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Crime, Death & Debauchery
By Neil R. Storey
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey
All rights reserved.
THE NOTORIOUS & NEFARIOUS
The Cathedral of Sin
In 1553 St Paul's Cathedral was treated like an exchange by and for the lower echelons of society in London. The Common Council of London found it necessary to pass an Act whereby horses and mules were prohibited from being led through the cathedral and Queen Elizabeth I had to pass another law forbidding swords to be drawn within the sacred walls. The walls were plastered with advertising posters and acted as a hiring place for all manner of servants. In 1628 Bishop Earle lashed out;
Paul's Walk is the land's epitome ... the noise is like that of bees ... a kind of still roar. It is the general mint of all famous lies ... It is the thieves' sanctuary, who rob more safely in the crowd than a wilderness, whilst every searcher is a bush to hide them. It is the other expense of the day, after plays, tavern and a bawdy-house; and men still have some oaths left to swear here.
School for Scoundrels
In 1585 Stow recorded the story of a man named Wotton who 'kept an academy for the education and perfection of pickpockets and cut purses' set up in an alehouse at Smart's Quay near Billingsgate. Here he trained groups of young boys in the art of one two devices, a pocket and a purse hung about with hawk's bells with a little sacring bell over the top. The purse had silver in it, the pocket counter. Once boys had been trained and mastered the art of quickly removing the contents without causing the bells to make any noise, they were adjudged a judicial 'nypper' (a cut purse).
Probably the most notorious of the London 'nyppers' was Mary Markham, alias Frith, and better known to history as Moll Cutpurse. Born in 1585 she began at an early age working the old street thief standard scheme with two others, one called 'bulk' created an obstruction, Moll the 'file' cut the purse and handed it to a third named the 'rub' who would run off with it. She wore male attire for the first time as a bet in 1612 but was brought before an ecclesiastical court for this 'offence' and was ordered to do penance at the door of St Paul's Cathedral. Having atoned for the offence she decided to wear male clothes ever after. She became an adept swordswoman and bold rider, ideal skills for her next criminal adventures in the guise of highwayman, during which her most notable robbery was the time she relieved the parliamentary general Thomas Fairfax of 200 gold jacobuses on Hounslow Heath. Moll was often in and out of the city compters, Bridewell and Newgate, and was branded on the hand as a thief on four occasions. Having had a brush with the gallows Moll set herself up in business on Fleet Street as a negotiator between thieves and the public to enable the recovery, at a price, of stolen items. In later life she earned a fairly honest trade training and exhibiting a variety of exotic animals, and was said to have been the first English woman to smoke tobacco; an illustration of her in male attire puffing away on her pipe appears in Middleton's play Roaring Girl, in which Moll figures as the principal character. It was said in her lifetime she had amassed and spent a fortune. Moll died of dropsy in 1659.
On Christmas Day in 1611 as King James, Queen Anne, the Duke of York and several nobility were receiving the sacrament in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall a Mr Dubbleday spotted a stranger in their midst. Observing the man hovering suspiciously near a Mr Barrie and then moving to leave, Dubbleday went to Barrie and enquired if he had lost anything. Barrie said he had not, but instinctively feeling for his purse which contained some 40s, discovered it was gone. The two men quickly caught up with the stranger and arrested him. Upon searching the man the very same purse was found secreted about his person. The man gave his name as John Selman, upon enquires being made it was discovered he was a notorious 'nypper and foyster' (a nypper was a cut purse and a foyster was a pickpocket). Selman paid for his audacity, he was found guilty of his crimes and was executed between Charing Cross and the Court Gate on 7 January 1612.
John Cottington had been a petty criminal and pickpocket since about the age of about thirteen when he ran away from being bound an apprentice and climbing boy to a chimneysweep. He became notorious after the English Civil War when he and a number of others who fought for the Royalist cause took to the road as highwaymen. He claimed he was continuing the fight by attacking wealthy Parliamentarians. A successful criminal, he was nicknamed Mull'd Sack after the drink he favoured. When he was in funds, he was said to have stolen goods 'almost enough to have built St Paul's Cathedral.' One of his most notorious exploits was the robbery of Lady Fairfax, wife of the General. As she arrived at St Martin's Church, Ludgate members of his gang swiftly and discreetly removed the axle pin of her carriage causing it to collapse. Dressed as a gentleman, Cottington stepped forward, apparently to help her ladyship but in the process he cut her watchchain and made off with a gold watch set with diamonds. After numerous narrow escapes his luck ran out when he killed a man in the course of a robbery and fled to the continent. Instead of joining the Royalists there he could not resist the theft of £1,500 of plate and made his way back to England, where he was arrested and hanged at Smithfield Rounds in 1656.
The Gentleman of the Road
One character beyond all others helped create the image of 'the gentleman of the road', his name was Claude Duval. Born in Normandy, he was an ardent Royalist and travelled to London at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Tiring of this lifestyle, he sought the adventure of life as a highwaymen, particularly favouring Blackheath and Hounslow Heath. He was always mannered and well dressed as he presented his pistol and demanded the occupants of the coach to 'stand and deliver.' His most notorious exploit was when he led his gang to hold up a coach which they knew to be carrying booty of £400. In the coach was a 'a knight, his lady and only one serving maid.' To show she was not afraid, the lady took a Flageolet out of her pocket and played, Duval played also. The coachman and the occupants knew the purpose of these men and fearing for their lives knew they had better stop and attempt to humour the highwaymen. Then Duval gentlemanly assisted the lady out and they danced the Coranto most elegantly under the circumstances. Afterwards he relieved the passengers of their money and valuables.
Duval was finally captured while drunk at the Hole-in-the-Wall tavern in Chandos Street, near Covent Garden, and was hanged on 21 January 1670. His body was displayed surrounded with suitable funeral impedimenta at the Tangier Tavern, St Giles. Many of the fashionable ladies of the day came to see the rugged highwayman; they wore masks but is was said tears could be seen upon their cheeks. His funeral was held at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, where he was buried under the epitaph,
Here lies Duval. Reader, if Male thou art,
Look to thy purse: if female to your heart.
Much havoc has he made of both, for all
Men he made stand, and women he made fall.
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arms did yield, and Ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn's Glory: England's illustrious thief,
Duval, the Ladies' joy; the Ladies' grief.
Some of the earliest public appeals for wanted criminals date back to the first newspapers and periodicals of the seventeenth century. This one dates from 1680:
Whereas one John Stuart, of a tall stature, black brows, a wart upon his cheek, in a black periwig, and a tawny or black suit, and campaign coat, has been lately intrusted to sell several pieces of black worstead, crapes, hair chamblets, black philemot, and sky-coloured mohairs, watered and unwatered; with which goods he is run away, and cannot yet be heard of. Whoever gives notice of the man and goods (who, it is thought, is gone towards Ireland) to Mr Howard, Milk Street Market shall have 40s reward.
The one name still associated with highwaymen is, of course, Dick Turpin. In reality he was a merciless and desperate criminal, far removed from the image of folk hero attached to him since his death. In 1737, Turpin shot dead a man who attempted to capture him at Epping Forest, a reward was offered and the Secretary of State made this proclamation:
It having been represented to the king that Richard Turpin did, on Wednesday 4 May last, barbarously murdered Thomas Morris, servant of Henry Thompson, one of the keepers of Epping Forest, and commit other notorious felonies and robberies near London, his majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of two hundred pounds to any person or persons, that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted. Turpin was born at Thaxted in Essex, is about thirty, by trade a butcher, about five feet nine inches high, very much marked with small-pox, his cheek-bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.
Types of River Criminals
River criminals in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be divided into distinctive gangs each with their own methods. 'River Pirates' were always heavily armed with sword, pistol and dagger. They specialised in cutting lighters adrift at night and plundering them when they ran aground. 'Heavy Horsemen' were dishonest porters and labourers who handled ships cargoes. They would throw goods overboard at high tide for the 'Mud Larks' to collect at low tide. Criminally inclined watermen were 'Night Plunderers' who either robbed their passengers while on the river or dropped the unsuspecting visitor to London at a dock where their confederates ashore, known as 'Scuffle Hunters', laid in wait to rob the poor soul. At their height in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such criminal activity cost the merchants and Government as much as £800,000 a year.
Thames River Pirates
The Annual Register dated 6 June 1770 recorded that 'Between 11 and 12 o'clock at night three gentlemen and two ladies returning from Vauxhall by water, were boarded by six men who had their faces covered with black crape about 200 yards above Westminster Bridge who demanded their money without any hesitation or they would throw them overboard. They took from the company near £20 besides two watches, and immediately rowed up the river.'
Who Goes Home?
At the conclusion of every sitting of Parliament the door-keepers throw open the doors and the cry goes up 'Who goes Home?'. Now a signal for adjournment, this call harks back to when the streets of London were not policed by a formal force but rather watchmen or 'Charlies.' Every pedestrian was vulnerable to attack on the streets of London so many MPs were not inclined to travel home alone and set forth in groups attended by men bearing torches. On similar lines a bell was rung nightly in Kensington Gardens to warn homeward bound promenaders to gather together in large parties to defy attacks from footpads.
The Thief-Taker General
Jonathan Wild is first recorded as having been thrown into the Wood Street Compter for debt in the early eighteenth century. It was here he formed a relationship with Mary Molyneaux, a prostitute and pickpocket. He also learned much about the criminal underworld of London. When released he found work with Charles Hitchen, an Under Marshal in the City of London. They soon found they could earn well from taking bribes from criminals, prostitutes' brothels and tavern keepers to turn a blind eye when necessary but by far their most successful scam was to meet with criminal gangs and fence stolen goods. Wild also 'kept his hand in' as a thief in his own right and even established a school for pickpockets. He set up an office in Cock Alley where those who had been robbed could come to see if Wild and his team could trace their stolen goods. Of course he knew the criminal gangs and could pay a far greater price for the goods than they would have ever received on the street. Wild then earnt his profit in his charges for services locating and returning the goods. Often the thieves would uncover incriminating letters which enabled Wild to conduct a lucrative sideline in blackmail. Wild also protected his suppliers by bribing court officials and prosecution witnesses; if this failed there was always intimidation. Before the days of the police the City authorities turned a blind eye to the conduct of Wild, he was the next best thing to a police force, albeit a corrupt one. Business was brisk and he moved to larger premises at the King's Head, ironically, in Old Bailey. Not only did be become the Thief-Taker General but to be honest he was the Thief General too, any thief who crossed him would simply be served up to the authorities on a plate, and most ended up on the gallows. His hold over London was not to last forever and tolerance of his behaviour waned with time. His demise began after a quarrel between Wild, a thief named Edwards and Roger Johnson, a highwayman. Wild took the side of Johnson so Edwards informed on them both by telling the authorities of how Wild had assisted Johnson escape from a constable. Wild was sent to Newgate; this sent a shockwave through the underworld, many feared for their own skin, many wanted to kick the powerful Wild when he was down and the accusations and information against him poured in to the authorities. Acquitted at his first trial, Wild was finally caught out over a deal with a Mrs Stetham where he had said he would recover a piece of lace worth 10 guineas which had been stolen from her. At his first trial it was made apparent he knew Kelly and Murphy, the men who had stolen the lace from Mrs Stetham, but had not taken any action nor did he give evidence against them. Under the 1719 Act he should not have taken the 'reward' and was thus convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.
On the night before his execution Wild tried to take his own life in the condemned cell by swallowing laudanum, it did not kill him and he was still stupefied when he was carted to Tyburn on 24 May 1725. It was said no greater concourse of people ever lined the route nor packed the stalls and ground around the gallows as to observe the hanging of the Thief-Taker General, they were said to number in their tens of thousands. Some cheered him but most shouted abuse and pelted his cart like a pillory as Wild passed. After he had been swung Wild's wife managed to obtain possession of the body and it was buried quietly in St Pancras churchyard. But the location of the grave was betrayed to a surgeon who paid for the information and had the body removed. Flayed of its skin and muscle (these were dumped in the Thames) the bones were removed and kept in a private collection. These bones were rediscovered in 1847 and were presented to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Slippery Jack Sheppard
One of the legendary figures of London's criminal past, John Sheppard was born in Spitalfields in 1702. Trained as a carpenter, Sheppard frequented the Black Lion tavern on Drury Lane, a notorious hostelry of harlots and criminals. He soon fell in with a crowd of prostitutes, especially Elizabeth Lyon, a girl known to most as Edgeworth Bess. She persuaded the agile 5ft 4ins Sheppard that he could be far more adept at being a house burglar and he was soon co-opted into one of Jonathan Wild's 'tame' gangs. It was at this time Bess had been thrown into St Giles roundhouse for stealing a gold ring. Sheppard went to visit her but was denied admission by the beadle. Without another thought Sheppard knocked him to the ground, broke open the door and carried off Bess. This was to be the first of Jack's legendary gaol breaks. On the run from the authorities they joined with Jack's brother, Thomas, and carried out more robberies from houses, they were also joined in their gang by Charles Grace and Anthony Lamb. After the arrest and transportation of Lamb and Jack's brother Thomas, they worked with Joseph 'Blueskin' Blake and added highway robbery to their criminal cannon. Over the ensuing years Sheppard was caught on a number of occasions, each time he escaped, including a return visit to St Giles' Round House where he got out through the roof. When in Clerkenwell Prison, Sheppard was in the same cell as Bess, he filed off his leg irons, broke a hole in the wall and having fabricated a rope by tieing their sheets and blankets together, they descended the 25ft into the yard of the adjoining Bridewell, climbed the 22ft yard wall and escaped.
Excerpted from London by Neil R. Storey. Copyright © 2013 Neil R. Storey. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Notorious & Nefarious,
2. The Criminals of London,
3. Matters of Honour,
4. Society Outrages & Fraudsters,
5. A Walk on the Wild Side,
6. Cabinet of Curiosities,
7. Plague & Pestilence,
8. Medicine: Quack & Chyrurgical,
9. Gunpowder, Treason, Plot & Protest,
10. Tales from the Tower,
11. The Tyburn Tree & Other Punishments,
12. Gaol Delivery,
13. The Dregs of the Abyss,
14. A Short Catalogue of Disasters,
16. Eccentrics, Oddballs & Hoaxers,
17. What a Way to Go,
18. The Dead ... & Beyond,