Beggar's slang, 1907
george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Jan 24 20:03:53 UTC 2007
Those who do not delight in long posts on obsolete slang should delete
Now that they are gone, the rest of us can kick back and have some fun.
I was looking in Proquest's NYTimes last week for my old college buddy
Frisco Slim, and came up with the following report from 1907. It
includes the following words which are either antedatings or words not
otherwise recorded in the sense here: bracer, bug, cow, fagin,
flopper, high-heel game
and wheezer; also of some interest are beat, jocker and yegg.
I have added the paragraph numbers.
PEST of BEGGARS LOOSED on THE TOWN; Professional Mendicants,
Made=up Disfigurements, Return to Prey on City's Charity. Fagin's
Filled Again With "Yeggs," "Crust=Throwers" and "Floppers"
1) New York is once more at the mercy of hordes of professional
2) On Feb. 5 last Police Commissioner Bingham abolished the
police detailed to detect and arrest such offenders. The skilful
“bracer” and the Fagins, with their youthful dupes, flocked back to the
metropolis. Last week a half a dozen notorious “yegg” men were seen in
their old haunts. All of them, like Fagin, train boys and girls to beg
on the streets, after being disfigured with “bregs” [sic] or prepared
for the “high heel game.” The “yegg” men and mendicants lack
organization, in that each plies his begging tricks for himself, but
they have “nests” and resorts where they gathered last week to exchange
the news and enjoy the favor of their influential “friends.” At these
meeting they decided on the section of the city to be covered by each
the following day, or on trips to suburbs like Newark or Montclair.
Thus, while the city was not laid out into “beats,” the plans of each
did not conflict with the routes of the others.
3) *** The system existing among the “yegg” men and other
beggars, the very existence of their resorts and their “improved” trick
depend almost entirely on the American vagrants. The professional
beggars from Europe keep to themselves and do not co-operate.
4) Because the American “yegg” men and humbler mendicant[s] spend
money as fast as they get it, men and women who are friendly with them
or belong to their class find it profitable to keep “nests” and dives
for their benefit. These resorts make co-operation possible. Three of
these “nests” have been uncovered. One was in Hamilton Street, in the
Seventh Ward, Manhattan; another centred around Nassau Street, in the
Fifth Ward, Brooklyn, and a third – a small one – was on 118th Street,
not far from Second Avenue, in Harlem.
5) The outward appearance of these dwellings suggested cheap
houses. After careful watching the beggars were seen to enter them in
the evening and later some of them emerged again, their wounds and
gone, their crooked limbs straight, their sightless eyes with
vision, their wooden legs replaced with artificial limbs.
6) The “yegg” men and mendicants have repaired again to four
the lower east side -- the saloons kept by Thomas Lee, or “Chicago
Tom,” on Chatham Square; the place of an ex-tramp, close by, and the
saloon of “Diamond Dan” O’Rourke in Park Row. Thomas Lee is a friend
the Sullivans, and, according to mendicancy Officer james Forbes of the
Charity Organization Society, is also regarded as “the yegg man’s
friend.” The “rum beggars” of the east side – the lowest of the
professional mendicants – are found in a cheap lodging house on
Street. Here they rent hammocks for the night for 7 cents, cot beds
10 cents, and a meal with a quart of beer for a dime.
7) Begging on the streets goes on in familiar forms. There is the
“crust thrower,” who casts a dirty fragment of bread into the gutter
makes a dive for it and pretends to eat it ravenously as a
charitable-looking old lady happens in sight. Her alms received and
out of sight, the beggar repeats the trick. This “game” was introduced
to America by Leon de Meyer of Paris, a veritable “prince of beggars,”
who has been driven from New York, but who has many followers.
8) Then there are “the wheezers,” so-called because they played
accordions or little organs which whistle and groan as they grind out
some hymn or patriotic tune; the “fit throwers,” who suddenly sink
apparently lifeless to the pavement; the bogus labor men and sailors,
the “old soldiers” with missing arms bandaged to their bodies under
their shirts, and the old, feeble, or diseased with printed appeals, or
9) Six “yegg” men in New York last week practiced street begging
most “improved” style. They belong to a class by themselves in that
they do not ask for alms, but have boys and girls begs for them. These
men are known among their companions as “Susquehanna Red,” “Illinois
Whitie,” “Scranton Blackie,” “Cal Bill,” “Frisco Slim,” and “Clinton
Blackie.” All but the man last named had boys as accomplices; “Clinton
Blackie” was employing a girl. The men are called “jockers,” the boys
“punks,” the girls “cows.”
10) It was found that the system represented an old trick of the
The boys were given a “bug”; that is, their left forearms or their
ankles were burned with lye or caustic, causing an ugly sore, then
the arm or foot was bandaged in such a way that the wounds were
uncovered and excited the pity of the people on the streets.
11) The “yegg” man who has become a “jocker” is a graduate from the
school of “hobo.” In most cases, it was found, their “punks” or boys
were lads who had run away from home or had been kidnapped. They were
held by fear of arrest or abuse; the girls, or “cows” by affection or
the despair of degredation. So universal is the practice of burning a
“bug” on the left forearm or left ankle of a “punk” that if a boy
into the ranks of the full-grown “yegg man,” as is usually the case,
police look at once for the scars on his left leg and arm which betray
his old calling.
12) The girl, or “cow,” was playing the “high heel game” with a
lameness. One of her shoes was built up, inside and out, like those
used by sufferers from hip disease. This threw the girl’s hip out of
place. Her bent knee was hidden by her skirts. Struggling down a
crowded street with this pitiful deformity (?) [sic] and with the aid
a crutch the money of the charitable came to her in a steady stream.
The “bug” and the “high-heel game” earn as much as $20 a day to the
13) If the “cow” has an emaciated face and pathetic eyes she plays
being a young widow, penniless and tearful, or a num, with all the
and trimmings, even to the knotted girdle and rosary, soliciting alms
from house to house. The “widows” and “nuns” are not so profitable,
however, as the “bug” and the “high-heel game.”
14) What was the “jocker” doing while his dupe was winning money
by fraud? The “punk” or “cow” were never out of his sight. He kept an
eye on the nearest policeman. He was ever on the watch for detectives.
The moment there was danger of interruption or arrest he signaled to
his victim. The “punk” or “cow” stopped begging until the danger was
past and the “jocker” gave the signal to begin again. ***
15) Three notorious “bracers” of the “gentleman” type were also
their trade on the streets last week. Jean Dawson was found on upper
Broadway. He was a man with a mournful eye and a heavy jaw, who posed
as a stranded clerk or expert accountant, and reeked in the smell of
liquor. His English was that of a gentleman, his request modest, his
sufferings palpable as he shivered in thin clothes on a cold night, his
pride seemed to be deeply wounded that he should be forced to beg.
Dawson has a record as a thief who takes unwatched bags and overcoats
railroad stations. His pal was Richard Rarboard, alias “Kid McCoy,”
posed as a stranded college student. The third is known only
Rudolf.” He is a master beggar of the “gentleman” class and has a long
record of offenses and punishments.
New York Times, January 27, 1907. p. SM4
bracer (para 2 & 15): OED, HDAS & Cassell's lack this. HDAS
has "brace", a verb meaning "to accost", from 1889. Evidently
a "bracer" is a beggar who accosts passerbys with a sad story.
beat (para 2), a criminal's domain: HDAS has 1836, 1865, from
Partridge's Dict Underworld, and 1933.
breg (para 2) & bug (paras 10, 11 & 12), an artificially induced
sore: "breg" isn't in OED, &c.; "bug' is, but not in this sense. As
an old time English major, I know about the principle of preferring
the more difficult reading -- and find me one of the new breed of
English majors who will know what that means; if there are 10 in the
country I'm a soused gurnet -- but just the same, I suppose
that "breg" is a misreading of the reporter's handwriting.
cow (paras 9, 11, 12 & 13): Cassell's has "a tramp's or criminal's
female companion" from the 1920s.
docket (para 8) a piece of paper bearing a text that facilitates
begging: OED, HDAS & Cassell's lack this
fagin (headline and para 2) OED has this as a (nearly) direct quote
from Dickens in 1847, and not again until 1905, which is surprising;
HDAS has 1905.
flopper (headline only): OED, HDAS & Cassell's have senses referring
to handing paper (cards or money) and as a chiseler who fakes a fall
and demands a payoff or he'll sue; in the Times' story this has no
context, but I suspect that it refers to the fit-throwers of para 8,
who fall to the ground in a pretended epileptic fit.
high-heel game (paras 2 & 12): OED, HDAS & Cassell's lack this; but
HDAS & Cassell's have "high-heeler", a female beggar, from 1925, which
is explained by this passage.
hobo: HDAS has from ca. 1885, OED from 1889.
jocker: OED & HDAS have from 1893.
punk (para 9, 11 & 13): OED (punk #3, sense #4) has from 1904 & 1926
in this sense.
yegg (headline and paras 2, 3, 4 &c): OED has 1903 as a beggar, 1905
as a safe-cracker.
crust-thrower (para 7), fit thrower (para 8) and rum beggar (para 6)
aren't in OED, HDAS or Cassell's, nor do they need to be.
nest (paras 2 & 3) is old, in this sense.
George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
More information about the Ads-l