THE GREATEST MONSTER WHO EVER CURSED THE EARTH

Thomas_Jeffries 2

Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.

Notes

[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.

THE PORTUGUESE PLATYPUS

 

Viseu

One of the many myths of terra Australis incognita– the unknown southland – is that the Portuguese navigators made it that far south. There are wrecks and artefact finds that are claimed, by some, to be Portuguese and so to prove that those adventurous mariners were present early along Australian coasts, as were English and Dutch explorers.

The navigational skills of Portuguese explorers were certainly extraordinary and provided the basis for what became an empire, so it is certainly conceivable that they did visit Australia. Unfortunately, no-one has yet found any incontrovertible evidence that they did, despite some clever manipulation of old maps and charts.

I wrote about all this in The Savage Shoreand had to conclude that there just wasn’t enough evidence to put the Portuguese on these shores.  But recently, a reader of my book emailed me with an intriguing note.

Robert Bremner, himself a historian, lived for many years in Portugal and some years in Mozambique. He was once told by a long-time English resident of Lisbon that the sixteenth-century choir stalls of Viseau Cathedral (picture above) bore an extraordinary wooden carving. It was described by some as a ‘duck-billed rat’ and Robert was intrigued. He took the time to visit Viseu and found the choir stall, now apparently upstairs in the museum, and took a photograph. It seems that the carving could represent the platypus, the odd creature unique to Australia. If so, it would certainly strengthen the case for an early Portuguese encounter with the great southland.

Unfortunately, over the years, Robert has lost track of the photograph. But, if some intrepid adventurer should happen to visit Viseau – which looks like a great place – do take a pic and zip it to me. You could be making history!

 

1808 mermaid tattoo

FOGLE-HUNTERS, WIRE-TOOLERS AND BUZZERS

 

caveat

Picking pockets is an ancient and still-prevalent form of robbery, a criminal craft complete with its own cryptolect, or secret language. Read on to develop your lexicon of wicked words used by, and about, pickpockets through the ages.

In the sixteenth century and later, the term fig was used to denote the picking of pockets, and the one who did the deed was a figger. There were various classes of figger, depending on skill. The most basic was a nip or cutpurse who simply used a knife to separate money from victim. The more skilled practitioner was a foist. Greene observed in his The Second Part of Conny-catching (1592), that ‘The foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the jugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly.’

Leger de maine, or sleight of hand, would still be in use to describe skilled criminality in colonial Australia during the 1840s. By this time, a favoured pickpocket target was a fogle – the elaborate and expensive pocket-handkerchiefs favoured by gentlemen and those who wished to appear as such – and the craft had become known as fogle-hunting or fogle-getting. Fogle lived on in criminal Cant until about 1930 in Britain and perhaps 1940 in the United States, by which time the value of handkerchiefs to the pickpocket had greatly declined. By the early twentieth century pickpockets in Britain, America and Australia were known as whizzers.

Ancient or modern, pickpockets by whatever monikers they used (they were often known as files in the seventeenth century) have always been highly organised with an extensive trade argot to conceal their crimes. In 1552 Gilbert Walker’s underworld exposé, Diceplay, mentioned the figging law, or pick-purse craft, and almost forty years later Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Coosnage provided a helpful list of the craft terms related to ‘the figging law’:

The Cutpurse, a Nip

He that is halfe with him, the Snap

The knife, the Cuttle boung

The pick pocket, a Foin

He that faceth the man (i.e. the victim), the Stale

Taking the purse, Drawing

Spying of him, Smoaking

The purse, the Boung

The monie, the Shels

The Act doing, Striking

By the late seventeenth century the figging law had become the figging lay, but pickpockets were just as active and organised. As early as 1608 Dekker’s The Belmen of London observed of figgers that they parcelled out territories among themselves and their supposedly Biblical secret language was an effective form of communication and identification:

The language which they speak is none of those that came in at the confusion of the Tongues, for neither infidell nor Christian (that is honest) understands it, but the Dialect is such and so crabbed, that seven yeeres study is little enough to reach to the bottom of it, and to make it run off glib from the tongue: by means of this Gibrish, they knowe their owne nation when they meet, albeit they never sawe one another before …

Oliver

In the early Victorian era pick pocketing was perhaps the most common form of urban crime. So profitable had the game become that the best wire toolers and fine toolers became known as the swell mob and sported the trappings of wealth, and lived lives to match, further enhancing the possibility for ill-gotten gain. Dippers attended race meetings, fairs, shows and hangings in droves, running the old tricks along with a few new variations developed for the growth of public transport, such as the railway carriage and the omnibus. Maltoolers, often female, deprived middle class women travellers of their purses a pogue, slipped the booty to their stickman who rapidly exited the vehicle, leaving the maltooler with no incriminating evidence should the victim discover her loss before journey’s end.

At this time, men still used large and valuable handkerchiefs as an accompaniment to the fashionable habit of taking snuff. Known as kingsmen, these decorated and colourful squares of cloth were greatly prized on the black market and easily pulled by even child smatter haulers. As with much other Cant speech, there was a complex hierarchy of butterfly-like descriptions for different kinds of handkerchiefs. A watersman was made of blue silk, a randlesman was white and green, while a white and yellow handkerchief was a fancy yellow. From the middle of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to use black handkerchiefs during mourning, a central Victorian obsession, and these items, known as black fogles, became the most valuable for lifting.

So great were the labour demands of this illicit occupation that children were trained in groups by kidsmen to become buzzers from an early age. The celebrated depiction of such an academy in Oliver Twist is very close to reality. The real-life models for the fictionalised characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger were commonplace in Victorian England where children were made to practice dipping skills on tailor’s dummies to which small bells were sewn, tinkling at the slightest insensitivity of a small hand. Despite this training, many were caught and sometimes transported.

‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, as the famous song went. Maybe not.

 

THE EL DORADO CODE

El dorado map high res1024px-1599_Guyana_Hondius

Nieuwe caerte van het Wonderbaer ende Goudrjcke Landt Guiana by Jodocus Hondius (1598) shows the city of Manoa on the northeastern shore of Lake Parime, alleged location of El Dorado.

 

Lost treasure legends around the world share a number of features. Readers of this blog will by now be familiar with these motifs, scattered through the tales of untold wealth just waiting for some lucky and persevering seeker to gather them up. This is a handy compilation of the essential elements for the delight of sceptics and the caution of the hopeful.

There is a treasure (or desired object of some kind)

At some time, some one or ones must claim to know of the existence of a mine, cave, horde, wreck, city etc., somewhere. It is often not apparent when and how the story of the treasure originates.

There is a hero/es

One or a number of seekers, searchers, questers have been, or will be, on an intrepid journey to find the desired treasure. Think ‘Indiana Jones’.

Origins

Untold riches – or other desired object/s – in the hands of ignorant indigenous peoples are the staple of the El Dorado code. While these beliefs sustained centuries of exploration and colonisation, they are becoming less saleable in the modern world, though this does not seem to deter seekers – or producers of movies and ‘documentaries’ that fuel the delusions of seekers and their backers.

The older the better

Ancient treasures are the most popular. This seems to be because people give most credibility to allegedly authoritative sources from the distant past and because the longer the treasure has been ‘lost’, or unfound, the more intriguing it is to questers and the general public, encouraged by mass media and the internet.

The more remote the better

Distant and/or difficult to reach locations are the norm. After all, if the treasure were readily accessible it is likely that someone will already have found it.

Guardians

Usually related to the remoteness of the treasure is the warning that it may be under the protection of a fierce group of indigenous people. Sometimes the indigenes are replaced with a hereditary cult or secret society of some kind whose members are charged with guarding the secret of the treasure’s location and preserving it from seekers.

Documents

Some form of documentation allegedly verifying the existence of the treasure is almost always part of the story. The most frequent and most intriguing, of course, is a map, chart or other visual representation of the treasure’s alleged location. Usually these are contradictory, absurd and, in any case, impossible to decipher.

Other forms of documentary ‘evidence’ may include ciphers, scrolls, manuscripts, sometimes books, sometimes markings on rocks.

Whatever form the documentation takes – and it may be more than one per treasure – it will be ‘old’, have a chequered history – or ‘mythtory’ – of transmission that is difficult, if not impossible, to verify.

Artefacts

Closely related to documents are objects of one kind or another that allegedly come from or are otherwise relate to the treasure. The standard incredibly rich ore sample has long been a favourite of fake gold mine/reef hoaxers. Other tangible ‘proofs’ might be ancient jewels or statuettes, a gold coin from a seventeenth century shipwreck and so on. The possibilities here are almost numberless.

Back Story

These elements will form part of the narrative surrounding any given treasure, though there are often a number of ancillary elements adding additional spice. Hair raising tales of what happened to previous seekers are popular. (Especially at the hands of fierce native guardians). Gruelling treks with deprivation, suffering and many deaths are frequent tropes, as are mysterious individuals or groups appearing in archives or at other relevant locations, apparently looking into things.

The ‘one that got away’ effect comes into play here. In common with fishing yarns, lost treasure legends tend to grow more astonishing and fabulous with each telling.

These overheated discourses flow through the channels of oral, digital and mass media transmission and provide continual ‘buzz’ and, for some, validation of the existence of any given treasure.

The treasure remains ‘lost’

Despite maps, artefacts and expeditions, fabled treasures remain stubbornly ‘lost’. This only stirs a continual stream of hopeful seekers, further fuelling the legend. In their turn, these seekers fail, leaving the field open to the next batch of deluded optimists with a new map or new interpretation of existing ‘sources’.

The El Dorado code validates itself and the cycle begins again.

1808 mermaid tattoo

WAYS AND LAYS – THE SPEECH OF BEGGARS

 

Begging Woodcut_Giving_Alms_to_a_Beggar - wiki

Beggars were a large and troublesome presence throughout Europe during and after the middle ages. The tolerance, even encouragement, of the church for mendicancy as an expression of piety ensured that roads were thronged with men, women and children bent on extracting money from better-off passers-by. Henry VIII’s seizing of the monasteries and the increasing enclosure of previously public lands inflamed the problem, as did the arrival of large numbers of impoverished Irish. By the reign of Elizabeth 1 begging might be punished by maiming and even death. As the problem was basically a consequence of economic forces, these harsh measures were ineffective, as were the Poor Laws and the parish relief system that were subsequently introduced.

The beggar remained a familiar, ever-inventive type often execrated in the cautionary writings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century authors like Dekker, Harman and other observers of the swarming ‘canting crews’. Such was the diversity of begging ploys that many felt it necessary to categorise and describe them for the benefit and protection of their fellow respectable citizens. In the earliest of what would become a number of beggar books, Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) by John Awdeley, nineteen different types of vagabonds are named. These include a jackman, one who forges documents, or gibes with false seals known as jarks. In 1566 Thomas Harman described dommerars who:

‘… wyl never speake, unless they have extreme punishment, but wyll gape, and with a marvellous force wyll hold downe their toungs doubled, groning for your charyty, and holding up their handes full pitiously, so that with their deepe dissimulation they get very much.’

A later variation was for the dommerar to produce a piece of paper on which was written a note to the effect that his tongue had been cut out during a period of Turkish slavery because he had refused to convert to Islam.

Names of different kinds of beggars and beggaries across the centuries may vary, though their dodges were much the same. The early seventeenth century mason’s maund referred to a false injury above the elbow that made the arm appear broken as if by a fall from a builder’s scaffolding. Cadging was an eighteenth-century term for begging, also used to describe the lowest form of thief. It had numerous extensions, such as cadging ken, a public house frequented by cadgers. A cadger’s cove was a lodging house for beggars and the cadging-line, was the begging business. Durrynacking or durykin was to beg by telling fortunes in the early nineteenth century, usually practiced by women.

Beggars were also celebrated in songs that at once romanticised their lifestyle, revealed their tricks and some of their secret language. One very popular song of this type has its origins in Richard Broome’s play The Jovial Crew, originally produced in 1641. Although this song was probably added to it in the 1680s revival version, it preserves the use of pelf, meaning booty, which dates from at least the last part of the previous century. Among other things, the song highlights the apprenticeship system through which generations of beggars learned the trade, still operating in the nineteenth century in Britain and also among American hoboes until at least the early twentieth century:

There was a jovial beggar,

He had a wooden leg,

Lame from his cradle,

And forced for to beg.

And a begging we will go, we’ll go, we’ll go;

And a begging we will go!

 

A bag for his oatmeal,

Another for his salt;

And a pair of crutches,

To show that he can halt (limp).

And a begging, &c..

 

A bag for his wheat,

Another for his rye;

A little bottle by his side,

To drink when he’s a-dry.

And a begging, &c.

 

Seven years I begged

For my old Master Wild,

He taught me to beg

When I was but a child.

And a begging, &c.

 

I begged for my master,

And got him store of pelf;

But now, Jove be praised!

I’m begging for myself.

And a begging, &c.

 

In a hollow tree

I live, and pay no rent;

Providence provides for me,

And I am well content.

And a begging, &c.

 

Of all the occupations,

A beggar’s life’s the best;

For whene’er he’s weary,

He’ll lay him down and rest.

And a begging, &c.

 

I fear no plots against me,

I live in open cell;

Then who would be a king

When beggars live so well?

And a begging we will go, we’ll go, we’ll go;

And a begging we will go!

There were many other street ballads and stage songs on the theme of beggary, including ‘The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bethnal Green’, ‘Mad Tom of Bedlam’ and a Scots song from the late nineteenth century written by a hawker named Besom Jimmy. Scotland was particularly plagued by beggars and this song celebrates the open road and lifestyle of the tramp:

I’m happy in the summer time beneath the bright blue sky,
Nae thinkin’ in the mornin’ at nicht whaur I’ve tae lie,
Barns or buyres or anywhere or oot among the hay,
And if the weather does permit I’m happy every day.

Things were not much better by the time Henry Mayhew and others began investigating the lives of the London poor. Many tricks of the gegor’s trade had changed little over the centuries, though there were a few new dodges, such as smearing a limb with soap and adding vinegar to produce a realistic suppurating sore in the hope of eliciting the sympathies and the cash of the unwary.

One popular technique was the wounded war veteran, a variation on the merchant lay or the Royal Navy lay in which beggars impersonated ex-naval men, known generally as turnpike sailors. The wounded veteran described by Mayhew was:

a perfect impostor, who being endowed, either by accident or art, with a broken limb or damaged feature, puts on an old military coat, as he would assume the dress of a frozen-out gardener, distressed dock-yard labourer, burnt-out tradesman, or scalded mechanic. He is imitative, and in his time plays many parts. He “gets up” his costume with the same attention to detail as the turnpike sailor. In crowded busy streets he “stands pad,” that is, with a written statement of his hard case slung round his neck, like a label round a decanter. His bearing is most military; he keeps his neck straight, his chin in, and his thumbs to the outside seams of his trousers; he is stiff as an embalmed preparation, for which, but for the motion of his eyes, you might mistake him. In quiet streets and in the country he discards his “pad” and begs “on the blob,” that is, he “patters” to the passers-by, and invites their sympathy by word of mouth. He is an ingenious and fertile liar, and seizes occasions such as the late war in the Crimea and the mutiny in India as good distant grounds on which to build his fictions.

This beggar was unmasked as a fraud and asked to tell his story, recorded with the slang of the period and the calling intact:

I have been a beggar all my life, and begged in all-sorts o’ ways and all sorts o’ lays. I don‘t mean to say that if I see anything laying about handy that I don‘t mouch it (ie.steal it). Once a gentleman took me into his house as his servant. He was a very kind man; I had a good place, swell clothes, and beef and beer as much as I liked; but I couldn‘t stand the life, and I run away.

The loss o’ my arm, sir, was the best thing as ever happen‘d to me: it‘s been a living to me; I turn out with it on all sorts o’ lays, and it‘s as good as a pension. I lost it poaching; my mate‘s gun went off by accident, and the shot went into my arm, I neglected it, and at last was obliged to go to a orspital and have it off. The surgeon as amputated it said that a little longer and it would ha’ mortified.

The Crimea’s been a good dodge to a many, but it‘s getting stale; all dodges are getting stale; square coves (i e.honest folks) are so wide awake.

The unmasker of the beggar then asks him: ‘Don‘t you think you would have found it more profitable, had you taken to labour or some honester calling than your present one?’ The beggar replied: ‘Well, sir, p‘raps I might, but going on the square is so dreadfully confining’.

A powerful reason for this man’s preference for a life of beggary rather than employment was that beggars made a great deal more money than they might earn in gainful employment and enjoyed a much more lavish and roistering lifestyle. In 1816 it was reported that two houses in the notorious area of St Giles’s were home to between 200 and 300 beggars who averaged three to five shillings takings each day. It was said that ‘They had grand suppers at midnight, and drank and sang songs until day-break.’ A little earlier, a Negro beggar was reputed to have retired back to the West Indies with a substantial fortune of 1500 pounds earned from acting out roles in the street.

And how many there were. Mayhew describes dozens of different ways to separate the gullible and better-off from their pennies, perhaps even their pounds. There were sophisticated schemes involving begging letters of commendation, apparently endorsed or even written by nobles or other highly-placed and well-known persons of influence. In reality they were provided for a fee by screevers, usually comedown hacksand educated but dissolute wastrels not fussy how they earned a crust. Some lays were perpetrated mostly by women, involving children provided at a fee by establishments operating for just this purpose. And there were the maimed, the almost undressed who practiced the scaldrum dodge, the starving, the addled, the infirm and the displaced among many other forms of deception designed to wring hearts and purses. Broken-down tradesmen, scalded mechanics, decayed gentlemen, distressed scholars and clean families apparently down on their luck. It was an underworld industry on a grand scale that provided thousands, even tens of thousands with a living, if not a profit. Many of the poor worked their way through and up from beggary to something better, perhaps becoming a coster, as did at least one boy tracked over a ten-year period from street urchin to barrow boy.

In America a major form of beggary was associated with the down and out and the skid rows or skid roads of many cities and towns. While hoboes and many tramps may have prided themselves on their ability to support themselves by odd jobs and casual labour, other itinerants depended on the hand-out and various forms of mooching or being on the bum, almost as varied and elaborate as those practiced in England. There was an elaborate language evolved to describe the art of panhandling, also known as throwing your feet. To connect, or make a touch was the object of all panhandling, increasing the likelihood of the mark coming across. An eye doctor was someone skilled at this technique. A ghost story was a yarn told by a panhandler to gain sympathy and a handout, sometimes called a slob sister or a tear baby.

REFERENCES:

Awdeley, John, Fraternity of Vacabondes, 1575.

Beier, A.L, ‘Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England,’ Past and PresentLXIV (Aug. 1974).

Chesney, K., The Victorian Underworld, Temple Smith, London, 1970.

Dekker, Thomas, Lanthorne and Candle-light, London, 1609.

Hancock, I., ‘The Cryptolectal Speech of the American Roads: Traveller Cant and American Angloromani’, American Speech  61 (3), 1986, 206-220.

Harman, Thomas, Caveat or Warning, for Common Cursetors Vulgarly Called Vagabondes, or Notable Discovery of Coosenage,  London, 1566, 1591.

Matsell, G., Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, compiled from the most authentic sources, New York, 1859.

Maurer, David W, Language of the Underworld, collected and edited by A Futrell and C Wordell, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981.

Mayhew, Henry & Binny, John The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life (The Great World of London), London, 1862.

Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, 4 vols, London, 1851.

Sorenson, J., ‘Vulgar Tongues: Canting Dictionaries and the Language of the People in Eighteenth Century Britain’, Eighteenth Century Studies37.3, 2004.