Tuesday, July 26, 2011

the mayhew files: swindlers

A continuation of Scott's notes on Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.

In this section Mayhew covers all of the criminals who stole solely through deceit.


image source: American Antiquarian Society
First up are the embezzlers.  Coming from all ranges of society, these criminals did what you would imagine. When given responsibility of goods or money they pocketed some for themselves. Bank clerks would often take advantage of their position to put a little away for themselves.  Sometimes salesmen from companies would pay the company a little less than what the customer paid. Even the lowly cabman would pocket some of the take for the day instead of reporting it all.

Crimes could be carried out in any number of ways, but it seems that most criminals in the upper echelons of this type of activity cooked the books to try to get away with their crimes, and from what Mayhew says they were not terribly good at it.  Or maybe that was just the ones that got caught.

Usually, but not always, the lower classes were stealing goods rather than cash, as was the case of one woman who stole nearly £6 in silks entrusted to her.

Nor were charitable societies immune to the depredations of their members. One case Mayhew mentioned occurred in the East End to a friendly society there.

Often employers became suspect of their employees when they were living life beyond their means.  One embezzler was caught when his employer heard of his frequent trips to dance halls, which the employer knew his employee could not afford on his salary alone.  So the employer marked some money, put it in the til and later discovered it was not there.  He did it again but informed the police.  When the employee was caught the marked money was discovered on him and he was arrested.

Magsmen or sharpers usually operated in groups of three or more.  They usually had one man start talking to a stranger who seems to be a tourist or visitor.  They talked about various things, usually trying to get the stranger to believe that they were rich.

They then invited the stranger to a pub for a drink.  After a while a second man came up, pretending to be a stranger to both. He started talking to them and eventually the talk turned to some athletic contest.  The first man bet the second man that he could beat him at whatever it is, usually skittles, which is similar to bowling (yeah, loose definition of athletic.)

So the three of them went to an alley somewhere where the first man lost to the second, and paid out the wager.  Along the way they picked up the third man to act as the judge, usually selected by the second man.

With a few pints in him now, the stranger, or dupe, was conned into taking on the second man for a wager.  He usually won the first round of the game )along with some money). The second man then bet him again and maybe lost again.  But finally the swindler won and continued to win until he took all the dupe's money away from him.


The first man and the dupe then left together.  After a short while the first man would convince the stranger that the other two were being deceitful and said he would run back and try to get his money back for him.  Whereupon he disappeared as well.

There were a number of variations on this trick.

Card games were another way to trick people out of their money. These criminals usually have a three card game and, when enough people were around, one of their friends would attempt to play.  The game was to pick up the face card of the three.  The friend would, of course, manage it and would win the wager.  The face card was then removed from the three cards and no one else would be able to draw it. This was essentially just Three Card Monte.

Similar frauds were carried out with skittles, as mentioned in the first part, but without the initial deception.  Just pool sharking, only in back alleys.

Thimble and pea was a trick similar to the card game mentioned above, only a swindler hid a pea under a thimble and then the dupe tried to pick the thimble that they think the pea is under.  The swindler, however, managed to secrete the pea behind their thumb nail so the dupe could not ever find the pea under any of the thimbles.

Another fraud carried out was for one of the swindlers to come into a public house with locks for sale claiming they could not be opened, even betting on it.  A friend of the windler would then come up and say he could open it.  After a few minutes the friend managed to get it open.  Whereupon he closed the lock and handed it back to the first man.  The swindler then secretly switches it with a lock that actually cannot be opened.  He then bets anyone else that they cannot open the lock.  Those who take the bait obviously cannot open it.  The swindler then makes money from those who cannot open the locks.  (Here Scott interjects that he thought working at Wendy’s sucked.)

Mayhew says that there was no formal arrangement between the gangs of swindlers that worked the city but that they seemed to share territory without difficulties. When one gang had worked a street and found and fleeced their mark they move on, allowing the next gang to set up shop.

Then there were the straight up swindlers, or people who pretended to be more than they were to live a lifestyle they could not possibly afford.  When these people showed up claiming to the be the cousin of the third earl of whatever people extended them credit.  They usually carried this out when traveling abroad, sometimes managing to live for months at a time on this credit before moving on.  The swindle would, of course, leave the local shop keepers and inn keepers all the poorer for their efforts.

But other swindlers worked from home.  One guy advertised in a paper that he could get people a job if they sent him their information and a 5s stamp to send them a letter back.  He made about £700 from this enterprise, all at the cost of an advertisement and a quarter of a year's rent of an empty house.

Other people carried out less ambitious schemes, often only asking for 1 bob.

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