The lush worker is headed to the annals of early American crime.
The New York Times recently reported that, according to the New York Police Department, a specific breed of pickpocket, the lush worker, will soon be extinct. The lush worker rides the New York City subways late at night looking for a drunken reveler who has fallen asleep during his train ride home. The thief will then nudge the potential victim and if there is no response, he or she will use a straight-edge razor to cut open the man’s pocket and take his wallet.
A Unique Combination
The individual methods, time, and place that go into defining a lush worker are not unique. The use of a blade or scissors to cut open someone’s pocket or purse goes back to at least the seventeenth century in London, when pickpockets employed this method in the midst of large crowds. Thieves have long taken advantage of the late night, when it is easier to find people with their guards down due to drunkenness or sleepiness. And public transportation has often provided opportunities for pickpockets to prey on unsuspecting riders.
But there is something about the precise combination of all these components that is leading to the demise of the lush worker in New York City. In fact, the combination has become so unique that the NYC police department knows with certainty that there are only 109 practicing lush workers in the city, and almost all of them are middle-aged men or older.
Crimes have been known to disappear over time. Some early crimes, like witchcraft, are no longer prosecuted because the behavior is no longer considered criminal. Other crimes have disappeared due to evolving technologies and social structures. Highway robbery vanished when cars replaced horses as a primary mode of transportation, and people could no longer hold up someone sitting in a steel box going 30+ miles per hour.
The police do not know exactly why lush working is dying out. Perhaps the skill involved in cutting open a pocket without slicing the victim’s leg is considered too great to learn. Perhaps easier and more lucrative crimes have attracted petty thieves who are coming up the ranks. But even though someone falls victim to a lush worker almost every weekend, the number of lush workers keeps falling every time one of them retires or dies. (Although, perhaps the New York Times article and this one will inspire more thieves to try their hand at the trade.)
Since the New York Times article focuses on the demise of the lush worker, I thought I would investigate some of the early instances of the practice in America. As I searched early newspapers for stories, the singularity of lush working became clear, because none of the reports I uncovered precisely fit the approach of these modern-day pickpockets. But my searches also reveal that the lush worker belongs to a specific family of pickpockets who have a long tradition in America.
Some of the cases I found involved sleep, but not necessarily drunkenness. In 1872, George Fisher of 510 Broome Street in New York City was unable to sleep indoors due to the heat of the summer, so he sat outside on the steps of his residence and “was shortly in the arms of Morpheus.” At four o’clock in the morning, the feeling of someone going through his vest pocket awakened him. Fisher quickly realized that he had been robbed of one dollar, but he luckily spotted the perpetrator walking away from him and was able to have him arrested.
In 1909, Henry Slavic of Enderlin, North Dakota believed that procuring a hotel room during his visit to Minneapolis would be a waste of money. He felt secure in his knowledge that he had $60 sown into the lining of his pants, so he put together a makeshift bed in an alley and fell into a deep slumber. His night outdoors was so comfortable, in fact, that he almost turned over and went back to sleep when the sun hit his eyes in the morning. But he jumped out of “bed” when he happened to look down and saw that his trousers had been ripped to shreds. Needless to say, his $60 was missing.
C. H. Yates of Fort Worth, TX had a dream one Friday night in 1915 that he was late for work, but when he reached into his pocket to pull out his watch to prove to his irate boss that he was indeed on time, he could not find the timepiece. Yates then woke up on the street bench where he had fallen asleep during the night and discovered that his dream had truth to it: his watch was indeed missing from his pocket. He looked up and spotted someone running away from him a half block away, but he was unable to recover the watch.
Alcohol may have played a role in the above pickpocket cases, but the newspaper articles make no mention that it did. More often than not, though, those who imbibe too much raise their chances of falling prey to a petty thief. In 1891, the Evening News of San Jose, CA reported that Thomas H. Coogan was arrested for robbing a drunk in the rear of a saloon after he was spotted cutting open his victim’s pocket and taking his money. The victim, however, was too drunk to know how much money Coogan had stolen from him.
The earliest American case I could find of someone who fell victim to pickpockets who resemble today’s lush workers involved Thomas King of Dublin, Ireland. In 1834, King came to Philadelphia with the Solicitor General of Upper Canada, but when it came time for the two of them to head to Toronto, King could not be found because he was out getting drunk. His companion decided to leave without him.
King remained in the city for two weeks in a constant state of drunkenness, until one morning he returned to his hotel without his hat, watch, or pocketbook, which had been removed from his coat pocket after it had been shredded with a razor blade. The one thing that King was in possession of, however, was a black eye. Still drunk, King attacked the owner of the hotel after he accused the man of robbing him. The owner dragged King to the police station, where during questioning King took a swipe at the investigating officer. King was thrown into a cell to sober up and was charged with assault and battery.
In order to combat the activity of the 109 lush workers operating in New York City, plain clothes police officers ride the trains looking for suspicious activity, although some of the pickpockets have been arrested so many times that they recognize and even greet the officers. In 1899, a vigilant conductor of a trolley car in New Orleans spotted William Nagel robbing a rider. He notified the police, and it turned out that Nagel, an elderly man who fits the description of today’s lush workers, was a first-class pickpocket. The victim, G. L. Ray, a barber who lived at 628 Bourbon Street, turns out to have spent much of the night getting drunk with Nagel. Nagel was arrested and charged with robbery. Ray was also arrested and charged with being drunk.
On a train bound for San Francisco in 1907, Herman Cohn stole the watch of N. D. Hall after Hall had fallen asleep next to him. Once Cohn procured the watch, he leaned back and boasted about his accomplishment to the man sitting behind him and informed him that he was going to go after Hall’s money next. Hall, however, woke up, discovered that his watch was missing, and immediately suspected his seatmate. Hall grabbed Cohn by the neck and pushed his thumbs into his Adam’s apple until Cohn’s tongue was forced out of his mouth. Hall then threatened, “Now dig up that watch you ____ ____ before I kill you.” Cohn reached into this left pocket and returned the watch.
Meanwhile, the man sitting behind the two riders notified the conductor about Cohn’s earlier disclosure, so a police officer was waiting at the station to arrest Hall when they arrived in San Mateo.
All of the crimes cited above contain elements of the approach employed by lush workers today, but in each case at least one element is missing. Here are the two cases I came across that appear to resemble the operation of today’s lush workers the most.
While riding on the No. 35 train of the Southern line to Charlotte, NC in 1902, a passenger who claimed to be a painter engaged R. L. Stogner in seemingly endless conversation. Stogner was glad to leave the train and his talkative companion when they pulled into the station, but when he arrived uptown he discovered that a hole had been cut in his hip pocket and that his purse containing $17.50 was gone. His seatmate had used his conversation skills to distract Stogner while he cut an incision in his trousers and took the purse. Current-day lush workers would no doubt be impressed by the ability of this pickpocket to carry out such a theft on a conscious victim.
In 1869, Alfred Oliver got drunk with three other men during a trip to New York. But when Oliver sobered up, he discovered that the pocket of his pants, which contained $215 worth of gold, had been cut out. Oliver reported the theft to the police upon their arrival, and the three men who were drinking with him were arrested. These lush workers certainly did not select the best place to carry out their crime: they were on a passenger ship bound from San Francisco to New York, which severely limited their ability to escape from the crime scene.
Even though I was unable to find an early case that precisely matched the practice of today’s lush workers, all of these stories are close enough that I am confident that such cases must have occurred soon after trains became a primary mode of transportation. They simply went unreported. After all, how many people want to admit to falling prey to a pickpocket after falling asleep drunk on a train?
- “Alleged Larceny at Sea.” New York Herald, June 10, 1869, vol. XXXIV, issue 161, p. 5. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “A Conductor’s Eye.” Times-Picayune, August 30, 1899, p. 8. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Dreams His Watch is Stolen; Wakes, Fins He’s Right.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 5, 1915, vol. XXXV, issue 105, p. 5. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “From the N.Y. Transcript.” Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), July 15, 1734, vol. XXXII, issue 5137, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Neatly Nabs Pickpocket Who Stole His Watch.” San Jose Mercury News, April 4, 1907, vol. LXXII, issue 94, p. 9. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Pickpocket Uses His Knife.” Charlotte Observer, December 19, 1902, p. 5. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Robbing a Drunk.” Evening News (San Jose, CA), September 22, 1891, vol. XX, issue 40, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “Wakens and Finds Clothing Cut Off.” Grand Forks Herald, July 24, 1909, vol. XXVIII, issue 229, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
- “The Way of the Transgressor.” New York Herald, August 14, 1872, p. 8. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.