Pickpocketing is a lost art in today’s world. But 100 years ago, it was a skilled craft, requiring finesse, cleverness and patience.
Joe “Kid” Sullivan was one of the best, a distinguished aristocrat in San Francisco’s criminal royalty.
In those days, before credit cards and online banking, everyone carried cash, which made pickpocketing a very lucrative profession. Sullivan also had a knack for making useful friends. In 1897, at age 20, he was arrested for purse-snatching. His political allies tried to help him, but he was convicted and sent to San Quentin State Prison.
When Sullivan was released in 1900, he forged a mutually beneficial partnership with Detective Jeremiah Dinan in the San Francisco Police Department. With Sullivan as his confidential source, Dinan arrested scores of criminals and moved up quickly in the police hierarchy. Meanwhile, Sullivan was left alone to pursue his own larcenous schemes.
Pickpocketing was often a team effort. The first person — the “stall” — distracted the target — the “mark” — by “accidently” bumping into him or her. When the mark was distracted, the second person — the “dip” — picked his or her pocket and handed the wallet to the third person — the “duke man” — who immediately left the area, taking all evidence of the crime with him. It’s a crime rarely noticed, except by experienced police officers. Sullivan’s immunity from police action put scores of pickpockets under his control, and he became known as the “King of Pickpockets.”
When Dinan became police chief in 1905, Sullivan joined his administration as CPO (Chief Payoff Officer). Anyone seeking protection from police raids had to go through Sullivan. If you wanted to run a brothel, the price was $100 a week to the police and politicians. Sullivan’s service fee was an additional 10 percent.
In 1907, reform elements took over The City, and Chief Dinan was indicted and replaced by Chief William Biggy. Dinan fought back with an audacious plan. Sullivan’s felonious army would launch a giant crime wave in The City. Officers still loyal to Dinan would take no action, and the new administration would be blamed for the lawlessness. The plan got off to a slow start when Sullivan was caught stuffing ballot boxes and fled The City, but picked up again when he returned in 1908.
“Kid Sullivan is back in town … and with him is a gang of clever pickpockets operating under his direction,” read The San Francisco Call. “Sullivan’s crowd, it is said, was responsible for the thefts at the mail dock last Friday night and for many offenses … that have occurred on streetcars recently.”
To avoid capture, pickpockets often moved from town to town. In 1909, when Sullivan traveled to Chicago, his past caught up with him and almost cost him his life: He fell into the hands of criminals on whom he had informed. These men viciously beat him and left him for dead. When his friends learned of his plight, they had him brought back to San Francisco. Sullivan spent three weeks in San Francisco’s Trinity Hospital, where doctors saved his life by drilling a hole in his skull and inserting a silver plate.
Sullivan returned to his pickpocketing empire, and his men plied their trade on throughout The City. According to the Oakland Tribune, after railroad police arrested a score of his light-fingered army, Sullivan approached Patrick Calhoun, president of the streetcar company. “I’ve got to make a living as well as you have,” Sullivan told him. “I don’t want any trouble with you, and if your men will let mine alone, I’ll give you my word of honor that your cars will not be disturbed any more.”
The Tribune titled the story, “The Magnate and the Thief.” In reality, the magnate was a much bigger crook than the thief. Calhoun bribed the city officials to get sweetheart contracts, hired thugs to break the carmen’s strike and secretly funded the election of a corrupt district attorney who dismissed all charges against him.
In 1911, Sullivan teamed with vice king Jerome Bassity and ran a small gambling empire in the Tenderloin. The new police chief, John Seymour, vowed to drive Sullivan from The City. Seymour had Sullivan charged with vagrancy — “having no visible means of support.” Police often used vagrancy in those days if they lacked the evidence to convict a criminal on a specific charge.
Sullivan’s case went to trial in the Tenderloin, where the jury pool was heavily stocked with his friends. Police witnesses claimed little knowledge of Sullivan’s past. The jury acquitted Sullivan in less than two minutes.
Chief Seymour was outraged and brought charges against the Tenderloin police captain and four other officers.
By 1913, Seymour was gone — but Sullivan remained. The “Kid” was sliding into respectability. “Sullivan is no longer regarded as an undesirable citizen,” read the Oakland Tribune. “His company is no longer courted or shunned by high police officials.”
But, ultimately, Sullivan could not escape his past. In 1921, Sullivan started screaming that phantom men were after him. His mental breakdown was reportedly due to his old head wound, and he was committed to Agnews State Mental Hospital, where he died.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.