Old Time Crime In New York – Prostitutes And Panel Thieves

19th Century Prostitution and a Sly Trick of the Trade

Every so often we will look back at the history of New York City.

Secrets of a great cityToday’s entry is from “The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City” by Edward Winslow Martin published by Jones, Brothers & Co. 1868

Edward Winslow Martin was the pseudonym of James Dabney McCabe and he published this book or a slightly altered version of it many times beginning in 1868 under various titles and through different publishers until 1883 when he died.  The illustrated book is a 600 plus page turner of practically every sleazy aspect of 19th century New York, with some history and a few positive aspects of the city thrown in.   Needless to say it is a great read!

I love old books about New York and here the descriptions of the criminal acts are told in a straight ahead manner, although sometimes are sprayed with flowery adjectives. In this short excerpt from chapter XXXIII on street walkers, McCabe describes “The Panel Thief.”


This method of robbery is closely connected with street-walking. The girl in this case acts in concert with a confederate, who is generally a man. She takes her victim to her room, and directs him to deposit his clothing on a chair, which is placed but a few inches from the wall at the end of the room. This wall is false, and generally of wood. It is built some three or four feet from the real wall of the room, thus forming a closet. As the whole room is papered and but dimly lighted, a visitor cannot detect the fact that it is a sham. A panel, which slides noiselessly and rapidly, is arranged in the false wall, and the chair with the visitor’s clothing upon it is placed just in front of it.

While the visitor’s attention is engaged in another quarter, the girl’s confederate, who is concealed in the closet, slides back the panel, and rifles the pockets of the clothes on the chair. The panel is then noiselessly closed. When the visitor is about to depart, or sometimes not until long after his departure, he discovers his loss. He is sure the girl did not rob him, and he is completely bewildered in his efforts to account for the robbery. Of course the police could tell him how his money was taken, and could recover it, too, but in nine cases out of ten the man is ashamed to seek their assistance, as he does not wish his visit to such a place to be made public.

I’m surprised panel thieves have not made a comeback in the 21st century. It seems like a fairly effective method of thievery.

In the near future we will take another look at this book, as one chapter bears further examination.

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