Friday, February 26, 2010

Crooks Like Us

Today I'd like to share with you the book I've been reading: Crooks like Us, by Peter Doyle. It has a strong Australian focus, so it would surprise me if any of my overseas readers have heard of it before – a shame, because it's a really fascinating insight into the seedy underbelly of life in the 20s and 30s.

The book consists of informal mug shots of some of the criminals who came to the attention of inner-city police stations in Sydney, Australia. Not all suspects were photographed once arrested - from about 1910 to 1935, “special photographs” were taken as a way to keep track of those people who “in the opinion of the arresting officer, were liable to lapse into a life of vice and crime”. In particular, this meant confidence men, thieves and underworld figures – in an age where identity was fluid, names could be changed at will, and personal histories could be invented off the cuff (without fear of having their story ruined by a quick google or a glance at their ID cards), “special photographs” became the police's only way of keeping tabs on these crooks. They were expected to know these career criminals by sight, and thus the photographs mostly consist of repeat offenders rather than, say, participants of a drunken brawl.

The mug shots differ wildly from the ones we see today – they have a soft, naturalistic quality about them, and capture these 'crooks' with all their individual quirks and human complexity for us to see. Many of the men look relaxed, confident – a cocky grin spreading across their faces, ready to pick up another big score the minute they're released. Others stare downwards, the shame almost palpable as their eyes brim with tears. A few have the marks of desperate men, their pinned pupils an indication of the addiction driving their criminal behaviour. Sometimes, we have only the name of the suspect etched into the negative to give us a clue as to the person's identity – in other cases, Doyle has found files and newspaper articles to give us a detailed insight into their life and crimes. (The other unusual aspect of these photos is that there are typically two of each suspect – one with hat, and one without!)

In Australia, the crime scene was a little different to the popular american gangster image of the time. Guns were not as readily available, so most violent criminals stuck with razors, garottes, or the basics – their fists. Interestingly, the Sydney underworld was run by women! Two archrivals – Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh – were some of the most powerful figures in the criminal world up until the 1950s. This was due to a legal loophole that made it illegal for a man to run a brothel, yet perfectly legal for a woman to do the same! Both women were able to use their brothels as a location to sell sly grog, drugs, and host illegal gambling, and were known as the “Queens of the Underworld”. Their loyal gang members featured heavily in Doyle's book, often being arrested after murders and brawls to do with Kate and Tilly's violent feud.

I picked up a huge amount of slang describing many of the tricks and crimes of the day, including:

  • “ringing the change” - this trick is hard to describe – essentially, it's confusing a shop assistant by constantly chattering and swapping the amount of money they're given (ie giving a note, then saying you'll 'offload some of your change instead', then changing the items you want to buy) to the point where the crook is able to walk away with not only the items 'purchased', but more money than he started out with! (Can you believe people still try to pull this one on me nowadays?)
  • “Sneak Thieves” were men who frequented cinemas in order to steal from distracted patrons
  • “Rock Spiders” was a category of criminals including peeping toms, along with those known as “park touts” - people who stole items from “amorously preoccupied” couples in public parks!
  • Apparently “wife desertion”was a crime too!
  • The “old friend” routine - A technique used by female pickpockets, where they would approach a wealthy looking gentleman on the street, throw their arms around him and shower him with kisses! While the man recovered from his embarrassment, the woman would relieve him of any valuable he was carrying, and then leave, pretending as if it was a case of mistaken identity.
  • "Magsman" - a confidence artis; the "buttoner" the man who encouraged the mark to participate in the game. Typical tricks of the day included "the brass" (where a mark was encouraged to participate in a group bet on a fixed race), "railway sharping" (a magsman would board the train at one station, the buttoner several later, in order to appear like strangers meeting on a train and so as not to arouse suspicion in the mark. Some highly elaborate scams would have several buttoners who would swap 'shifts' at various stations) and "the madman act" (a man would behave erratically, money stuffed into every pocket, asking passersby to play cards with him. The mark would believe it would be easy to rid this clearly insane man of his money - of course, it would not be so).
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the lives of 'everyday people' in the past - after all, one cannot get a well rounded understanding of the people of the day without acknowledging those from the underbelly of life.


Debi said...

Wow!! Sounds like a great book! I will have to check it out. I absolutely love the mug shots!

harbourmaster said...

Ooh I've got this one too, an entertaining read and a GREAT historical reference!

Stefanie Valentine said...

This sounds really interesting, i love crime books. I'll have to add this one to my list of to-read books! x

Ruby Roulette said...

That book sounds really interesting! I love how the criminals get a chair to pose with in their mug shots!
P.s. Thank you for the lipstick tip, I will try it out because so far I'm not having much luck.

sueper said...

quite a revelation, great to have a view on 'normal'daylife back then

reizendinsect said...

Hi there I just came across your blog whilst procrastenating at work...! You have a great eye for fashion and I love the approachable way in which you write. I am currently living in Melbs on the working holiday and am always on the lookout for great affordable opshops. I live over in Northcote so am able to get around easy. Any advice you might have about some shops would be greatly appreciated!


BaronessVonVintage said...

really interesting photos (PS: dunno how I missed this post the first time 'round. I think there's something wrong with my blog reader). Anywhoo, sounds like an interesting book! I was particularly fascinated by the images of the female criminals...

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