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  • A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York
  • Jared N. Day
A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. By Timothy J. Gilfoyle (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. xvii plus 460 pp. $27.95).

A Pickpocket's Tale provides a remarkably fresh view into New York's underworld, a subject long dominated by hackneyed lurid narratives of murderous urban banditti and colorful Runyonesque gangland stereotypes. Through this in-depth biography of onetime criminal celebrity, George Appo, Timothy Gilfoyle transforms this well-worn genre into something quite startling: a richly insightful and complex examination of an actual human being. In the style of such classics as Lauren Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale and Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, Gilfoyle takes up the brief skeletal story Appo wrote in the early twentieth century of himself and, by densely contextualizing the subject's life, brings forth a fully realized, three-dimensional portrait of an expert nineteenth-century criminal and the urban milieu that made up virtually his entire world. [End Page 464]

As Gilfoyle's study lays out, George Appo was born in 1856, the son of an Irish mother and Chinese father in New York City. Abandoned early in life, Appo grew up on his own in the over-crowded, poverty-ridden Five Points section of New York, one of the nineteenth century's most notorious urban slums where, for survival's sake, he became a skilled pickpocket. Gilfoyle's exploration of Appo's family background, childhood and early criminal career provides new insight into life in the Five Points, its multi-cultural flavor, its indigenous social structures, and the slum economy that propelled Appo into crime. Gilfoyle does this without once indulging in the over-spiced and over-blown prose that have so identified many older works (and a few recent ones) on the Five Points, the Tenderloin District, and other notorious nineteenth-century neighborhoods. In Gilfoyle's fast-paced, detailed chapters, Appo and his compatriots emerge not as alienated or amoral delinquents or colorful crooks from the pages of Ned Buntline but as survivors who adhered doggedly to distinctive moral codes involving what it meant to be a "good fellow" in a world where seemingly everyone was on the take.

Beginning in Appo's youth and extending throughout A Pickpocket's Tale is Appo's regular encounters with seemingly every major institutional response New York had to the city's rising crime rate. Public and private efforts at curbing delinquency such as the well-known Five Points House of Refuge and the largely unstudied Mercury packet ship for "wild, reckless and semi-criminal lads" all come into view. One of Gilfoyle's substantive achievements is in weaving together so clearly one man's encounter with the state's still emerging "cradle-to-grave" institutional framework for dealing with society's poor, dispossessed, and lawless. As the book proceeds, other institutions including Sing Sing, Clinton State Prison, and the Eastern Penitentiary as well as New York City's Tombs and Blackwell's Island all receive detailed treatment that are worth reading on their own account. Indeed, Appo drifts through so many landmark institutions in the history of American criminal justice, at times he comes off as a Zelig-like character in a screenplay written by David Rothman.

Appo's story took a decided turn in 1891 after he put aside picking pockets and took up the so-called "green goods game," a high-stakes counterfeiting swindle, that brought Appo money and, surprisingly, fame. Gilfoyle explores the sordid world of New York's grifters and confidence men as well as their complex relationship with the city's corrupt municipal police. For a time, Appo enjoyed unprecedented success and was able to play the role of the generous "good fellow," living well and sharing his largesse with the underworld habitués that populated the opium dens, saloons, and other "dives" that Appo frequented. Ultimately, his involvement in this lucrative scheme led to his downfall, as two targeted victims turned on him, shooting him in the head and causing him to lose an eye. Subsequent trials brought Appo tremendous...


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