Tuesday, January 08, 2008

CWL--True Crime In Postbellum NYC

A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, W. W. Norton Publishing, notes, illustrations, appendices, 2006, $35.00.

A remarkable document was created by George Appo, a career criminal in 19th century New York City. His autobiography, in a typewritten manuscript form, was stored in Box 32 of Society for the Prevention of Crime Papers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University, in New York City. In an exemplary effort of historical research, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, history professor at Loyola University in Chicago has extensively annotated portions Appo’s autobiography.

Remarkably, the author has chosen not to include the entire 98 page autobiography as an appendix. Portions of the document appear at the beginning of A Pickpocket’s Tale and are cited in the chapters. Gilfoyle’s curious approach is successful in telling two stories: a life story of Appo and the story of the New York City and state criminal justice system and the environment it tried to control. The subtitle of the book is The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York. George Appo is representative of a world beneath the financial and high culture world of NYC. Punished as a juvenile, he was committed to a reform school ship that sailed to Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. He went to Ossinging (Sing Sing) and Clinton prisons four times; he spent a year on Blackwell’s Island and had six incarcerations in the Tombs, both located in NYC. He spent a year in Pennsylvania’s Eastern Penitentiary. Murderer? Mob enforcer? Rapist? No, Appo was a pickpocket who was unaligned with any politician, policeman or gang. An allegiance with any of these three forces would have kept him out of prison.

In the course of the book, Gilfoyle explains the conditions and contexts in which Appo lived his life of crime and was punished for it. As an independent pickpocket and a team player in a ‘green goods’ (selling allegedly counterfeit money and hen switching it with it for blank paper) racket, he was shot and cut. Appo suffered from an addiction to opium. Gilfoyle skillfully provides a history of opium, how it is smoked and where, a history of counterfeiting and how it tapped into Americans ‘get something for nothing’ attitudes. Gilfoyle explains why pickpocketing was prevalent and easy. In a world of no checking accounts and the publics partial reliance on both hard currency and cool cash, citizens would normally carry nothing but cash in clothing that had three to six outside pockets.

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