Ever wonder what it would be like to be a professional thief in 1925? Well, wonder no more! In his study The Professional Thief: by a Professional Thief, Annotated and Interpreted by Edwin H. Sutherland, Indiana University sociologist Edwin H. Sutherland takes you into the fascinating world of professional thieves with the help of “Chic Conwell,” a real-life thief and con man. Though published in 1937, most of the book’s content is really from 1909-1925, thanks to its publication history. The manuscript passed through many hands on its way to the printers: after Chic wrote the original MS, Sutherland gave copies to four professional thieves and two detectives, all of whom reviewed it and added comments in the footnotes. Afterwards, Sutherland wrapped the book up with a short sociological commentary of his own. What emerges from this complicated process isn’t a dry academic paper, but rather a fascinating firsthand glimpse of a part of Chicago’s underworld.
Other chapter topics include “The Mob,” which describes how groups of thieves work together to steal; “The Rackets,” which mention some of the different jobs that thieves can work, covering everything from pick-pocketing to elaborate cons; and “The Fix,” which explains how professional thieves are rarely convicted for their crimes, thanks to a “fixer” who will bribe cops and judges for them—plus a number of other chapters which detail thieves’ attitudes towards everything from getting picked up by cops (one thief described them as being “like the rain,” inevitable and pointless to get sore about), to how they make “normal” friends (yes, thieves will have friends who are “on the straight and narrow” and know full well what their pal does for a living—but the thief will never steal from them). The final chapter, “Interpretation,” sees Sutherland taking back the reins to offer a larger sociological context in which to put Chic’s experiences and explanations.
While the chapter titles might sound dry, they read as anything but thanks to Chic’s informal, rambling tone, which is peppered throughout with colorful criminal slang. What’s especially great about the slang is that Sutherland took care to leave all of it in with minimal explanation, simply adding in a brief explanation as each term appeared (ie,: “racket (job)”), and then letting the term stand for the rest of the book. Thus, by the end of the manuscript you could understand convoluted slangy sentences like this bit of dialogue I just made up, where a pickpocket is talking to his mob: “Okay, boys, I’m the wire, remember? Now here’s how it’s gonna go: I’m gonna fan the sucker, and then Joe here is gonna prat the sap into the newsstand while I shade the duke, grab his poke, and make for the alley. If I get tumbled, I’m gonna clean it off onto Tim. Got me?”1
Using language like this over the course of the book makes the reader feel like an insider. Add this to the fact that Chic’s tone is already pretty informal, full of funny stories and interesting period details, and you end up getting a very good feel for what everyday life might have been like for a professional thief at that time. There’s even a glossary at the end of the book if you get lost with all the slang. It’s a great resource for writers who want to sprinkle some criminal slang into their historical fiction.
The footnotes are another major source of interest. Chic makes a lot of broad statements and presents a lot of his opinions as “fact” throughout the book—some of which are hotly contested by the footnote commentators. One particular point where many commentators differed was in the chapter “Stealing as a Business,” where Chic insists that most thieves are like businessmen, who see stealing as “just a job” to make ends meet and take no pleasure in it. While some of the commentators agreed, others talked about the “rush” they got from stealing. One guy who’d gone “straight” and owned a hotel still talked about how whenever a likely target walked up to the desk he’d be suddenly overcome by an urge to steal—even though he had no financial need to do so.
Chic and Sutherland’s book isn’t just for historical fiction writers, however. Fans of TV shows like White Collar, The Mentalist, and Leverage will find a lot to enjoy, since all of those shows explore the mindset of professional thieves. They will recognize many of Patrick Jane’s cons in the chapter about rackets—and a lot of Mozzy’s paranoia in the chapter “The Thief and Society,” which mentions that a thief can never fully relax while out in public—just in case someone recognizes him from a job and decides to flag down the coppers.
Getting one’s mitts on this book, however, isn’t quite as easy as all this talk of thieving might make it out to be. Personally, I was lucky enough to obtain an original copy through my local inter-library loan, but there aren’t too many copies around. Luckily, the University of Chicago, which originally printed the book back in 1937, is still selling it POD-style. Otherwise, you can track it down with your library via its WorldCat entry here.
Still not sold? Try this Indiana Law Journal review, which was written shortly after the book was published.
Want some extra fun? Watch this YouTube video where a professional pick-pocket demonstrates techniques that Chic would have recognized back in his day:
1.Translation: “Ok, fellas, I’m the guy doing the actual stealing, remember? (the wire—also called a tool, hook, or instrument—is usually the guy in charge during a pick-pocketing operation). I’m going to lightly feel up the victim’s pockets for money (fanning) while Joe pushes him around to distract him and set him up for picking his pocket (stalling), then I’m going to hide my hand behind a newspaper as I slip it into his pocket (shading the duke) and grab his pocketbook (poke). If I get suspected of theft (tumbled), I’ll be sure to hand the pocketbook off to Tim before getting arrested (clean). Got it?”←