The best books about crime and punishment in the Gilded Age (1870-1910)

John Oller Author Of Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York
By John Oller

Who am I?

I’d written modern true crime before—a book that helped solve a 40-year-old cold case—and wanted to try my hand at historical true crime. I live in Manhattan, home to the greatest crime stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so I was able to see the actual locations where the grisliest murders, the biggest bank heists, and the crookedest con games took place. What really drew me in, though, were the many colorful, unforgettable characters, both good and bad, cops and robbers, who walked the bustling streets of Old New York during the fascinating era known as the Gilded Age. 


I wrote...

Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

By John Oller,

Book cover of Rogues' Gallery: The Birth of Modern Policing and Organized Crime in Gilded Age New York

What is my book about?

Rogues’ Gallery is a sweeping, epic tale of two revolutions that played out on the streets of Old New York during the Gilded Age. For centuries, New York had been a haven for crime. A thief or murderer not caught in the act nearly always got away. But in the early 1870s, police developed new ways to catch criminals: Mug shots and daily lineups helped witnesses point out culprits; the famed rogues’ gallery allowed police to track repeat offenders; and the third-degree interrogation method induced recalcitrant crooks to confess. Yet as policing became ever more specialized and efficient, crime itself became bolder and more elaborate, murders grew more ruthless and macabre, and the street gangs of old transformed into organized crime, including the Mafia. 

The books I picked & why

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The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910

By Esther Crain,

Book cover of The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910

Why this book?

A lavishly illustrated and engagingly written history of New York during the Gilded Age that covers not just crime, sin, and policing but also such topics as rich vs. poor, the immigrant wave, the early women’s movement, and theater and entertainment. You’ll be entranced by the many beautiful photographs and illustrations alone; I know I was!


The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum,

Book cover of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Why this book?

A fun romp through many famous cases where “he done her in” (or vice versa) by such varied poisons as arsenic, strychnine, potassium cyanide, cyanide of mercury (even deadlier than potassium!), with an analysis of the policing and chemists’ methods used to nab the perpetrators. Not as common today as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, death by poison was once the preferred, most devious, means for people to eliminate their enemies, ex-lovers, husbands, and wives. Taste that drink before you down it!


Manhattan Mafia Guide: Hits, Homes & Headquarters

By Eric Ferrara,

Book cover of Manhattan Mafia Guide: Hits, Homes & Headquarters

Why this book?

Author Ferrara takes you on a lively, and chilling, tour of the sites in Manhattan where Mafia dons and underlings brutally wiped out their competition—only to find themselves on the receiving end of the same treatment at some other joint up or downtown. Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side—these were the main haunts of New York’s most colorful and deadly criminals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it’s fun to actually visit the locations with this book as a guide.


Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, Lawyers to the Gangsters, Cops, Starlets, and Rakes Who Made the Gilded Age

By Cait N. Murphy,

Book cover of Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, Lawyers to the Gangsters, Cops, Starlets, and Rakes Who Made the Gilded Age

Why this book?

Shakespeare wanted to kill all the lawyers, and this book will give you a reason to. On second thought, be glad that these two roguish lawyers, William Howe and Abe Hummel, lived to fill this book with colorful stories of the criminal underworld in late nineteenth-century New York and how the crooks got away with it. Howe, a flamboyant, heavily bejeweled (and heavy) trial lawyer, could reduce juries to tears, while his gnomish partner, Abe Hummel, counted P. T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, and other celebrity hucksters among his clients. Between them, Howe and Hummel were in on almost every major criminal trial of their era, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always leaving behind a trail of crookedness that would make even the shadiest of today’s lawyers blush.


A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

By Timothy J. Gilfoyle,

Book cover of A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

Why this book?

If you read one biography/memoir of a Gilded Age criminal, make it this one. It tells the story (often in his own words) of the celebrated pickpocket George Appo, an odd little half-Chinese, half-Irish, one-eyed fellow who could make $800 in a few days when most working men made less than that in a year. Appo would rivet New Yorkers when he testified about his second career as a “green goods” con man, working to swindle gullible out-of-towners who came to buy purported counterfeit money at a discount, only to discover that there was nothing but sawdust inside the packages they carried away. Appo refused to name names, though, as he was a self-described “good fellow.”  


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