Picking pockets is an ancient and still-prevalent form of robbery, a criminal craft complete with its own cryptolect, or secret language. Read on to develop your lexicon of wicked words used by, and about, pickpockets through the ages.
In the sixteenth century and later, the term fig was used to denote the picking of pockets, and the one who did the deed was a figger. There were various classes of figger, depending on skill. The most basic was a nip or cutpurse who simply used a knife to separate money from victim. The more skilled practitioner was a foist. Greene observed in his The Second Part of Conny-catching (1592), that ‘The foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the jugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly.’
Leger de maine, or sleight of hand, would still be in use to describe skilled criminality in colonial Australia during the 1840s. By this time, a favoured pickpocket target was a fogle – the elaborate and expensive pocket-handkerchiefs favoured by gentlemen and those who wished to appear as such – and the craft had become known as fogle-hunting or fogle-getting. Fogle lived on in criminal Cant until about 1930 in Britain and perhaps 1940 in the United States, by which time the value of handkerchiefs to the pickpocket had greatly declined. By the early twentieth century pickpockets in Britain, America and Australia were known as whizzers.
Ancient or modern, pickpockets by whatever monikers they used (they were often known as files in the seventeenth century) have always been highly organised with an extensive trade argot to conceal their crimes. In 1552 Gilbert Walker’s underworld exposé, Diceplay, mentioned the figging law, or pick-purse craft, and almost forty years later Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Coosnage provided a helpful list of the craft terms related to ‘the figging law’:
The Cutpurse, a Nip
He that is halfe with him, the Snap
The knife, the Cuttle boung
The pick pocket, a Foin
He that faceth the man (i.e. the victim), the Stale
Taking the purse, Drawing
Spying of him, Smoaking
The purse, the Boung
The monie, the Shels
The Act doing, Striking
By the late seventeenth century the figging law had become the figging lay, but pickpockets were just as active and organised. As early as 1608 Dekker’s The Belmen of London observed of figgers that they parcelled out territories among themselves and their supposedly Biblical secret language was an effective form of communication and identification:
The language which they speak is none of those that came in at the confusion of the Tongues, for neither infidell nor Christian (that is honest) understands it, but the Dialect is such and so crabbed, that seven yeeres study is little enough to reach to the bottom of it, and to make it run off glib from the tongue: by means of this Gibrish, they knowe their owne nation when they meet, albeit they never sawe one another before …
In the early Victorian era pick pocketing was perhaps the most common form of urban crime. So profitable had the game become that the best wire toolers and fine toolers became known as the swell mob and sported the trappings of wealth, and lived lives to match, further enhancing the possibility for ill-gotten gain. Dippers attended race meetings, fairs, shows and hangings in droves, running the old tricks along with a few new variations developed for the growth of public transport, such as the railway carriage and the omnibus. Maltoolers, often female, deprived middle class women travellers of their purses a pogue, slipped the booty to their stickman who rapidly exited the vehicle, leaving the maltooler with no incriminating evidence should the victim discover her loss before journey’s end.
At this time, men still used large and valuable handkerchiefs as an accompaniment to the fashionable habit of taking snuff. Known as kingsmen, these decorated and colourful squares of cloth were greatly prized on the black market and easily pulled by even child smatter haulers. As with much other Cant speech, there was a complex hierarchy of butterfly-like descriptions for different kinds of handkerchiefs. A watersman was made of blue silk, a randlesman was white and green, while a white and yellow handkerchief was a fancy yellow. From the middle of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to use black handkerchiefs during mourning, a central Victorian obsession, and these items, known as black fogles, became the most valuable for lifting.
So great were the labour demands of this illicit occupation that children were trained in groups by kidsmen to become buzzers from an early age. The celebrated depiction of such an academy in Oliver Twist is very close to reality. The real-life models for the fictionalised characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger were commonplace in Victorian England where children were made to practice dipping skills on tailor’s dummies to which small bells were sewn, tinkling at the slightest insensitivity of a small hand. Despite this training, many were caught and sometimes transported.
‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, as the famous song went. Maybe not.