Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Five best books about the seamy side of long-ago New York

Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize. His new book is A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States.

One of Ward's five best books that capture the seamy side of long-ago New York, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
A Pickpocket's Tale
by Timothy J. Gilfoyle (2006)

This book is doubly a triumph—the raw, previously unpublished autobiography of a lifelong 19th-century criminal, edited and elegantly contextualized by an academic historian who can really write. George Washington Appo was born in New York on July 4, 1858, the son of a Chinese father and an Irish mother. He started out as a child pickpocket in the Five Points, graduated to the confidence game, and became an opium addict, a witness against police corruption and a celebrity criminal who played himself on stage. Through it all, Appo said that he took pride in having been "a Good Fellow in the eyes and estimation of the underworld ... a nervy crook, a money getter and spender" who understood the risks he ran and was willing to accept the consequences if he got caught. He got caught a lot. Put on trial at least nine times, he served 10 years in four prisons. He was also brutalized by his jailers, half-blinded, stabbed once and shot twice but somehow survived until 1930, leaving behind this extraordinary insider's account of a world that, without him, would have been forever hidden from the rest of us.
Read about another book on the list.

A Pickpocket's Tale is one of Elliott Gorn's five best books about criminals.

--Marshal Zeringue