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This article is about the crime. For the Robert Bresson film, see Pickpocket (film).
Eighteenth-century engraving showing pickpocket George Barrington being apprehended in action.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480. A pickpocket, in cahoots with the conjurer, is shown at far left.

Pickpocketing is a form of larceny that involves the stealing of money or other valuables from the person of a victim without them noticing the theft at the time. It requires considerable dexterity and a knack for misdirection. A thief who works in this manner is known as a pickpocket.

As an occupation[edit]

Pickpockets and other thieves, especially those working in teams, sometimes apply distraction, such as asking a question or bumping into the victim. These distractions sometimes require sleight of hand, speed, misdirection and other types of skills.[1][2]

Pickpocketing can be a dangerous trade, since persons aware of the presence of pickpockets in an area may conceal such items as specially designed mousetraps,[3] rat traps or empty decoy wallets on their person. Since pickpockets usually have no way to gauge the contents of a wallet, save by the style of dress of the victim, they must take what they find.

Pickpockets may be found in any crowded place around the world. However, Barcelona and Rome were recently singled out as being particularly dangerous pickpocket havens.[4][5][6] Thieves have been known to operate in high traffic areas such as mass transit stations, even boarding subway trains so they can use the distractions of crowds and sudden stop-and-go movements from the train to steal from others. As soon as the thieves have what they want, they simply get off at the next stop leaving the victim unable to figure out who robbed them and when.

As entertainment[edit]

Pickpocketing skills are employed by some magicians as a form of entertainment, either by taking an item from a spectator or by returning it without them knowing they had lost it. James Freedman, also known as "The Man of Steal", created the pickpocket sequences for the 2005 film Oliver Twist directed by Roman Polanski.[citation needed] Professional illusionist David Avadon featured pickpocketing as his trademark act for more than 30 years and promoted himself as "a daring pickpocket with dashing finesse" and "the country's premier exhibition pickpocket, one of the few masters in the world of this underground art.".[7][8] Smith Journal of Australia has described America's Thomas Blacke as one of the top pickpockets in the world.[9]

Famous pickpockets[edit]

Famous fictional pickpockets include The Artful Dodger and Fagin, characters from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Famous true-life historical pickpockets include the Irish prostitute Chicago May, who was profiled in books; Mary Frith, nicknamed Moll Cutpurse; the Gubbins band of highwaymen; and Cutting Ball, a notorious Elizabethan thief. George Barrington's escapades, arrests, and trials, were widely chronicled in the late 18th century London press.

Pickpocketing in the 17th-18th centuries[edit]

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a very important number of men and women pickpockets, operating in public and/or private places and stealing different types of items. Some of those pickpockets were caught and prosecuted for their theft, however, in most cases, they managed to avoid punishment (whether they were skilful enough not to get caught or they were acquitted in Court). Although we refer to them as "pickpockets" today, this is not necessarily how they were called in the 17th century: they were sometimes referred to as "cut-purses", as can be seen in some 17th century ballads.[10]

Indeed, at the time, pockets were not yet sewn to clothes, as they are today. This means that pockets were actually a little purse that people wore close to their body. This is especially true for women, since men's pockets were sewn "into the linings of their coats".[11] Women's pockets were worn beneath a piece of clothing, and not "as opposed to pouches or bags hanging outside their clothes".[12] These external pockets were actually still in fashion until the mid 19th century.[12]

Who were the 17th-18th century pickpockets?[edit]

Pickpocketing in the 18th century was a gender diversed crime, meaning that many men and many women committed this crime (looking at prosecuted cases of pickpocketing, it even seems to appear that there were more female defendants than male[13]). Alongside with shoplifting, pickpocketing was the only type of crime committed by more women than men.[14] It seems that in the 18th century, most pickpockets stole out of economic needs: they were often poor and did not have any economic support (see Shoemaker[15]), and unemployment was "the single most important cause of poverty",[16] leading the most needy ones to pick pockets.

In most cases, pickpockets operated depending on the opportunities they would get: if they saw someone wearing a silver watch or with a handkerchief bulging out of their pocket, the pickpockets would take the item. This means that the theft was, in such cases, not premeditated. However, some pickpockets did work as a gang, in which cases they would rather plan a theft, even though they could not be sure of what they would get beforehand (Defoe's Moll Flanders[17] gives several examples of how pickpockets worked as a team or on their own, when the eponymous character becomes a thief out of need).

The prosecutions against pickpockets at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1808 show that male pickpockets were somewhat younger than female ones: 72% of men pickpockets convicted at the time were aged from under 20 to 30, while 72% of women convicted of picking pockets were aged between 20 and 40.[13] One reason that may explain why women pickpockets were older is that most of women pickpockets were prostitutes (this would explain why very few women under 20 years old were convicted for picking pockets). Indeed, at the end of the 18th century, 76% of women defendants were prostitutes, and as a result, the victims of pickpockets were more often men than women.[13]

In most cases, these prostitutes would lay with men (who were frequently drunk), and take advantage of the situation to steal from these clients. Men who were robbed by prostitutes often chose not to prosecute the pickpockets, since they would have had to acknowledge their "immoral behaviour".[16] The few men who actually decided to prosecute prostitutes for picking their pockets were often made fun of in Court, and very few prostitutes ended up being declared fully guilty.[13]

The men who were prosecuted for picking pockets and who were under 20 years old were often children working in gangs, under the authority of an adult who would train them to steal.[16] The children involved in these gangs were orphans (either because of having been abandonned or because their parents had died), and the whole relationship they had with the adult ruling the gang and the other children was that of a "surrogate family".[16] Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist provides a good example of how orphans were recruited and turned into street criminals.

Where did pickpockets operate and what did they steal?[edit]

Men and women pickpockets tended to operate in different locations: 80% of male pickpockets operated in public areas while 78% of female pickpockets operated in private places.[13] This can be explained by the fact that most women pickpockets were prostitutes, robbing their victims in their lodging after having laid with them. Men pickpockets, on the other hand, tended to opeate in public places because they did not have the opportunity that prostitutes had.

The fact that men and women did not operate in the same places led to them stealing different types of items: men stole mostly handkerchiefs,[13] because they were one of the easiest item to take from someone without them noticing it. Women tended to steal watches (some pickpockets also stole watches in public places, but it was more difficult) and bags with money in them. When defending themselves in Court, prostitutes often argued that the money had been a gift from the victim and managed to be acquitted, as the men prosecuting them were often drunk at the time of the theft and were not taken seriously by the Court.[15]

How where pickpockets prosecuted?[edit]

In the eyes of the law, pickpocketing was considered a capital offence from 1565 on:[13] this meant that it was punishable by hanging.[16] However, for the crime to be actually considered as a capital offence, the stolen item had to be worth more than 12 pennies, otherwise it was considered to be petty larceny,[13] which meant that the thief would not be hanged. The 18th century law also stated that only the actual thief could be prosecuted - any accomplice or receiver of the stolen item could not be found guilty of the crime: "This meant that, if two people were indicted together, and there was not clear proof as to which one made the final act of taking, neither should be found guilty"(Palk, 2006, p. 69).[13]

Moreover, in order to be able to prosecute someone for pickpocketing, the victim of the theft had to not be aware that they were being stolen. In 1782, a case at the Old Bailey made it clear that this was supposed to prevent people who had been stolen while they were drunk to prosecute the defendant (in most of cases that meant men who had been stolen by prostitutes):[13] The victims of pickpockets who were drunk at the time of the theft were considered to be partially responsible for being stolen.

Even though pickpockets were supposed to be hung for their crime, this punishment, in fact, rarely happened: 61% of women accused of picking pockets were acquitted[16] and the ones who were not acquitted often managed to escape the capital sentence, as only 6% of defendants accused of pickpocketing between 1780 and 1808 were actually hanged.[13]

In the cases of prostitutes being accused of having pickpocketed male prosecutors, the jury's verdict was very often more favourable to the woman defendant than to the man prosecuting her.[13] Indeed, men who had been lying with prostitutes were frowned upon by the Court. One of the reason was that they had chosen to take off their clothes, they were also drunk most of the time, so they were responsible for being stolen. The other reason is that it was badly considered for a man to mix with a prositute, which is why in many cases there was actually no prosecution: the victim was too ashamed of admitting that he had been with a prostitute.[13]

In those cases, since the jury was often inclined to despise the prosecutor and to side with the defendant, when they did not completely acquit the woman they often reached a partial verdict and this mostly meant transportation[13] to America (that is the case for Moll Flanders[17]), and to Australia later on.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Heap, Simon (1997). "Pickpocketing in Ibadan, 1930–60". Urban History 24 (3): 324–43. 
  2. ^ Heap, Simon (2010). "'Their Days are Spent in Gambling and Loafing, Pimping for Prostitutes, and Picking Pockets': Male Juvenile Delinquents on Lagos Island, Nigeria, 1920s–60s". Journal of Family History 35 (1): 48–70. 
  3. ^ "Comedy". Motion Pictures From The Library of Congress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912. University of California Press. p. 122. The Rat Trap Pickpocket Detector 
  4. ^ "Barcelona, pickpocket capital of the world ", The Daily Mail, September 25, 2009
  5. ^ "Italy - #1 for Pickpockets", WorldNomads.com, October 20, 2011
  7. ^ Nelson, Valerie J. (4 September 2009). "David Avadon dies at 60; illusionist specialized in picking pockets". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "The Fastest Pickpocket in the West". David Avadon. 
  9. ^ Smith Journal of Australia, Benjamin Law. V 2, p 29-31, Autumn 2012.
  10. ^ "EBBA ID: 30274 - UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive". ebba.english.ucsb.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  11. ^ webmaster@vam.ac.uk, Victoria and Albert Museum, Online Museum, Web Team,. "Wearing Pockets". www.vam.ac.uk. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  12. ^ a b "What's in a Pocket? — Historic New England". www.historicnewengland.org. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Palk, Deirdre (2006). "Pickpocketing". Gender, Crime and Judicial Discretion 1780-1830. Great Britain: The Boydell Press. pp. 67–88. ISBN 086193282X. 
  14. ^ "Historical Background - Gender in the Proceedings - Central Criminal Court". www.oldbaileyonline.org. Retrieved 2015-11-05. 
  15. ^ a b Shoemaker, Robert (2010). "Print and the Female Voice: Representation of Women's Crime in London, 1690-1735". Gender & Histor 22: pp.75–91. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f Hitchcock, Shoemaker, Tim, Robert (2010). Tales from the Hanging Court. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9780340913758. 
  17. ^ a b Defoe, Daniel (1722). Moll Flanders. England: Penguins Classic. ISBN 9780140433135. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]