The first time I gave any thought to the term was when I watched some of the great old film noir movies about gangsters. It seemed like almost every gang was victimized by one.
I am referring here to that old nemesis of crime, the “stool pigeon.”
The first “stool pigeons” were literally that. In the early days of colonization here and prior to that in England, pigeons were a source of meat (tastes like chicken).
Pigeons by nature are not very large birds. If you shoot one anywhere but in the head, you’ve spoiled the good eating portions — trust me on this one, I know from experience on the farms.
Hunters noted that pigeons are not the sharpest birds going and that they would tend to fly down and check out another of their species. Thus, the clever hunter would use a captured pigeon, usually tethered to a stool or perch as a decoy to lure his wild cousins into range of a net or snare.
This technique came into prominence in the early 1800s when a form of it, “stool-crow,” was used in 1811 as a version of “decoy.”
This came into common usage as “stool pigeon” (crows were not tasty, scratch the “four-and-twenty blackbirds” pie thing) so “stool pigeon” replaced that term.
By 1830, “stool pigeon” had entered the slanguage as a means to describe a criminal who was used as a decoy or informant by the police to capture other criminals.
The term is considered an Americanism although it may have been originally derived from the Old English word “stale,” meaning “a living bird used to catch others of the same species.”
Unfortunately, the use of “stool pigeons” may have led to the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon due to “flock shooting” with large fowling pieces.
Setting all that aside, I derived a certain amount of pleasure from seeing a tough guy gangster played by someone such as James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson snarl about a “stool pigeon” in the gang.
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