A while back I wrote a post on the Freedom Gang, a gang of burglars who were made the news in 1901 attempting to rob a North Central Railroad station in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. The gang was foiled when its leader William O’Brien failed to break open the office safe after several attempts, and they were captured by detectives the next day.
Police described O’Brien as a “yegg man,” a name I had never heard before. After a little searching I learned it was an old term for a safe cracker.
I filed this interesting fact into my brain, finished up my post, and that was that. Until now…
Two years later and I’m doing research on saloons in Pennsylvania for an article in an upcoming issue of Pennsylvania Heritage. I decide to look for saloon descriptions in the “Pittsburgh Survey,” an incredible sociological survey of Pittsburgh published between 1909 and 1914. As I was skimming through the sixth volume of the survey, my eye caught a section called “Yeggs” and I stopped. What was this?
I should have known that there was a lot more than a simple definition behind a yegg man. There’s a much larger story here about crime and the criminal underworld, and also about life on the margins at the turn of the 20th century. Yeggs lived in between many spheres of American society:
Geographically- they constantly drift from town to town and across the country
Temporally- Yeggs start out as burglars/safe crackers but when age takes their skills and daring they ultimately end up beggars on the street or if they’re lucky opening their own saloon
Legally- yeggs were constantly on the run from the law and many were no strangers to prison. Successful yeggs could sometimes manipulate the judicial system to their advantage
Socially- some communities welcomed yeggs, others simply tolerated them, others were immediately hostile and drove them out
Career wise- a cross between a tramp and a burglar, many had previously held wage positions but were laid off or fired during strikes and then became yeggs
There’s many reasons why yeggmen were described as “the driftwood of humanity.” But don’t just take my word for it, listen to what James Forbes, a man who actually spoke with several Pittsburgh yeggs and heard their stories firsthand wrote. Here’s an excerpt from the Pittsburgh Survey, Volume 6:
There is another group of offenders, to which as yet no reference has been made, distinct enough to be treated more or less by themselves in the discussion of the police problem of such an industrial city as Pittsburgh. The yeggs are national characters in the life of the underworld, covering even more territory in their wanderings and criminal activities than the professional pickpockets. Distinctly an American product, half tramp and half criminal, they are desperate and daring safe blowers, hold-up men, and burglars. They operate generally in small communities, especially on country post offices and banks; but they are to be found between times, and after they have grown old in the life, begging on the main streets of the larger cities, usually practicing certain types of imposture peculiar to themselves. Occasionally they are real cripples, having lost an arm or a leg while “beating the freights,” but more often they simulate partial paralysis or the loss of speech and hearing.
The continued presence of yeggs in considerable numbers in any large city is generally proof positive of the existence there of a well established hang-out. This is usually a saloon or furnished room house maintained by a veteran of their class who has settled down and acquired sufficient local political influence to gain for his former comrades on the road a certain amount of security at least in carrying on their begging operations. The proprietor acts too as “fence,” or go-between in disposing of postage stamps stolen from country post offices, or or other loot. In the 90’s, according to Josiah Flint, Allegheny City itself had the nickname in the underworld of “The Fence,” and was on a par with Toledo as a harboring place for criminals who “worked ” in other cities. These were unmolested in 1907-1908 by the Allegheny officials; and, in turn, did not carry on depredations there.
My introduction to the yegg element in Pittsburgh occurred at nine o’clock on the first night of my stay there. It was a summer evening and the Salvation Army was holding an open air meeting at the corner of Smithfield and Diamond streets. The usual crowd was grouped about the uniformed men, street traffic was normal, and nothing of particular interest seemed afoot. I turned to pass on. As I did so two men came up Diamond Street on different sides, and began to beg among the bystanders. The first “plunge” was made by a short, clean-cut yegg, who wore a high Stetson hat, striped black and white shirt, and polka dot tie. His face was clean shaven and he had a springy walk. This fellow made a successful “spiel” to a number of man, finally entering into conversation with those whom in the vernacular he set out to “slug” with argument. By a touch of humor, rather characteristic of the yegg, he described himself as an undertaker. “Not a common beggar, sit,” he reiterated (after meeting a preliminary rebuff), “I simply need carfare to Allegheny.” He gleaned perhaps 40 cents in the first ten minutes.
Thinking he could be easily picked up again, I turned my attention to his comrade, a bulky man of middle age with grizzled mustache, who limped and carried a crutch. He stood outside of a clothing store, partially hidden by a show case, waiting for a likely “mark.” A few years earlier only force could probably have made such a typical yegg eschew the tall Stetson hat and other habiliments of the caste of “John Yeggdom”; but with age had come an enforced moderation of his way of living, and he now wore a derby and permitted himself a mustache. Between the younger “shorty” and this riper “caneman,” I chose the latter as more likely to be informing if started right. After a few more plunges, “Shorty” quit, waving a farewell to “Sticks,” and walked swiftly away. Sticks finally found the lights of the “main stem” too public, and as he had had fair success, started down Fourth Avenue to Wood Street to solace himself with a couple of whiskies.
Later, in a saloon on Diamond Street, I hailed Sticks with a yegg password. A little fencing on both sides, a “try-out” or two on “monikers” and “records,” and Sticks was ready to tell his story. It brought out some common phases of typical yegg life in its national aspects which must be grasped by any city which would counter them.
Sticks was born in a country town in Ohio, where his brother still kept a saloon, and as a young man he had lived for some time in the city of Cleveland. With a touch of pride, he said that when he had traveled with the “Peter men” or “hard-boiled” people (Safe blowers), he had been known as “Cleveland Jim.” He claimed to have served at least one five-year “bit” in a “factory” (penitentiary) for “Peter” work himself. Now that he was getting old he did “straight plunging” (begging) only, and was known as “Baldy Callahan.” Removing his hat he exposed a head that was quite bald. He had just come in from Youngstown, Ohio, having picked up Shorty in the railroad yards. Both intended to quit Pittsburgh at once as they know the town was “hostile,” and if they had not been well “steamed up” they would not have taken a chance at “plunging” on the “main stem.”
Shorty, he continued, was a “dope,” and had hurried away to find a drug store where he could get some “white stuff” (cocaine) and “shoot” himself full enough to muster nerve to “make a train” and go on east. Baldy, too, was bound for the Bowery, after some years of rather successful exploits. All through the southwest, he would have me believe, even in the smaller towns, a “four-bit tip” was esteemed the proper thing to hand to a beggar, and the yeggs were making all kinds of money. Not a passenger train west of the Mississippi nor south of the Missouri but carried “high heels” and jockers, and train crews connived at their presence. “Hard-boiled” people, too, said Baldy, were “going good” from the zinc district right down to the city of Mexico, notwithstanding the “tapping” (hanging) of “Tea” West and his partner for “plugging” (shooting) a deputy sheriff in Arkansas. According to Baldy, it had not been Tea but another yegg whose “gatling” (gun) had made a “stiff” of the “bull.” Tea, loyal to his code, had gone to his death without a “squeal.” So had “Denver Shine,” a Negro; but on the other hand, Baldy told of the inequities of “Riverside Slim” (another well known Negro tramp), who had ceased to respect some of the obligations of his kind and had been punished by a “kangaroo” court (tramp’s court) and banished from the roads of the southwest. “Leadville Jimmy,” who with “Texas Red” had killed “Swedish Clara” in “York,” had been cornered in San Quentin Prison.
When the talk, by way of reciprocity, turned to affairs in New York, Baldy was especially interested to learn of the fortunes of Mickey G–, Tom Lee’s bartender on the Bowery, and he recalled with some enthusiasm Mickey’s former exploits, how when on the road he was famous for recitation and improvisation songs given around the tramp camp fires in the “jungle.” That he now had a flat and a woman was a concession to domesticity which seemed to amuse Baldy immensely. He commented without bitterness upon the mushroom prosperity of “Los Slim,” “Illinois Jimmy,” “New Orleans Ray,” “K.C. Red,” and other yeggs who had gone to “keeping place” (running saloons).
The old yeggs were, to Baldy’s mind, going fast. Harrigan,” who for years with “Billy Kid” had held down the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy and the Rock Island railroads, had been “done away with” (died); and “Old Baldy,” whom the yeggs used to term the “best known citizen of Indiana,” had also made the “big jump.”
Baldy himself had been traveling in rather hard luck since leaving the southwest. The police had shooed him away from Cleveland and he had gone to Youngstown where, when a druggist refused him even a couple of “Indians” (coppers), he had knocked him out with his “sap” (crutch). He had been arrested and sentenced to $10 fine or ten days in jail, but on giving a good “con” as to his crippled condition- he affected paralysis- the judge had remitted the fine and a policeman had seen him to the railroad yards. Baldy was, of course, not lame, and used the crutch for a “stall” (pretense). He hoped for better luck in the east, claiming old acquaintanceship with “chi” Tom Lee, famous in yeggdom as a friend of the New York Sullivans, and he did not expect to be “bothered” at the beaches.
Sitting with Baldy in a Pittsburgh saloon, I could not but recognize how a chance meeting brought one at once in touch with almost every phase of the yegg world, its ups and downs as violent as its “jumps” back and forth across the continent. Today John Yegg “snuffs a drum” (cracks a safe) and “blows” into a “hang-out,” weighed down with “junk” or “flimsy” (coin or bills) able to match coins with double eagles or to throw a note on the bar with instructions to keep the crowd drunk until it is gone; tomorrow his luck changes and he may think himself lucky if he is able to “make a sit down” (beg on the sidewalk) or even receive a “handout.”
Shorty was the type of young desperado who with youth in his favor is able to despise and to defy an oftentimes impotent local police. In due time he would in his turn degenerate in the estimation of the brotherhood into a mere “fatty,” just as Cleveland Jim, companion of the hard-boiled people in former days, had now become plain Baldy Callahan. How much evil already has been and will be done by this type of criminal can not be known, for the yegg road is long and devious and tens of thousands travel it.
WOW! Clearly there’s a lot behind the name. I’ll wrap this post up with a few more contemporary sources about yeggs that help round this out.
The criminal class of India use warning cries and employ cipher marks to tell subsequent prowlers of the conditions of the neighborhood in regard to safety and in this respect they are similar to our “Yeggmen” of the present day in America, a class whose activities whose activities have baffled the keenest minds of the United States Government and in the suppression of whom as a class the post office inspectors have ignominiously failed.
Nine-tenths of this class are made up of so-called driftwood of humanity in this country, composed of about one-half natives, one-quarter foreign descent, and one-quarter foreign birth. Most of these are mechanics or have been railroad men, iron workers, or originally in some trade; have lost their places of employment through labor troubles; and in stealing rides on cars, or tramping from one city to another, they have formed the acquaintance of criminals, gradually becoming criminals themselves.
A mechanic who loses his employment through a strike or other labor troubles leaves his native town for larger cities in search of employment, intending at first to find work and continue at it. But being unsuccessful he gradually drifts to lodging houses or to the cheaper class of saloons, until his money being exhausted, he through pure desperation starts out with some other mechanic similarly situated ‘on the road,’ tramping, beating his way from one city to another, begging his meals. And it is while doing this that he forms the acquaintance, in camps, of the yegg, who proceeds to take him in hand to determine what his ability consists of. If a mechanic explains that he is a machinist or has been an iron worker, especially in building construction, he is gradually introduced to other yeggmen and finally becomes a member of some yegg tribe. They may also be recruited from ordinary tramps who are possessed of exceptional personal courage and resource. The yeggs may be said to have formed themselves into a loose confederacy, since they have a strong sense of comradeship which is superior to the boundaries of the several states and is re-enforced by a vocabulary sufficiently distinct to provide the equivalent of signs and pass words made use of in the ordinary secret society.
And finally, a silent film made by Edwin Porter in 1904: Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars. Porter based this movie on accounts of yeggmen described the William Pinkerton paper quoted above.
If anyone knows of a memoir or any other sources that were actually written by yeggmen leave a comment and tell us about it! Yeggs don’t strike me as the type to leave a lot of written records behind, but there’s got to be something out there!