Scammers, fraudsters and tricksters have always been with us. Finding the nooks and crannies of misdirection that let them slip past our guard in order to steal, continues to be an issue and no doubt will always be so.
Before the advent of digital technology that encourages more and more ingenious attempts to enter both our real and virtual worlds with offers of outlandish winnings that need claiming (for a small fee) or misbehaving software that needs ridding of its maladies (for a small fee) and so on, the tricksters of old had their equally well-rehearsed play-lets to enter our lives and to readily exit – post-haste – with their ill-gotten gains.
I’d like to recount a few of England’s more successful tricks that were popular amongst certain nineteenth century thieves (for that’s what they were) that indicates a distinct dedication to rehearsal, practice and with pinches of ingenuity as opposed to brute force.
1: Spanking the Glaze:
This is pure robbery, but it has a certain theatrical quality that made it a favourite technique for double-acts. You need one well-dressed person – “the swell” and one much more shabbily attired – “the drunk.”
They appear to meet by chance outside a shop window in the town or village that happens to have interesting articles for sale. The drunken individual lurches and pushes against “the swell” who protests against this clumsy, intoxicated low-life pushing into him and whilst they are pinned in this unwanted union – up close to the shop window – they contrive to break the large bottom pane of glass against their bodies and clothing. In criminal parlance they are “spanking the glaze.”
The shopkeeper runs out, and “the swell” is protesting loudly how he has been ill-treated by “the drunk” and the police should be called. Inevitably this is not an option the shop-keeper wants to invoke, especially as “the swell” enters the shop just as the “the drunk” lurches off down the road. “The swell” looks around at the wares and buys something of little value, adding extra money for the shop-keeper for the repair of the window even though it was not his fault. He says how the shop keeper should not suffer because of some fool drunkard’s behaviour.
“The swell” leaves, the shop-keeper is happy with his remuneration, and all is sorted out and, at the insistence of “the swell”, arranges for his window to be repaired that very day before it gets dark, and “the swell” promises to look out for “the drunk” and bring him before his worship the mayor if only he could recognize him again.
All is now set; “swell & drunk” keep a close eye on the shop and the window repair that soon follows. The shop is now theirs to enter at a time of darkness that suits them for the third and silent partner in this adventure is now in place.
That partner is the putty used to replace the glass.
It is easily peeled away when new and soft and the glass taken out and, using a small piece of leather with sticky pitch tar on it or some coarse paper with thick treacle, the thieves can replace the glass after them making it stick in place long enough to ransack the shop and possible leave by another exit if locks allow, or back through the window replacing the glass once more.
2: A Note of Caution:
There is a record of a particular trick that, although very rare, appeals to me given that it was played upon a rather pompous London magistrate named Sir Richard Birnie.*
In the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for people discovering valuable goods, to report them to Bow Street Police or the local courthouse who in turn would advertise the finding in the local newspapers and invite claimants to prove ownership. The goods would revert to the finder if unclaimed. A very honest working man in 1820, picked up a one hundred pound note from the mud and dirt of the street in the borough of Southwark and at once declared his find to the authorities who advertised the fact in the local paper.
Anyone holding any such notes (even one pound notes) at that time would always ensure they knew the number of the note, the date of the note, the issuing bank and any and all markings and writings on that note as a means of proof that they were the owners. The example below of a £100 Bank of England note is the only one I can find, so please forgive the fact it is for the 1930’s rather than the 1820’s but the principle of the ‘Giant White’ in terms of serial numbers and identification etc. is exactly the same.
Sir Richard Birnie was the nominated holder of the note ready to question any claimant coming forward once it was advertised but of course, precise identification details were withheld. After a few days a well-dressed gentleman called to claim the note.
The conversation recorded in the record of the time was as follows;
Claimant: “Perhaps then your worship will oblige me by examining the note; when, it if is the one I have lost, you will see two small marks I invariably make in any notes I receive, just under the figures.”
Sir Richard looked at it closely, but no marks were apparent.
Claimant : “They are very minute, your worship.”
Sir Richard: “Yes, so you said before, but I cannot see anything of the kind.”
Claimant: “My eyes are younger than your worship’s, perhaps you would be kind enough to allow me an instant’s inspection of it?”
Sir Richard agreed and handed over the note, the claimant glanced at it for a mere instant and confirmed it was not his, there were no such marks after all. He thanked Sir Richard and left.
A few hours later, another gentleman, equally well-dressed, declared he had lost such a note and asked if he could make a claim as he had no doubt the note was his.
“In that case,” said Sir Richard, “you will, of course, be able to state the date and number of the note?”
“Most assuredly,” said claimant number two – and did exactly that.
“Exactly,” exclaimed Sir Richard, “those are the date and number; there cannot be a doubt that the note is yours; and if you will give me a receipt for it, and discharge the expense of advertising, you may take it with you.”
Claimant number two, pulled out a well-stocked wallet, paid the advertising expenses and left with the hundred pound note.
The next day, a claimant number three called who was able to prove beyond doubt that he was the true owner of the note, not only from the note’s details, but had proof of ownership from the issuing bank who was assisting him to locate it. Suffice it to say that Sir Richard Birnie’s foolishness in being duped by the partnership of the first two claimants, known in the trade as “sharpers”, tainted his reputation for evermore.
*( Sir Richard Birnie’s foolishness here, contrasts dramatically with his dark and deadly role in my new book, The Cato Conundrum: (2016). http://www.thecatoconundrum.com/
3: A Soap Opera
Now, here is a trick that worked so well amongst certain caring village communities, that it toured and toured around the countryside for decade after decade as a real money spinner for certain male/female partnerships. The woman has to be as genteel looking as possible and the man a rough but caring individual concerned about her health given her ‘scanty’ appearance.
Once “a good looking house” is chosen by the pair, they walk steadily past its front gate, when suddenly, the poor woman has what appears to be a fit. She is convulsing and in clear distress – falling (gently!) to the ground, while her accompanying partner is crying out for assistance.
People begin to crowd around seeing what appears to be a woman in the last throes of death – foaming at the mouth and, with her lungs apparently no longer working properly, she is in desperate need of help.
Under the man’s persuasion and the spectators’ agreement, she is carried into the nearby “good looking house”, and with a little hot tea and some spirit and possibly other stimulants, she recovers briefly, but more groans appear to put her back into apparent jeopardy once more, a distraction that somehow compels the man to slip the odd trinket, silver thimble, teaspoon, whatever may be small and near to him, into his pockets.
Sometimes a modest collection of pennies is made by the assembled people to pay for her to be ‘bled’ by a local doctor if she can get there. It is at this point that the woman will usually decide to swallow the soap she has been carefully concealing in her ‘frothy ‘ mouth, which then quickly makes her vomit over her host’s furniture, leading to another welcome distraction for her concerned partner.
Her sickness now clearly purged, she makes a miraculous recovery and they both wish to get on their way as quickly as possible whilst she is able and they make a polite but extremely hasty exit. After all, they are due to give another performance in the next village that same afternoon.