4 April 1903
The story of Oliver Twist could well have been a prototype from which a case heard at the Clerkenwell sessions during the past week was taken. It was a charge of picking pockets preferred against a young, tall, cadaverous looking Polish Jew named Isaacs and a tiny lad of eleven named Cohen, whose head scarcely reached the dock rail. The latter was detected stealing a purse from the pocket of a lady in Stoke Newington road a few weeks since, and on the way to the station he pointed out to the police constable on other side of the street the man who had trained him to pick pockets. This individual, when arrested, stoutly denied all knowledge of the lad, but a threat uttered under his breath, heard by a constable, convinced the officer that the lad was speaking the truth. The boy's story, upon investigation, was found to be true, and the result was that his trainer was sentenced to five years' penal servitude the other day by Mr. McConnell at the North London sessions. The lad was put back to be brought up next sessions, and as that means an interval of a month or two, it was decided to send him to the Hackney workhouse, where he is now detained.
Later, by permission of the master, Mr. Mason, an opportunity was afforded of hearing from the lad's lips the story of the methods adopted in training him - a story which sheds a strange light on London life in the twentieth century.
This little lad is the son of a Jewess who resides in Baker's row, Whitechapel, and who has to struggle hard to support a family of six. He has attended the Jewish school until quite recently, but a slight attack of some skin disease led to his being sent for treatment to the London Hospital. The boy's mother lets lodgings and about two months ago the man Isaacs became her lodger. In this way he came in contact with the lad. The mother, however, not liking the ways of her new lodger, gave him notice to quit and he left. Being aware that the boy went to the hospital to be treated, Isaacs waylaid him, and offered to show him "how to make a lot of money."
Little Cohen is an exceptionally good looking little fellow, with fine black eyes and dark, sweeping lashes. He is a very sharp little chap, and showed only too much aptitude under Isaac's tuition. Isaacs told him that he could teach him how to pick pockets and "make at least half a sov. a day." The boy fell in with the suggestion and, two days later, unknown to his mother, his tuition began.
"Isaacs," said little Cohen, "was nicknamed 'Lexlaws' and he told me that he had showed a lot of boys how to get purses and they were making a lot of money. I said I should like to take some money home to my mother, and he said I should be able to take 'quids' home. My mother thought I was going to the hospital, but instead I was going to 'Lexlaws's' every day. I used to go to his place, where he was living with a young girl named R____. She used to help to teach me how to pick pockets. 'Lexlaws' used to put a purse with some coppers in it in her pocket, and I had to go behind, and take it out without her knowing. I had to practise two hours each day. He told me to open the pocket with one finger of my left hand and to 'go down' with my right hand, and to take the purse out quickly. I could do it all right when she was standing still, pretending to be looking in a shop window; but I could not do it so well when she was walking along - 'on the trot' it is called. A purse is called a 'skin,' and if there's lot of money in it, it is called a 'fat skin.' 'Lexlaws' said if I got on well he would teach me how to take a 'clock and tackle' - that's a watch and chain. If it's a gold watch it's called a 'red lot'; if silver, a 'white lot.' The first day 'Lexlaws' teached me he said I should make a very good 'dip' - that's what they call a pickpocket. I practised for two hours for close on a week, and then he took me out. He said he would point out the pockets, and I was to 'go down' them. The first time I did anything that way was on a Sunday, and Isaacs took me to Petticoat lane, and I had to go. I tried one or two pockets, but I did not get anything; but I had better luck a little later. As we was going along 'Lexlaws' sees a crowd in Commercial street and he gives me the tip to look out. There was a row on, and he said, "It's all right; 'go down' the first one you catch sight of." I did. I pulled the woman's pocket open with my finger, and with my right I got a fine 'fat skin.' Lexlaws sees me take it, and made me give it to him. The next day he said there was only fivepence halfpenny in it. and he gave me threepence. We went about a lot, and I had a go at seven or eight pockets, but six of them had nothing in them. I began to do it quite easy, and out of one purse he gave me three shillings. I could not stop out late at night and 'Lexlaws' said that, after I got more used to the game, he would take me away from my mother and then I should go out at night with him and get 'clocks' (watches). He told me he and another had a lot of boys working for them, and, if I liked, when I grew up he would show me how to break into houses. He said it was best to work down in Whitechapel at first until I could do it all right.
"Once I asked him how to take a 'clock' and he showed me. He went up by the side of a gentleman and took his watch out, put his thumb under the catch what holds it, and off it came. I said I wanted to do that, but he said I should want a lot of practice.
When asked if he knew how many times 'Lexlaws' had been convicted, the lad replied:-
"Yus, I heard all about them at the police court. He had fourteen days' just for being boozed, and then he got a month for fighting a copper. A little while after that he got three months' for a 'kettle' - that's a watch - and twelve months' for another job I don't remember."
Isaacs is well known in the East end of London. On one occasion he was found in a cellar with boys and girls teaching them how to dispose of counterfeit coin.
Little Cohen will be taken care of by Mr. Wheatley of St. Giles Mission and taught an honest trade.