Green’s Dictionary of Slang

shifter n.1

[SE shift, to employ underhand methods, to deceive, also to live by one’s wits; note the nickname of the resourceful but impoverished Sporting Times journalist William Farn Goldberg, ‘The Shifter’]

1. (UK Und.) a trickster, a confidence man.

[UK]Awdeley Fraternitye of Vacabondes in Viles & Furnivall (1907) 6: The company of Cousoners and Shifters.
[UK]G. Whetstone Mirrour for Magestrates of Citties (2nd edn) H2: These expert Shifters, by falce Dice, slipperie castynge, or some other nice Sleight: [...] wyll make their Purses as emptie of Money, as the Catte the Mouses headde of Braynes.
[UK]H. Chettle Kind-Harts Dreame G2: This Shifter forsooth carried no lesse countenance than a Gentlemans abilitie, with his two men in bluecoates.
[UK]H. Crosse Vertues Common-wealth n.p.: The very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, theeues, cut-purses, shifters, cousoners.
J. Brinsley Ludus Literarius IV 40: The great abuse by som shifters, who go vnder the name of Scriueners .
[UK]Fletcher Bloody Brother IV ii: They have so little As well may free them from the name of shifters.
[UK]R. Burton ‘Democritus to Reader’ Anatomy of Melancholy (1893) I 91: Shifters, cozeners, outlaws, profligatae famae ac vitae (*Men of bad reputation and life).
Milton Hist. of England 130: Bunglers at the Scripture [...] but in worldly matters, practis’d and cunning Shifters.
[US]Edwardsville Intelligencer (IL)14 Sept. 4/4: The Flappers’ Dict. [...] Shifter: A Grafter.
[US]Morn. Tulsa Dly World (OK) 7 May 29/6: The ‘shifter’ [...] flaunts as his banner ‘Something for nothing and then very little’.

2. (UK Und.) a warning from one thief to another.

[UK]Vaux Vocab. of the Flash Lang. in McLachlan (1964) 265: shifter an alarm, or intimation, given by a thief to his pall, signifying that there is a down, or that some one is approaching, and that he had, therefore, better desist from what he is about.

3. (US Und.) a receiver of stolen goods.

[US]H. Yenne ‘Prison Lingo’ in AS II:6 280: The two guys knows a ‘shifter’ (one that transfers stolen goods from the thief to the ‘fence,’ a place where stolen goods are sold).
[US]Goldin et al. DAUL 191/2: Shifter. (East and near South, except New York and New Jersey) A go-between from thief to buyer of stolen goods.