Timothy J. Gilfoyle

A Pickpocket’s Tale

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A Pickpocket’s Tale Summary

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Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s biography, A Pickpocket’s Tale (2006), explores the life of turn of the century criminal, and later, police whistleblower George Appo. Although by the time of his death he had been forgotten, he had briefly been one of the most infamous men in America: a pickpocket and counterfeiter whose detailed accounts of police corruption earned him widespread acclaim with the scandal-hungry public, but also made him a target of many powerful people in the criminal underworld.

George Washington Appo grew up in poverty, before turning to pickpocketing and conning to make his way in the world; later he became an opium addict. He spent much of his adult life flitting into and out of jail cells. As Stephen Duncombe writes in a review of A Pickpocket’s Tale, “Appo made no important discoveries nor did he found any great enterprises; he cannot even be considered one of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘primitive rebels,’ prefiguring a strain of political resistance through his banditry. George Appo lived and died a minor criminal.” Why then, Duncombe goes on to ask, ought anyone to care about a biography of the man? As it turns out, Appo did do one notable thing—he wrote an autobiography. At the time, criminal memoirs were quite the fad. Earlier writers from Edgar Allan Poe to George Foster and George Wilkes had written novels and short stories exploring the “criminal class” in one way or another. Later, because of the success of such fictional works, real-life police chiefs and detectives, such as New York’s George Washington Walling and Boston’s Benjamin P. Eldridge began publishing their accounts of America’s criminal underworld. At about this time, some reformed criminals took up the pen themselves to catalog their own former misdeeds—and inevitable redemption—as well. Over time, these criminal memoirs led to less stilted, moralistic accounts of life in the underworld; among these, we might place George Appo’s autobiography. Unpublished in its day, Gilfoyle argues that that text today is important for the window it gives into a very particular world: the early days of American organized crime in early 19th-century New York.

Appo was born in 1856. His father, Lee Ah Bow (“Quimbo Appo”), has the dubious distinction of being the first Chinese American to be convicted of a capital crime in New York City. His mother, Catherine Fitzpatrick, was Irish American: After Appo’s later infamy, he would be held up as an example of the dangers of miscegenation. Appo took to pickpocketing early on as a way to support himself. Over time, he would become an opium addict and a counterfeiter (making up to $100 a day working the “green goods scam,” a popular crime that involved duping people into buying worthless counterfeit money). He was incarcerated on at least five different occasions, spending more than a decade in prison. After turning snitch publicly in 1894, he earned the wrath of many in the underworld. He was attacked six times and attempted suicide once. He was also framed for assault and later sentenced to Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane—where, incidentally, he was reunited with his father. After being released from Matteawan in 1899, Appo seems to have reformed and began working for the Society for the Prevention of Crime, where he served as an agent (making $6 a month) for essentially the rest of life. In 1930, Appo died of old age, his autobiography unpublished.

Gilfoyle’s A Pickpocket’s Tale is an important biography precisely because of how ordinary, in a sense, its subject was. It sheds a light on a stratum of American society at the turn of the century that was, and is, often sensationalized. Although George Appo’s own story was in some ways remarkable, it resists romanticization, allowing Gilfoyle to use him as a lens to view a fascinating and little understood aspect of American history. This includes, among other things, a rich source of contemporary cant. Appo provides the vernacular of his profession: the pickpocket himself was called a “wire,” larceny a “touch,” a distraction was “a stall,” and “moll-buzzers” were those who preyed specifically on women.

An assistant professor of history at Loyola University of Chicago, Gilfoyle also wrote City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (1992).