No. 424
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
May 23, 2019

The Swindling Beggar

July 11, 2011
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English Franciscan John Forest was burned at Smithfield on this date in 1538 … the undercard to the simultaneous “execution” of a downthrown idol of Saint Derfel Gadarn. The latter had been ripped from its shrine at Llandderfel in Gwynedd, Wales: the place gets its name from Derfel himself and its devotion to its Celtic […]
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Executed Today - 5/22/2019

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Coming in May! Warps and Wefts is excited to announce the publication of “Dressing Miss Lizzie”, a collection of paper …

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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 4/23/2019

via Newspapers.com Phantom cats and a mysterious death. Who can ask for more in an old newspaper story? The "Brooklyn Daily Eagle," March 13, 1886: Ghost stories from the credulous and nervous gentlemen who draw salaries as guardians of the peace in the precinct covered from the Graham avenue station are becoming frequent. Last week they saw the ghost of an Italian. On Thursday night a
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Strange Company - 5/22/2019
Jeff and Joe Soapy Smith buries Joe Simmons The Illustrated Police News April 9, 1892 (Click image to enlarge) oe Simmons was a tall, slender gambler known to many as “Gambler Joe” Simmons, a member of the Soap Gang who managed Soapy Smith's Tivoli Club in Denver, 1890, and Soapy's Orleans Club in Creede, 1892. According to William Devere’s poem "Two Little Busted Shoes," Simmons
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 3/25/2019
In July 1890, a man came into the 126th Street Police Station in Harlem, New York City, to report a conversation he had overheard in an elevated train. A young man and woman sitting near him were talking about the mysterious disappearance of Miss Goodwin from the Storm King flats on East 126th Street. They believed that she had been foully dealt with by “professional malpractioners.” The woman
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Murder By Gaslight - 5/18/2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street. Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too. “S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the […]
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Ephemeral New York - 5/19/2019
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
The Old Shell Game | Recruiting For Sin's Army

The Swindling Beggar

Blind Beggar

Boston, 1894 - The 1890s were golden years for begging. Economic times were hard and no one was doing well, but those who were physically unable to work had very few options but begging. They would beg on street corners or go from house to house asking for help. It was also a generous and trusting time; the disabled, deformed, and impaired were a reminder that things could be worse. Nearly everyone could spare a few coins for the less fortunate. But begging had become so lucrative in major cities that most beggars were actually able-bodied swindlers.[more]

They usually worked in small groups that would meet after a day’s begging to pool their money and divide it up at some pre-agreed rate. The group would have one leader who would take a small amount from each day’s take and maintain a cash reserve to be used to pay bail and fines, and to tide them over when donations were scarce. Each morning they would dress up to appear in distress, wrapping bloodstained bandages around their bodies, or painting scars and lacerations on their skin, or building up the inside of one shoe to force them to limp.

Each man would take a section of the city beg there until he became too familiar on the street to make any more money or he was driven off by the police. Often the men would sell pencils or other cheap knick knacks to make arrest for vagrancy less likely. They would sometimes hand out pre-printed cards, with verses such as this, to stimulate giving::

A Cripple’s Appeal

Don’t cast this from you, reader,
But read my story through;
I, like many other unfortunates,
Must ask the aid of you.
Misfortune has befallen me,
Like many more before,
My appeal, I wish to tell you,
Is to keep hunger from the door,

Frisco Slim

One band of swindlers well known the Boston Police was led by a man known as Frisco Slim. Even nickname was a fraud; weighing over 200 pounds he was anything but slim. Frisco Slim had lost a finger at some point in his life, possibly in a brawl while gambling. He would augment this disability by treating the skin of his arm with a chemical to simulate a bad burn, giving the impression that he had been the victim of a debilitating accident. Frisco Slim had two lieutenants named English Harry and Sheeny Si. Though they were professional beggars like Frisco Slim, they all claimed to have regular occupations when questioned by police. Slim was a painter, Harry a bartender, and Si a railroad brakeman. They kept a dirty tenement room in Boston’s West End, furnished only with filthy mattresses and vermin haunted blankets.

English Harry

They were always on the lookout for new gang members, especially young people who proved to be the best earners. In 1894 Frisco Slim came across a young orphan boy from Connecticut who was traveling alone. Enticed by promises of making up to ten dollars a day doing nothing, the boy followed Slim back to the room the gang’s West End room. They put his arm in a plaster cast, gave him the nickname, Kid Johnson, and sent him out to beg.

Kid Johnson proved to be a prodigious earner, but his career of begging in Boston was not long lived. Sometime during the winter of 1894-1895, the Boston Police raided Frisco Slim’s lair, arresting Slim, English Harry, Sheeny Si, and several other members of the gang, including Kid Johnson.

Sheeny Si

The hardened criminals were put in jail, but police held out hope that young Kid Johnson could be reformed. They took pains to find him a good job as a clerk with opportunity for advancement. He tried it for a while, but Kid Johnson soon bolted. He left behind a letter thanking his friends at the police department for their kindly care and regretting that their hope in him had been disappointed. He was already hooked on the easy life and left Boston to join the knights of the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Eldridge, Benjamin P., and William B. Watts. Our rival, the rascal a faithful portrayal of the conflict between the criminals of this age and the defenders of society, the police. Boston, Mass.: Pemberton Pub. Co., 1897
  • Riis, Jacob A.. How the other half lives; studies among the tenements of New York.. New York: Charles Scribners's Sons, 1890