Mobsters and Crooks – George Appo – The Most Famous Pickpocket in the History of New York City
His father was a crazed Chinese murderer, and his mother – an Irish alcoholic. In spite of his lack of proper family upbringing, George Appo’s mission in life was to be the quintessential “Good Fellow.”
George Appo’s definition of the phrase “Good Fellow,” was a man who was an expert thief, one who would not cooperate with authorities, and who absolutely refused to testify in court, even against their enemies. Appo wrote in his 99-page autobiography, which was never published, “What constitutes a ‘Good Fellow’ in the eyes and estimation of the underworld is a nervy crook, a money getter and a spender. A ‘Good Fellow’ valiantly accepts the consequences and punishment of an arrest, even if the crime was committed by another. A ‘Good Fellow’ was a member of a fraternity of thieves.”
In the late 1840’s, George Appo’s father Quimbo Appo, ran his own tea business in New York City, before he moved to New Haven, Connecticut. In 1855, Quimbo Appo met Catherine Fitzpatrick, an Irish immigrant who was only in America a few short years. They married, and in 1856, Catherine Appo gave birth to two children. The first reportedly died in childbirth, but the second was described as “A handsome, healthy boy, very sprightly, as white as his mother, a Yankee boy to all appearances, with only the Chinaman’s breadth between his eyes.”
Shortly after George Appo was born, his father returned with his family to New York City. After working as a tea tester for several companies, in 1859, Quimbo Appo opened his own tea store on Third Avenue, between Seventh and Eighth Streets.
Quimbo Appo had a violent temper, made worse by his wife’s incessant drunkenness. On March 8, 1859, Quimbo Appo came home from work and found his wife, as usual, three sheets to the wind. He began beating Catherine Appo, so viciously, the landlady of their building, Mary Fletcher, and two other tenants Margaret Butler and Mary Gavigan, interceded and tried to stop the beating. Quimbo Appo became so enraged, he pulled out a knife and stabbed Fletcher twice in the chest. Fletcher fell fatally wounded to the floor, screaming, “My God.” Quimbo Appo then stabbed Gavigan in the arm, and Butler in the head.
Quimbo Appo ran to another Chinese boardinghouse, but was soon found by the police hiding under a bed. After he was arrested, Quimbo Appo told the police, “Yes, I killed her.
The front page of the Herald Tribune read the following day, “Murder in the Fourth Ward.”
Quimbo Appo’s trial took place on April 11, 1859. It took the jury less than one hour to reach a verdict of guilty. Even though the prosecutor, District Attorney Nelson J. Waterbury, recommended life imprisonment, a month later, Judge Davies sentenced Quimbo Appo to the death penalty. However, Quimbo Appo’s lawyer appealed the case, and on May 8, 1860, Gov. Morgan commuted Quimbo Appo’s death sentence, and instead gave them a 10-year term in the state penitentiary at Sing Sing.
However, Quimbo Appo’s 10-year bit evolved into a life sentence, because of Quimbo Appo’s penchant for violence, and also because he was basically a lunatic. As a result of several violent incidents, and bizarre behavior on his part, Quimbo Appo never became a free man again. He died at the Watteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane on June, 23, 1912.
After his father’s incarceration, George Appo and his mother returned to their slum apartment on Oliver Street. Soon after, Catherine Appo decided to take her son, and his younger sister, on the ship The Golden Gate, to visit Catherine’s brother in San Francisco. However, the ship was caught in a violent storm and sank. Both Appo’s mother and sister perished, but Appo somehow survived.
Appo wrote, “I cannot explain how I was saved, only that a sailor brought me to New York and left me with a very poor family named Allen.”
The Allen family lived in the rear-yard tenement alley “Donovan’s Lane,” also called “Murderer’s Alley,” located on a tiny strip of hidden dirt, with the tenements so close together, hardly any daylight could penetrate into the alley.
Appo wrote, “One entrance was on Baxter and the other entrance was on Pearl Street. Poor people of all nationalities lived on this Donovan’s Lane. It was a common sight to see every morning at least 6 to 10 drunken men and women sleeping off the effects of the five-cent rum bought at ‘Black Mike’s,’ which was located at 14 Baxter Street. Next door to Mike’s was a second-hand clothing store owned by a man named Cohen, who was a fence, where all the crooks used to get rid of their stolen goods. Up over Cohen’s store was where all the Chinamen of the city lived. At the time there were only about 60 Chinamen in all the city and then the lane was called Chinatown.”
Donovan’s Lane, or if you wish – Chinatown, was in the heart of New York City’s worst slum called “The Five Points.” In this cesspool of humanity, Appo learned the tricks of the trade that enabled him to make a decent living in a life of crime. Appo, at about the age of 10, became part of a group of scavengers, which the people at that time called “street urchins,” “arabs,” “street rats,” or gutter-snipes.” While Appo was making an honest buck at low level jobs, like shinning shoes, sweeping sidewalks, and selling newspapers, Appo also perfected his true love – the art of picking pockets.
It was quite easy for a young boy selling newspapers, to pick the pocket of an unsuspecting mark. Appo used the guise of the “newspaper dodge,” a ruse, in which, while he was ostensibly selling newspapers, Appo, with one hand, would wave the newspaper in a customer’s face, then with the other hand, he’d pick the victim’s pocket.
Appo’s pickpocketing mentor was a master craftsman named Jim Caulfield. Caulfield once told a policeman, “If you will stand for a newspaper under your chin, I can take your watch, your watch and chain, and even your socks.”
In the winter of 1871, Appo was caught picking the pocket of a downtown businessman. The businessman grabbed Appo by the neck, and handed him off to a passing policeman saying, “This boy just robbed $28 from my vest pocket.”
Appo pleaded guilty before Judge Joseph Dowling. The judge sentenced Appo to an undetermined time on floating reform school, which was located on the naval vessel The Mercury. The Mercury housed on board 242 boys, who were convicted of such crimes as vagrancy, truancy, and larceny. On board The Mercury, boys learned seafaring skills, such as navigation, seamanship, military drills, and making all different kinds of rope knots, which were essential in a seafaring life. There were also classes for the boys in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Yet, life on The Mercury was anything but idyllic. The food was barely edible. The water was filthy, and contagious germs permeated the ship.
In 1872, the Mercury made a 9-month trip to and from Barbados. Upon its return to Harts Island, off the coast of Manhattan, Appo and several other boys escaped from the vessel by lowering themselves down by a rope to a rowboat. After they arrived at shore in downtown Manhattan, Appo hustled back to Donovan’s Lane and commenced picking pockets again.
In 1874, Appo was caught by a policeman picking the pockets of a Wall Street executive. Appo tried to flee the scene, but a passing detective followed him in hot pursuit, firing his pistol at Appo. Appo was hit once in the stomach, but he managed to escape.
Appo staggered into a building at 300 Pearl Street, and went to apartment that was occupied by the Maher family. While Mrs. Maher hid Appo under a bed, she ordered her son to go out in front of the apartment building to see if any policeman were in the area. When the coast was clear, Appo fled the apartment, and received treatment at St. Luke’s hospital, from a physician who was friends with one of Appo’s confederates. The bullet in Appo’s stomach was removed, and soon Appo was back on the streets, doing what he had been doing before. Six months later, Apple was caught picking pockets again. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years and six months in Sing Sing prison.
At Sing Sing, Appo was united with his father, who went in and out of lucidity. The senior Appo was normal most days, but on his bad days, he was delirious, and he said things like “I am King of the World.”
In Sing Sing, Appo was given job in the laundry room as a “presser” of shirts. After Appo accidentally burned one of the shirts, Appo’s teeth were knocked out by one of the guards. Then three guards took Appo to the guard room, handcuffed him from behind, and forced him to lay face down on a paddle board table. There Appo was given nine sharp lashes with an oar on his back and spine, rendering him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, the head keeper said to Appo, “Do you think you can go back and do your work all right now? If you don’t, we have a way to make you.”
Appo told the keeper, “You punished me for nothing, and the next time I am brought here you will punish me for something.”
Appo stumbled back to laundry shop. He immediately took the shirts that were on his table waiting to be ironed, and put them inside a hot stove, where they soon were reduced to ashes. After his dirty deed was discovered, Appo was brought back to guard room. When he was asked why he did what he had done, Appo refused to answer. Appo was immediately taken to one of the “dark cells,” where he was imprisoned for 14 days. During those 14 days, Appo was given 2 ounces of bread and a glass of water every 24 hours.
After serving 30 months in Sing Sing prison, Appo was released on April 2, 1876. Surprise, surprise, he immediately went back to picking pockets. In the next eight years, Appo was arrested twice more for pickpocketing, and returned to jail in both instances, the last time on Blackwell’s Island. Appo escaped from Blackwell’s Island, by shimmying down a rope from the ship where he was working, to the water down below. Appo jumped into a small rowboat and rowed until he docked in downtown Manhattan. Appo immediately sunk the boat, and made his way to Mulberry Street, where he was able to borrow some clothes. The next day Appo absconded to Philadelphia.
Appo did very well picking pockets in Philadelphia, but the lure of his old streets in downtown Manhattan, especially the opium dens, was too much for Appo to resist. Back in the sixth Ward, Appo decided to deviate from his usual pickpocketing and engage himself in the flimflam business. Appo’s chief swindle was giving store owners the wrong change for $10 or $20 bill. This racket went fine for a while, until Appo was caught in a jewelry shop shorting the owner. However, through the machinations of the nefarious law firm of Howe and Hummel, Appo was somehow able to escape prison time.
In the early 1890’s, catching pickpocketers and flimflam men became the favorite pastime of the New York City police. So Appo decided to try a new scheme: a scheme where he was less likely to be arrested. This scheme was called “The Green Goods Swindle.”
The Green Goods Swindle was a three-pronged operation. It started with the “operators,” or the bosses, who hired “writers,” who wrote circulars to be sent to all parts of the country. The basis of these circulars was to entice people to agree to purchase counterfeit money. The green goods circular contained wording something similar to this:
“I am dealing it articles, paper goods – ones, twos, fives, tens, and 20s – (do you understand?). I cannot be plainer until I know your heart is true to me. Then I will satisfy you that I can furnish you with with a fine, safe, and profitable article that can be used in any manner and for all purposes, and no danger.”
The writers would also include in the circular the prices for their goods. A typical price list would read: For $1200 in my goods (Assorted) I charge $100. For $2500 in my goods (Assorted) I charge $200. For $5000 in my goods (Assorted) I charge $350. For $10,000 in my goods (Assorted) I charge $600.”
These circulars were sent to people from around the country, who had invested in various lotteries. The feeling of the “operators” was that these were the type of people who most likely would do something illegal for monetary profit. Confederate soldiers were also sent circulars. New York City assistant district attorney Ambrose Purdy explained why, “Former Confederates were so emotionally embittered and economically indebted, that they viewed green goods as a good way to hurt the government.”
Once communication had been established between the “marks” and the “operator,” The marks were directed to take a train to New York City, or to the suburbs close to New York City. There the marks would meet the third cog in the Green Goods Swindle, who was called the “steerer.”
The steerer, one of whom was George Appo, would meet the marks at the railroad station and take them to the operator, or the “turning point,” who was waiting for the mark, either at a bogus storefront, or in a hotel room. The operator would show the marks a sample of his “counterfeit” money, which was actually legal tender. The mark being satisfied that the money he had been shown certainly looked legal, would give the operator the money that had been agreed upon to purchase the “queer bills.” The operator would then put the bonus counterfeit money into a cheap suitcase. A diversion would then occur, temporarily deflecting the mark’s attention. During this diversion, the “operator” would switch the suitcase, and replace it with an identical one given to him by one of his confederates. Of course, the second suitcase was filled would plain ordinary paper, and sometimes even sand.
A this point, the job of the steerer was to get the mark quickly out-of-town, before the mark realized he had been swindled. As added insurance, the operator sometimes employed the services a local cop, or detective, and sometimes even several local cops, or detectives. If the steerer had a problem with the marks, either on the way to the train station, or on the train before it left the station, the crooked cop, or detective would jump in and threatened the mark with arrest, if the mark didn’t leave town immediately. The mark would have no recourse, since he had been attempting an illegal transaction in the first place.
One such illegal Green Goods Swindle almost cost George Appo his life. In February of 1893, Appo was working a Green Goods Swindle with Jim McNally as his operator. Appo was directed by McNally to meet two men at a hotel in Poughkeepsie, New York. Appo went to the New York Hotel in Poughkeepsie, and entered the room of two men named Hiram Cassel and Ira Hogshead, shady entrepreneurs from North Carolina. Appo gave the men a letter identifying Appo as the connection between the Old Gentleman (the operator) and the two men. Appo said that he would take the two men to the train station to board a train for Mott Haven, where they would see the counterfeit money they were purchasing. After the transaction was completed, Appo said he would take the men directly to the train station, pay their fare, and send them on their way back home. Appo told the men that on the way to the train station, they must walk 10 feet behind Appo, and they must speak to no one, including Appo.
When Appo arrived at the train station, he was met by Hiram Cassel, but Ira Hogshead had stopped just short of the station, and was talking to a policeman, the same policeman who recently had a problem with Jim McNally, over his cut in a previous swindle. Appo approached Hogshead and asked him why he was speaking to the policeman. Hogshead said, “I don’t care to do business. I’ve changed my mind.”
Appo walked the men back to the hotel room, where Hogshead insisted the deal was done, and he demanded that Appo leave the hotel room immediately. As Appo was shaking Cassel’s hand, Hogshead shot Appo in the right temple. Appo was taken to the hospital hospital in critical condition. In a few days, Appo’s right eye became infected and it had to be removed.
Cassel and Hogshead went on trial for shooting Appo. However, since Appo, staying true to the code of a “good fellow,” refused to testify against the two men, which prompted the judge to release Cassel and Hogshead, with a simple $50 fine. Appo, however, was arrested for running the Green Goods Swindle, and was sentenced to three years and two months at hard labor. Plus, Appo was fined $250.
Luckily for Appo, after spending only a few months in Clinton prison, on November 28, 1893 the New York Court of Appeals overturned Appo’s conviction.
Feeling betrayed by Jim McNally, and by green goods operators in general, Appo agreed to testify before the Lexow committee, which was looking into police corruption, and their involvement in the Green Goods Swindle in particular. Appo didn’t tell the committee anything they already didn’t know, but he was branded a rat on the streets of New York City, and was shunned by the very people he had done business with for many years.
George Appo caught a break, when in September of 1894, he was approached by George W. Lederer, a renowned theater producer. Lederer offered Appo a part in his new play entitled “In the Tenderloin,” in which Appo’s was to simply play himself, in a play about New York’s underbelly. Appo toured the country in this play for several years, but when the play’s run ended, Appo was stiffed by Lederer for $15,000 in unpaid salary. Appo, although he tried for several years, never did collect his money from Lederer.
At the start of the 20th century, George Appo decided to live a life free from crime. He worked as a car cleaner at Grand Central Terminal, and also as a handyman at Calvary Church, the Sallade dress factory, and in the home of millionaire reformer a Alexander Hadden. In 1915, Appo began working for the government, during its investigations of opium dens. Appo received a salary of six dollars a month, in addition to another six dollars a month for rent for his apartment. Soon, Appo’s salary was increased to $10 a month.
In his final years, little was heard about George Appo. What is known, is that Appo lived in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, on the west side of Manhattan. On August 10, 1929 George Appo was admitted to the Manhattan State Hospital on Wards Island. By that time, Appo was nearly deaf, and almost entirely blind.
On May 17, 1930, even though he had been shot four times, stabbed twice (once in the throat), and brutally beaten in prison, George Appo died at the age of 73, from nothing more than the effects of old age.