Written by Kiel Torres, Summer Student
“Female pickpockets are rare. No real lady will pick any pocket but her husband’s”
– The Winnipeg Evening Tribune: October 5, 1920
Perceptions of female pickpockets were contentious at the turn of the century. Especially in national print-media sources, these women were either completely underestimated in their ability to act unlawfully, or rendered as the most ruthless and merciless of all criminals.
In the article “Traits of Female Pickpockets” published in the May 12, 1899 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune, female thieves were described as “far more remorseless than men,” and the “meanest of all thieves.” In an interview with the journalist, Detective Thomas McQuade attests that, “A man is usually looking for a pocket that is worth-while picking, and one that will not miss what is taken. But with a woman it is different. She piles her calling among women who can ill afford to lose a dollar.” He continues to recall a female pickpocket who he arrested, but was acquitted because the stolen purse was not found in her possession. In the corridor following the hearing, she stopped a juror to thank him for the release. The juror stated that her gratitude was unnecessary, as “there wasn’t a moment he doubted her innocence.” Later that day, the juror reported having lost his gold watch. It turned out that the light fingered gentry had lifted it off of him whilst thanking him.
While female pickpockets were often scrutinized in the news, author Jack Lait sought to cast a different light on these thieves. Instances such as the one described by Detective Thomas McQuade served as inspiration for Lait’s column, “Dixie Daisy.” Published in the Vancouver Daily World during the 1920’s “Dixie Daisy” follows the life of a fictitious female pickpocket as she travels across the world. From New York, to Chicago, to Moscow, every edition of Lait’s column places Dixie in a new city to rendezvous.
Despite being raised by a family of Southern crooks, Dixie’s values were often emphasized in each edition: she did not drink, swear, or flirt…although her “soft southern drawl” did add a measure of sensuality to her criminal identity. She also only targeted men, but rather than blatantly seducing them, she would victimize those she believed to be weak to temptation. In “Daisy Bobs Up,” from the January 5th, 1924 edition of the Vancouver Daily World, Dixie attends a high society soiree in Boston. Dressed in her finest, Dixie’s glamour attracts a particular gentleman, who she dances with the entire night. As the evening winds down, he is madly head over heals and determined to make her his wife. The moment he leans in for a kiss, Daisy breezes out of the ballroom clutching her purse, and a one-hundred dollar bill that she lifted from the gentleman’s waist coat.
While it is arguable whether Lait’s column empowered or fetishized women involved in vice, the character of Dixie Daisy raises some interesting questions about the role of fiction in understanding fact. With the Vancouver Daily World publishing both “Dixie Daisy” which celebrated the protagonist’s cunning, strength, and independence; and articles that hyperbolized female pickpockets’ inhumanity, the truth about these women was blurry? Their histories have been clouded by antiquated gender biases and sensational prose, leaving us with very little objective information about their position in the criminal world. Take a look at Part Two of this series to learn about real-life pickpocket Ethel Blake, the only female member in a local gang of thieves during Vancouver’s heyday of crime.
Here’s an excerpt from an 1800s article about the fictitious Daisy: “Daisy Bobs Up”
“Daisy’s forte, as may be remembered by faithful readers of these pages, was extracting honey from the flowers upon whom she lit. Her fingers were her stingers. It were rude to call her a pickpocket, for in that classification are clumsy blunderers who can’t stick a digit in an empty barrel without turning in a riot call; there a boobs with five thumbs on each hand, who can’t get their own key rings out of their own pockets. But Dixie Daisy was a virtuoso.”