Jug mobs, shovers, and wires: Argot of the underworld

Recently I listened to an episode of the old time Dragnet radio program, and the crime du jour for this episode was picking pockets. From the show, picking pockets isn’t–or wasn’t–a solo enterprise as citizens typically think, but rather usually a team effort of three or four people each with a specific role in the operation–and a catchy job title, as follows:

[li]The jug mob isn’t a gang, but an individual who scopes out likely victims in crowded places–stores, buses, trains, etc.[/li]
[li]The shover or pusher finds a way to distract the target, perhaps by starting a conversation or innocently bumping up alongside them, spilling a drink, etc. [/li]
[li]The wire does the actual pickpocketing.[/li][/ul]
Pockets are still picked today, and I don’t suppose the basic methods have changed. But I’m curious about the terminology. Is it still used by the criminals who do this, or by the LEOs who pursue them?

Incidentally, even allowing that life back then was more cash-oriented, I was mildly astonished to learn that a three or four person pickpocket gang could often pull in several thousand dollars in a single day, working as described above.

Shoutout to known LEOs of the SDMB, in case they ever do vanity searches.



P.K. Bytes

badge (If you’re still around)


(And I’m sure there are many more I can’t recall right now.)

No idea if the jargon is still in use. But if you’re interested in either the slang or, to a lesser extent, the methods and general way of life of old-time pickpockets, David Maurer’s Whiz Mob is a fascinating read. Don’t let the technical sounding title scare you–it’s quite accessible.

(I was also surprised to find out that a good pickpocketing crew could make serious bank back in the day, and that they were fairly well regarded in criminal circles.)

Do you know the year the show originally aired? Are we talking 70’s or 30’s here?

I imagine pre-credit-card there was a lot of money to be made this way.

Early 1950s; Dragnet only started in 1949. But for those interested there’s a much earlier reality-based cop show, Calling All Cars from the middle to late 1930s, with most episodes based on incidents in Los Angeles and environs. Among many others, the one about the last opium den in Old Chinatown is a fun listen.

I’m sorry I don’t have any information on the slang, but I have seen pickpockets in action.

I don’t know about modern pickpockets, but back in the 1970s when I lived in Jakarta, my dad would tell visitors that they needed to take their expensive pens out of their breast pockets. (Back in those days, kids, “pens” were things we wrote with, before we had our smartphones and tablets.)

What would happen is that the pickpockets would staple a stiff piece of paper (like a 3x5 card) to the top of a newspaper and then walk on the sidewalk in the business district. If they saw a (typically) foreign businessman with a nice pen in their breast pocket (think Parker or Mont Blanc), then they would simply brush the newspaper with the stiff card across their chest and boost the pen right out of their pocket. Back in those days, even getting one or two pens would probably feed a family for a month.

I saw this happen several times.

I was in a traffic jam once, and watched two guys pop off the hubcaps from the car in front of me. One guy got up in the driver’s face to try to sell him some sort of food, and the other crawled on his hands and knees to stick a screwdriver under the rim of the hubcap and pry it off.

the Dragnet episode was a radio program episode that aired on December 8, 1953

For a great movie on this topic, watch “Harry in Your Pocket”, starring James Coburn as Harry, the lead pickpocket in a pickpocketing gang.

His motto was “Harry never holds!” He would do the dip and walk away, quickly handing off the wallet to one of the other gang members, who then stripped the cash and chucked the wallet in the trash, so no-one would be caught with the wallet or any evidence of the theft.

According to the wiki article, members of an actual pickpocket gang were the technical advisors on the movie.


Came in to recommend, “Harry in Your Pocket.”

“Do the dip”? You’re a natural. :slight_smile:

The criminal underworld has a rich history of slang.

No doubt there were many dialects, but, like Polari for homosexuals, it was probably used so that anyone overhearing a conversation would not understand.

For fans of old-time criminal jargon, the novels of Dashiell Hammett are a gold mine. I have a collection of his work, and if you’re not careful you can get bogged down in the voluminous footnotes explaining what all the slang means. No one was better at the hard-boiled detective story.

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” :slight_smile:

I suspect that most if not all of the classic argot has been lost due to changing patterns of crime, as well as new and blander terms used so as not to offend anyone.

The pickpockets I saw working the huge Holy Week crowds in Guatemala seemed mostly single players. Stand at a wall as though pissing while stealthily scanning the massed spectators. Slip behind someone, empty their pocket, and return to pissing elsewhere. Whoever tagged me was an absolute ghost; I felt nothing. And I had been warned, “Anything in an outer pocket WILL be taken from you.” I stuck to secure totes after that.

I’ve no idea of Guatemalan underworld slang. Has anyone studied varied argots worldwide?

As I understand it, if you lose your valuables to a street thief in most cities around the world, it will be a three-person team. One to distract you, maybe by asking directions or just by bumping into you and apologising profusely; one to do the actual lift, and a third to take the items away so that if No 2 gets caught, they have nothing incriminating on them.

I guess that in heavy crowds, the distraction is already there, but the sensible ‘dip’ would have a runner to keep themselves clean.

I remember reading somewhere that ‘dips’ used to stand near the notices in London stations that warned people to be on the lookout for pickpockets. Many men, on reading the sign, would automatically check the pocket they kept their wallet in, thust giving that information to the thieves.

What’s a “mucker”?

Another quote from The Maltese Falcon -

Never figured out what “the gooseberry lay” was. I do know that Spade referred to Wilmer as a “gunsel”, which IIRC became slang for “gunman” but actually referred to the submissive sexual partner of someone in prison.


There are a lot of differing opinions out there, but Hammett was apparently referring to the “muckers” who worked in mines and were responsible for shoveling ore-containing rock into tram cars.

I had always figured that the “Big Ship” in Butte was a reference to state prison, but the Hammett compendium claimed it was a notorious apartment house. :dubious:

‘Mucker’ is slang for mate/friend and is still used today. “the gooseberry lay” referred AFAIK to stealing clothes off clotheslines; what the reference was I have no idea.

It looks like a fun old movie; I wonder why it isn’t better known. Wasn’t it very good?

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I found this video about pickpockets a very good introduction:

It follows a stage performer who specializes in pickpocket tricks but dreams of trying it ‘for real.’ He travels to Naples and attempts to find and then befriend a criminal pickpocket gang. It’s an entertaining 50 minutes.

Maybe and Yep - Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld has

(Extant in 1950, when the above was published. Obviously the definition as “mate” is also correct, and might be the meaning)


I believe clothes were routinely dried on bushes prior to the use of washing lines.


Probably suggesting that Wilmer was little more than a petty thief.