Over the last few months I’ve been reading, a few chapters at a time with a group of students, Timothy Gilfoyle’s A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York. The book uses the life–and a rude manuscript autobiography–of a famous nineteenth-century career criminal, George Appo, as a window onto crime and punishment in the nineteenth-century metropolis.
Though I’m finding many aspects of the book fascinating–its detailed discussions of routine torture for prisoners at Sing-Sing and overcrowding on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island); its discussion of Appo’s mixed Chinese and Irish heritage (his Chinese father was well-known, first as a model minority and then as a murderer); its anatomy of underworld cons and categories of persons (especially the importance of being a “good fellow”)–I’m a little let down overall that the book spends so much time making Appo representative of a larger class of criminals and leaves a lot to be said about his celebrity status, or what made him extraordinary.
Still, lots of enticing details that make me look at my neighborhood in new ways. I’ve often thought of the old crime-ridden Mulberry Bend and the Five Points or Bartleby in the Tombs when I bike my daughter to school through Chinatown each morning, but today I caught myself looking out for number 4 Mott Street, which is where one of Appo’s favorite opium dens was located. (Today it’s a large glass Citibank building just off Chatham Square numbered 2-4 Mott.) Gilfoyle writes:
The den at 4 Mott Street was one of the best known, but not the first opium den in New York City, as Appo believed. More accurately, it was the first well-known opium joint that allowed Euro-American visitors to indulge in opium smoking. In 1882, an Evening Post reporter described a visit to 4 Mott Street as “an extraordinary experience.” The den was situated in a four-story tenement just off the Bowery, only a few steps from several prominent concert saloons. Inside, smokers reclined on low platforms extending the length of the small, dimly lit room, their heads supported by small wooden stools. The Chinese proprietor, Poppy, weighed and served opium in little seashells. Fumes from the pipes filled the room with such a thick, bluish cloud that one visitor claimed it was impossible to see his hands held at his waist. When the smoke cleared, he observed a dozen small peanut-oil lamps glowing “like the fire flies in a fog,” and a room packed with smokers, all of whom were Euro-Americans. Poppy busily moved from patron to patron supplying opium, many crying out, “Poppy, gimme a quarter’s worth.”
Who were these Euro-American opium smokers? The habit wasn’t cheap. Appo could afford it because his crime paid fairly well (when we wasn’t locked up). Plus he had an in with some big-shot Chinese gangsters. Appo writes of the scene in his manuscript life story: “Mott Street was being deserted by the good American people on account of the Chinese tenants drifting into the neighborhood rapidly.” (Appo never identified as Chinese himself, apparently.) “With the Chinamen came many American opium habitues from the West, most of them from San Francisco, and all crooks in every line of stealing brought on to the East by the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia. … [Poppy’s] was crowded day and night by opium habitues from all stations in life, both men and women, some of good social and financial standing. Most of the rest were crooks in every line of dishonest business, from the bank burglar down to the petty thief.” Slummers and the criminal poor, smoking up in cosmopolitan fellowship. Simpler times.
If the days of cross-class opium dens are safely behind for most New Yorkers, some monuments of Appo’s world remain: One of the most interesting details in the book, I thought, was Gilfoyle’s note that “Convict labor” (provided by Sing-Sing’s “quarry slaves”) helped to “transform New York City into a ‘vast expanse of marble palaces,'” including Federal Hall on Wall Street (built as a Customs House in the 1830s) and Grace Church at Broadway and 10th. The idea of the stones for those buildings being hewn by captive labor reminds me of a comment from Marshall Berman’s introduction to New York Calling: he recalls something his father used to say when he was a kid admiring the city’s grand structures: “And don’t forget who built this.” When Marshall would ask “Who?” his dad would respond: “People we never heard of, who worked themselves to death.”
(Photo of Grace Church from bridgeandtunnelclub.com)