Green’s Dictionary of Slang

beat n.3

[i.e. they ‘beat’ the rules of society]

1. a swindler, a confidence trickster.

[US] ‘Parody on When This Cruel War Is Over’ in Donnybrook-Fair Comic Songster 10: Call me fond names darling – call me a ‘beat’ [...] whose fingers so nimble / To shuffle the cards or ‘rig the thimble’.
[US]J. O’Connor Wanderings of a Vagabond 408: He’s the biggest beat in the South, and never was known to risk his money on the square.
[US]A. Trumble Mysteries of N.Y. 55: Any one of them could make a better living on the square, but they couldn’t have the fun skinning people out of it, and the excitement of being in constant danger of discovery. That is the true secret of the professional beat’s existence.
[US](con. c.1840) ‘Mark Twain’ Huckleberry Finn (2001) 241: Then you come out and spread the news around, and get these beats jailed.
[US]W. Irwin Confessions of a Con Man 154: You’re a lot of professional beats, and you ought to be arrested.
[US]J. Sullivan ‘Criminal Sl.’ in Amer. Law Rev. LII (1918) 890: The stylish hotel beat is called a ‘baron.’.

2. a loafer, a layabout, a sponger; in ext. use, a beggar.

Criminal Life (Boston) 19 Dec. n.p.: A crowd of beats stand on Jackson Square [...] and a lot more who will get their names in full.
[US]‘Johnny Cross’ ‘The Dead Beat’ in Orig. Pontoon Songster 21: He’d whisper in accents so sweet, / ‘Have you got any loose change about you?’ / So she’d settle the bill of this beat.
N.Y. Sun 6 July 6/4: ‘Do we encounter many beats? Well, yes, I should say we did,’ answered an old hotel manager [...] ‘and I have no objection to telling you what I can do about them and how we manage them, provided you don’t mention my name or that of this hotel. It would be a serious thing for me if the travelling public got the notion into their heads that this house is any more frequented by birds of prey than any of the others.’.
[UK]G.A. Sala in Living London (1883) Apr. 150: A ‘beat’ is a beggar; ‘to strike’ is to importune.
[US](con. 1861–5) J.D. Billings Hardtack and Coffee 95: The original idea of a beat was that of a lazy man or a shirk who would by hook or by crook get rid of all military or fatigue duty that he could; but the term grew to have a broader signification.
[UK]Punch 21 Feb. 142/1: ...the Conductor stepped jauntily about the cars, looking into dark corners for possible ‘beats’.
E. Dyson ‘Two Battlers and a Bear’ in Lone Hand (Sydney) Oct. 602/2: Eric was dressed in the deplorable garments of a ‘beat’ [...] He started talking in the language and with the languid manner of a destitute English genleman, a part he had played so often.
Hawaiian Star (HI) 17 June 4/2: The fiend who smokes a rank cigar [...] the bum, the boozer and the beat — they say these men are hogs.
[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 12 Dec. 39/1: Listen to him, Winterton, and every lug-biter in the country nibbles his ear. There isn’t a beat or a beer-sparrer for miles around who doesn’t know that Mackaboy is good for contributions, cash or kind, when everything else fails.
[US]M.G. Hayden ‘Terms Of Disparagement’ in DN IV:iii 198: beat, a worthless, idle fellow.
[Aus]E. Dyson Missing Link 🌐 Ch. i: The familiars of Mr. Nicholas Crips were [...] all ‘beats,’ that is to say, gentlemen sitting on the rail dividing honest toil from open crime.
[US]Wentworth & Flexner DAS.

3. (US) a generally unreliable person, esp. one who fails to pay their debts, spec. hotel bills.

[US]Cincinnati Enquirer 7 Sept. 10/7: Beat—Is used as both a noun and verb, the former meaning a person who does not pay his just debts, or one who, on account of some former connection with the profession, still clings like a parasite to them, begging and borrowing (and sometimes stealing) all he can from them.
[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 16 Oct. 12/4: The justice, after hearing the case, decided he was a ‘beat’ and deserve what he got.
[Aus]Sydney Sl. Dict. (2 edn) 3: Beat - One who evades his debts.
J.A. Riis Making of an American 139: The grocer on my corner complained that he was being ruined by ‘beats’ who did not pay their bills [DA].
[US]O.O. McIntyre New York Day by Day 3 Mar. [synd. col.] New York hotels eventually land 98 per cent of the hotel beats in prison.
[US] ‘Hotel Sl.’ in AS XIV:3 Oct. 239/2: beat Guest who leaves without paying his bill; guest who fails to tip.

4. (US Und.) a swindle, and act of cheating.

[US]Nat. Police Gaz. (NY) 7 Dec. 2/3: The first ‘beat’ that is made is on the ticket. They charge ten or twenty dollars more a ticket than the regular price, and give the dupe a bogus ticket.
[US]Ersine Und. and Prison Sl.
[US]G. Cain Blueschild Baby 128: You take a chance stealing, then sell it for a fraction, get uptown and have to hunt down the bag. Even then you’re not done, cause it might be a beat.

5. (also beatster) a beatnik.

[US]Kerouac ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’ Playboy June n.p.: By 1948 the hipsters, or beatsters, were divided into cool and hot.
[UK]R.A. Norton Through Beatnik Eyeballs 15: They plainly disgruntled now I quit my pad and become a beat.
[US]Rigney & Smith Real Bohemia 26: By August 1959, though, the terms ‘Beat Generation,’ ‘Beatster,’ ‘Hipster,’ and ‘Beatnik’ [...] had been used in almost broadside fashion to label anything remotely believed to be connected with Bohemia.
[US]Lavender Lex. n.p.: beat:—Beatnick; The beatnicks have nothing in common with homosexuals. One of the common characteristics of the Beat is the apparent need for a bath, whereas one of the most common traits of the homosexual is personal cleanliness.
[US]J. Lerner You Got Nothing Coming 279: Unlike some of my post-Beat buddies who looked down on alcohol as the province of [...] ‘juiceheads,’ I had no such elitist pretensions.

In phrases

on the beat

(US) engaged in a swindle.

[US]Ade Old-Time Saloon 144: A consistent policy was to ‘fix’ the ‘harness bull’ on the beat, the theory being that any policeman who was a square guy would not bite the hand that was feeding him.
[UK]R. Hauser Homosexual Society Appendix 3, 167: Hustle, on the beat.