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.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sin in The Second City

I had a snow day (more precisely an icy road day) so I used it to read a book that's off my usual path of thieves. I'm glad that I picked Karen Abbot's Sin in the Second City. It's a fun, fast paced read. I was surprised it was so enjoyable. Probably because the stars of the books are the self named Everleigh sisters Mina and Ada. Prostitution has never been an easy job for it's workers particularly in earlier periods when abuse and other degradation were thought their due as "fallen women". According to Abbot, the Everleigh sisters not only ran the most exclusive brothel in Chicago's Levee district. The two were enlightened pimps who ran a humane brothel. Decent pay for the workers, decent working conditions (hey they even had medical) no brothel enforcer to keep the women in line. And all women had to prove they were over the age of 18. Hey this at a time when it was not unusual to find young teen 'working girls' and not unusual for them to be sold into the position.

Abbot takes readers through the Levee district in Chicago. Readers see the outrageous characters, political, criminal, and religious. She gets as far as anyone can in explaining the Everleigh sisters past. The book is salacious, informative, and well written. I couldn't put it down yesterday and I'm glad I picked it up.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Bobbed Haired Bandit

Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson have written a wonderful book about the 1920's exploits of Celia and Ed Cooney in Brooklyn, NY.

The Bobbed Haired Bandit as Celia was dubbed with her "cake eater" accomplice held up 10 mom and pop establishments in Brooklyn during 1924. They never made $300 during a robbery and once netted as little as $17, but they were hunted by the NYPD as if they were netting millions each robbery. It seems that it was bad for publicity that a little girl could outwit the police.

The book is as much about how the "PRESS" can create a celebrity by manipulating public sentiment. Besides being great social history it's also a fast paced read that is hard to put down.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Harvey Bailey

J. Evetts Haley's book Robbing Banks Was My Business...the Story of J. Harvey Bailey was difficult to get hold of. Not only has it been out of print for some time, but it is also now a collectors item. Signed copies in good condition are going for over $1,000. Only 7 libraries in the country have a copy for circulation including the El Paso, TX Library system. They sent me a copy via inter-library loan thereby saving me the $75 bucks a "friend" was going to charge me for their dog chewed mildewy copy. Sometimes I do get lucky.

Since I only wanted to read the book and I am not a collector I am so glad I did not have to pay anything for the book! Because it's not that great. Honestly J. Evetts Haley's narrative prevents the reader from actually enjoying the book. Harvey Bailey deserves another biography. If Haley had just let the tape recorder go and transcribed Bailey's recollections the book probably would have been more enjoyable. I found myself skipping past much of the narrative to get to the quotes.

Harvey Bailey was one of the best; he was a part of one of the greatest heists during the 20's the Denver Mint Robbery. Bailey says that he and his gang had no intention of knocking over the mint courier truck when they were in Denver. They were casing another job when he was called away by a family emergency. The gang left to their own devices thought the Mint's courier truck would be a much better score. I'm not sure if I completely believe that since one of the guards was killed during the robbery he may have been deflecting unwanted legal action. But then again I wasn't there so maybe he wasn't either. He also worked with many of the A list in robbers during his time only to snagged for something he didn't do. Oh well...

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lyman Ford

This is Lyman Ford, one of the conspirators of the Cherryvale Bank robbery, along with Charley Mays and George C. Robertson

Like Robertson, Lyman surprises me because of his age but for the opposite reason. He gives his age at the time as 58 which is considerably older than I would have thought. Ford's the one who gave up the details on the Cherryvale robbery. He was caught soon after the robbery in New Mexico and brought back to Kansas. The robbery was an "inside" job. Vice President Robertson, cashier Clarence Howard, and H.H. Zittle of Springfield, MO planned the job to cover certain irregularities with the banks deposits. They brought in Lee Flournoy and Charley Mays to go through the motions of the staged heist. Ford was brought in later. Only problem was that Mays and Flournoy decided to actually rob the bank (they showed up at an earlier time). Never wise to trust thieves. In return for his cooperative nature Lyman received only 2 years for the robbery. I'm having a little bit of a trouble finding out what happened to Lyman after his release from Leavenworth. I have a vague memory that someone told me that they had read that Lyman Ford committed suicide in the OK pen, but I'm not able to verify that because getting information from some State prisons is not easy. Did you know that Missouri did not keep inmate files until the 1930's? Ford really did not want to go back to OK; he contested his extradition. I don't think he felt welcome the McAlester warden's letter to Leavenworth Warden Newell called Lyman Ford a "bad egg".