The New Nostalgia… Many Happy Returns

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Byrnes was a highly successful cop, although some of his methods were somewhat less than ethical. He made deals with criminals that permitted them to pursue their careers unmolested in San Francisco, Minneapolis, or Chicago, for instance, as long as they kept out of New York. Or even more specifically, he often allowed them to operate in the poorer sections of the city if they kept their agile fingers out of the pockets of its wealthy citizens. He even went so far as to lay down a “Dead Line” around the financial district; any suspicious character found on the affluent side of that boundary would be picked up on sight. Criminals, it was said, knew the rules so well that they took the precaution of getting a pass from one of Byrnes’s men when they had legitimate business to transact downtown.

Byrnes’s book, which one modern reviewer has described as “a coffee table book that won’t just lie there,” was written with the idea of thwarting criminals by making their faces familiar to the public. Now, in 1970. it seems a benign and nostalgic volume. There is a minimum of violence to jar the reader, since Byrnes’s professionals were mostly out for money rather than blood. Even the terminology of crime in the 1880’s sounds less threatening than today’s version. The criminals of 1886 fall into such categories as sneaks, stalls, swindlers, hotel men, dishonest servants, bunco steerers, toolmakers, and satchel workers. And Byrnes includes such fascinating specialists as Funeral Wells, a pickpocket who plied his trade only at funerals; James Titterington (alias Titter), a butcher-cart thief; Mollie Matches, a robber who disguised himself as a match girl; and Hugh L. Courtenay, a bogus English lord who swindled susceptible ladies, using such diverse and colorful aliases as Lord Courtney, Lord Beresford, or Sir Harry Vane of Her Majesty’s Lights. (“The party’s right name is supposed to be Clinton,” Byrnes remarks, “and he is the son of a former lodge-keeper of the Earl of Devon.”)

For the cleverer thieves, Byrnes’s admiration almost gets out of hand. One bank robber named Rufus Minor, for instance, he describes as “no doubt one of the smartest bank sneaks in America. … He is a very gentlemanly and intelligent man … and it is a pity he is a thief.” This is particularly high praise, since Byrnes has earlier stated that bank thieves in general are top of the heap—“men of education, pleasing address, good personal appearance and faultless in their attire.” Less exalted specialists could also win his praise, though. There is Poodle Murphy, a pickpocket who “is without doubt the smartest pickpocket in America. He is the man who does the work, while his confederates annoy the victim and attract his attention.” Although Byrnes in general is more restrained about female operatives, occasionally they, too, earn his respect. “Little Annie Reilly,” he writes, “is considered the cleverest woman in her line in America. She generally engages herself as a child’s nurse, makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good will of the lady of the house. She seldom remains in one place more than one or two days before she robs it.” Six weeks after publication in 1969 Byrnes and his compendium of crooks had made their way onto, or off of, twenty thousand coffee tables.

It is impossible to guess how long the current vogue for nostalgia will continue, but it is fun to speculate about what will set off the resonance fifty years from now. If this season’s successes are any indication, it will obviously be some item that recalls to Americans of the 2020’s a simpler, cheaper, less threatening, funnier, or more personal time. Will it be a facsimile of a 1970’s clothing catalogue, recalling that quaint time when people still put all those garments on their bodies? Will it be a visual anthology of television commercials from the mid-twentieth century? Perhaps luscious pictures of vegetables and meats will be what stirs that future generation, presumably nourished entirely on pills and seaweed. Or will it simply be a book?

In one of the Beatles’ famous songs, “Penny Lane,” there is a fireman who keeps his fire engine clean (it’s a clean machine, very clean). But that’s about all that can be done to spruce up an apparatus nowadays, when the machines, like almost everything else, are produced by assembly lines, and fire-engine red is the only color tolerated. During the first half of the nineteenth century, when most American fires were put out, or not put out, by volunteer fire companies, the hand-operated pumpers were lavishly trimmed and decorated in a broad spectrum of vivid hues. The dazzling decor of a company’s machine was as much a matter of jealous pride as how far the thing could be made to squirt.