A Treatise on Thieves, written by W.- a prisoner in the care of George Laval Chesterton, Governor of the House of Correction at Cold bath Fields, London and quoted in his book 'Revelations of Prison Life', 1856.
Thieves, gonophs or crossmen, in London, are divided into several mobs or gangs, named from the district which they inhabit, distinct from each other; but the parties forming the several mobs are well known to each other - not so much of late years by any particular marks on their person, as by their constant intercourse with each other, by their frequenting the same houses, and by their suffering in the same prisons. In practising their art (or, as they express it, 'when at work'), they do not indiscriminately practise all the branches of their profession; some are more expert than others at pocket-picking; these are termed buzmen or nuxmen. This is the branch the swell mob chiefly practise. Most young thieves commence their career by taking handkerchiefs and are called fogle-hunters,- a silk handkerchief being named a fogle...The swell mob select some of these kids (boys), more expert and respectable in their appearance than their fellows, to assist them in their skin and sneezer (purse and snuff-box) buzzing depradations. Some thieves are expert at snatching anything from the person, and this branch is termed flimping. A lady's reticule, a gentleman's watch, or a child's necklace, in a press (or as they term it, a push), is readily taken by the flimper, who, behind others, watches his opportunity to snatch it away. This is most frequently practised at theatres, on entering or retiring. Some, more daring, join in a party of four to six - meet a gentleman whom they may have seen to have money about him, or who has a watch (yack or thimble), and by jostling and hustling him about, take away everything from him. This is done more commonly in retired places - sometimes in public streets, and, more astounding, occasionally in the midst of the day, in the exposed streets of this metropolis: so cleverly do the parties concerned meet at the same moment around their victim, rob him, and as speedily move off in various directions to meet at some appointed place, leaving the object of their plunder in a state of perfect wonder and astonishment, if not of momentary stupor. This is named ramping. Others, more determined, practise housebreaking: these are termed cracksmen. Some, to gain entrance, make use of false keys (screws), and these are named screwsmen. Most cracksmen are men who have been transported (lagged or served), and are termed tried men. They are to be considered desperate characters - men who would not scruple to take life when their own or associates' (pals') safety demands the sacrifice. Some crack a pane of glass in a shop front, and, by passing the wet thumb along, they can direct the crack as they please; the piece of glass thus separated is to be removed in various ways - which effected, they remove jewels, or silk goods, to an amazing amount. This is named starring. Others practise going into areas, or outhouses, under pretence of begging or selling trifling articles, and take valuables, as plate, &c., which may lay in their way. This thief is called a sneaksman. A species of this description of thieving is done by boys, who go into shops on their hands and feet, get round the counter, take the till, and then sneak out in the same manner - their safety depending on no customer coming in meantime. This is termed lob-sneaking. The names given to the plunderers of society appear to be of endless variety - vagrants, divided into cadgers and high-flyers; showful-pitchers; smashers or shawnsmen, utterers of counterfeit coin, dog fanciers, or dog stealers; fences or buyers of stolen articles; Jew bouncers, those who obtain money by means of false notes-of-hand, &c., &c., - each of which, in its place, would require pages to describe.
In their habits and manner of life, men living on the 'cross' (by dishonesty) vary much amongst themselves. A grand distinction is to be drawn, in this respect, between the swell mob and common thieves; the former being, for the most part, men of the world, of some education - not appearing at all flash (thief-like), but, on the contrary, acting the part of gentlemen in society. Unknown as thieves, to any except their own immediate companions, they frequent those public-houses the landlords of which they know to be what they term right (ie a thief's friend), who would screen them from justice, in case of necessity, by all means in his power...
The apartment they make use of is generally on the first floor, and is on occasion held sacred by even the landlord himself - it is here they plan their various schemes - here they meet the evening before a levee, address or other public procession takes place, to arrange what parties are to work together, and where to meet the ensuing morning - here they assemble in the evening after the levee, to share their spoils - to joke and tell how neatly the skins (purses) were drawn from the kicks (trowsers pockets), the thimbles (watches), from the gurrells (fobs), the ridge (gold) or wedge (silver), sneezers (snuff boxes) from the fans (waistcoat pockets), the dummys (pocketbooks) from the pits (breast pockets) or slashes (outside coat pockets) and how the old bloak (old man) was propped (squeezed) and his skin drawn from his fan where he had been seen just before to deposit it for better security. In this apartment they agree to a marauding excursion through the country, visiting all the fairs, races &c., on the way, appointing for their purposes, who is to act the part of the countryman with the smock-frock, breeches, boots, and spurs - who the servant, and who the gentleman, and here over their bottle they tell of deeds of darkness, some of which in the cracking line (house breaking) would cause the blood of an honest man to run cold.
The booty they obtain is amazing, but it is as soon squandered by their profligate and generally debauched manner of living. Their life when engaged at their profession being a scene of constant anxiety, all their leisure hours are spent over the bottle and pipe. In the addresses which took place to the late Queen, pocket-picking was practised to a great extent; they considered themselves unfortunate if they did not realise twenty or thirty pounds each man per night. In their business they are liable to equal fluctuations with men living in the square world (honest tradesmen). It is remarked that they are particularly dissatisfied and discontented when baulked of an expected purse, more especially if they have seen its value; under such circumstances they will sit for hours in a meditating mood, without exchanging a word with their companions, who well knowing their feelings, do not interrupt them, until by the action of some intoxicating liquor their spirits revive. Some of the swell mob combine the qualifications of cracksmen and buzmen, but this is rare; they make a great deal of money at the gaming booths at the various fairs and races which they frequent, by different manoeuvring games where the chances are three and four to one in their favour. When in town, and at a loss for cash, they make sure of a trifle by attending the theatre, where in the push on going in or coming out, they are certain of getting a watch or purse at a comparative trifling risk. They frequent all public performances where a great concourse of people are assembled, as prize fights &c.
As a body their system is so complete in itself that they can obtain information on any subject at any time. They are well aware, it is confidently asserted, in many cases of the parties who, and the time when, they have to draw sums of money from the banking houses, as also of the time when dividends have to be drawn, indeed 'tis said, their information is so sufficient on this head, that a party will go on 'change, and without previous personal acquaintance, pick out his man - dog him - nor does he leave him till, in many instances, he succeeds in robbing him, sometimes under such circumstances, to an alarming amount.
Their homes are generally in the suburbs of town; when married they for the most part keep cases (houses of accommodation), some are unmarried, and these, to remove suspicion, take a small house and keep a jomer, or sheelagh (mistress), who gives out in the neighbourhood that her husband is a traveller of some description or other. Others reside with those of their fraternity who occupy entire houses. The conduct of this class of thieves towards each other is in every respect strictly honourable; their attachments firm, and confidence implicit.
Cracksmen and screwsmen come next in order to the swell mob, as to respectability of character in their profession, and lastly, common thieves, who differ in every respect from the above, being men of no connection, many nurtured in the art from their mother's womb. They place no reliance on each other, unless obliged to do so. The thefts they commit are petty, and consequently frequent, and they must be considered as of the lowest grade in society.
The writer of the paper was one of those perverse beings who, untaught by experience, still clung to the hope of thriving by his chicanery. Six years subsequently to his discharge from his first sentence, he again became my prisoner. In this instance, he had been guilty of an offence which none but a man of ability could commit. He had passed an examination before the College of Surgeons, for a consideration, in the name of another, for whom he was about unlawfully, and most mischievously to obtain a diploma.