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

3.72  ·  Rating Details ·  336 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
In 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 Sing Sing to the Matteawan State Hosp ...more
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published August 17th 2006 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2006)
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(showing 1-30)
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David Dinaburg
Jun 18, 2016 David Dinaburg rated it liked it
My own records tell me that somewhere in Brooklyn on February 21, 2015 I spotted A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. I took a picture of the cover with my phone, a digital reminder to request it from the library later.

Request I did, putting me in the NYPL queue with three other adventuresome souls. Little did any of us know that this simple act would embroil we three damned souls in a tumultuous adventure that spanned nearly five seasons and continues until this
Nov 15, 2014 Brian rated it really liked it
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
Apr 20, 2011 Sylvester rated it it was ok
A little disconcerting to find that instead of a straight-up history of George Appo, Gilfoyle takes snippets of Appo's unpublished autobiography and takes every single rabbit trail in sight.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
Aug 06, 2013 Carmen rated it really liked it
Shelves: new-york
This was a great non-fiction account of underworld NYC in the 19th Century based on the memoir of a former pickpocket and confidence man that was fleshed out with multitudes of interesting research about prisons, drug use, and other details so often brushed-over. Very well done.
Morgan Shahan
Feb 08, 2013 Morgan Shahan rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 25, 2010 Tobey rated it liked it
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
May 26, 2010 Nicole rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-read-us
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
Jun 02, 2013 Lauren rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: never-again, reccos
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
Bob Schmitz
Feb 22, 2011 Bob Schmitz rated it it was ok
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
Dec 27, 2007 Hannah rated it liked it
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
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
Ellis Amdur
Jan 14, 2015 Ellis Amdur rated it liked it
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 ...more
Frank Richardson
Nov 11, 2013 Frank Richardson rated it really liked it
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
K.M. Weiland
Oct 08, 2014 K.M. Weiland rated it really liked it
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
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

This author seems to do a
Aug 24, 2009 Sybil rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
David Ward
Jun 28, 2016 David Ward rated it liked it
A Pickpocket's Tale: the Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York by Timothy Gilfoyle (W.W.Norton & Co. 2006) (Biography). This is the biography of one George Appo, a small-time criminal who grew up in the Five Points area of New York City in the late 1800's. He spent his life in and out of various jails, prisons, and mental institutions. This volume recounts the various small-time scams at which small-time criminals could make their living in turn-of-the-century New York. At one time or an ...more
Apr 27, 2010 Sarah rated it did not like it
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
Jul 02, 2012 Adrian added it
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
Sep 03, 2012 Shannon rated it really liked it
Shelves: crime, non-fiction
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
Rita T
Feb 05, 2008 Rita T rated it really liked it
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.
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....
Emilie Burack
Jan 12, 2015 Emilie Burack rated it really liked it
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.
Jul 14, 2008 Jessajune rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, history
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.
May 01, 2008 Kyle rated it it was amazing
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.
Jun 13, 2008 Nate rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 17, 2008 Damian rated it it was ok
Shelves: put-aside
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.
Lance Schaubert
Aug 10, 2011 Lance Schaubert rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 05, 2009 kara rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 10, 2007 Ethan rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2007
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.
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