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George Appo and the Subjugation of the “Criminal Class” in 19th Century New York

According to Thomas Byrnes, in the late 19th century, the “ways of making a livelihood by crime [were] many”, and as a natural consequence of this, New York was rife with “professional criminals,” ranging from bank burglars to shoplifters to pickpockets.[1] Byrnes describes pickpockets in particular as “an interesting class of thieves”, and Timothy J. Gilfoyle emphasizes that most of the members of this class had a “lack of access to education or more formal employment opportunities” as a result of their low-income or immigrant backgrounds.[2] George Appo was a member of this “criminal class”, which I define here as a community of criminals forced into a life of crime by their socioeconomic standing. Appo shared with the rest of the “criminal class” a lack of education, a teenaged beginning to a life of crime, a sense of identity, and an arcane language which ultimately made it all the easier for law enforcement to identify and arrest them, with no warrant, under far-reaching vagrancy laws.[3] As a result of the prevalence of criminals (reaching into the thousands in New York by 1886), their homogeneity, and the simultaneous limited resources and unlimited power of law enforcement, by 1880, New York City police began to systematically arrest and incarcerate lower-class people who were “unable to find a secure footing in the boom-and-bust urban industrial economy, especially those excluded by background, race, unemployment, or misfortune”.[4] Thus, the life of George Appo coincides with and parallels that of the rest of the “criminal class” at this time, in which membership — and therefore likelihood of incarceration — is determined more by appearance, socioeconomic standing, and bias from law enforcement than a proven predilection for crime.

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