Gilfoyle uses the unpublished autobiography of George Appo—pickpocket, jailbird, conman, stage actor—to illuminate Gotham’s dark criminal subculture of a century ago.
The research here is prodigious—just as it was in the author’s Nevins Prize–winning City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1820-1920 (1992). The endnotes total nearly 100 pages, and the generous illustrations, taken principally from publications of the day, are testimony to the innumerable hours the author spent in libraries, archives, microform rooms and public-records offices. George Appo (1856–1930), not long before he died, wrote his own account of his very rough life, and Gilfoyle (History/Loyola Univ.) quotes that text throughout, using Appo’s words to organize his own. Like Oliver Twist in London, Appo roamed the streets of New York City picking pockets and engaging in other illegalities. He made lots of money, spent it quickly, suffered wounds from bullets, knives, fists, broken bottles (he lost an eye in one encounter) and, repeatedly, was caught, tried and jailed, including doing a stint aboard the Mercury, a former packet ship designed to teach wayward boys nautical skills (it taught them everything but). Appo served time, as well, in Sing Sing, in Clinton State Prison, on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island and in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where his father was also an inmate at the time. Appo actually appeared onstage in In the Tenderloin, a melodrama about a con game at which he was proficient. Using Appo’s story, Gilfoyle teaches us about life on the streets and in the rookeries, and about 19th-century prisons and penology, theories of criminal behavior, melodrama on Broadway, police corruption (Appo rolled over on some cops, lived to regret it), opium dens, the judicial system, political hanky-panky and how to succeed at the “green goods” con game (tricking people out of their cash with the promise of more).
Authoritative, thoroughly researched, eye-opening and grand, good fun to read.