I shall never forget the first time I ever saw a pickpocket at work. It was when I was about thirteen years old. A boy of my own age, Zack, a great pal of mine, was with me. Zack and I understood one another thoroughly and well knew how to get theatre money by petty pilfering, but of real graft we were as yet ignorant, although we had heard many stories about the operations of actual, professional thieves. We used to steal rides in the cars which ran to and from the Grand Street ferries- and run off with overcoats and satchels when we had a chance. One day we were standing on the rear platform when a woman boarded the car, and immediately behind her a gentlemanly looking man with a high hat. He was well-dressed and looked about thirty-five years old. As the lady entered the car, the man, who stayed outside on the platform, pulled his hand away from her side and with it came something from her pocket — a silk handkerchief. I was on the point of asking the woman if she had dropped something, when Zack said to me, “Mind your own business.” The man, who had taken the pocketbook along with the silk handkerchief, seeing that we were “next,” gave us the handkerchief and four dollars in ten and fifteen cent paper money (“stamps”).
Zack and I put our heads together. We were “wiser” than we had been half an hour before. We had learned our first practical lesson in the world of graft. We had seen a pickpocket at work, and there seemed to us no reason why we should not try the game ourselves. Accordingly a day or two afterwards we arranged to pick our first pocket. We had, indeed, often taken money from the pockets of our relatives, but that was when the trousers hung in the closet or over a chair, and the owner was absent. This was the first time we had hunted in the open, so to speak; the first time our prey was really alive.
It was an exciting occasion. Zack and I, who were “wise,” (that is, up to snuff) got several other boys to help us, though we did not tell them what was doing, for they “were not buried” yet, that is, “dead,” or ignorant. We induced five or six of them to jump on and off the rear platform of a car, making as much noise and confusion as possible, so as to distract the attention of any “sucker” that might board. Soon I saw a woman about to get on the car. My heart beat with excitement, and I signalled to Zack that I would make the “touch.” In those days women wore big sacques with pockets in the back, open, so that one could look in and see what was there. I took the silk handkerchief on the run, and with Zack following, went up a side street and gloried under a lamp-post. In the corner of the handkerchief, tied up, were five two-dollar bills, and for weeks I was J. P. Morgan.
For a long time Zack and I felt we were the biggest boys on the block. We boasted about our great “touch” to the older boys of eighteen or nineteen years of age who had pointed out to us the grafters at the comer saloon. They were not “in it” now. They even condescended to be treated to a drink by us. We spent the money recklessly, for we knew where we could get more. In this state of mind, soon after that, I met the “pick” whom we had seen at work. He had heard of our achievement and kindly “staked” us, and gave us a few private lessons in picking pockets. He saw that we were promising youngsters, and for the sake of the profession gave us a little of his valuable time. We were proud enough, to be taken notice of by this great man. We felt that we were rising in the world of graft, and began to wear collars and neckties.
For the next two years, until I was fifteen, I made a great deal of money at picking pockets, without getting into difficulties with the police. We operated, at that time, entirely upon women, and were consequently known technically as Moll-buzzers — or “flies” that “buzz” about women.
In those days, and for several years later, Moll-buzzing, as well as picking pockets in general, was an easy and lucrative graft. Women’s dresses seemed to be arranged for our especial benefit; the back pocket, with its purse and silk handkerchief could be picked even by the rawest thief. It was in the days when every woman had to possess a fine silk handkerchief; even the Bowery “cruisers” (street-walkers) carried them; and to those women we boys used to sell the handkerchiefs we had stolen, receiving as much as a dollar, or even two dollars, in exchange.
It was a time, too, before the great department stores and delivery wagon systems, and shoppers were compelled to carry more money with them than they do now, and to take their purchases home themselves through the streets. Very often before they reached their destination they had unconsciously delivered some of the goods to us. At that time, too, the wearing of valuable pins and stones, both by men and women, was more general than it is now. Furthermore, the “graft” was younger. There were not so many in the business, and the system of police protection was not so good. Altogether those were halcyon days for us.
The fact that we were very young helped us particularly in this business , for a boy can get next to a woman in a car or on the street more easily than a man can. He is not so apt to arouse her suspicions; and if he is a handsome, innocent-looking boy, and clever, he can go far in this line of graft. He usually begins this business when he is about thirteen, and by the age of seventeen generally graduates into something higher. Living off women, in any form, does not appeal very long to the imagination of the genuine grafter. Yet I know thieves who continue to be Moll-buzzers all their lives; and who are low enough to make their living entirely off poor working girls. The self-respecting grafter detests this kind; and, indeed, these buzzers never see prosperous days after their boyhood. The business grows more difficult as the thief grows older. He cannot approach his prey so readily, and grows shabbier with declining returns; and shabbiness makes it difficult for him to mix up in crowds where this kind of work is generally done.
For several years we youngsters made a great deal of money at this lihe. We made a “touch” almost every day, and I suppose our “mob,” composed of four or five lads who worked together, averaged three or four hundred dollars a week. We worked mainly on street cars at the Ferry, and the amount of technique” required for robbing women was very slight. Two or three of us generally went together. One acted as the “dip,” or “pick,” and the other two as “stalls.” The duty of the “stalls” was to distract the attention of the “sucker” or victim, or otherwise to hide the operations of the “dip”. One stall would get directly in front of the woman to be robbed, the other directly behind her. If she were in such a position in the crowd as to render it hard for the “dip,” or “wire” to make a “touch,” one of the stalls might bump against her, and beg her pardon, while the dip made away with her “leather,” or pocket-book….
Even at the early age of fifteen I began to understand that it was necessary to save money. If a thief wants to keep out of the “pen” or “stir,” (penitentiary) capital is a necessity. The capital of a grafter is called “spring-money,” for he may have to use it at any time in paying the lawyer who gets him off in case of an arrest, or in bribing the policeman or some other official. To “spring,” is to escape from the clutches of the law. If a thief has not enough money to hire a “mouth-piece” (criminal lawyer) he is in a bad way. He is greatly handicapped, and can not “jump out” (steal) with any boldness.
But I always had great difficulty in saving “fall-money,” (the same as spring-money; that is money to be used in case of a “fall,” or arrest) My temperament was at fault. When I had a few hundred dollars saved up I began to be troubled, not from a guilty conscience, but because I could not stand prosperity. The money burned a hole in my pocket. I was fond of all sorts of amusements, of “treating,” and of clothes. Indeed, I was very much of a dude; and this for two reasons. In the first place I was naturally vain, and liked to make a good appearance. A still more substantial reason was that a good personal appearance is part of the capital of a grafter, particularly of a pickpocket. The world thinks that a thief is a dirty, disreputable looking object, next door to a tramp in appearance. But this idea is far from being true. Every grafter of any standing in the profession is very careful about his clothes. He is always neat, clean, and as fashionable as his income will permit. Otherwise he would not be permitted to attend large political gatherings, to sit on the platform, for instance, and would be handicapped generally in his crooked dealings with mankind. No advice to young men is more common in respectable society than to dress well. If you look prosperous the world will treat you with consideration. This applies with even greater force to the thief. Keep up a “front” is the universal law of success, applicable to all grades of society. The first thing a grafter is apt to say to a pal whom he has not seen for a long time is, “You are looking good,” meaning that his friend is well-dressed. It is sure flattery, and if a grafter wants to make a borrow he is practically certain of opening the negotiations with the stereotyped phrase : “You are looking good;” for the only time you can get anything off a grafter is when you can make him think you are prosperous.
But the great reason why I never saved much “fall-money” was not “booze,” or theatres, or clothes. “Look for the woman” is a phrase, I believe, in good society; and it certainly explains a great deal of a thief’s misfortunes. Long before I did anything in Graftdom but petty pilfering, I had begun to go with the little girls in the neighborhood. At that time they had no attraction for me, but I heard older boys say that it was a manly thing to lead girls astray, and I was ambitious to be not only a good thief, but a hard case generally. When I was nine or ten years old I liked to boast of the conquests I had made among little working girls of fourteen or fifteen. We used to meet in the hall-ways of tenement houses, or at their homes, but there was no sentiment in the relations between us, at least on my part. My only pleasure in it was the delight of telling about it to my young companions.
When I was twelve years old I met a little girl for whom I had a somewhat different feeling. Nellie was a pretty, blue-eyed little creature, or “tid-bit,” as we used to say, who lived near my home on Cherry Street. I used to take her over on the ferry for a ride, or treat her to ice-cream; and we were really chums; but when I began to make money I lost my interest in her; partly, too, because at that time I made the acquaintance of a married woman of about twenty-five years old. She discovered me one day in the hallway with Nellie, and threatened to tell the holy brother on us if I didn’t fetch her a pint of beer. I took the beer to her room, and that began a relationship of perhaps a year. She used to stake me to a part of the money her husband, a workingman, brought her every Saturday night.
Although the girls meant very little to me until several years later, I nevertheless began when I was about fifteen to spend a great deal of money on them. It was the thing to do, and I did it with a good grace. I used to take all kinds of working girls to the balls in Walhalla Hall in Orchard Street; or in Pythagoras, or Beethoven Halls, where many pretty little German girls of respectable families used to dance on Saturday nights. It was my pride to buy them things — clothes, pins, and to take them on excursions; for was I not a rising “gun,” with money in my pocket? Money, however, that went as easily as it had come.
Perhaps if I had been able to save money at that time I might not have fallen (that is, been arrested) so early. My first fall came, however, when I was fifteen years old; and if I was not a confirmed thief already, I certainly was one by the time I left the Tombs, where I stayed ten days….
— The Autobiography of a Thief (published 1903), by Hutchins Hapgood.