The lost art of pickpocketing: Why has the crime become so rare in the United States?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 23 2011 10:16 AM

The Lost Art of Pickpocketing

The venerable crime has all but disappeared in the United States. What happened, and should we miss it?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The mark strolls along a city sidewalk, fresh out of the bank, his wallet in his back pocket, blithely unaware that he's stumbled into the clutches of a practiced jug troupe. Someone shouts, "Look out for pickpockets," and when the mark hears it, he feels for his wallet. It's still there. A steer positioned across the street sees this and wipes his brow, signaling to an attractive stall walking toward the mark. She bumps into him, and while the startled mark apologizes for his clumsiness, the hook sweeps noiselessly past with a balletic grace and makes the dip, slipping out the wallet, dropping it into a newspaper and passing it to a second stall, who pulls out anything of value and drops the wallet in the trash. All four troupers promptly disappear into the crowd. It might be an hour before the mark knows what happened, and even then he may never be sure whether it was a pickpocket, or plain carelessness, that cost him his money.

Pickpocketing in America was once a proud criminal tradition, rich with drama, celebrated in the culture, singular enough that its practitioners developed a whole lexicon to describe its intricacies. Those days appear to be over. "Pickpocketing is more or less dead in this country," says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose new book Triumph of the City, deals at length with urban crime trends. "I think these skills have been tragically lost. You've got to respect the skill of some pickpocket relative to some thug coming up to you with a knife. A knife takes no skill whatsoever. But to lift someone's wallet without them knowing …"

Marcus Felson, a criminologist at Texas State University who has spent decades studying low-level crime, calls pickpocketing a "lost art." Last year, a New York City subway detective told the Daily News that the only pickpockets left working the trains anymore were middle-aged or older, and even those are few and far between. "You don't find young picks anymore," the cop told the paper. "It's going to die out." A transit detective in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which operates the Boston area's bus, commuter rail, and subway system, concurred via e-mail. "Pickpockets are a dying breed," he wrote. "The only known pickpockets we encounter are older, middle-aged men; however, they are rarely seen on the system anymore."

Advertisement

The decline of dipping on the rails is extraordinary. Subways were always the happiest hunting grounds for pickpockets, who would work alone or in teams. There were classic skilled canons—organized pickpocket gangs—at the top, targeting wealthier riders, then "bag workers" who went for purses, and "lush workers" who disreputably targeted unconscious drunks. Richard Sinnott, who worked as a New York City transit cop in the 1970s and '80s, also admiringly recalls "fob workers," a subspecies of pickpocket who worked their way through train cars using just their index and middle fingers to extract coins and pieces of paper money—a quarter here, a buck there—from riders' pockets. "They weren't greedy, and they never got caught," says Sinnott. Bit by bit, fob workers could make up to $400 on a single subway trip; then they'd go to Florida in the winter to work the racetracks. Many of the city's pickpockets trained elsewhere, "and if they were any good, they came to New York," Sinnot says, with a touch of pride. "In the subways, we had the best there were." Pickpocketing remained fairly rampant for years. Glenn Cunningham, who was part of an elite NYPD anti-pickpocketing task force in the 1980s and '90s (he currently handles security for Robert De Niro's hotel and film festival), says that pickpocketing in spots like Times Square was "out of control" at that time. "I made tons of arrests with those guys. We were like cowboys."

That was then. In a 2001 story, the New York Times reported that there were 23,068 reported pickpocketing incidents in the city in 1990, amounting to nearly $10 million in losses. Five years later, the number of reported incidents had fallen by half, and by the turn of the millennium, there were less than 5,000. Today, the NYPD doesn't even maintain individual numbers on pickpocketing. "It's hardly a problem anymore," says a department spokesperson. The FBI's definition of the crime is more inclusive than what we would consider a classic pick—the bureau defines it as "the theft of articles from a person by stealth where the victim usually does not become immediately aware of the theft," according to a spokesman—but even broadly defined, that category of larceny-theft has been falling sharply for years.

Experts offer a few explanations for the gradual disappearance of pickpockets in the United States. Crime nationwide—from pickpocketing to homicide—has been dropping since the mid-1990s. People carry less cash today, and thanks to enhanced security features, it's harder for thieves to use stolen credit or debit cards than it was in the past. And perhaps most important, the centuries-old apprenticeship system underpinning organized pickpocketing has been disrupted. Pickpocketing has always perpetuated itself by having older hooks—nicknamed "Fagins," after the crime boss in Oliver Twist—teach younger ones the art, and then absorbing them into canons. But due to ratcheted-up law enforcement measures, including heftier sentences (in some states, a pick, defined as theft from the body of another person and charged as a felony regardless of the amount taken) and better surveillance of hot spots and known pickpockets, that system has been dismantled.

This is not the case in Europe, where pickpocketing has been less of a priority for law enforcement and where professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007, developing their organizations and plying their trade in tourist hot spots like Barcelona, Rome, and Prague. "The good thieves in Europe are generally 22 to 35," says Bob Arno, a criminologist and consultant who travels the world posing as a victim to stay atop the latest pickpocketing techniques and works with law enforcement agencies to help them battle the crime. "In America they are dying off, or they had been apprehended so many times that it's easier for law enforcement to track them and catch them."

But even if Fagins abounded in the United States, it's unclear whether today's shrinking pool of criminally minded American kids would be willing to put in the time to properly develop the skill. "Pickpocketing is a subtle theft," says Jay Albenese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It requires a certain amount of skill, finesse, cleverness, and planning, and the patience to do all that isn't there" among American young people. This is "a reflection of what's going on in the wider culture," Albenese says. If you're not averse to confrontation, it's much easier to get a gun in the United States than it is in Europe (though the penalties for armed robbery are stiffer). Those who have no stomach for violence can eke out a living snatching cell phones on the subway, which are much easier to convert to cash than stolen credit cards, or get into the more lucrative fields of credit card fraud or identity theft, which require highly refined skills that people find neither charming nor admirable in the least. Being outwitted mano a mano by a pickpocket in a crowded subway car is one thing; being relieved of your savings by an anonymous hacker is quite another.

Is it wrong to be nostalgic for pickpocketing? Perhaps, but it's understandable. Pickpockets have long been admired, even celebrated, in American culture, invoked as a sort of shorthand for the honorable thief, a figure of great skill, panache, and even good old-fashioned American enterprise. In Timothy Gilfoyle's book, A Pickpocket's Tale, 19th-century pickpocket and con man George Appo is known as a "good fellow," who unlike other predators in New York's savage Five Corners neighborhood, "avoided violence, employing wit and wile to make a living." The Professional Thief, an influential 1937 tome written by an actual crook and edited and annotated by criminologist Edward Hardin Sutherand, brought the inner workings of pickpocket canons to the public. A breathless 1960 Popular Science article did Sutherland and company one better, breaking down the crime and likening the hook to "the matador, the star of the show, stepping in only for the kill."

Nowhere is this matador more favorably represented than in film, where aspiring wires are often shown practicing their hand on dummies whose coats are adorned with bells or alarms. In 1946's Heartbeat, a piece of treacle in which a 35-year-old Ginger Rogers inexplicably plays a teenaged French street urchin, the Fagin is a refined gentleman who insists on everyone in his class using proper English. The brutish pickpocket in 1953's Pickup on South Street, by Samuel Fuller, shows his heart of gold by aiding the fight against communist agents. More recently, in Ocean's Eleven, Steven Soderbergh establishes both Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell and George Clooney's Danny Ocean as nonviolent good fellows by having the former expertly pick a pocket on the CTA, only to be himself picked by Ocean immediately after.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.