Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the mayhew files: pickpockets

A continuation of Scott's research on Mayhew's London.
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image source: Victorian London

Mayhew seemed to regard pickpockets with some respect. He expresses a sense of almost admiration for their skill and dexterity.

He gives an overview of the whole class of them, talking about how they managed their craft at different times and mentions their appearance, or rather the range of their appearances. He discusses how they generally rose from rags to near riches, at least in their dress. The skilled pickpocket was capable of pulling in 20-30 quid a day, a princely sum in those days.

Most of the pickpockets came from parents who were criminals themselves. Some came into this line of work from more honest family structures.

The low class neighborhoods, not surprisingly, produced the most pickpockets. Some started as young as five or six. Many found their way by themselves, stealing handkerchiefs out of the pockets of men as they walked by and working their way up, learning their craft through their own intellect. Others were picked up off the street by a trainer who taught them how to pick pockets (Note: think Fagin in Oliver Twist).

Sometimes this training consisted of a coat hung on a wall with a bell attached.  Boys had to take turns trying to reach into the pocket without ringing the bell. At other times the trainer would walk up and down the room with a coat on and the boys had to try and get the goods from the pocket without him noticing.

These young thieves wandered around the streets looking for crimes of opportunity. They were usually the least skilled of the thieves and they were certainly the most poorly dressed. It was difficult for them to infiltrate into the company of the wealthy due to their rough dress.

They usually worked in teams of three to steal handkerchiefs. One of the boys tailed the other two who were themselves just walking behind an elderly gentleman. The rear boy was on lookout for police. One of the two other boys picked out the handkerchief while the other one screened him with his body so other passersby cannot see what they are up to.

If noticed the thief would hand off the handkerchief to the screen and both would run for it. The third boy would point out a different direction to the victim, saying he saw them run that way.

It was difficult for these boys to earn their keep solely as pickpockets. Many of them either acted as accomplices for more advanced pickpockets or turn various other scams.

According to Mayhew, at about 14 years of age these thieves started to take a more careful view of their appearance. They began to acquire the clothes that will enable them to appear higher in class than they are. When dressed like their victims they did not arouse as much suspicion when in close proximity to them.  This closeness, of course, allows them to more effectively carry out their crime. 

Neither the thieves nor the trainers of thieves were always male. Many of the most successful pickpockets were women, especially those who stole from other women-- they were not as noticeable when they stood close next to them.

Not only was being close to a victim important, but so was not being caught afterward.  One way of doing this was for the pickpocket to carry out his craft in a part of town where he was not recognized.  He also had to find a fence to sell the goods he acquired, as it would seem odd for someone of their low status to be always pawning other people's pocket books and watches.

Another way people picked pockets was to attempt to snatch a watch out of a vest pocket. This crime was
 usually accomplished by a pair of pick pockets. One would stand close to the victim with his arms folded in such a way that his right hand was hanging out the side and under his left arm. This stance provided cover in two ways:
  1. The hand doing the stealing is concealed by the left arm. 
  2. Standing with one's arms folded does not appear that one is doing anything with one's hands to the casual observer. 
When the picker is in place the other partner would cause a distraction by bumping the man or showing him something.

Often these crimes were carried out at public spectacles such as fireworks or acrobatic displays. Police officers, sometimes in plain clothes, would work at these displays and scan the crowd for pickpockets. (Note: Scott claims that pickpockets would be easy to see in this situation because they would probably be the only ones in the crowd of spectators not looking up.)

Another favorite object of the thieves were scarf pins. These were stolen in a variety of ways. Sometimes the thief “stumbled” into the person, placing their hands onto the victim’s chest as if to catch themselves. As they pulled away they snatched the pin off, asked if they have hurt the victim, apologized and left the scene of the crime before the victim knew what had happened.

Trouser pockets were picked, but rarely.  This crime was often committed by cutting the trouser pocket and
increasing the size of the opening, as it was difficult to get one’s hands in without detection.  Other times two thieves had mock fights with each other, during the course of which they slammed into the victim and riffled his pockets while he was recovering from the collision.

Other people were skilled enough to engage the victim in conversation and, during the course of the talk, carefully pluck the watch out of one of the victim’s vest pockets.

Stealing women’s purses was more profitable than stealing men’s watches, even though watches were more valuable.  The reason for that was a purse could be emptied of its contents and thrown away, while the watch would take some time to fence. Five to six purses could be stolen in the time it took to fence a watch.

Picking women’s pockets is another matter entirely. Usually this was effected by walking beside the woman and slipping a hand into her dress pocket. It was easier to do if the person was dressed nicely and easier still if it was a nicely dressed woman doing the stealing.

Mayhew describes how women's pockets were often picked when they sstood in front of shop windows  gazing, almost entranced, by some of the objects inside.  In this state of awe they would allow almost anything to happen to them.  (Note: Scott finds this description a little unbelievable and playing on certain stereotypes that probably did not exist in this extreme. He describes the woman all aflutter with emotion looking at some object while window shopping.  But of course he wasn't there, so who's to know for sure?)

There are three distinct types of pickpockets, according to Mayhew:
  1. omnibus pickpocket 
  2. railway pickpocket 
  3. shoplifter

The omnibus pickpockets plied their trade on an omnibus. Generally they were well-dressed, respectable looking women who picked the pockets of other women. They stood on the omnibus until other women passengers got on.  When a wealthy-looking victim entered the pickpocket would sit down next to her, throwing part of her shawl over the woman. She would then slip her hand under the shawl and either cut the dress pocket open with scissors or a knife or reach into it.

After the victim’s purse has been withdrawn the thief immediately departed the bus. Sometimes they were caught after arousing the driver's suspicion by paying more than the fare or not waiting for change and hurrying off. At this point the cagey drivers would ask if anyone was missing anything and, if so, tear off after the thief.

Male pickpockets will also do this on omnibuses to male victims.

Railway pickpockets were easily discernible to the trained eye because they wandered around the station not seemingly looking for a train table or waiting for a particular train. These were much the same people as average pickpockets and it is not clear why Mayhew has created a separate class of them.

A wealthier class of pickpocket would board the train and pick pockets while riding the rails. These thieves were usually usually involve a couple, the female typically picking the pockets and handing the purse off to the male who then discreetly removed the cash and dropped the purse from the train or hid it in the WC.

Shoplifters were usually women who went into a store and bothered the keeper to look at various merchandise.  Eventually a pile of items grows on the counter.  As the clerk turns to get one more requested item the thief pockets some of the merchandise sitting on the counter.  These thieves generally have an extra lining sewn into their skirt for such a purpose.

Sometimes they worked in pairs, sometimes alone. They were usually fairly well dressed to allay suspicion. They would often pick the pockets of other customers while in the shops.

Men shoplifted in a similar manner to women, but they often took the expedient of leaving a small deposit on one of the items they were not stealing to dispel suspicion.

Sometimes the thieves would examine the items in the shop window and then make a facsimile of items such as jewelry out of a cheaper metal. Then, while examining the genuine article, they would switch it with the forgery and steal it that way.

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