Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Pickpocket's Tale

Let me gush I really really liked this book! Once in a while I read a book that makes me say "WOW"; sometimes a historian/writer is able to combine excellent research, seamless writing, cohesive arguments and an interesting subject. (You know something that makes me think with out it hurting!) A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York is Timothy J. Gilfoyle's biography of George Appo, a 19th century thief. I've always been interested in 19th century criminal history it's a period that appeals to my love of lurid material. This book is a stunner because it satisfies my curiosity about NYC Police Court, life in the Tombs, and the abject wickedness of Sing Sing during this period. The author uses Appo's short autobiography and expands upon it by giving details about NYC courts and jails, the criminal lifestyle, prison life and reform concerns.

George Appo, was the son of a Chinese immigrant Quimbo Appo and an Irish mother. During a dismal childhood (his father is convicted of murdering a woman and sent to Sing Sing when Appo is 3; after which his mother abandoned him) Appo learns to steal. He becomes one of the most accomplished pickpockets in NYC. The book takes you through his early incarcerations. Appo was not only sentenced to traditional detention centers but spent time on one of the experimental detention sea vessels. The Author describes them all. Gilfoyle provides a considerable amount of detail about Appo's world without hindering his narrative. He doesn't lose his focus so he doesn't lose his voice. I never had to hurry through a chapter because it was boring me to distraction.

The author argues that the 19th century crime world is the embryo for organized crime in America. You have criminals who are capable of organizing on a national scale for theft while at the same time gambling, prostitution, and other vices are already establishing teritories and protection networks. While I don't agree with Gilfoyle's every argument I did enjoy reading them. BTW if any one would like to Read first hand news accounts about Appo and other 19th century crimes the Brooklyn Eagle has an archive for newspapers from 1840 to 1902 available online.