Reflection on Timothy Gilfoyle’s “The Guns of Gotham”

Gilfolye’s essay works through the ins and outs of the late nineteenth century pickpocket of New York and social reaction that resulted from its prevalence. He even goes as far as to call the period between 1866 and 1887 “the age of larceny” (Boehm 164). Interesting to note, pickpocketing was never defined in the criminal code of New York and hence was made the equivalent of burglary and robbery causing the penalties to be open to a wide range of variable. This would later open the door for judges and activists to “throw the book” at petty thieves, giving them long and hard sentencing for crimes as little as stealing ten cents. At one point, Gilfolye states, “ larceny was treated more severely in New York City than in New York State” (Boehm 168). They went so far as to pass a law that called for any theft or taking and carrying away of property to be treated in the court system as grand larceny even in cases where less than twenty five dollars of value were involved. The very act of touching someone deemed to be a potential victim was punished as assault during this time making the atmosphere more paranoid than ever. According to the statistics provided by the essay, violent crimes such as murder saw shorter sentences and less convictions than larceny during this time frame.

Another interesting perspective on this issue in delivered in Gilfoyle’s presentation of cultural factors that lead to the prominence of pickpocketing. The forced proximity of people in a crowded city lent itself well to the constant contact needed for pickpocketing to be successful. Also, the common wardrobe of the time offered easy access to pockets as there were several available and in places that allowed for the sleight of hand to go unnoticed. The final factor, and possible most revealing of the New York culture, was the sheer amount of cash carried by citizens. Without the ubiquity of banking that we have today, New Yorkers had nowhere safer than their person to keep their monies. And the amount of commerce taking place in this new metropolis was so constant that having cash was a must to move about the city. The formation of gangs of swindlers and thieves was inevitable. The climate created the opportunity for those normally outside of the money economic exchange to get their share of the wealth. Naturally, this lead to a code of conduct and a lingo that fit this demographic exclusively. Whether it be good fellows or petty thieves, New York was always going to be the breeding ground for parasitic crimes. With a culture so focused on capital advancement, there would always be a place for crooked cops, pickpockets, white collar criminals, and would be heroes looking to make a career on punishing them. Suddenly, Batman doesn’t sound like that crazy of an idea.

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