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

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

Timothy J. Gilfoyle, . . Norton, $27.95 (460pp) ISBN 978-0-393-06190-1

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.)