The History of Thievery and Fences in NYC

In the thief language, a person who buys stolen goods is called a “Fence.” Without his fence, the thief could do nothing, for he could not dispose of his plunder without a serious risk of detection. The Fence, however, is not known as a thief, and can buy and sell with a freedom which renders it easy for him to dispose of all stolen property which comes into his hands. A noted thief once declared that a man in his business was powerless to accomplish anything unless he knew the names and characters of all the Fences in the city.

The professional Fences of New York are as well known to the police as they are to the thieves. Their stores are located in Chatham street, in the Bowery, and other public thoroughfares, and even Broadway itself has one or more of these establishments within its limits. Some of the Fences are dirty, wretched-looking creatures; but one at least—the Broadway dealer—is a fine-looking, well-dressed man, with the manners and bearing of a gentleman. All are alike in one respect, however. They all buy and sell that which has been stolen. They drive hard bargains with the thieves who offer them goods, paying them but a small portion of the actual value of the prize. If the article is advertised, and a reward sufficiently in excess of what he paid for it is offered, the Fence frequently returns it to its rightful owner, upon condition that no questions shall be asked, and claims the reward. Vigorous efforts have been made by the police authorities to bring the Fences to justice, but without success. The necessary legal evidence can rarely be obtained, and though numerous arrests have been made, scarcely a conviction has followed.


The Fences are well skilled in the art of baffling justice. The study of the means of rapidly and effectually removing the marks by which the property in their hands can be identified, is the main business of their lives, and they acquire a degree of skill and dexterity in altering or effacing these marks which is truly surprising. A melting-pot is always over the fire, to which all silverware is consigned the instant it is received. The marks on linen, towels, and handkerchiefs are removed, sometimes by chemicals, sometimes by fine scissors made expressly for the purpose. Jewelry is at once removed from its settings, and the gold is either melted or the engraving is burnished out, so as in either case to make identification impossible. Rich velvet and silk garments are transmogrified by the removal and re-arrangement of the buttons and trimmings. Pointed edges are rounded, and rounded edges are pointed, entirely changing the whole aspect of the garment, with such celerity that the lady who had worn the dress in the morning would not have the slightest suspicion that it was the same in the evening. Cotton, wool, rags, and old ropes require no manipulation. When once thrown upon the heap, they defy the closest scrutiny of the owners. There is scarcely an article which can be the subject of theft, which the resources of these men do not enable them, in a very short time, to disguise beyond the power of recognition. Their premises are skilfully arranged for concealment. They are abundantly provided with secret doors and sliding panels, communicating with dark recesses. Apertures are cut in the partitions, so that a person coming in from the front can be distinctly seen before he enters the apartment. The Fence is as well skilled as any lawyer in the nature of evidence. He knows the difference between probability and proof as well as Sir William Hamilton himself. He does not trouble himself about any amount of probabilities that the detectives may accumulate against him; but the said detectives must be remarkably expert if they are ever able to get anything against him which will amount to strictly legal proof.

The Fences not only deal with thieves, but carry on a large business with clerks, salesmen, and porters, who steal goods from their employers, and bring them to the Fences for sale.


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