Cutting Wallets Out of Drunks' Pockets on New York City Subways

It’s a crime with finesse:

But he is actually a middle-aged or older man who has been doing this for a very long time. And he is a fading breed.

“It’s like a lost art,” the lieutenant said. “It’s all old-school guys who cut the pocket. They die off.” And they do not seem to be replacing themselves, he said. “It’s like the TV repairman.”

Lush workers date back at least to the beginning of the last century, their ilk cited in newspaper crime stories like one in The New York Times in 1922, describing “one who picks the pockets of the intoxicated. He is the old ‘drunk roller’ under a new name.” While the term technically applies to anyone who steals from a drunken person, most police officers reserve it for a special kind of thief who uses straight-edge razors found in any hardware store.

EDITD TO ADD (11/14): Pick-pockets of all kinds may be a dying breed in New York.

Posted on November 7, 2011 at 12:43 PM34 Comments


NobodySpecial November 7, 2011 12:57 PM

Wouldn’t cutting a pocket be a low skill version of pick pocketing?

It’s also riskier for the thief. He has a weapon so is more likely to be shot by the police or victim and presumably more chance of an assault with a deadly weapon / aggravated robbery charge than a real pick pocket?

So if you are going to take this risk why not just put the knife in the victims face and ask for their wallet?

Tony H. November 7, 2011 1:04 PM

I thought: Heh – “straight-edge razors found in any hardware store”. New York must have different hardware stores from the kind around here. I don’t even know where I’d go to buy a straight razor – a barber supply place? What is the legitimate use for such dual-use technology? How many people do you know who shave themselves this way?

Then I realized they were talking about single-edged razor blades – the kind you use to scrape paint off a window and such. Maybe just another regional terminology quirk, or maybe the writer simply got it wrong.

VinceMulhollon November 7, 2011 1:05 PM

+NobodySpecial it would be simpler and safer to use a “weapon” with no risk of wounding the victim, like, say, a hot woman buys him a couple more drinks before he leaves, he thinks he’s getting some, he passes out in the alley, hot woman’s boyfriend simply picks up wallet from unconscious victim. Also beer goggle effect means hotness is, um, easier to achieve.

No One November 7, 2011 1:08 PM

  1. Assuming cutting a pocket is simpler than lifting.
  2. And assuming you can’t mug people with a box cutter on a crowded train many times in one night.
  3. And assuming drunks are good targets — they are more unaware of their environment than sober people.
  4. And assuming drunks are more unpredictable in their response to being mugged than a sober person.

Put all those together and cutting the pockets of drunks is a reasonable method of stealing.

No One November 7, 2011 1:11 PM

Addendum for VinceMulhollon:
4. Assuming you can cut more pockets than you can get men pass-out-drunk in a night.

Bill November 7, 2011 1:19 PM

When I was last in Bucharest, the gypsies use a box cutter to slice open women’s purses / bags along the bottom. A friend of mine had this happen to her, while sober, in a busy downtown area in broad daylight. The entire crime takes about 3 or 4 seconds. She even had her purse up close to her body, under her arm. The gypsy “inadvertently” bumped into her in a crowded area. She never felt the purse being pulled because it wasn’t. A quick slice at the same time as the bump, then the contents just fall out. By the time she realized the purse was light, the gypsy was long gone.

Jeff Pettorino November 7, 2011 1:31 PM


Picking/cutting the pocket is theft…may or may not escalate due to knife/blade/being armed, etc. Intent can be presumed not to threaten but to take stealthily.

Holding blade in face and saying “Give me your wallet or I fucking cut you” is aggravated, armed robbery. Violent and overt act.

The names/titles of the crimes may vary from place to place…theft, robbery, larceny…each jurisdiction uses them a little differently. The key here is one of them is a crime of opportunity and taking advantage in a stealth like manner, the other is pure intimidation/threat of bodily injury.

karrde November 7, 2011 1:31 PM


I was going to say, this reminds me of a specialized case of ‘cutpurse’.

as elucidated by @Eric and @NoOne, there are good reasons why cut-purse is a more efficient method of robbing drunks than hold-up or honey-trap.

William November 7, 2011 1:52 PM

For urban areas and much of eastern Europe I highly recommend PacSafe bags. Embedded wire mesh prevents the slash attack from working.

Albatross November 7, 2011 1:57 PM

Interesting to me are the ones who approach you in a train station with a tray of crap they want to sell you. What you don’t notice is that under the tray their hands are free to pick your pocket.

I read a book before visiting Morocco in 1979 that said to watch out for child pickpockets. At one point we ran into an old man displaying a large snake in a public square. I realized this was the distraction, and sure enough while everyone was watching the snake children younger than ten were weaving through the crowd picking pockets.

Lenka November 7, 2011 2:28 PM

I’d like to second William’s suggestion for PacSafe bags. I used one for two months while living in Istanbul and my husband used his for months on end while living in China, and neither of us had theft issues. I suspect that I was targeted a few times, but those with slippery hands were never successful, given the unexpected surprise of a zipper locked with a carabiner!

luca November 7, 2011 2:45 PM

another somewhat obscure use for razor blades is (was?) in technical drafting. I used to use them to correct small mistakes on paper vellum, by scratching off a thin layer of paper. Oh wait, non computer aided technical drafting is also gone the way of the dodo.

Eric November 7, 2011 3:02 PM

@Tony H: Not a straight razor, a straight-edged razor like utility knives use.

@Jarod: They’d never use a double-edged razor too much risk of self-injury. They use these so they can apply pressure without risk to themselves.

Nick P November 7, 2011 3:39 PM

@ VinceMulhollon

Terrible idea. You have to pay the woman & buy the drinks. Simply taking wallets from already-drunk people is far more profitable & there’s nobody for the police to “flip” to put you in jail.

@ Bill

Especially clever move by the Gypsies. It would have to be a noisy or crowded street though because I figure there’s no way to catch the large number of items that might fall from a purse. All the racket should make someone take notice.

@ Tony H

It’s obvious he was talking about a straight-edged razor blade. Heck, even the blades in my box cutter could do the job. Can’t find any? Is there actually not a Walmart in your area?

buherator November 7, 2011 3:39 PM

Is this something to write an article about, are you serious?! In the less fortunate parts of the world this is as common as muck. And I have to say, ordinary pocket pickers are real gentlemen compared to these “lush worker” scumbags who always find those who can’t punch them in the face if she wakes up during the manoeuvre.

kingsnake November 7, 2011 4:45 PM

I get the NYT print and read that article. I found it amusing how they talk about it being a recent phenomenon. (“Recent” being within the past 100 years.) The technique probably dates back to the bronze age (or as long as sharp objects and purses have existed). Here;s one reference that dates it back to at least the 14th century …

Nick N November 7, 2011 11:05 PM

“I thought: Heh – “straight-edge razors found in any hardware store”. New York must have different hardware stores from the kind around here.”

I thought exactly the same thing.

“I don’t even know where I’d go to buy a straight razor – a barber supply place?”

Nope, either old ones from antique stores and restore them yourself or new/restored ones from online stores/eBay.

“What is the legitimate use for such dual-use technology? How many people do you know who shave themselves this way?”

I do! I’ve been using a straight razor since I started shaving, going on about 15 years now. There are quite a few of us around.

David November 8, 2011 12:47 AM

@Nick: “I do! I’ve been using a straight razor since I started shaving, going on about 15 years now. There are quite a few of us around.”

Presumably that would explain your name!

(extra points for the gratuitous “Topper Harley” reference?)

Nick P November 8, 2011 1:53 AM

@ Nick N

One neat thing about those straight razors is how sharp they can get. Many modern blades “look” like they’d be sharper, but I was amazed when my uncle pulled one out & let me test it. He still uses it to this day.

I got to experience one myself a few years back. We were in a very rural town. I needed a hair cut and side burns trimmed. Kind of a military-like cut at the time. Old guy cuts my hair, then goes for the side burns. I’m expecting him to pull out an electric shaver & suddenly he flips out a straight razor. I was thinking, “Seriously? You still use those?” It did the job, but had me a bit nervous lol.

Eltomo November 8, 2011 2:51 AM

Huh… Already christmas time? First Charles Dickens story I read this year. Yes, the classic pickpocket is a vanishing species. But don’t worry – IT has created a lot of modern professions for the ambionated 21st century crook.

grumpy November 8, 2011 3:41 AM

So not only do they take my possesions but they also destroy my clothes? How nice of the old professions to bugger off… Personally I’d take the head off anyone trying this near me, blade or not. Parasites the lot. Good riddance.

Thomas November 8, 2011 7:27 AM

In my part of the world, someone drunk on the street has nothing left in his wallet, he only wanders on the street once he can’t buy anymore drinks. Absolutely not a target for pick-pocketing.

kingsnake November 8, 2011 7:54 AM

On the other hand, at least they take an entreprenurial risk, rathing than looting your mortgage, then getting their pals in government to actually compensate them for it …

Adder November 8, 2011 7:55 AM

Happened to me on a bus in SE Asia. A guy stood next to me, when I got off the bus my pants were in shreds. Never noticed a thing and he could have been working for more than 30 minutes for all I know.

Too bad for him, the hard labor didn’t pay off since I never keep money in my pant pockets.

And just for the record: I was awake and sober at the time.

Tony H. November 8, 2011 10:18 AM

Google images will provide a quick verification of [the popular opinion of] the difference between “straight razor” or even “straight-edge razor” and “single-edged razor [blade]”.

Thunderbird November 8, 2011 12:32 PM

Interesting how many people posted links to razors that aren’t “straight razors” on Amazon. Turns out there is an injector straight razor that you can . . . get on Amazon: Parker SR1 Stainless Straight Razor.

Apologies if this is in fact the same thing someone else posted and I misread the links.

prezzie November 8, 2011 1:21 PM

Don’t forget the old gypsy trick of throwing you a baby, then picking your pockets while your hands are busy playing catch.
The best defense to this attack is to simply swat the baby to the ground.

Nathan Russell November 11, 2011 11:09 AM

I think people could stand to think whether the “gypsy” crime methodologies discussed here are exclusive to those of Roma descent, and if not, whether they’re being at least implicitly racist.

fellbeaste November 11, 2011 4:08 PM

Ummm –

Just where do you think the medieval term “cut purse” came from?

Before pockets & wallets came into vogue, you carried your money in a leather bag hanging off your belt…

Some things never (or very slowly) change.

Bacopa November 14, 2011 5:28 PM

I like the method The Travelers use use better. Find an older person living alone. Say you are with a home repair company and because business is slow, you’re giving free estimates. say you need to come into the house to take some measurements. Steal belongs while in house. Drive away. When things come up missing you will find the business named on their stationary does not exist.

Michael March 19, 2012 8:41 AM

This happened to me Saturday night in downtown Brooklyn. Son of a bitch cut my pants pocket and as soon as I felt something, I reached around to my pocket and I cut myself on the knife he had. I jumped up and confronted the piece of shit(give me my wallet), which then he kept telling me to back off before he cuts me.

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