I decided that before I tackled Barnaby Rudge that I would get in the mood by familiarizing myself with some of the 18ᵗʰ century background. Barnaby was going to deal with assorted lowlifes, including the hangman, so I picked this volume to read.
The book identifies a number of offenders and groups them by the type of offense. Thieves constitute one group, pirates in another, prostitutes, murderers, and highwaymen in yet more groups. Some of the more interesting chapters:
- Jack Sheppard—The story in this case was written by Defoe, and is one of the longer passages in the book. The section given here describes Jack's escape from Newgate prison prior to his scheduled execution. The narrative of the escape is fairly tense, and quite cinematic in its way. Unfortunately for Jack what should have been a last minute rescue from the gallows went awry. Executions by hanging were largely stranglings, not neck breakings, so it was possible for the perp to survive his execution, and be revived while on the dissecting table. Defoe and some others were hoping to secure Jack's body, and revive him, but the crowds were so intent on preventing him being carted off to the dissecting room that he expired instead.
- Mary Young (Jenny Diver)—Was a pickpocket who was caught, twice, sentenced to transportation, also twice, each time under a false name, and who managed to bribe her way back to London. When she was arrested for trying to pick a lady's pocket, she tried to give a false name, but was recognized. Both robbery and returning from transportation were capital offenses, so she was sentenced to death. An attempt to plead her belly by claiming pregnancy failed. One particularly fine day she and 19 others were hung.
- Anne Bonny & Mary Read—These two ladies were both pirates, and both served on the same pirate ship under John
Calico JackRackham. Mary Read had lived as a boy and even enlisted in the British Army. While serving she fell in love with one of her comrades, a Flemish soldier. The poor schnook couldn't figure out why his friend was so attached to him. Eventually she found out a way to let him know that his best friend was a girl.* Eventually Mary and her soldier got married and set up a public house. I won't go into how she wound up on a pirate ship, but she did, again dressed as a man. Anne Bonny, similarly disguised, though involved with the captain, apparently made a pass at Mary, who then had to reveal her sex to Anne.
Rackham was duly executed, but prior to his dismissal from this world he was allowed to see Anne Bonny, who told him
she was sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hang'd like a dog.
Both Anne and Mary were successful in pleading their bellies. Anne eventually vanished, but Mary died as a result of her pregnancy.
* My recollection, and it's about 40 years old, is that there's a scene in Wycherley's The Plain Dealer in which the sex of a woman is revealed to the hero when he puts his hand down her front to feel her breast. Perhaps Mary did something similar.
- Mary Toft—This woman claimed to have given birth to rabbits, not once, not twice, but seventeen times. By the 17ᵗʰ time people became a little suspicious, and she was investigated.
- Dr. William Dodd—This is the man of whom Samuel Johnson remarked that knowing one will be hanged in two weeks concentrates the mind wonderfully. He was an Anglican clergyman who liked to live well, and forged checks to support his lifestyle. Needless to say this didn't work out too well.
- Jonathan Wild—The thief-taker general. There were no British police until Robert Peel began the London police in the late 1820s. There were the Bow Street Runners, organized by Henry Fielding and his brother, but they weren't a professional force by any stretch of the imagination. Before the Fieldings there were a series of frequently corrupt thief-takers who would frequently run gangs themselves, and every so often toss one of the own to the law. Johnathan Wild was caught subsequent to Jack Sheppard's execution, and was himself sent to the gallows.
This was read prior to Barnaby Rudge.