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

3.67 of 5 stars 3.67  ·  rating details  ·  266 ratings  ·  45 reviews
"A remarkable tale."-Chicago TribuneIn George Appo's world, child pickpockets swarmed the crowded streets, addicts drifted in furtive opium dens, and expert swindlers worked the lucrative green-goods game. On a good night Appo made as much as a skilled laborer made in a year. Bad nights left him with more than a dozen scars and over a decade in prisons from the Tombs and S ...more
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Published February 7th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2006)
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(showing 1-30 of 851)
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Brian
A Pickpocket’s Tale follows the life of George Appo who evolved from the proverbial hard knock life of five points to become an informant for a commission looking into crime. During his tenure he would go from pickpocket to opium addict to confidence man engaging in a variety of money making schemes. He would serve time in almost every correction institute in the area including Boys' House of Refuge, Blackwell's Island, Sing Sing, Dannemora, Matteawan, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Tombs. ...more
Ellis Amdur
This book by acclaimed historical Timothy Gilfoyle uses, as a narrative framework, a short ninety-nine page autobiography of George Appo, a notorious "good fellow." Such a man was brave, and "nervy," and made a living by his wits rather than violence.Not to say he wouldn't fight - he would. And not to say he wasn't a victim of violence - he was shot twice, stabbed in the throat and tortured in prison. Appo's own narrative is fascinating, but what makes this book exemplary is Gilfoyle's larger st ...more
K.M. Weiland
I've been studying 19th-century crime in London lately, so it was especially interesting to take a look at the contemporary scene in New York City. The crimescape in the two metropolises differs in interesting ways, but, needless to say, both are tragic. Gilfoyle has done us all a service in taking what one presumes is the essentially unreadable autobiography of small-time crook George Appo and edited and appended it into a detailed and thought-provoking history of the early underbelly of organi ...more
Nicole
This book is about George Appo, a man whose life experiences brought him into contact with most of the criminal justice institutions New York City and New York State had to offer between his birth in the 1850s through his death in 1930. The Boys' House of Refuge, Blackwell's Island, Sing Sing, Dannemora, Matteawan, Eastern State Penitentiary, the Tombs, opium dens, vaudeville, the Lexow Commission - it's all there. Gilfoyle was working from Appo's unpublished - and unpolished - autobiography to ...more
Sylvester
A little disconcerting to find that instead of a straight-up history of George Appo, Gilfoyle takes snippets of Appo's unpublished autobiography and takes every single rabbit trail in sight. In other words, if you're interested in various members of the underworld, police corruption, the predominant scams of the day, what the court system was like, what Sing Sing was like (or the hospital for the criminally insane, or many many other places of incarceration, including a ship intended to teach yo ...more
Bob Schmitz
Gilfoyle takes the life of George Appo the son of immigrants, half Chinese, half Irish, to describe in detail the criminal world of late 19th century America. After a life of crime and numerous prison terms Appo wrote an autobiography which serves as the frame work of the story. We learn all kinds of interesting facts. The NYC "Tenderloin District" is so named because cops were so corrupt that they could eat tenderloin steaks any where in the district. Pickpocketing was a huge crime because with ...more
Hannah
This book is structured around excerpts from the autobiography of George Appo, a petty thief in New York in the late 19th century. The excerpts are very interesting- they tell his story of life in opium dens and streetcars, and the gangsters and criminals he associated with. Altogether, they would probably span about 50 pages, but this book is 544 pages long. It is filled with information about the US prison system (particularly in NY and PA) at the time, and generally about life in Manhattan at ...more
Lauren
I utterly HATED this book. For starters, I know it's non-fiction, but it read like a poorly written textbook. Secondly, It was so all over the place that I had a difficult time staying with it. It didn't hold my attention and, given the option, I would not read this book again. You couldn't PAY me to read this book again, actually. The topics were so scatterbrained and not fully developed. It would, literally, change who the main subject of the section was mid chapter, and wouldn't necessarily t ...more
Tobey
Reading nonfiction for pleasure is relatively new thing for me, and I still find that it takes me longer to get through this type of book. In A Pickpocket's Tale the author, Timothy Gilfoyle, spends the majority of the time writing about some pretty fantastic events in a very straightforward and informative tone. I suppose it kind of read like Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, if it had been a documentary.

Gilfoyle uses the memoirs of pickpocket and con artist George Appo as framework to inves
...more
Morgan Shahan
In the gas-lit world of nineteenth century New York lurked a class of men who considered themselves “professional thieves” and who spoke their own language, which the novelist Herman Melville called “that foulest of all human lingoes.” One man privy to this jargon was George Appo. The son of a Chinese tea merchant father and an Irish immigrant mother, Appo would grow up as an orphan adrift in New York’s roughest district, Five Points. Though once a successful businessman, his father Quimbo was h ...more
Sandra D
There's a fascinating tale or three in this book, but they're
nearly buried beneath a ton of statistical information and exhaustively detailed descriptions of the operations of prisons and primitive mental health facilities of 19th-century New York and the corruption and failures of NYC's police and court systems.

In his acknowledgments, the author notes that this book took over a decade to bring together, saying that he began writing it "with two parents and no children. It ends with no parents
...more
Frank Richardson
This book tells the story of George Appo. He never went to school, lived on the streets of New York and supported himself as a pickpocket until he wa promoted to grifter. He was part Chinese, at times weighed as little as 100 pounds and oh yes, he did get caught and was tried a dozen times and sent to some of New York's toughest prisons, including Clinton and Sing Sing. However, the toughest confinement may have been when he was found to be insane (he wasn't) and sent to the state hospital for t ...more
Jessica
The title of this book is pretty misleading. It really is minimally about a pickpocket named George Appo. What is really is is difficult to pinpoint. It seems every one to two chapters delves into a new subject. The reader will become upclose and personal with:

Opium Dens – Operation, legalities, patronage
New York Legal/Justice System in the late 19th century
Mental Health Institutions in the late 19th century
Penal System of New York in the 19th century
Medical Care
Theater

This author seems to do a
...more
Emilie Burack
If you are a NYC history geek like me, this is a must read. Gilfoyle takes mid- 1800's criminal George Appo's autobiography, and fills in all the extra history/background you want to know. From trips in and out of Sing Sing, opium dens, and the back alleys of NYC, Appo saw it all. And Gilfoyle makes sure we get all the gruesome details of what life was truly like for a street kid trying to make it on his own.
Sybil
The subtitle should have been "The Under-Belly of the Gilded Age". The prose is extremely dry with lots of names and dates. However, it was a very interesting history of every aspect of the criminal world of New York in the mid- to late nineteenth century. The author discusses opium dens, illegal saloons, Chinese tongs, pickpockets, fences, prisons (like Sing Sing and Eastern State), city jails, criminal courts, police corruption, con games. You name it and you'll learn a little something about ...more
Adrian
The life of small time criminal George Appo is used as a framework for a social history of NYC in late 19th century. Quite remarkable how little regulation there was in the world of criminology or psychiatry. Many prisons were largely privately controlled, some had no walls, much policing inside was done by inmates. The level of corruption in city politics added to a chaotic situation. The end of the century saw the beginnings of penal and police reform which led to safer conditions and longer s ...more
Shannon
Timothy J. Golfoyle put so much research and work into this book and it shows. Such a fascinating read with a wealth of information on absolutely everything about crime and life on the streets of nineteenth century New York, from Opium dens to juvenile detention ships, crime on the stage to life in the various prisons that helped shape the book's main character, George Appo.
From his beginning to his end, George Appo faced many trials, and while he never took the right road, he managed to keep s
...more
Sarah
sometime over the summer i bought A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. i like late 19th century stuff, and i have a thing for reading about criminals. but this was soooooooo dry. i didn't finish it. i couldn't. it was like reading one of the most boring history texts ever assigned. i was hoping it would be more of a "fictiony" read like the devil in the white city was. but, no. i would like to learn about 19th century new york criminals, but ...more
Adam
This book is written as a type of memoir of this pick-pocket, con-man and all-around criminal. It tells what 19th-century NYC was like, especially for a bad guy, and believe me when i tell you that if you get arrested in New york today, as long as you're not black,unfortunately, you get treated a hell of a lot better than back then. Anyway, i'm about halfway or so done with this book and i am enjoying it very much so when i read more or finish i will add to this review....
Rita T
Fun history of NY told through the memoir of a pickpocket and confidence man active in NYC during the post-civil war and Victorian eras. The author fills in the back story when there's a reference to a notorious dive or penitentiary. Turns out that the mixture of decadence and violence, corruption and color that some of us have been missing in post-sanitized manhattan IS the city's natural state. This Disney too will pass.
Lance Schaubert
This is a narrative about a pickpocket in the gilded age, about his life, his death, and the insane world in which he lived. I found it engaging, enlightening about the New York that gave birth to the one in which I now live and I think it's a great book of history for any American.

Or for anyone writing anything about the underworld.

In any case, it's a worth addition to your list.
Kyle
OUTSTANDING BOOK. It's a "re-organization" of the memoirs of George Appo, who lived in late-1800's NYC and grew up a petty theif and pickpocket. Excellent book if you're into American history, big city life, or the movie "Gangs of New York."

I seriously think that movie had to have some of it's central ideas pulled from Appo's original memoirs.

Anyway, highly recommended.
Nate
An intense read for anyone interested in New York History. It's unbelievable the things we do to each other. This book gives horrific accounts of what one expects living without money in the most overcrowded city in the world. Prison life, opium dens, sanitariums, homelessness...The central character has seen it all.
Jessajune
George Appo was a pickpocket and scam artist who did something very unusual... he wrote a memoir. That never-published story is the base and inspiration for Gilfoyle's book, which has a very interesting angle on nineteenth century life. The descriptions of prisons and sanitariums in this era were downright chilling.
Damian
I started reading this book back in 2006, and I am normally fascinated by anything having to do with the history of New York City. However, I find the author's writing style to be so extremely academic that it alienates me. However, I still occasionally pick it up again in hopes of being proven wrong.
Ethan
The book follows the life of George Appo, a pickpocket, con artist and all around good fella in 19th century New York. Unfortunately, there is little documentation about him, and the author had to rely on generalizations about crime and imprisonment to fill out the book.
Rob
absolutely fascinating glimpse into the shadowy underbelly of late-19th century new york - cops on the take, opium dens, pickpockets, shyster lawyers, bowler-hatted scumbags of every stripe and variety, the nightmarish prisons and insane asylums. highly recommended.
kara
This book was well researched and an incredibly 'light read' for the 'heavy subjects' the author covered. I'm more thankful than ever I wasn't alive in the 19th and 20th and centuries and even more thankful I'm not a criminal in NYC.
chipster
Jul 08, 2007 chipster rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: the sleepless
Shelves: 2007finished
the penal system in 19th century new york state was as boring as it sounds it would be. dam, amercia can sure crank out dem criminals!!

i liked the bio part but the history of the penal system part got to be a bit much . .
Miriam
Follows the life of George Appo, a pickpocket, swindler, victim, and writer in post civil war New York city. This book is a great way to learn about the criminal justice and social service systems of the time.
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