Beggar's slang, 1907

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 24 22:05:40 UTC 2007

Needless to say, the "stranded-student" game is still being run.
According to an interview with a professional beggar published in a
local alternative newspaper, the game is pretty straightforward. The
beggar, hanging out in Harvard Square dressed in jacket and tie,
braces a likely chump and explains that he is a student from out of
town come to be interviewed for admission to the World's Greatest
University. Unfortunately, as a hick from the sticks, he failed to
lock the door to his dorm room and awakened to find that he had been
robbed of all his money. So, would the nice passer-by be willing to
contribute to the cost of a train ticket back to Providence, RI?

The beggar noted that the game once worked too well. Instead of
contributing to the price of a ticket, the chump insisted upon cabbing
the beggar to the train station in Boston, where he bought the beggar
a ticket to Providence and kept him company on the train till it began
to pull out of the station. As a consequence, the beggar not only got
no money, but he also had to use his own funds to get back to Boston
from Providence.


On 1/24/07, George Thompson <george.thompson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       George Thompson <george.thompson at NYU.EDU>
> Subject:      Beggar's slang, 1907
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Those who do not delight in long posts on obsolete slang should delete
> this message.
> 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,
> With
> Made=up Disfigurements, Return to Prey on City's Charity.  Fagin's
> Nests
> Filled Again With "Yeggs," "Crust=Throwers" and "Floppers"
> [headline]
> 1)      New York is once more at the mercy of hordes of professional
> beggars.
>  ***
> 2)      On Feb. 5 last Police Commissioner Bingham abolished the
> mendicancy
> 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
> on
> 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
> professional
> 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
> their
> 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
> lodging
> houses.  After careful watching the beggars were seen to enter them in
> the evening and later some of them emerged again, their wounds and
> palsy
> gone, their crooked limbs straight, their sightless eyes with
> unimpaired
> vision, their wooden legs replaced with artificial limbs.
> 6)      The "yegg" men and mendicants have repaired again to four
> resorts on
> 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
> of
> 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
> Mulberry
> Street.  Here they rent hammocks for the night for 7 cents, cot beds
> for
> 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
> and
> makes a dive for it and pretends to eat it ravenously as a
> charitable-looking old lady happens in sight.  Her alms received and
> she
> 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
> "dockets."
>         ***
> 9)      Six "yegg" men in New York last week practiced street begging
> in the
> 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
> trade.
>  The boys were given a "bug"; that is, their left forearms or their
> left
> 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
> passes
> into the ranks of the full-grown "yegg man," as is usually the case,
> the
> 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
> show of
> 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
> of
> 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
> "jocker."
> 13)     If the "cow" has an emaciated face and pathetic eyes she plays
> at
> being a young widow, penniless and tearful, or a num, with all the
> robes
> 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
> for him
> 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
> plying
> 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
> in
> railroad stations.  His pal was Richard Rarboard, alias "Kid McCoy,"
> who
> posed as a stranded college student.  The third is known only
> as "Prince
> 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.
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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