Blinkies: Fake Blind Street Beggars
Archie will often be found, sometimes playing the accordion, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, which is his normal beat, but not every day. In a few weeks, he may move on to other areas of the city on a kind of rotation, only to return eventually.
He just needs to build up enough of a stake to cover his gambling needs, then he is off to Belmont Park, Aqueduct or Saratoga to bet on the horses.
He is well-known at the racetrack, and other knowing punters will approach him asking, “See any good things?” as he carefully studies the form guide. There is humour behind the question, as he just so happens to be a “blinkie,” a beggar who feigns blindness, to get his hat or coin cup to overflow with the fruits of people’s generosity.
He fakes his blindness by sticking down his eyelids with collodion glue, which had long been used as a protective coating over photographic film, but more recently for adhering EEG electrodes to the head. After a hard day begging on the street, Archie will step into a secluded alley, pull out a small bottle of of alcohol or acetone (nail polish remover) and a cotton swab, and wipe the collodion from his eyelids.
A non-handicapped person who pretends to be one just to rely on begging has ignorantly allowed poverty to monopolise his destiny.
— Elijah Onyemmeri
One study found that around 55% of all street beggars fake their ailments, and the figures for blind beggars (blinkies) are much higher still. The Lighthouse Guild is an organization that aids the blind. They once released a statement that New York is such a soft touch for blinkies that many of them commute from places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then return home with bulging pockets.
One of New York’s most famous blinkies was “Blind Charley,” who for years parked himself outside Macy’s department store. He held a sign saying, “I AM BLIND. PLEASE HELP ME!”
Charley was so successful with his ruse that he managed to purchase four apartment houses.
Unfortunately, Charlie's fakery eventually caught up with him, and he did eventually go blind. Whether this was from the long-term use of collodion, or at other times keeping his eyes open wide and unblinking towards the sun is open to conjecture.
However, Charlie retired from his street begging soon after, explaining to a familiar police officer: “You can’t expect me to go on working in this disabled condition, can you?”
A detective who had a lot of experience on the Mendicant Squad says that slightly more than half the beggars who appear blind or crippled are frauds. He knew of one blinkie who tapped his way around Times Square for years, doing pretty well at begging until he took to supplementing his income by picking pockets at night. When he was caught at a bar at it in a bar at Seventh Avenue near Forty-seventh Street, he explained that, being blind, he thought his fingers were in his own pocket.
— Meyer Berger, 1983
Beggar, Mendicant, Panhandler?
There are a number of terms synonymous with begging. You may wonder if there's a difference, but there is a fine line that separates them.
- Beggar means a person who begs.
- Mendicant means a pauper who lives by begging.
- A panhandler is someone who asks people for money in a public place. The term is fairly derogatory, but it's commonly used for those who mainly support themselves this way.
- Hoaxes and Scams - A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses and Swindles by Carl Sifakis - page 32
- New York - The Big Apple Quote Book by Bob Blaisdell - page 125
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2023 John Hansen