NOBODY knows New York better than a pickpocket; for convincing evidence, just look at George Appo’s scars. Bullet holes pockmarked his stomach from the gun of a detective on Wall Street; a missing eye ensued from a con job gone wrong; and knife scars branded his throat and neck, courtesy of an old boss. Sixteen smaller scars marred his body.
In “A Pickpocket’s Tale,” Timothy J. Gilfoyle has unearthed Appo’s unpublished autobiography to retell the astonishing life (Appo lived from 1856 to 1930) of one common criminal in late 19th century New York -- the decades just after the setting for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” Gilfoyle, a history professor at Loyola University in Chicago, previously wrote “City of Eros,” an award-winning history of prostitution in early New York.
Here he employs a clever variation on the old Kevin Bacon game in which one minor player connects many luminaries of his cultural era. Appo met many of the judges, lawyers, police and crime bosses of old New York, but Gilfoyle favors academic rigor over narrative style. He succeeds in constructing a grand sociology of New York gangs, but unspectacularly so.
Appo’s underworld beat stretched across Manhattan’s sidewalks, stores and streetcars from the Upper East Side and Midtown south through Greenwich Village, Chinatown and Wall Street. Summer and weekends brought occasional jump-outs to New Jersey, the Midwest and even Canada for county fairs and careless crowds. He touched leathers -- pilfered wallets, watches and handbags -- from distracted businessmen and busy mothers. Good times bought fancy suits, fast women and opium. But bad days brought extortion, attacks and -- at the worst -- hard time in jail and insane asylums.
Appo grew up on the streets after being given away by an alcoholic Irish immigrant mother and a Chinese immigrant father, the latter who had killed their landlady after a domestic dispute.
He never attended a day of school; at the time, most youths didn’t go to school, choosing instead to hang out on the streets. New York’s post-Civil War “age of larceny,” argues Gilfoyle, resulted from three related factors: the dawn of the Industrial Age, the decline of the craft system of master and apprentice, and the influx of thousands of immigrants to Gotham every year.
New York became a melting pot of ethnic diversity and genuine opportunity -- but also disease epidemics, vanishing social norms, opium dens, brothels and organized crime. “If formal education failed to organize the lives of teenage males in New York,” Gilfoyle writes, “neither did the city’s economy.”
Honor among thieves such as Appo meant avoiding violence, “employing wit and wile to make a living,” Gilfoyle writes. What constituted a “good fellow” in the underworld, Appo himself wrote, was “a nervy crook” and “a money getter and spender” who never squealed on friends.
Right and wrong depend on perspective, and Appo gained his the hard way. He learned to read and write while behind bars during more than a dozen years in jails and insane asylums. Jails such as the city’s Tombs inflicted medieval-style privations, whereas upstate Sing Sing became the prototype for prison-industrial complex incarceration. Overcrowding, filth, sexual abuse, solitary confinement and forced labor awaited. Appo, however, found one solace there -- prison was the only place where he got to spend time with his father.
Judges failed at rehabilitation, according to Gilfoyle, because they often ruled on the basis of prejudice and pseudoscience. And once a person was behind bars, “Courts treated inmates as ‘slaves of the state,’ ” Gilfoyle writes, “offering them no access to the legal system.”
Appo eventually got smart and began steering the green-goods game, a sophisticated and lucrative con job in which shysters ripped off would-be shysters by pretending to sell counterfeit money at big discounts. It was all fun and games until somebody lost an eye; unfortunately for Appo, it was his that got shot out.
But by surviving, the pickpocket grew in notoriety through the newspapers and gossip into politics, science and even the arts. By testifying before the anti-Tammany Hall Lexow Committee, Appo helped reform New York’s prisons and police. His opium addiction became grist for the first scientific study documenting the drug’s dangers. And in 1894 Appo played himself in “In the Tenderloin,” one of the first American plays to portray criminals as morally complex.
Late in life, celebrity status offered the chance to go straight. “Neither a latter-day Robin Hood nor a Jack the Ripper,” Gilfoyle concludes. Appo’s obituary proved equally succinct: “the finest crook that ever turned a new leaf.”
Jim Rossi lives in San Francisco, where he writes about science, history, economics and the outdoors.