Friday, July 4, 2008

Timothy J. Gilfoyle - A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of 19th-Century New York (2006)

A Pickpocket's Tale is a non-fiction account of the life of George Appo (1858-1930), a small-time pickpocket, opium addict, and confidence man. The tale of Appo's life gives a fascinating picture of the changes which took place between a Victorian and proto-contemporary criminal underworlds, and the changing understanding of and approach taken by the authorities to the 'problem' of 'crime' over this period.

Appo was in many ways an unlikely and atypical character, which may be part of the reason why records of his life (including his autobiography) survive in enough detail for Gilfoyle to produce a book such as this. His father was a Chinese immigrant, who was at first very successful, but would later be imprisoned for murder (Appo and his father would meet for the last time in prison). Appo himself, despite periods of contact with the licit and illicit areas of Chinese culture, would find a home as a 'good fellow,' a crook who practiced by skill rather than through violence and pre-emptive brutality (both of which Appo was often a victim of), and who took prison time rather than betraying even an enemy to the official forces of policing. Finally, however, Appo would be rejected, unjustly (according to the author) by this world after testifying before the Lexow Committee on police corruption, and would attempt, with little success, to 'go straight' in conjunction with various organisation and individuals working for the purpose of reforming criminals.

Gilfoyle weaves a fascinating story. Appo's experience evokes a New York which in part is more familiar through English Victorian imagery, but from which at the same time can be seen the emergence of a more particular American, noir-ish world of corruption.

Appo's experiences chart the 'evolution' of penitentiaries, from Houses of Refuge for boys, to prison ships designed to instil a working ethic into young male criminals, on which same-sex sexual activity was more or less taken for granted; from the festering conditions, murderous brutality and casual torture of Sing Sing, where the lines between the external world and the prison were always highly nebulous, to Eastern Penitentiary where total isolation was practised, intended to reform the prisoner by allowing them to do nothing but reflect upon their wrongdoing.

Gilfoyle's book contains so many interesting facets that it's hard to list them; for example, the emergence of bohemian culture and the way it brought the middle and upper classes into the ambit of crime (though many bohemian opium dens strictly forbade clientele of Asian origin); common confidence tricks, particularly the highly profitable and highly bureaucratised 'green goods game' in which the con man offered to sell forged currency to the mark, before substituting the cash-filled bag; or the casual, monumental inequity of the 'justice' system throughout the period, and the often naive or counter-productive efforts of organised reformers. A particularly memorable episode is Appo's period on the stage, as sensational plays depicting the criminal underworld became huge popular successes.

In terms of flaws, Gilfoyle becomes perhaps a little too sympathetic to his subject, despite the hideous injustices of his life and the fact that, given his social circumstances and the nature of society at that time, he had little opportunity to become anything else. Due to the nature of the sources, gender relations in the period are little explored. Finally, Appo's testimony is more or less accepted as fact by the author (though he notes that it is substantially corroborated wherever other records exist; but this, of course, applies only to major events). Overall, though, this book is a depiction of a fascinating individual, as well as casting light on the nature of criminal subculture and its interactions with the 'licit' social world, the practices of criminal justice and policing, penitentiary systems, illegality and popular culture, as well as giving an engrossing cultural and social portrayal of life in New York for the underclasses, whether criminal or working, in a period of massive social change.

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