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Apollo Robbins Will Steal Your Wallet: A Conversation with the World's Best Pickpocket

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Apollo Robbins is good at stealing stuff. For years, this renown pickpocket entertained Vegas audiences by stealing their hearts-- generally by stealing their wristwatches and money clips. But everything changed for Apollo after he picked the pocket of one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents during one of his shows. I sat with Robbins to talk about the art of pickpocketing, life after Vegas, and why he lets gypsies steal stuff from him.

How'd you get into pickpocketing business?
My half brothers were involved with crime. But I was too young to participate. I also had certain disabilities that prevented me [from joining in]: like braces on my legs. When I became a teen, I ran into a friend at a magic shop who took me under his wing. I started reading up on magical theory and immediately blended that with what my brothers had shown me.

Your style of pickpocketing is based in magic?
I applied my magic in ways that were invasive, where it happened on people. There are two kinds of magic. If you think of it like martial arts, there's sparring where you are doing it with a partner and the other is kata where you're doing an exposition for the audience. Many times, illusions or magic sets are designed as an exposition for the audience to watch, but the the style I do with the pickpocketing is directly interactive. So I used that idea to build my pickpocket act in Vegas.

You mentioned a story about Jimmy Carter's secret service man. How did stealing from an president's bodyguard turn into your big break?
My show was part-variety, part-magic, so I brought people on stage. Then I'd steal all their stuff and give it back to them. But 7 or 8 years ago, I pick-pocketed one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents. After that, I got approached [to consult] police departments and security individuals. I got to visit prisons and I started learning the thinking and skill set of real thieves.
So, there's a difference in how thieves and magicians pick pockets?

The thinking is the same. But you're in a different context and coming from a different place. For a street thief, the priority--more than dexterity or nimble fingers-- is being able to monitor where someone's attention is. It's fascinating. They don't so much manipulate attention [like a magician does], because they don't want to be memorable. But they do want to know where someone's attention is. If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.

And what about a magician?
You have to monitor the responses you're getting from the person you're working with and adjust your performance. In the same way that a film director would use a film lens to blur out a certain item or use a spotlight, I use certain movements that draw the eye instinctually.

So, what are some of the tricks a successful pockpocket will use?
If you keep eye contact as you approach someone and go to their side, the person will stay very focused on on your face and upper body because it's alarming to them that you're keeping eye contact. But if you break eye contact as you approach from the front and then you step to their side, you can use this. If you don't want them to focus on something you're doing with your hands, just by tilting your head into their personal space, it'll draw their attention, and they'll want to look at you. I use that when I'm stealing.

That's crazy! Is it safe to meet you in person?
Generally, yes. [Laughing] It depends on whether I'm on or off the clock!

Any other tricks of the trade you don't mind sharing?
My business is basically a business of false assumptions -- I create assumptions that look like reality and take advantage of those. I'll tell someone I'm going to try and steal from them and then challenge them to catch me. Then I'll use hand movements to create false assumptions. I'll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they're expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement, almost like a cat chases a string-- it's fascinating.

So, the ruse is in the half-circle?
Exactly. If you keep your hand movement in a straight line, the person won't follow it. They'll snap to the end location and they'll snap back to the pocket, and they'll catch your other hand if it's doing something. But that's not the only trick. If I'm going to steal from someone, I'll lock onto what I'm about to steal, but I wait. I'll use statements and situations that create an inner dialogue so they'll second guess themselves. They may say "I think he's up to this." And you can detect that. You develop a sense to detect that.

And when they're caught in this inner dialogue, then what?
When they have that inner dialogue, it suppresses their outside senses, so they can't feel when you're pulling something and they can't see it, even their glasses are getting pulled right off their face. There's a pickpocket who specializes in this named Bora. He removes glasses without people ever noticing, even though their field of vision has changed.

That sounds incredible. So, is pickpocketing still an art that people are practicing on the streets?
Definitely. That's what been interesting to me. You have organized teams that have become very prevalent in the US, especially around large sporting events -- The Super-Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. I set myself up to be pickpocketed in Spain. I just wanted to feel the sensation.

How did it feel?
Fascinating. Two Gypsy ladies outside of Alhambra locked up a frame on me. One lady was reaching inside a bag to pull out some fern leaves and the other was locking up my elbow and trying to steal from behind. I saw them doing it to other people, so I positioned myself so I'd be in the queue for it.

So, what's next for you?
I'm working with a show called Leverage on TNT as an advisor, teaching them how to do these types of techniques on television. I also work with the actors and the writers. And I'll be on an episode this fall. Until then, you can catch me at istealstuff.com.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Email the person's name and the questions you're curious about to chetan@mentalfloss.com. If we end up using your lead, we'll be sure to include your name!

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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