G men love stoolies. It’s a fact of life.
Over the centuries, the one thing that has most frustrated the work of ‘government guys’ – the regulators of all shapes and sizes, the G men, the Jacks, the fuzz, the heat, the traps, the Johnny Hoppers, federalies, wallopers, flatfoots, boys in blue, whatever you want to call them – the one thing that has most frustrated their valiant efforts to rein in the miscreant criminal milieu has been the unshakeable conspiracy of silence that has long existed between partners in crime.
Ever since the days of Ali Baba a cockeyed code of honour amongst thieves has dictated if you’re going to do crooked business, you’ve got to do it straight. According to criminal folklore, a good crook tells no tales, he never talks to coppers, and he gives up no one. A crook who blabs, the old crooks say, is nothing but a dobber and a ‘dog’, the lowest form of life imaginable in the criminal underworld.
In recent decades legislators and law enforcement agencies have made a determined and concerted effort to break down that wall of silence. Since the McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s, new commissions have sprung up everywhere, specifically created to entice witnesses to spill the beans on their cohorts, usually behind closed doors, with promised secrecy and absolute immunity, and in recent years the courts have been expressly empowered and encouraged to reward snitches by handing out to them, again behind closed doors, heavily discounted sentences in return for information about their compatriots.
To a significant extent the persistent and hard-fought campaign has proved richly successful, the once unshakeable wall of silence in the criminal underworld increasingly eroded by pounding waves of self-interest. It has helped break down even the most brutal and deeply-entrenched criminal networks around the world.
But not everyone, it seems, has entirely signed on to the modern way of things. I had a chuckle recently when dealing with an old timer charged with a string of property offences. He had more form than Phar Lap, a list of prior convictions as long as his arm, and so, despite his advancing years, he was facing a good stretch inside. But the arresting police had made it clear they would recommend him for a substantial discount on his sentence in return for his cooperation. All he had to do was tell them the name of his accomplice. When I mentioned the offer to him my client recoiled in shock and horror.
“I wouldn’t tell the dentist what tooth to pull,” he protested. “I’m no bloody stool pigeon.”
I hadn’t heard that expression in years. It reminded me of Jimmy Cagney in an old time gangster movie. When those mean black-and-white movie mobsters assured audiences a stool pigeon was nothing but a dirty fink who ratted to the coppers, and there was nothing lower than a stoolie, naturally we just took it in as gospel. But what did it really mean?
Believe it or not the term “stool pigeon” has been around for centuries. It most likely has its genesis in the ancient practice, employed by hunters in the early 15th century, of fixing a dead replica pigeon to a wooden stand (stool) to entrap other birds. The early French word to describe a pigeon used to entice a hawk into a net was ’estale,’ and by the end of the 16th century that term was also applied to human beings, in particular a person who did something treacherous to entrap another. It was sometimes spelt ‘stall,’ which eventually became underworld jargon for a pickpocket’s assistant, an accomplice who acted as a decoy to distract the attention of the thief’s intended victim, and evolved into the modern day concept of ’stalling for time’.
But the actual term ‘stool pigeon’, or ‘stoolie’, seems to have first began appearing in print in the 19th century, when it featured mainly in American publications. In the August 1851 edition of the Sheboygan Mercury, a journalist wrote, referring to the political situation in Italy at the time, that “everyone fears that his confederate may prove a traitor… (to be) avoided as a police stool pigeon and spy.” By then it seems the concept was clear -a stoolie was in fact a dirty fink who ratted to the coppers.
From the outraged expression on my aging client’s face, I could see that was precisely what he had in mind. He’d clearly watched way too many Cagney movies in his time. Except it wasn’t just a movie thing for this guy, it was real life. If he talked he walked, that much was clear from everything the police were offering him.
But when the time came, my client said nothing. He just took his sentence on the chin, and quietly shuffled off to jail without ever breathing a word to anyone about his partner in crime. Whatever he was, he was no stoolie.
You can view this article published in the Winter 2016 edition of Ocean Road Magazine.