The Criminal Class

This section explores the idea of the “criminal class” and how socioeconomic factors determined whether individuals pursued lives of crime. First, “Boss” Tweed and George Appo are used as contrasting, illustrative examples of criminals with vastly different amounts of power — “high criminals” and “low criminals”. The Five Points neighborhood is then discussed as a self-perpetuating source of criminals in the 19th century. Finally, the role of gangs in uniting the “high criminals” and “low criminals” within Five Points is explored.

Table of Contents:

  1. Boss Tweed and Accountability for Powerful Criminals in 19th Century New York

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

3. The Five Points Neighborhood and the Emergence of the Criminal Class in 19th Century NYC

4. Crafting Criminal Community: The Rise of Gangs in the Five Points Neighborhood

    Boss Tweed and Accountability for Powerful Criminals in 19th Century New York

    Crime in 19th Century New York City was often executed out in the open. One of the greatest threats to day-to-day life was posed by young pickpockets who thrived in crowded, busy streets in broad daylight.[1] The public nature of the offense made it all the easier to incarcerate those who committed it.[2] Similarly, William M. “Boss” Tweed, leader of Tammany Hall, exerted his corrupt political influence via holding highly visible public office, making no effort to obscure the massive gains he and his ring were able to make as a result of their thriving power. However, because of both Tweed’s personal wealth and the focus the criminal justice system had on eliminating low-lives such as pickpockets, Tweed was sentenced to disproportionately light sentences in comparison to the gravity of the many crimes he committed. This is reflective of the difference in treatment of crimes committed by “high criminals” (criminals with great power and wealth) and “low criminals” (criminals with no power who have little choice but to commit crime to get by).


    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.


    The Five Points Neighborhood and the Emergence of the Criminal Class in 19th Century NYC

    The “criminal class” in late 19th Century, as defined by Timothy J. Gilfoyle, consisted of “professional criminals whose livelihoods derived exclusively from illegal activity.”[1] Yet, this label did not apply to wealthy professional criminal figures such as Boss Tweed, whose crimes were “an open secret in political circles.”[2] Instead, the low-life “‘rats, ‘gamins’, ‘Arabs’, ‘urchins’, and ‘gutter-snipes’” were actively sought and incarcerated in prisons such as the Sing Sing Penitentiary.[3] The distinction between these two types of “professional criminals” was not based on the magnitude of the crime, but the power and background of the criminals themselves. Since making an honest living “was predicated on access to certain social networks,” the impoverished were significantly more likely than others to resort to a life of crime.[4] For example, pickpocket George Appo grew up in “probably America’s most impoverished urban neighborhood”, Donovan’s Lane — part of the infamous Five Points ghetto.[5] The neighborhood of Five Points, throughout the 19th century, was “rife with vice, crime, and misery” and hence served as a neighborhood harboring the “criminal class” — that is, poor, desperate youths who engage in criminal activity to make a living as a result of both limited resources and early exposure to an environment in which other criminals exist.[6]


    Crafting Criminal Community: The Rise of Gangs in the Five Points Neighborhood

    The deplorable conditions of the Five Points neighborhood in 1829, the low-life impoverished criminals which resided in it, and the increasingly powerful corrupt figures seeking to take advantage of that situation coincided in the 19th century, thereby expediting the formation of gangs at that time.[1] In a sense, the “criminal underworld” as described in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York was a self-sustaining machine: the Five Points neighborhood fostered criminality, the low-level criminals sought asylum in one form or another from corrupt officials, and the corrupt officials utilized the low-level criminals to achieve their own ends, thereby solidifying the criminality of the Five Points neighborhood.[2] This environment of structurally supported crime allowed for the development and advancement of formalized gangs in the Five Points neighborhood. The dynamic served to help the gang bosses both to profit more extensively from crime, and distance themselves from the actual acts, for which the lowest-status criminals tended to be prosecuted.