In looking at the James Stukel Towers, the spiffy University of Illinois at Chicago dorms near the corner of Halsted and Rochford, it is hard to imagine that it used to be the site of the dilapidated training academy of the Chicago Police Department. From 1960 to 1976, police recruits trained in a decrepit school building built in 1857, a stone’s throw from the Maxwell Street Market. One of the manuals from the academy, Penitentiary & Underworld Argot, captures the spirit of Maxwell Street. The 1967 dictionary is questionable, weird, hilarious, infuriating, and enlightening.
Robert M. McCann, then-director of training for the Chicago Police Department, prefaced the dictionary with an explanation that it was not “a complete dictionary of underworld slang.” Its definitions were “obtained from inmates of prisons, ex-convicts, thieves or of that ilk,” with contributions from instructors who had “enjoyed various assignments that brought them into ‘conversational or arrest’ contact with thieves or members of the underworld.” With nearly 1,600 entries, the mimeographed dictionary has a few awkward definitions, and while it is filled with remarkably crude expressions, “vulgarity in the most distasteful and objectionable passages” was omitted “for the sake of propriety.”
With entries such as jail house, mob, gangster, ex-con, hooker, bum, goofy, and nifty, much of the Penitentiary & Underworld Argot seems patronizingly obvious. (Didn’t everyone who passed the police exam know that a cop is another word for a police officer?) The dictionary is also filled with patter we associate with film noir: gin mill, shut your yap, gumshoe, on the lam, trigger man, and fall guy. Though a section of the dictionary included “terms commonly used by narcotic addicts or traffickers,” the dictionary feels remarkably light on 60s slang.
Yet alongside easy-peasy entries such as beat the rap, big shot, side kick, double cross, and nut house are expressions of the criminal tradecraft and colorful, nearly extinct turns of phrase. Dead bang means caught in the act, while a dead one was a reformed criminal. Bright eyes are a lookout man or woman. A phoneman is a peddler of cheap jewelry. A pickpocket—also known as a buzz, a whizzy, a dip, or a wire—might roust a target (push into a crowd to permit the picking of a pocket in the confusion) or try reefing (working up the lining of the pocket between the fingers until the desired article is easily reached).
Why a Chicago cop would need to know that a rod, a gat, a biscuit, a torch, a stick, a cannon, a roscoe, and a heater were all slang words for handguns is clear. Why a Chicago cop would need to know that beagles, cackleberries, snails, stinkers, and red lead were synonyms for sausages, eggs, cinnamon rolls, onions, and catsup is something of a mystery. It is easy to see how other entries could confuse outsiders. Barbering is to have a conversation. Cheaters could mean eyeglasses or marked cards or dice. The word clout as a noun means influence, but the verb to clout means to steal or to strike.
Think you know your Chicago underworld? Here’s a quiz of some of the less obvious entries in Penitentiary & Underworld Argot. The correct answer is lifted word-for-word from the dictionary itself.
A) Highest-ranking officer at a police station
B) A jail
C) A successful robbery
A) Not listed on police records; a criminal not as yet identified as “wanted” by the police
B) “Hungover” after a long night of drinking
C) Someone who is unaware he has been pickpocketed
A) To snatch; seize; grab; steal.
B) To inspect a house or store before robbing
C) To arrest; to apprehend
A) A locksmith
B) A man who sells firearms to criminals
C) An inefficient worker
A) A car used for bank robberies
B) A nickel
C) Any strong drink
B) A percentage paid to a corrupt policeman for “protection”
C) A thief
7) Pigeon joint
A) A store where burglars’ tools may be purchased
B) The section of the prison where informers are held
C) A graveyard
B) A decoy for a confidence game
C) A bomb
9) Badger game
A) A gambling wheel controlled by the foot of the operator
B) A blackmailing scheme in which the victim is taken to a room or apartment by the woman accomplice and there discovered by the “husband.”
C) The hustling and shoving about by a pickpocket mob
10) The School
A) The Pontiac, Illinois, Penitentiary, formerly a reformatory, as referred to by prisoners in the Joliet penitentiaries
B) United States Penitentiary, Marion, as referred to by prisoners in Illinois state penitentiaries
C) Gallery at the Cook County Jail where newly arrived prisoners are housed or celled.
9-10 correct: A-1! You’re prepared for undercover work in the Chicago underworld.
7-8 correct: Bang-up job! You’re ready to walk a beat, maybe even around Maxwell Street.
6-4 correct: Bad break. Let’s start you off on the far northwest side, rookie.
3-0 correct: Complete flop. There might be a filing job for you somewhere, hayseed. If you want to make it, you’ll have to brush up on your pulp crime novels.
9. B (A gambling wheel controlled by the foot of the operator is a gaff wheel. The hustling and shoving about by a pickpocket mob is called rowdy dowdy.)
10. A v