#157 William Peck

William Peck (Abt. 1860-1888), aka William Parker, John Bishop — Pickpocket

From Byrnes’s text:

DESCRIPTION. Twenty-six years old in 1886. Born in New York. Single. No trade. Slim build. Height, 5 feet 9 inches. Weight, 140 pounds. Dark brown hair, hazel eyes, light complexion. Has two moles, and two scars from burns, on his right arm. Generally wears a small brown mustache and side-whiskers.

RECORD. Billy Peck is one of a new gang of pickpockets which are continually springing up in New York City. He is an associate of all the Bowery (New York) “mob” of pickpockets, and is considered a promising youth. He is known in Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Boston, and several other Eastern cities. With the exception of a short term in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, nothing is known about him, except that he is a professional thief.

He was arrested in New York City on January 3, 1885, in company of another pickpocket, named William Davis, for attempting to pick pockets on one of the horse-cars. No complaint was obtained against him, and he was discharged, after his picture was taken for the Rogues’ Gallery.

He was arrested again in Albany, N. Y., in August, 1885, during Grant’s obsequies, in company of a gang of New York pickpockets, locked up until after the funeral, and then discharged. He was arrested again in Boston, Mass., on December 21, 1885, in company of James Wells, alias Funeral Wells (150), and Jimmie Murphy, two other New York pickpockets, attempting to ply their vocation in Mechanics’ Hall, during one of Dr. W. W. Downs’s sensational lectures. He was in luck again, for, after having their pictures taken, they were escorted to the train and ordered to leave town.

This is a very clever thief, and may be looked for at any moment in any part of the country. He was arrested again in Hoboken, N.J., under the name of William Parker, on February 16, 1886, charged with attempting to pick a lady’s hand-satchel, and sentenced to three months in jail there. His picture is an excellent one, taken in December, 1885.

Little more is known about William Peck than is listed in Byrnes’s entry. A man identified as Peck was captured in Bennington, Vermont in September, 1887, and jailed for picking pockets. This man, and two other prisoners (pickpocket William Perry and a local man–a rapist) confined in the city jail sawed off their cell door and dug a hole through a brick wall. That was the last heard of Peck, until Byrnes noted in his 1895 edition that there was a report that Peck had died in September, 1888–a year after his alleged escape. But in the Fall of 1887, a different criminal, Michael Hurley, was identified as the escaped pickpocket, not Peck.

Peck’s nickname–“Peck’s Bad Boy” was taken from the humorous novels of George Wilbur Peck, starting with Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa in 1883. The stories centered around the pranks played by Hennery Peck on his father and others. Many of the episodes were more mean-spirited than harmless, and made references that were racially or ethnically biased. They were adapted as stage plays that were running continuously around the country throughout William Peck’s brief career.

However, within the criminal underworld, William Peck had another nickname: “Earsey.” A look at his Rogues’ Gallery photograph will explain why (note the shape of his hat brim):

Peck’s two nicknames are both interesting. Many people who pick up Chief Byrnes’s Professional Criminals of America find the criminal nicknames to be one of the most memorable things about the book. There is a reason why Byrnes recorded many of the nicknames–they were used within the underworld to identify fellow criminals, when real names often were never known, and aliases changed at will. To get information from informants and witnesses, the authorities had to know whom these nicknames referred to. New York State finally began collecting criminal nicknames in an index file in the 1890s. By the late 1930s, the FBI had a criminal nickname database said to contain 80,000 names.

There was a logic to many criminal nicknames, and it was not complicated. Many nicknames focused on a defining physical characteristic, even if it was a physical handicap:

  • Broken-Nose Tully
  • Deafy Price
  • Blink Kelly (one-eye missing)
  • Titters (James Titterington, a stutterer)
  • Brocky George (dirty or pock-marked face)
  • Four-Fingered Jack
  • Black Lena (dark-complexioned)

Or their notable behavior:

  • Roaring Bill (for his laughter)
  • Nibsey (for his self-importance)
  • Mysterious Jimmy (a man of few words)
  • Peppermint Joe (for his fondness of mints)

Or simply by height or girth:

  • Big Bertha
  • Big Tom
  • Little Horace
  • Little Rufe
  • Little Louisa
  • Long Doctor
  • Shang Quinn (or Campbell, or Draper; from Shanghaes, long-legged roosters)
  • Squib Dickson

Others used age to differentiate criminals:

  • Old Ike Vail
  • Young Julius
  • Old Bill Vosburgh
  • Old Man Hope
  • Pop White
  • Kid Affleck
  • Billy the Kid Burke
  • Kid Leary

Some were identified by where they came from or made their home:

  • Jersey Jimmy
  • Cincinnati Red
  • Boston Ned
  • Albany Jim
  • Worcester Sam
  • Dayton Sammy
  • Brummy (someone from Birmingham, England)
  • Cockney Jack

Others were identified by common ethnic slurs, even if misapplied:

  • Sheeny Mike
  • Dago Frank
  • Nigger Baker (not African-American)
  • Chink Mandelbaum (not Chinese)

Or by ethnicity:

  • French Louis Brown
  • French Gus Kindt
  • Dutch Pete
  • Irish Kate

A few were named for folkloric figures:

  • Old Mother Hubbard
  • Jack Sprat
  • Jack Sheppard
  • Peck’s Bad Boy

Some names refer to a certain criminal trait or incident:

  • Sealskin Joe (who was arrested with several furs)
  • The Diamond Swallower
  • Mollie Matches (who imitated a girl matchstick vendor to pick pockets)
  • Kid Glove Rosie (for her favorite shoplifting target)
  • Moccasin John (a house thief who used moccasins)

…or another talent:

  • Piano Charlie
  • Banjo Pete

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