Critical Intel

Critical Intel
You've Got To Pick a Pocket or Two

Robert Rath | 5 Sep 2013 12:00
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But while deep urban poverty was becoming a force for the first time, the new economy raised up and expanded the new middle class, who wanted to buy all sorts of consumer goods to celebrate and enjoy their new success. To the poor, these goods were unattainably luxurious - a wig, for example, could cost the same amount an average worker would make in a good year. In other words, capitalism and urbanization simultaneously created desperate poverty as well as a new market for consumer goods that could be stolen and re-sold anonymously in the city's markets. Add into the mix that London wouldn't have a professional police force until 1829 and you have a situation almost guaranteed to breed new and innovative theft.

You can easily see this connection between consumer goods pickpocketing by examining the kind of things thieves stole. "Star-Glaziers" cut holes in shop windows and filched the goods on display. "Anglers" leaned out second floor windows, stealing hats, wigs and even pocketbooks with a fishing rod. "Tail Drawers" stole gentlemen's swords from their hips and "resurrection men" robbed corpses from cemeteries and sold them to anatomy students. We see, then, that contrary to most games that depict pickpockets stealing money, historical thieves were more like the ones in Skyrim, who steal precious objects then sell them through a fence.

Who Were the Pickpockets?

On the whole, most pickpockets during the Georgian era were children who would steal under the direction of an adult. Loose throngs of rascals would invade fairs, markets and theater crowds, stealing handkerchiefs, snipping off gold buttons or silver shoe buckles and then disappearing into crowd. They'd bring any goods they lifted back to their keeper, who'd fence them and provide the children - most between 12 and 14 but some as young as six - with food, gin, tobacco and prostitutes. Pickpocketing gangs preferred children because they were quick and nimble, exactly the right height to dip into pockets and able escape through a crowd. As an added benefit, English courts couldn't sentence anyone under the age of seven to death - the standard punishment for theft of goods over 1 shilling in value - and had to prove special malice to execute someone between seven and fourteen. This was perfect for the gangs, who invested in their young charges long-term by teaching them the trade and hoping they'd grow up to take on bigger, more lucrative criminal activities. Most pickpocket gangs had formal training programs, called "schools of vice" by Victorian era reformers, where adult criminals engrained the lessons of theft through beatings. Whenever pickpockets became too big for the trade, they moved up in the organization, advancing to more serious crime like burglary or mugging.

But pickpocketing wasn't the sole domain of children - women too had the nimble fingers and quick hands required in the trade. Prostitutes in particular were known to steal (or have an accomplice steal) a client's possessions while he was distracted. The problem was so prevalent that both high and low culture tried to warn men about the danger. William Hogarth's third oil painting in A Rake's Progress shows a drunken Tom Rakewell being fleeced by prostitutes at the Rose Tavern, for instance, and Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, an infamous 18th century guidebook to London's prostitutes, warned purchasers away from women known for theft. "She is as light finger'd and expert as a juggler," said the List, of Miss West of No. 14 Wild Street. "And can pick her gallant's pocket very coolly."

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