By David Wright
If you’re ever in Paris, watch your wal- let. Better yet, pull up a chair, and watch the pickpockets darting in and
out of shoals of tourists and reeling in the
gullible with golden rings: “Did you drop
this, madam?” The City of Light boasts
no better exhibit of living history, and
one can easily imagine these kids working
alongside the artful dodger in Dickens’
London, or teaming up with George
Appo in the bustling streets of Gilded Age
Appo’s own unpolished and previously
unpublished account of his rough-and-tumble upbringing amid New York’s
criminal classes lies at the heart of
Timothy Gilfoyle’s scholarly survey of
the nineteenth-century underworld, A
Pickpocket’s Tale. Son of a Chinese father
incarcerated for murder and an Irish
mother drowned in a shipwreck, the diminutive Appo was destined for life on
the margins until he achieved his ultimate
con, that of “going straight,” penitently
setting down his iniquities on paper, and
even playing himself in a cautionary stage
This chastened note is echoed in Jack
Black’s colorful cult classic You Can’t Win,
in which the itinerant West Coast bad
man sums up his own misspent youth
in a blunt, unromantic account of just
how tough the life of a working-class
safecracker, stick-up man, and hobo can
be. After reading Black, you’ll find it hard
not to root just a little for those Parisian
The Big Con. By David Maurer. 1940.
Anchor, $16.95 (9780385495387).
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit.
By Mark Seal. 2011. Plume, $16
A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of 19th Century New York. By
Timothy Gilfoyle. 2006. Norton, $18.95
Thieves of Book Row: New York’s
Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the
Man Who Stopped It. By Travis McDade.
2013. Oxford, $27.95 (9780199922666).
Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story
of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower.
By Greg Pizzoli. 2015. Viking, $17.95
“Yellow Kid” Weil: The Autobiography
of America’s Master Swindler. By Joseph Weil and W. T. Brannon. 1948. AK
Press/Nabat, $18 (9781849350211).
You Can’t Win. By Jack Black. 1927. AK
Press/Nabat, $16 (9781902593029).
Of course, it’s one thing to lift your
billfold while you’re busy taking selfies
in front of the Eiffel Tower and quite
another to sell you the Eiffel Tower itself.
“Of all the grifters, the confidence man
is the aristocrat,” wrote linguist David
Maurer in his landmark 1940 exegesis of
swindling, The Big Con. Maurer relates in
fascinating detail the ins and outs of those
elaborate long con games that flourished
in the early twentieth century, the mean-est of them displaying an ingenuity that
puts today’s spammers and trawlers to
shame. So minutely does Maurer describe
his confidential sources’ nefarious schemes
that it is hard not to find one’s fingers
tingling just a little bit at the potential
how-to aspect of this manual of deceptions.
Among the most accomplished impresarios highlighted by Maurer was the great
Chicago con man Joseph “Yellow Kid”
Weil, whose own spirited account of his
brilliant criminal exploits was recently
reprinted in AK Press’ delightful Nabat
line of outlaw classics. One of the chief
inspirations of the 1973 movie The Sting,
Weil plays endlessly upon his marks’ own
venality and opportunism. To hear him
tell it, he never robbed an honest man.
Most readers will find at least one sce-
nario they themselves would fall for, or
As for selling the Eiffel Tower, that was
the masterstroke of the man whose many
aliases included Count Victor Lustig, the
subject of Greg Pizzoli’s charmingly illustrated book for younger readers, Tricky
Vic. With suitably monumental chutzpah, Vic sold the Paris landmark to scrap