History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 June 2013

Low gamblers, ring droppers, sharpers and thieves of every description...

Ash, the hero of my WIP Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], is a Jewish con man who grew up in a gang of street thieves in London. It's distressingly difficult to find information about Regency con artists. Everyone seems to agree that the principles of conning had very likely been worked out for centuries, and that many modern short cons (as distinguished from long cons, in which the victim is sent home for his money, and which require a fixed location where the mark can be "played") have probably existed in some form at least that far back. But the details...those are fuzzy. Here are a few things I have found:

1. The word "con," and pretty much all the vocabulary that we now associate with the profession, were developed in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. In the Regency, con artists would probably have been called "swindlers," and their marks would have been "flats." Interestingly enough, according to the OED, the word "swindler" comes from the German schwindler, "giddy-minded person, extravagant projector, especially in money matters, cheat," and was "originally a cant word, said to have been introduced into London by German Jews about 1762."

According to The Jews of Georgian England 1714-1830, by Todd M. Endelman, the word originally had a very specific meaning of credit fraud, i.e. "obtaining goods from manufacturers or merchants on false credit and then absconding before detection of the fraud, or declaring bankruptcy and arranging to swap the real claims with false ones," but as best I can tell the meaning had broadened significantly by the turn of the century.

(I worry that I'm perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes with this sort of thing. But...there were a lot of really, really poor Jews in London in this era. When extreme poverty is combined with intense prejudice and a resulting sense of isolation from the larger society, a lack of faith/investment in the validity of the legal system is one possible result. Besides, street crime and professional crime were absolutely endemic in England and especially London at the time--really, when isn't it? Jews were a proportion of the population, therefore, a proportion of the criminal population. I don't know. It's a tricky one, and I think the only solution is to keep it in mind while writing and do my best.)

2. Three-card monte doesn't show up until the 1850s and then it originates in America. The "shell game," a variation on the game using walnut shells or other objects (although it doesn't allow for the classic con in which a mark is induced to bet on the pretense that the queen has been dog-eared for him), doesn't show up until 1890 and then only in America. However, the British equivalent is the "thimble-rig," earliest attested in 1825, also known as "pea and thimble" (played with a pea and three sewing thimbles). I think that for a cant term like that, it's fair to assume that it was in use for a while before the earliest known reference in print.

3. "Ring droppers" are mentioned frequently in rhetorical lists of common cheaters, for example this in a Sporting Magazine of 1797: "Low gamblers, ring droppers, sharpers and thieves of every description..." Apparently the swindler pretended to "find" a ring which he had dropped himself, "discovered" it was valuable, and then attempted to sell it.

4. "Pin-and-girdle" and "prick-the-garter" are two names for the same game, in which a belt or long piece of cloth is doubled and then folded a number of times, then held in the swindler's hand. The flat is given a pin and bets that he can stick the pin in the belt at the place where it was doubled. Of course, the game is rigged and he can't. This game dates back a good long way. This game has many names and variations, but one of its earliest names was "fast and loose" (attested 1578, and using "fast" in the sense of "immobile, fixed" as in "stand fast"), which is where the idea of "playing fast and loose with" something or someone comes from!

5. And my favorite I've found so far, as being an absolutely classic short con (from The Jews of Georgian England):

"Two Jews, one in the dress of a sailor, would stage an argument in tones loud enough to attract the attention of passersby. The Jew would attempt to buy the watch of the 'sailor,' who would claim to have paid 12l. or 14l. for it and would refuse to sell it to the Jew, as he had cheated him previously or because he did not want to sell it to any 'damned Jew.' The 'sailor,' having just come ashore and being short of money, would then offer to sell the watch to someone nearby who he thought was a likely target. The 'sailor' would entreat this person to buy it, and then the Jew would approach and whisper that he would buy the watch from the customer if he bought it from the 'sailor,' as well as give him a guinea for his trouble. He would then disappear, telling the customer to meet him at such-and-such place later on. If the stratagem worked, the customer would then buy a watch worth from ten to twenty-five shillings for 6l., 7l., or 8l. Later, when he went to look for the Jew, he would of course have disappeared. So widespread had this confidence trick become in 1817 that the Lord Mayor of London felt compelled to issue a warning not to buy watches from strangers in the street."

(I'm not entirely convinced by the logic of that last sentence, as it seems like there are many reasons not to buy watches from strangers in the street, but.)

And, while writing this post, I found this book: the 1792 The new cheats of London exposed; or, The frauds and tricks of the town laid open to both sexes: Being a guard against the iniquitous practices of that metropolis. Containing a new and clear discovery of all the various cheats, frauds, villainies, artifices, tricks, seductions, stratagems, impositions and deceptions, which are daily practised in London...Interspersed with useful reflections and admonitions. Will be reading!

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Blogger Helena said...

As I was reading this post I was remembering a wonderful book I'd seen in the British Library - and then I get to the end and see that you've discovered it!

I love the fact that if you check the dictionaries of cant terms for the period, you realise that Georgette Heyer must have been there before you because her use of such terms - "nubbing cheat" etc - are perfectly accurate.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Helena said...

I just came across this record of an acquisition by the Lewis Walpole Library:


If you can find it to view online you may be able to find out more details of malefactors. This Library looks like a wonderful resource for everyone writing about the 18th century.


2:36 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Helena--thanks! ooh, that's so cool!

12:17 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Love this post. Fascinating information and those resources are guaranteed to be a huge time-suck in only the best way!

7:09 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

I found another reference! Well, a post which includes a reference: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/06/15/the-strangers-guide-to-london/

10:56 PM  

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