The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton

 

10    The King of the Gypsies & Slabbering Tom

VAGABONDS & BEGGARS


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.

 

 

The author of A New Canting Dictionary lamented in 1725 that despite the employment opportunities offered by the woollen and other manufacturing industries, ‘no country in the world abounds so much with vagrants and beggars; insomuch that it is impossible to stir abroad in the streets, to step into any of the shops in London, or to take the air within two or three miles of this great metropolis, but one must be attack’d with the clamorous and often insolent, petitions of sturdy beggars and vagabonds.’ Georgian laws classified vagrants as ‘idle and disorderly persons’, ‘rogues and vagabonds’ and ‘incorrigible rogues’. There were technical differences between these three groups – the first included beggars, the second included unlicensed peddlers and pretended Gypsies, the third included all repeat offenders – but in practice, all these terms (plus others) were synonymous. Vagrants could be summarily whipped or rounded up and moved on from parish to parish, but the net effect on the vagrant population was nil, unless they could be pressed into service in the navy. On a single day in November 1772, 62 vagrants were rounded up in the City of London and carried before the Lord Mayor: 3 were dismissed; 38, including some women, were sent to Bridewell until they could be passed back to their family’s parishes; and the remaining 21 boys, who seemed to have no friends or relations, were sent to the Poultry Compter, to wait until the Marine Society found an opportunity to place them aboard some ships.

 

Beggar-Thieves

 

Prior to the eighteenth century, criminals were almost invariably identified with vagabonds. Large numbers of unemployed people, especially young men, wandered the countryside and urban centres, and were readily accused (often justifiably) when some livestock or merchandise went missing. The Poor Laws were administered in such a way that they encouraged vagrancy. Only ‘the deserving poor’ – people unable to earn a living due to some incapacity on their part, whether a handicap or old age – were entitled to poor relief. The able-bodied labourer who was unemployed because the local labour market could not absorb his skills, was not entitled to relief and had to leave the parish to seek work elsewhere. In the new parish he was not entitled to poor relief because he was not a resident, nor was he likely to earn much because of competition from others, including runaway apprentices, equally desperate for work. In fact one could often earn more as a beggar than as an unskilled labourer. The German traveller Archenholz claimed that ‘These lazy wretches receive three, four, and sometimes five shillings a day in charity’, which constituted substantial earnings in the late eighteenth century. And they stole. Hannah Rosse, like many beggar-thieves, pretended to be deaf and dumb. She would go from door to door, carrying a counterfeit pass authorizing her to ask for charity. Sometimes she would do the same inside shops, where she found opportunity to sweep goods from the counter under her apron while she was confusing the shopkeeper with unintelligible sounds and gestures. She was sentenced to be whipped in 1744, and to be transported in 1745.

            The progress from unemployed, unskilled labourer to beggar was quick, and, by way of occasional pilfering, it often concluded in regular theft. Hence the title of John Gay’s satire on the criminal underworld: The Beggar’s Opera. The children of the vagrant class began life as beggars. Saunders Welch, Fielding’s assistant, wrote in 1758 that ‘The offspring of beggars are thieves and worse from both precept and example.’ Pickpockets were often the offspring of beggars, who took up theft for want of being bred to other sorts of labour. Areas where glass-making factories were situated, especially in Southwark, Ratcliff and Wapping, and along the river near the Savoy and Whitechapel, were noted recruiting grounds for young beggar-thieves. Defoe in his Lives of Six Notorious Street-Robbers (1726) observed that ‘gangs of poor vagabond boys who having neither father or mother, house or home, to retreat to, creep at night into the ash-holes of the nealing arches of the glass-houses, where they lie for the benefit of the warmth of the place, and in the day-time stroll about the streets pilfering and stealing whatever comes in their way, and begging when sleight of hand will not maintain them; and as they grow up, these learn to be pickpockets, and so gradually advance till the gangs of higher-rate rogues wanting recruits, these list in their services, and become thieves of the first quality.’ Higher-level thieves, from professional street robbers to highwaymen, and coiners and con-tricksters of various sorts, were usually the offspring of honest working parents who gave them an education or bred them to some sort of trade. The main difference between thieves and beggars is their difference in entrepreneurial spirit. Henry Fielding in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) wrote that amongst ‘the very dregs of the people’ who abandoned themselves to idleness, ‘the more simple and poor-spirited betake themselves to a state of starving and beggary, while those of more art and courage become thieves, sharpers and robbers’.

            There are many distressing accounts of beggars – the least competent thieves – stealing the clothes from children and infants. In 1755 Elizabeth Souther, a beggar, took a 7-year-old girl into a house of office on Rosemary Branch Alley and stole her stays, which she pawned for one shilling. Souther professed she was stupefied in liquor and knew nothing of it. There was a notorious incident in 1734 when a poor woman named Judith Dufour murdered her child at the instigation of a vagabond woman named Sukey. Judith had placed her two-and-a-half-year-old bastard girl in the care of the workhouse, and one day shortly after the workhouse had given the child a new set of clothes, Judith took her out for a walk, and at the suggestion of Sukey took the child into a field, tied a linen rag about her mouth to keep her from crying out, and stripped off her coat, stays, petticoat and stockings, which they sold for 16d. and shared it between themselves. The child, left naked in the field all night, was found dead the next day. Judith was sentenced to death, but the mysterious vagabond Sukey – ‘the wicked Creature who seduced me to it’ – was never found. Sukey may have been a figment of Judith’s disordered imagination, but she was a powerful image of the public’s fear of vagabonds.

            In addition to the pathetic beggar who simply begged for alms or preyed on others more defenceless than themselves, the sturdy beggars or vagrants in the towns comprised swarms of boot-blacks, link boys (who carried torches to guide people on unlit streets) and porters or errand boys, all of whom provided a small service or trifling goods in return for small change, and who kept a look-out for pilfering opportunities that might arise as they wandered the streets. The main income of itinerant street peddlers was not what they received from selling small wares, but what they received by pilfering, plus their share of the pockets picked by their associates while they provided a distraction for their customers. Ballad-singers, after spending several hours at markets and street corners, would repair to houses of appointed rendezvous, ‘that they may share with pick-pockets what had been stolen from the crowd of fools which stood about them all the evening’ (Legg, Low-Life, c. 1752). When David Eagle, an 80-year-old beggar who had earned a living as a beggar for some thirty years, died in October 1761, the authorities found 25l. 3s. 3d. in the pockets of his clothing, and expected to find more in his lodgings in Bread Street, for which he paid 6 pence a night.

            A brief glimpse into the life of the streets is afforded by an incident involving Richard Caseley, a boot-black who answered to the nickname Cock-my-Chin. One night in May 1734 he went out together with another boot-black, John Jones, and Jones’s mother Elizabeth, who also lived by cleaning shoes, and stole two kettles of oil from a shop, which they sold to a hemp dresser in Bridewell Alley. Going home over London Bridge, they noticed a barber’s shop still open, and nipped in and swiped a wig in a box. Jack took the wig out of the box outside the shop and passed it to Cock-my-Chin, but the barber rushed out and caught Jack. Elizabeth said Cock-my-Chin could come home with her, but he went to sleep in his usual lodging, on the pipes belonging to the water-house on the bridge. However he was chased away by the Watch early in the morning. Next day he borrowed six pence from the hemp man and went to the Poultry Compter and gave his friend Jack two pence. Then he went to the pawnbroker where Elizabeth had pawned the stolen wig for seventeen shillings and asked for some money, but the pawnbroker kicked him out. ‘Then I met Jack Baldwin, and another black-shoe-boy, eating a marrow-bone, I ask’d them to give me a bit, for I was very hungry.’ But they said there was a two-guinea reward offered to taking him up, so they got a constable and he was apprehended. He turned King’s evidence against his accomplices, and Jack Jones was transported, though Elizabeth’s exact role in the theft could not be confirmed and she was acquitted.

            Fielding argued that giving money to beggars merely encouraged them. Georgian men and women of property felt a duty to relieve the distress of their fellow creatures, little appreciating that by giving small change to ‘every beggar, who can but moderately well personate misery’ they were encouraging a nuisance and actually discouraging honest labour. Archenholz similarly felt that the generous and compassionate character of the English was partly to blame for all the streets of London being crowded by beggars.

            In January 1725 the Grand Jury of the City of London presented a petition to the King complaining of a grievous nuisance: ‘the great number of beggars, shoe-cleaners, and other idle and wandring persons, that daily frequent and pester the publick streets of this City, to the great disturbance of the citizens, and all other persons passing to and fro in the said streets, upon their lawful occasions’. These beggars would accost people, begging for alms, or ‘pretending to sell some trifling things, to colour their asking alms’, or standing and even lying at the doors to the shops, impeding the entry of customers. The Grand Jury believed that this nuisance had greatly increased due to the diligence with which country parishes had been enforcing the laws against vagabonds and ‘strollers’ in the country, thus driving them into London for shelter, where the magistrates, constables and ward officers were failing in their duty to send them to the houses of correction. Joshua Gee in The Trade and Navigation of Great Britain Considered (1729) complained that it was difficult to conduct business transactions in central London without being disrupted by gangs of beggars demanding alms, swearing at and intimidating people, blocking the doorways to shops, fighting with or at least threatening people who wouldn’t give money, and being especially violent to pedestrians at night-time. If anyone stopped in the street to talk to a companion, a large group of beggars, called ‘the running camp’, came up and pestered them to the extent that all conversation was impossible, and they were given money to be got rid of, not out of charity.

            Some historians have argued that it was not possible to isolate or control London’s criminals because of the size and mobility of this wandering population. But in fact many criminal quarters were easily identified and theoretically capable of being isolated and controlled, even though they were nearly lawless. In London most of the criminal classes were not genuine vagabonds: they were immigrants, most of whom settled in particular areas with their fellow countrymen. Many of them were destitute and technically homeless, but instead of wandering from parish to parish, they generally stayed in fairly well circumscribed run-down neighbourhoods. Houses falling into ruin which lined the alleys of these neighbourhoods were often full of beggars, some sleeping even while others were pulling down the timber to sell it for firing to washerwomen. Though they slept in holes and corners about the streets, they regularly slept in the same corners in the same streets. Though they were ‘idle’ – that is, unemployed – they did not wander very widely, and most of their crimes were committed in areas not very far from where they slept. One reason why they could not be easily controlled was not because they were mobile, but just the opposite: they were so highly concentrated in certain localities that constables were fearful of going into them to make arrests.

            Many run-down areas of the city were filled with old ruinous buildings, which enterprising landlords fitted up with straw and rudimentary beds, each of which they let out nightly at 2d. per person or 3d. per couple. The parish of St Giles’s numerous lodging houses catered for a large vagrant population. Fielding in his Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers (1751) noted that one woman ran seven such houses in the parishes of St Giles’s and St George’s, Bloomsbury, ‘all properly accommodated with miserable beds from the cellar to the garret’. Each room contained several double beds shared by strangers, male and female, to spread the already very low cost of threepence per bed. Gin was sold in all these houses for only a penny a quarter pint. They were open for the receipt of guests all night long, and became noted for entertaining rogues and receiving their plunder. When Fielding’s assistant Constable Saunders Welch executed a search warrant in one of these houses, ‘and that not a large one, he hath numbered 58 persons of both sexes, the stench of whom was so intolerable, that it compelled him in a very short time to quit the place’. In a search of two houses in Shoreditch that Fielding witnessed, seventy of these wretches were rounded up and such was their poverty, that ‘the money found upon all of them . . . did not amount to one shilling’. This level of poverty would seem to contradict Fielding’s claim that most of them were thief-vagabonds who united in gangs. Most of these ‘vagabonds’ were Irish. As Welch pointed out in 1758, one reason why many of the vagabonds and industrious poor were Irish, was because parishes were not legally required to settle Roman Catholics in their workhouses because the workhouses were run by the Church of England. Matthew Martin in the late eighteenth century interviewed some 2,000 beggars, of which he estimated that more than a third were Irish.

            Archenholz observed that beggars ‘have their clubs in the parish of St. Giles’s, where they meet to carouse, read the gazettes, and talk about politics. No one dares to attend those assemblies unless he is a beggar himself, or introduced by one.’ A friend of Archenholz disguised himself as a beggar and was introduced into one of these clubs, where he watched bemused while ‘One cast his crutches into a corner of the room; one unbuckled his wooden leg; another took off the plaister which concealed his eye’ and they proceeded to recount the adventures of the day and make stratagems for the morrow.

            An early ‘canting dictionary’, The Triumph of Wit, classified beggars into different sorts. The paillards or clapperdogeons were those who, from infancy, ‘counterfeit lameness, making their legs, arms and hands appear to be sore, and very nauseous, with cream and blood, butter and soap, ointment and corrosives, and sometimes by putting on counterfeit lame legs, and false wither’d arms, making horrible wry faces, and setting off their story of being shot, burnt, scalded, perished with the evil, and the like, with a lamentable voice’. The mumpers were genteel beggars, who begged alms from travellers at inns and street corners, or by knocking at doors. Baudy baskets were women who wandered up and down the town streets with a basket under their arm and a child, ‘pretending to sell toys and trifles, and so beg or steal, as they see occasion, and find opportunity’.

            Beggars were local characters, and newspapers sometimes reported incidents involving them. The Weekly Journal or the British Gazetteer reported on 10 August 1728 that ‘On Saturday last a noted female beggar pretending to fall into a violent fit, in the Strand, which was a common practice with her, in order to raise compassion in the bystanders, a coach coming by, and the wheel being like to run over her, she got nimbly up, and run away, to the great surprize of the spectators, who were making a collection of small sums to give her, as soon as she came to herself.’ Luke Powel, nicknamed Hopp because he pretended to be lame and walked with a crutch, was the ‘Captain’ of a gang of pickpockets who worked the streets near Temple Bar. In August 1730 he was apprehended, and when his pockets were searched, six handkerchiefs were found. He was committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell by Sir John Gonson.

            The ‘artful beggar’ was probably representative of most of the beggars seen on the streets, and may well have been brought up to the trade from childhood. The philanthropist Thomas Coram, in a petition to the King in 1737, deplored not only the frequency of infanticide (mainly by unmarried servant girls), but claimed that many children of the poor were hired out to professional beggars, and were deliberately ‘blinded or maimed or distorted in the limbs in order to move pity and compassion and thereby become the fitter instruments of gain to those vile, mercyless wretches’. Many professional female beggars carried infants with them – sometimes their own, but more often hired from parish wet nurses or simply picked up from the street – to incite compassion. The price they paid for these children ranged from sixpence, or a mere fourpence, to two shillings a day, depending on how genuinely deformed they were; a very crooked and distorted child could fetch three shillings a day or even more. Women specializing in begging charity for the allegedly sick infant in their arms would choose their locations or stands from five in the morning, and ply their trade till evening. Begging toddlers learned how to attract the sympathy of strangers, and older children were recruited into the underworld and taught by professional thieves how to remove coins from a purse hung with bells without causing any of them to jingle. Most of these children were abandoned bastards.

            Children were also taken away from their poor families and brought up to learn criminal trades. In September 1763, a woman was tried for stealing young children in St Giles’s; on one occasion when she tried to steal the child of a reputable butcher in Bloomsbury market, an angry mob dragged her through the gutter and ducked her. In 1745 it was revealed that Harry White and Elizabeth Stavenaugh lived together in a house in Shoe Lane, Holborn, where they harboured thieves and recruited children. The 13- or 14-year-old pickpocket Sarah Bibby said that White ‘takes children away from their friends’ and that Stavenaugh ‘persuaded me to go from my mother, and go along with them’. One woman said that Stavenaugh ‘harbours children to ruin them: my child has gone a thieving with her, and is transported.’ Another of White and Stavenaugh’s children was Jack Price, a little boy of 12 or 13 years who worked the shops in St Giles’s with Sarah Bibby, and who was transported for stealing razors from a shop in Smithfield. Bibby revealed a network of houses that harboured thieves in this area of Holborn – including one Sarah Moore’s house in Black Boy Alley – and several people were transported for theft and for receiving stolen goods.

 

Gypsies

 

Genuine vagabonds, that is vagrants who wandered around as opposed to immigrants coming into a specific area, were found mainly at country fairs and at fairs in London such as Bartholomew Fair, which was full of vagabond players who earned more money there than in the playhouse. Travelling players, ‘strollers’ and jugglers went from fair to fair, and street to street, performing their tricks, whose main purpose was to divert the attention of the gathering crowd while associates of the players picked their pockets. Although there were genuine Gypsies, there were also gangs of professional vagabond-thieves who pretended to be Gypsies as an excuse for hawking goods and telling fortunes, or more precisely, for exploiting fortune-telling as an avenue for theft, as well as the usual pilfering of farmyards practised by genuine Gypsies. In 1703 Thomas Ingroom and his wife Margaret, Easter Jones and Susan Wood were imprisoned in Hertford gaol; they headed a gang of fifty travelling Gypsies, who told fortunes and called themselves Egyptians. Archenholz observed that London in the late eighteenth-century contained pretended male fortune-tellers who augured a happy destiny for a shilling. They pretended to have come from the mysterious East, and wore a green robe and a fur night-cap, and a fake beard tied under the chin to give them the appearance of wise old age. Newspapers would humorously report foolish women being cheated by fortune-tellers: ‘A female Gypsie trick’d a servant maid at Canterbury of three pound twelve shillings, by making her believe that she wou’d have a legacy of ten times that sum before Christmas; and that on the Wednesday following, under the small-beer tap in the cellar, there wou’d rise up a brick, under which by digging she wou’d find an iron box full of jewels, and gold. This the silly girl kept as a secret, till the Gypsie had time to make her escape’ (The Flying-Post: or, The Weekly Medley, 5 Oct. 1728). More commonly, female Gypsies or pretended Gypsies would gain access to a house by offering to tell the fortune of the servant girl, then using that opportunity to steal some silver plate or cloth.

            It is difficult to draw a precise boundary between genuine Gypsies and travelling peddlers and thieves. As far as the public were concerned, all Gypsies were thieves. Even genuine Gypsies named their sons in honour of the legendary highwayman and sheep-stealer Dick Turpin. John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) satirically likens them to lawyers:

The Gamesters and Lawyers are Jugglers alike,
If they meddle, your all is in Danger.
Like Gypsies, if once they can finger a Souse [a French sou],
Your Pockets they pick, and they pilfer your House
And give your Estate to a Stranger.

Towns and villages depending upon an agrarian economy were distressed when Gypsies moved into their area. The London Chronicle reported in August 1769 that the inhabitants of Guildford and Naphill, Surrey, formed a vigilante group and ‘set out armed with bludgeons, muskets and pistols, to dislodge the formidable gang of gypsies, highwaymen, and smugglers in Naphill wood’. However, the Gypsies were forewarned by one of the ringleaders and many escaped before the townspeople arrived. Nevertheless, after a pitched battle, fourteen of the Gypsies were captured, with three saddle horses. The Gypsy encampment consisted of a large hole or cave they had cut into the ground, covered by planks of wood supported by upright posts serving as a roof, with a hole serving as a chimney through which smoke escaped. ‘Five children were found lying upon bags of feathers plucked from the geese they had stolen.’ The townspeople decided to cut down the entire woods and grub up the ground in order to prevent the Gypsies from taking shelter there again, and in hope that more of their plunder would come to light.

            The community of genuine Gypsies, like the underworld of thieves, was cemented by the use of cant language. In fact their Romany language may have been the source of many terms in the rogue’s lexicon. According to the early canting dictionary The Triumph of Wit, women who were shared in common by the men of the Gypsy tribe were called dixies (i.e. doxies), while women who were married to individual men were called antem-morts. Young women were called dells; it was customary for them to sacrifice their maidenheads to the upright-man or chief of the tribe before they mated with any other man in the brotherhood. Most of the Gypsy women ‘have the art of diving into the pockets of such cullies they ensnare’. Twice a year there was a grand meeting of all the groups. They often stopped travelling the countryside during the winter, and spent the season in London, congregating primarily in the Seven Dials area, and in Norwood, Surrey.

 

King of the Gypsies

 

Gypsies in England were traditionally ruled by a single ‘King of the Gypsies’, though his powers were largely ceremonial. The most famous King of the Gypsies during the eighteenth century was Bampfylde Moore Carew, who reigned from about 1730 until his death in 1758. Carew was not born a Gypsy, but joined them when a young man. His father was Rev. Theodore Carew, rector of Bickleigh in North Devon, and he was well educated, in Greek and Latin, preparatory to attendance at university. However, the boy’s love of stag hunting got him into a scrape, for which he was punished, and he ran away from school and fell in with a company of Gypsies. He liked their company so much, and they his, that after a number of initiation ceremonies culminating in an oath of allegiance to the brotherhood, he was admitted a member. He briefly returned to his parents after a year and a half to reassure them he was well, then left to rejoin the Gypsies.

 

 

Popular chapbooks celebrated his many adventures, mostly humorous incidents demonstrating his use of clever disguises. For a time he ‘equipped himself with an old pair of trowsers, a piece of jacket just enough to cover his nakedness, stockings full of holes, and an old woolen cap, and became nothing more or less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman’, by which means he obtained considerable booty from many charitable souls. When that source of revenue was mined out, he pretended to be a country farmer whose cattle had drowned in a flood and who was unable to support his wife and seven children. Then he took on the mantle of a madman, and went from house to house, raising considerable contributions by beating himself, eating coals of fire, and tearing the clothes from off his back. His speciality was to diligently enquire about any accidents that had happened in a neighbourhood, especially fires, and then to impersonate the unfortunate sufferers from these calamities in order to get sums for his relief. Later in his career he took special pleasure in begging from people who had previously given him alms when under an earlier disguise, being so well disguised in his new role that they didn’t recognize him – then revealing himself at the end, to general good-humoured amazement. One gentleman challenged him to try it again, as surely he could not be deceived in future. A few days later Carew shaved himself closely and dressed like an old woman, and went to the gentleman’s door carrying three infants he had borrowed from his Gypsy fraternity for the purpose, taking care to pinch one of the brats to get him crying just before the maidservant opened the door. This poor unfortunate ‘grandmother’ with her helpless infants (regularly pinched to keep them crying) naturally aroused the sympathy of the women in the family, and in due course the gentleman had given a shilling to the grandmother – who quickly revealed himself to be the famous Bampfylde Moore Carew, and who was rewarded by the gentleman yet further for providing such a merry diversion. By such stratagems he acquired such high renown among the Gypsies that in 1730 they elected him King of the Gypsies, a post which he held for another generation, continuing with his adventures even though he was entitled to be supported by contributions from the Gypsies. After one adventure he was convicted of vagrancy and transported to Maryland, where he became a noted schoolmaster in Talbot County. His half-fictional autobiographical account The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, the noted Devonshire Stroller and Dog-stealer; as related by himself, during his passage to the plantations in America (1745) relates many adventures that suspiciously resemble passages from older books and plays. It was an eighteenth-century bestseller, with many adaptations into the nineteenth century, which titled him ‘King of the Beggars’.

 

‘Slabbering Tom’

 

Thomas Mitchell, who went by the name of Slabbering Tom, was a professional beggar who specialized in pretending to be deaf and dumb, which he called the dumb flatt. During the 1750s, each day he would go to St George’s Fields, Southwark, where he set up his pitch. Before beginning his performance he would get out his hornbook, on which was attached the following begging notice:

Dear good Christians, I hope you will consider my misfortune, for I was born deaf and dumb in the army thirty-seven years ago; my father was killed in the army on the sea, and about the same time it pleased God to afflict me with the palsy.
            I hope in God that you nor yours may never meet with the like misfortune, being born on the sea, so that I have no friend, nor no parish, nor no friends to help me; I am obliged to travel for my bread, and I hope that you will take some pity on me, through the blessing of our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

His performance was described by a witness: ‘His right hand and head shook considerably, as if much afflicted with the palsy; he had much froth and filth come continually from his mouth, on a dirty rag that was flung under his chin; he had a pair of plaid garters tied over his forehead, and round behind his head, then brought forward and fastened near his temples’, where there appeared to be a pustulant boil. One end of these garters passed through his right-hand shirt sleeve and was attached to his wrist, by which means his head and right hand would tremble together in sync.

            One day a constable arrested him under suspicion, got him into a wheelbarrow (for he pretended he could neither talk nor walk) and took him to a Justice of the Peace. There two men held his head while the constable, by forcing his cheeks in, with great difficulty forced his mouth open: ‘there I saw his tongue doubled back. We saw there was a compleat tongue in his mouth, also I found two pieces of hard soap, one on each side of his mouth, by which means he had made a great deal of froth and filth issue from his mouth.’ Mitchell had collected three shillings and three farthings in about two hours. He was taken to Bridewell, where he began to walk and talk as well as anyone there, and he confessed. He said that when he went out on his ‘dumb flatt’ he would get about three half-crowns a day, and more on Sundays, which were his best days. He told the constable that he knew another man who went out on the dead lay. His colleague’s method was to go around selling pictures, and when he set up his pitch, he would fall down in fits, ‘and sham them so well, that people would give him money, by which he got a good livelihood’.

            Mitchell had previously been arrested in Hanover Square and sent to Tothill-fields Bridewell, where he continued acting deaf and dumb for nine days and was released out of compassion, and was even given some money by the officers when they discharged him. He said that an old sailor had taught him how to slabber and shake, and that he had followed this lay for the past nine or ten years, by which he sometimes made as much as fourteen shillings a day. The chandler at whose house he lodged said that he used to pay his rent in halfpence. In February 1759, at the General Quarter Sessions in Southwark, he was found guilty of being an impostor, sentenced to stand for an hour in the pillory on three separate market days, to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of 6s. 8d.

 


Return to The Georgian Underworld