“I understand the doctor said he got tonsillitis”: a story from The Professional Thief

Last week I wrote a review of The Professional Thief, a book about the lifeways of professional thieves in the 1920s.  Today, I thought I’d give you a brief story from that book.  This particular incident comes from one of the other thieves who contributed to the manuscript.  I chose it because it’s kind of funny, plus it gives a little glimpse of why professional thieves found amateurs so damn irritating:

I was eating supper in a cafeteria with an occasional thief and drug addict who was a student in a law school.  Two coppers were sitting at another table near by.  The occasional thief had selected our table and had not recognized them as coppers.  They were not in uniform, but a uniform is not needed to advertise to a professional that a copper is a copper.  They could not have possibly been anything else.  My friend said loud enough so the coppers could hear, “Did you hear what Jerry Meyers got?”  I knew alright that Jerry got four years, but I was not going to let the coppers know that we were talking about anyone who had received a bit [(prison sentence)], and I had to hush the youngster up.  I could not say, “Nix!” as a thief might have said if the coppers had not been able to hear, for that word in itself would have informed the coppers that we were worth watching, and besides my friend would not have understood what the word meant in that connection.  So I said, “I understand the doctor said he got tonsillitis.”  A professional thief would have sensed danger at once and would have carried on along that line, but my friend thought I must be hard of hearing or else a fool and he started in again, “No, I mean…” but I kicked him under the table and butted in again with some more information about tonsillitis.  The police were watching us carefully, and I could not office (warn) my partner by moving my eyes toward them.  As soon as I hesitated for a moment on the tonsillitis, he started in again on what Jerry got, so I had to get up and go to the counter for something more to eat.  When I returned I picked up his book on Conveyances and looked at it a moment and then asked, “Have you seen the new book on Abnormal Psychology by Dr. Oglesby?”  The policemen, who had finished eating some time before, immediately got up and reached for their hats.  I nudged my partner to look at them, and as they stretched up you could see that each had a revolver in a holster.  They doubtless went away thinking, “Just a couple of harmless university students or professors.”  My partner now understood why I had interrupted him and skinned his shins, and he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me they were here?”  I had told him a half-dozen times in language any professional thief would have understood but which he could not understand, principally because he did not have the attitude of suspicion which is the foundation of the indirect method of conversation, but also because he did not give me credit for good sense.”1

 ~ * ~

1. Conwell, Chic, and Edwin Hardin Sutherland. 1937. The Professional Thief. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press. pp. 19-20.

About lupachi1927

My name's Megan, and I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher. This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927. If you're looking for research help, writing feedback, or just want to say hi, feel free to drop me a line! :)
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1 Response to “I understand the doctor said he got tonsillitis”: a story from The Professional Thief

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I loed it 🙂


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