely different aspect of American culture through the intriguing biography of a marginalized man. His name was George Appo (1856-1930), a violence-averse conman of immigrant Chinese and Irish ancestry who spent much of his time in and out of prisons, hospitals, and mental wards. In this expertly executed and empathetic study, Gilfoyle shows how Appo's particular type of ingenuity and entrepreneurship produced a variant of success in the cracks of urbanizing and industrializing New York City, beginning each chapter with excerpts from Appo's never-before-published autobiography and then expanding on the narration of Appo's life. Rather notable in his time through his involvement with the first medical research on opium smoking and even with a brief appearance in a touring play on life in the shadows, Appo is an American natural, born on the Fourth of July and named after the first president. Gilfoyle's gripping prose, enhanced with contemporary popular illustrations, reads like fiction but is meticulously based on facts gleaned from archives and special collections. Truly like no other work; highly recommended both for serious social historians and for those who appreciate an amazing yarn.-Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Gilfoyle uses the unpublished autobiography of George Appo-pickpocket, jailbird, conman, stage actor-to illuminate Gotham's dark criminal subculture of a century ago. The research here is prodigious-just as it was in the author's Nevins Prize-winning City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1820-1920 (1992). The endnotes total nearly 100 pages, and the generous illustrations, taken principally from publications of the day, are testimony to the innumerable hours the author spent in libraries, archives, microform rooms and public-records offices. George Appo (1856-1930), not long before he died, wrote his own account of his very rough life, and Gilfoyle (History/Loyola Univ.) quotes that text throughout, using Appo's words to organize his own. Like Oliver Twist in London, Appo roamed the streets of New York City picking pockets and engaging in other illegalities. He made lots of money, spent it quickly, suffered wounds from bullets, knives, fists, broken bottles (he lost an eye in one encounter) and, repeatedly, was caught, tried and jailed, including doing a stint aboard the Mercury, a former packet ship designed to teach wayward boys nautical skills (it taught them everything but). Appo served time, as well, in Sing Sing, in Clinton State Prison, on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island and in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where his father was also an inmate at the time. Appo actually appeared onstage in In the Tenderloin, a melodrama about a con game at which he was proficient. Using Appo's story, Gilfoyle teaches us about life on the streets and in the rookeries, and about 19th-century prisons and penology, theories of criminalbehavior, melodrama on Broadway, police corruption (Appo rolled over on some cops, lived to regret it), opium dens, the judicial system, political hanky-panky and how to succeed at the "green goods" con game (tricking people out of their cash with the promise of more). Authoritative, thoroughly researched, eye-opening and grand, good fun to read.
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post
“Instructive and...chilling.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393329896
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/27/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 681,806
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Timothy J. Gilfoyle is an acclaimed historian. His first book, City of Eros, won the prestigious Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians. He is professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 The Trials of Quimbo Appo 3
2 Urchins, Arabs, and Gutter-Snipes 18
3 A House of Refuge at Sea 30
Appo on: Violence 41
4 Factories for Turning Out Criminals 42
5 The "Guns" of Gotham 59
6 Drafted 73
7 Opium Dens and Bohemia 81
8 The Old Homestead 98
9 The Dives 110
Appo on: Jack Collins 125
10 Tombs Justice 127
Appo on: Good Fellows 142
11 Fences 146
12 "That Galling Yoke of Servitude" 157
13 Danny Driscoll and the Whyos 178
14 Eastern State Penitentiary 196
15 Green Goods 204
Appo on: Jersey City 223
16 Poughkeepsie 226
Appo on: Stealing Guys 241
17 The Lexow Committee 243
18 In the Tenderloin 260
19 A Marked Man 271
20 Buried Alive 285
21 A Genuine Reformation 300
Epilogue: The Finest Crook 315
Acknowledgments 325
Appendixes 331
1 New York State Male Prison Populations, 1870-1900 331
2 New York State Prison Expenditures, 1866-1900 332
3 Sing Sing Death and Insanity Rates, 1870-1900 333
4 Auburn Death and Insanity Rates, 1870-1900 334
5 Clinton Death and Insanity Rates, 1870-1900 335
Notes 337
Illustration Credits 435
Index 439
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