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Brooklyn's Artful Dodgers

May 9, 2012 10:06 AM | 0 comments

Brooklyn used to be lousy with dips. They were everywhere filching anything they could get their filthy paws on, these dips were. The Eagle ran one story back in the 1930s about a gang of dips posing as a bunch of grieving mourners so they could snatch some easy loot away from the unsuspecting weepy-eyed bereaved at a Jewish funeral. Dips were the lowest of the low. At least a hold-up goon had the decency to plug you with a gat. Not the dip. The dip was a sneak. The dip was a rat. But wait...what's a dip you might ask? Well -- you know -- a fobber, a jostler, a sometime lushworker or purse-snatcher, but always and everywhere a common, no good, thieving pick pocket. 

Pickpocket at work -- In this posed picture, a "dip" deftly extracts a victim's wallet while he holds a folded newspaper into which the loot is quickly thrust. Published in the Eagle, August 4th, 1946.

Down on Deck 4 in the Eagle morgue we have drawer upon drawer of clippings filed away under the heading Robberies. Within this criminal genus we find a number of rarer species: Robberies -- Accordion; Robberies -- Baby Carriages; Robberies -- Human Ashes Theft; Robberies -- Diapers; Robberies -- Face Powder; Robberies -- Furs (typically plundered by "thugs") and, of course, what interests us here: Robberies -- Pickpockets. If you have any hankering to read more about the history of the five-fingered discount here in Brooklyn, you could do worse than make an appointment with us to browse these clippings. The stories are usually brief, almost always tragic, and every once in a while more than a little amusing.

Of the latter variety is an article which appeared under the above headline on May 12, 1925. Two dips who had been in and out of prison about as much as their busy fingers had been in and out of pockets were busted when the older of the duo, James Monroe, couldn't free his hand from one jumbo pocket's trap. Here's how the paper reported it: "Monroe had his hand in the trousers pocket of a fat man, who was perspiring freely. The pocket had become damp and, in trying to draw his hand out, it stuck to the pocket, dragging the pocket with it." 

One of the sadder pickpocket tales to appear in the pages of the Eagle was published on August 6th, 1923. Turning a sympathetic eye to the circumstances that might drive one to a life of dipping, the Eagle reported on the plight of an undernourished, brown-eyed, bobbed haired Italian girl named Viola. The waif portrayed in this account of despair appears here and there in the description to be flickering like a dying flame; the reader should take care lest he blow her out, so tenuous her claim on existence seems. Just four feet tall at the age of 16, she stands before a judge in plain cotton frock trimmed with coarse white lace and begins to explain: "'I took the pits out of cherries. I worked for a week. I made $7.21. My stepmother made me give it to her. I didn't go back to the canning factory next week. I went to Fulton St. for the pocketbooks.'" Who could blame her?

Then of course there are the tragic stories, like the one above, when the petty larcenies aren't so petty. Poor Max Syndowsky! Wary of trusting his hard earned dough to a bank, he kept his savings on his person, that is until a jostler came along on the Myrtle Avenue elevated and decided to keep them on his person. But Max's mind must have been elsewhere; he'd just come from Washington Cemetery where he was visiting his mother's grave. If only she had been alive to give him some advice. Oh you dummy, she might have said, keep your stash in a fannypack, Max! And no wonder that when Max's wife found out about the theft she fainted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $6,370 in 1913 money (Max lost his in 1912, but never mind, the inflation calculator doesn't go back that far) has the same buying power as $147,598.69 in 2012. I'm surprised Max's wife didn't murder him. But who knows, maybe she did, I didn't check the following day's issue of the Eagle.

But it wasn't just the squealers, the perps, and the marks who had a tough go of all this dipping, so too did the coppers. As you might expect, to catch a dip you gotta think like a dip, and if there's one thing a dip don't like it's a cop. By which I mean to say, the police officers on the Pickpocket Squad (there was such a thing) often went undercover to catch their crooks. But as you can imagine, catching a pickpocket -- that expert of diversion and concealment -- was no easy task. Just a few months after Max Syndowsky lost his life savings, Detectives Dowling and Kennedy of the Bedford Avenue police station were mixing it up in a crowd of Saturday night shoppers looking to nab some fobbers. Dressed in plainclothes the detectives eyed a couple of kids, Samuel Wallach and Max Nathan, making real cozy with a lady's pocketbook. When the cops moved in to make the arrest the two Artful Dodgers raised such a cry that all the shoppers at Grand and Havemeyer dropped their packages and fell on the officers thinking they were assaulting the innocent youngsters. The fracas didn't end until police reserves were called in to squelch it, but by that time the detectives were already a sorry sight: a black eye for Kennedy and a face all pulped up with scratches "inflicted by the infuriated women shoppers" for Dowling.