The Many Tricks of Thomas Tyler, Swindler

On 24 November, 1790 Thomas Tyler was executed at Tyburn for forgery.  As was the fashion in cases of public interest, Tyler’s exploits were trumpeted immediately after his execution in A Complete Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Frauds, and Forgeries of Thomas Tyler the Celebrated Swindler.

A fashionable gentleman about town, with a genteel and respectable appearance, Tyler was one of the most notorious cheats of the eighteenth century.  As one London newspaper noted, ‘he has been twice convicted and known as a bad character for near Sixteen years’.[1]  While legal records are scant, with only the final trial for forgery recorded in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, Tyler’s career was tracked by various newspapers and pamphlets which presented his crimes as cautions to gullible tradesmen, but also invited readers to laugh at their expense.

There is reason to believe that Tyler was convicted of stealing and transported to America in the mid-1770s, but that he used the growing civil unrest as a pretence for returning to England before his sentence had expired.  It’s likely that he was tried at the Old Bailey in 1779 for concealing his assets before being declared bankrupt.[2]  He certainly appeared before the magistrate at Bow Street in 1780 under the alias ‘Mr. Chard’, charged with defrauding several tradesman of their goods.  On this occasion he was not tried criminally, and his creditors were advised to sue him for his debts.[3]  In 1788, he was again taken before the magistrate at Bow Street, this time for making a copper plate to forge bills of exchange.[4]  He was tried at the sessions-house at Clerkenwell and found guilty under two separate indictments, each of which was punishable by six month’s imprisonment.  When he was arrested again in 1790, the Bow Street office was flooded with tradesmen and creditors who had received forged notes from Tyler.  He was eventually tried for using a forged note to pay for schooling for his son, and sentenced to death.[5]


Tyler’s rap sheet was impressive, but it was not only his brushes with the law which earned him notoriety.  If the ‘criminal life’ pamphlet published after his execution is to be believed, Tyler was also a notorious philanderer with a string of wives and illegitimate children.  Supposedly, his career began with the seduction of a young lady in London.  Despite taking money from her father in exchange for ceasing his attentions, Tyler spirited his lover away to Gretna Green and married her.  Being transported to America and receiving the freedom to roam the country as he pleased,  Tyler reportedly met and married a number of wealthy women in different states, convincing each of them to depart for England and await him there.  When Tyler returned for transportation and was imprisoned for debt, his duplicity was exposed and his wives charged him with bigamy.  Fortunately for Tyler, the American war made it difficult to obtain the necessary proofs of his marriages overseas, and the case collapsed.

Pamphlets purporting to relate the ‘Complete Narrative’ of criminal lives were routinely produced throughout the eighteenth century, particularly in the cases of felons.  Although some reports were endorsed by the criminals themselves as the ‘true’ story, and sold for the benefit of their families or funeral expenses, it was widely understood that such productions were heavily fabricated and plagiarised, retailing rumour, hearsay, and titillating stories.  Although it’s possible that the farcical tale of Tyler’s many wives was entirely fictitious, the characterisation of Tyler as an attractive, well-mannered and insinuating young man is borne out by reports of his brazen thefts and cheats.

Among a great many frauds, cheats, swindles and forgeries, Tyler reportedly made off with suits of clothes, furnishings, horses, hay for the horses, carriages, saddle bags, and masquerade outfits, and at one point even attempted to buy a ship.[6]  He took lodgings under assumed names in order to carry on his frauds, often deserting them without payment of the rent.  The Bow Street office was often crowded with curious spectators, but in Tyler’s case, it was queues of shopkeepers, landlords and tradesmen who had been duped by his wiles and sought redress:

The other Taylor said, he had made the prisoner a suit of cloaths and wished to know, whether he could take his cloaths back again.

The prisoner unfortunately at that instant, had this suit upon his back.[7]

Charming, engaging, and an excellent storyteller, Tyler was always able to come up with a pretence for ordering or taking goods away without payment.   His signature style can be seen from one alleged incident:

One day dressed in a suit of deep mourning, he stopped his chariot at the shop of Mr. Morrison, a goldsmith and jeweller, who instantly ran out to accommodate so genteel a customer.  After the usual compliments passed, our hero thus addresses the goldsmith; “A certain gentleman, sir, is dead, who has left me a very large fortune, but has cut off the heir at law.  Now, sir, I am come to give you an order for no less than thirty-six rings [mourning rings]: – One is for my Lord –. Another for Mr. – -, one for Mr. –, &c.  But Mr. Morrison, I wish to make a present to the heir at law, and not be quite so cruel as my deceased friend was.  What would you recommend?”  “Why, replied Mr. Morrison, here is a very handsome silver tea-kettle and stand – What think you of that?”

Here Mr Morrison handed these articles into the carriage, when Tyler said very softly – “a very pretty present, – But there is another gentlemen I wish to make a present to, and you have such taste, Mr. Morrison, I must beg to leave the choice to you.” – “Sir,” said Mr. Morrison, “you do me honour – here is a valuable diamond ring.”  – Our hero took the brilliant bauble, put it into his pocket, and ordering the coachman to go on, carried away the tea-kettle and stand – the Lord knows where.[8]

Alongside the caution to gullible shopkeepers, and the entertainment afforded by his shameless tricks, newspaper and pamphlet accounts of Tyler’s crimes also expressed anxiety about character and honesty.  In the eighteenth century, the availability of fashionable clothing and commodities, along with the democratization of polite manners and civility, meant that appearance, dress, language and demeanour were no longer reliable indicators of a person’s social and economic status.  Throughout the century, impostors, forgers and fraudsters, as well as a host of other criminals, adopted genteel clothing and attitudes in order to exploit unwitting businessmen and deceive people of standing and rank.  The treatment of ‘genteel’ criminals has recently been addressed by several historians, most notably Randall McGowen in numerous studies on the trials of forgers.[9]  Playing upon increasing social mobility in order to ‘have it all’, swindlers like Tyler could be seen to encapsulate the ‘spirit of the age’, in which fortunes could be made and reputations created from humble origins.  But as Tyler’s case shows, both fortunes and reputations were precarious things in eighteenth-century London, where reports travelled fast and rumours could not always be outrun.


[1] Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, 11 Oct 1790.

[2] OBSP, R. versus Tyler, 20 Oct 1779, t.17791020-39.

[3] Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, 9 Nov 1780; General Evening Post, 14-16 Nov 1780.

[4] The Times, 16 Oct 1788.

[5] OBSP, R. versus Tyler, 27 Oct 1790, t.17901027-7.

[6] The World, 6 Oct 1790.

[7] The Times, 11 Oct 1790.

[8] A Complete Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Frauds, and Forgeries of Thomas Tyler the Celebrated Swindler (London, 1790), 9.

[9] See, for example, Donna T. Andrew and Randall McGowen, The Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd: Forery and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century London (London and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001); Carissa Hamoen, ‘Forgery: Legislation Gone Mad or Legitimate Social Threat?’, Constellations vol.3, no.2 (2012), 155-164; Randall McGowen, ‘From Pillory to Gallows: The Punishment of Forgery in the Age of the Financial Revolution’, Past and Present no.165 (1999), 107-140.


Emotions & Media in the Past and the Present

My colleague Dr Abaigéal Warfield and I recently began a new research cluster at the ARC Centre of  Excellence for the History of Emotions.  The cluster brings together scholars thinking about the way that different media (newspapers,  pamphlets,  visual media, as well as radio,  TV, and social media) interacts with emotion. We’ve written a blog post about media psychology,  a recent emotional image circulated by mainstream media, and the way that historians can enrich debates about the role of the media in responding to and attempting to provoke emotion.

Read it here:

Emotions and Media


Liveable cities: who decides what that means and how we achieve it?

The Space, Cities and Emotions cluster at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions recently published an article for the conversation on the subject of liveable cities.  Following Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement of the creation of a minister for cities, we reflected on what makes a city ‘liveable’, and for whom.  As historians of emotion, we were interested in drawing attention to the complex relationships between individuals, groups, and the city.

Read the full article here.


True Detective: Eighteenth-Century Readers and Mysterious Crimes

Today, murder mysteries, true crime exposés, detective thriller novels and crime scene investigation TV dramas all cater to our thirst for intrigue and our morbid fascination with crime.  Eighteenth-century audiences were no different, deriving entertainment from newspaper reports of crimes, arrests and trials, and criminal life stories sold at executions.

In her book Tyburn’s Martyrs, Andrea McKenzie suggests that over the course of the eighteenth century, readers became less concerned with seeing relatable, human flaws in criminal life stories.  Instead, they wanted to weigh up the ‘facts’ of criminal cases and decide for themselves where blame lay.

‘If last dying speeches traditionally presented the criminal as a “Seamark” to warn readers, or a glass through which they could see their own frailties – in effect, an ‘Everyman’ with whom they were intended to identify – verbatim trial reportage invited the audience to adopt the perspective of judge and jury.’

Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775 (London & New York: Continuum, 2007), 253.

It’s debatable whether this change in focus was determined by readers’ tastes, or by the decisions of the court reporters, whose style and content decisions shaped the information that was conveyed to lay readers.  Although McKenzie is right to observe significant changes in the amount of detail recorded by reporters, these accounts were still far for ‘verbatim’, and found subtle ways to suggest guilt or innocence to the reader.  It was always the case that more unusual or mysterious trials would be recorded in greater detail.  But it was also important to reassure the public that justice was being done, showing them examples of decisive trials, sentencing and punishment.  Reading about controversial and mysterious crimes was exciting, but it also undermined the authority of the Old Bailey judges and jurors by suggesting that the truth might never be uncovered.  What’s more, such open-ended trial reporting, which gave detailed accounts of witness testimonies, cross-examinations, and lawyers’ speeches, offered the reading public the opportunity to judge for themselves; in effect to participate in a trial-by-public-opinion which might ultimately put pressure on events within the courtroom.

Elizabeth Canning, from 'he arguments on both sides the question in the intricate affair of Elizabeth Canning' (London, 1753)

Elizabeth Canning, from ‘The arguments on both sides the question in the intricate affair of Elizabeth Canning’ (London, 1753)

Take two cases from the 1750s as an example of the public thirst for mystery.  Both involved seemingly demure young women and allegations of particularly serious crimes: a combination guaranteed to spark public interest.  The first was Elizabeth Canning, who went missing on her walk home on New Year’s Day, 1753.  When Canning resurfaced four weeks later, she claimed to have been kidnapped by Mary Squires, a gypsy, and held in an attic room (at the house of one Susannah Wells) with only a scant supply of bread and water.  At first, Canning’s story was a deeply sympathetic one: refusing her captors’ persuasions to ‘turn whore’, she was stripped to her shift and confined in the attic space, finally escaping by breaking and jumping from an upstairs window, and staggering the ten miles home to her parents.  Stories about Canning’s physical sufferings were severe, and physicians’ evidence that she had not passed a stool for many weeks served to confirm her dreadful tale.  The shift which she returned home in was brought out and examined, as were various items from the house which confirmed her story.  But cracks soon began to show, and questions were asked about the details of her account.  Evidence emerged to suggest that Mary Squires and her son, the gypsies at the centre of the trial, were not even in Enfield Wash at the time the supposed kidnapping took place.  Next, on inspecting the premises where Canning was supposed to have been confined, officers questioned details in her description of the room, and wondered why she had not tried to break out sooner.  In the face of questioning, Canning remained impassive:

‘She went through her Evidence without Hesitation, Confusion, Trembling, Change of Countenance, or other apparent Emotion.  As such a Behaviour could only proceed from the highest Impudence, or most perfect Innocence, so it seemed clearly to arise from the latter, as it was accompanied with such a Shew of Decency, / Modesty, and Simplicity, that if these were affected, which those who disbelieve her must suppose, it must have requires not only the highest Art, but the longest Practice and Habit to bring it to such a Degree of Perfection.’

Public Advertiser, 21 March 1753.

Depending on how you read it, Canning’s lack of emotion either demonstrated her restraint and innocence, or a practiced apathy and complete disdain for the court of law.  As the trial progressed, rumours began to fly: Canning and Squires planned the whole thing to make money from charitable donations (Canning received many gifts of money when her case became public knowledge); Squires was a witch, who had put a spell on the innocent young girl; or (most plausibly), the whole story was concocted by Canning to cover up an affair or a pregnancy.  The court of public opinion swung into action, with one pamphlet account declaring ‘Canningite and Egyptian’ the new factions of the day (Canning’s Magazine: or, a review of the whole evidence, 1753).  The case divided families and friends, just as it was dividing leading legal figures: Henry Fielding famously believed Canning, publishing a State of the Case giving credit to her story.  But Fielding was not alone – almost 50 pamphlets concerning the case were published in the 1750s, not to mention the extensive newspaper coverage of the trial.  Most of these publications tended to address a reader already familiar with the details of the case, and so begin re-stating evidence and arguments as if addressing informed members of a jury.  As well as reading leading opinions corroborated or ridiculed, in ways which approximate to a lawyer’s harangue, the reader is presented with a number of visual aids.  In addition to portraits of Squires and Canning, several publications featured sketches of the building and room where Canning claimed to have been held, and diagrams of the passage through which she escaped.  All this allowed the reader to form an opinion of the likelihood of Canning’s story, based on their assessments of the ‘evidence’ before them.  Clearly, evaluating these diagrams allowed the reader to feel a sense of expertise, grounding their judgements in reasoned deliberation and assessment.  All of this material could of course be re-used and re-evaluated when, several months later, Canning was tried for perjury and transported to America.

From Fielding’s 'State of the Case' (1753), showing the front and back of the house where Canning claimed to have been held.

From Fielding’s ‘State of the Case’ (1753), showing the front and back of the house where Canning claimed to have been held.

'A Plan of the house of Susanna Wells at Enfield Wash' from The London Magazine (1754)

‘A Plan of the house of Susanna Wells at Enfield Wash’ from The London Magazine (1754)

A second example of this public fascination with playing detective was evident only a few years later, in the case of Mary Edmondson.  Edmondson was accused of murdering her aunt in their home, but  claimed that several men had broken in through the back yard and slit her aunt’s throat as part of a botched burglary.  Again, the public was offered the story of a seemingly demure and innocent young woman, contrasted by some rather suggestive evidence: the ‘stolen’ items were recovered in the wash-house in Edmondson’s own back yard, and bloody apron found in the privy.  Edmondson was unable to explain why she changed her apron before running out to seek help.  Her neighbours testified that several weeks earlier, Edmondson had told her aunt that some men had tried to break into the yard, and had stolen some coals.  Again, critics were divided over Edmondson’s claims, with many suspecting a premeditated murder in cold blood.  And again, the reading public was offered a breakdown of witness testimonies and evidence.  One pamphlet offered hints to the aspiring judges in the court of public opinion:

‘When we come to examine the Matter itself, we shall find that it carries with it a very strong indication that the Prisoner threw [the coals into the privy], purposefully to amuse her Aunt with an Opinion of being robb’d: The old Gentlewoman (thinks her Niece) will of Course tell our Neighbours that Rogues have broke in Backwards, and robb’d her – an if I should Murder her for the Sake of her Money and Effects, will naturally conclude that Villains have done it […] This is an inference that may very justly be drawn in regard to the whole Transaction, and when Things are well weigh’d, and impartially consider’d , the Conclusion will be, that every one of the least Penetration, will pronounce Mary Edmondson guilty’.

The life, trial, and dying words of Mary Edmondson, who was tried and convicted at Kingston assizes, for the murder of her aunt Mrs. Susannah (London, 1759),16

The pamphlet goes on to sum up the opposite side of the question: ‘On the other Hand, if we believe that four men got in …’, urging the reader to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusion.

The cases of Canning and Edmondson are examples of the public fascination with contentious criminal trials.  I take issue with the suggestion that criminal trials were being reported impartially or word-for-word, and that the reader was really being left to judge for themselves.  Most of these accounts, in the way that they are phrased, ordered, or edited, express some kind of bias, and hint towards the ‘right’ opinion.  However, it seems that eighteenth-century readers enjoyed the illusion of coming to their own conclusions about the cases, weighing up evidence and evaluating testimonies, and no doubt discussing their amateur legal opinions in coffee-houses, taverns and in the home.  Ultimately, the newspapers and pamphleteers recognised (and cashed in on) the appeal of playing ‘true detective’.


The Politician and Pickpocket: Charles James Fox and George Barrington

On 5 August 1788, The Times published a letter from George Barrington, notorious gentleman pickpocket, to his ‘dear friend’, the Whig leader Charles James Fox.  In it, Barrington addresses Fox as a fellow practitioner and adept in the ways of the criminal world.  Readers would have been open to thinking about Fox, a notorious drinker, gambler, and womaniser, on these shady terms, and would certainly recognise this familiar satirical territory.  Barrington was awaiting his trial at the time for relieving a Mr De Mesurier – brother of the famous lawyer Philip De Mesurier, of his pocket watch in a theatre.  He had been caught in the act, but had escaped from the inn where he was temporarily confined, and was an outlaw for about eighteen months before being apprehended at Newcastle.  Styled as a penitential missive from a condemned man, Barrington’s letter addresses Fox as a brother pickpocket:

You and I have lived a long time in public – and dipped pretty deep into their pockets.  I set out with nothing – you had something to begin with.  But by ingenuity we both got to the top of our profession – you were at the head of Administration – I was King of the pickpockets – you grasped the purses of the people in a collective capacity – I took their money individually – your expenditure has always exceed your honest income, and so has mine.  – You took much money at the gambling tables – I took not a little at all public places of resort – the only difference was this, you got yours openly – I had mine by stealth – but a gambler and a pickpocket, I believe are most synonimous [sic] in that merciful Court above, where I shall shortly appear.  On earth there is a distinction in the art, though none in the principle. 

Fox and Barrington are portrayed here as two of a kind, opportunists who have reached the height of their respective professions through ambition and shamelessness.  Fox’s public recklessness as a gambler is seen as ‘synonimous’ with Barrington’s light-fingered approach, and perhaps even more contemptible inasmuch as he makes no attempt to conceal his ill-gotten gains and protect his reputation.   Indeed, while Barrington constantly attempts to cement his standing as a respectable gentleman, Fox comes from a family of thieves: his father Henry Fox was accused of accumulating ‘unaccounted millions’ during his time as Paymaster General of the Forces (1757-1765), and both Charles and his brother Stephen are represented in this letter as having handled this illegitimate fortune: ‘you partook of the booty – and the receiver you know is as bad as the thief’.

Fox was certainly no stranger to this association with criminal life.  Numerous visual satires depicted him as a burglar and a night prowler, playing upon the anthropomorphic qualities of his name.

'Reynards [sic] Last Shift' (1784), copyright of the British Museum.

‘Reynards [sic] Last Shift’ (1784), copyright of the British Museum.

Here, a fox carries off ‘the flat embroidered bag decorated with the Royal Arms in which the Great Seal is kept’ (D.M. George, BM Satires), while Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow shouts ‘stop thief’ from an upstairs window.

In two prints by James Gillray from 1788, produced almost the same time as the letter in The Times, Fox is associated with Colonel Blood, who famously attempted to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671.  Fox is seen stealing the crown and setting the Tower alight, accompanied by George Hanger, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Edmund Burke.  In another, Fox takes a bulging sack of stolen goods, including what appears to be a garter jewel, to a ‘receiver’ who will sell them on.  All of these prints reference Westminster elections (in 1784 and a bi-election in 1788 respectively), which were hotly contested as the Tory government attempted to limit the Whig opposition.  Fox’s tactics in elections were a longstanding subject of controversy and satire, linking him once again with less than squeaky-clean campaign strategies and fundraising.

James Gillray, 'Blood & co, setting fire to the Tower, & stealing the crown' (1788) copyright f the British Museum.

James Gillray, ‘Blood & co, setting fire to the Tower, & stealing the crown’ (1788) copyright f the British Museum.

James Gillray, 'Mason, the duke's confectioner, disposing of the trinkets' (21 July 1788), copyright of the British Museum.

James Gillray, ‘Mason, the duke’s confectioner, disposing of the trinkets’ (21 July 1788), copyright of the British Museum.

Fox was apparently no stranger to pickpocketing, if an anecdote from the Galaxy from 1874 is to be believed.  Fox and his brother Henry go to witness the first balloon ascent made in England, and Fox catches a pickpocket in the act of stealing his watch.

‘My friend,’ said he, ‘you have chosen an occupation which will be your ruin at last.’  The thief burst into tears, and exclaimed, ‘O Mr Fox, forgive me, and let me go.  I have been driven to this by necessity alone; my wife and children are starving!’  Fox compassionately gave him a guinea, and he went away with blessings on his lips.  Soon after, Fox, wishing to know what time it was, found his watch missing.  ‘Good God,’ he exclaimed, ‘my watch is gone!’  ‘Yes,’ answered his brother, I saw your friend take it.’ ‘Saw him take it, and made no attempt to stop him!’  ‘Really,’ said the general, ‘you and he appeared to be on such good terms with each other that I did not like to interfere.’

If this story is true, of course Fox is the gullible victim of crime here, portrayed in similar terms to many of Barrington’s genteel quarry in the newspapers.  Nonetheless, his brother’s jibes about Fox’s friendship with the criminal, and the joke on polite sociability it entails, are remarkably similar to the terms on which Fox and Barrington seem to associate in newspaper satires.

On 9 August, Barrington makes a reply to the ‘lies and forgery’ printed in The Times, condemning the paper not only for libelling him, but also for ridiculing ‘one of the first men in the kingdom’, which might suggest that he was actually a supporter of Fox.  There is no evidence that Fox and Barrington knew each other, or that throwing them together in satire was any more than a convenient way to make an association between criminality, political opposition, and the dubious private lives of politicians.  Nonetheless, the association between Fox and criminal activity persisted throughout the late eighteenth century, and was largely kept up by newspapers and caricaturists.  Linking two celebrities like Fox and Barrington played upon the capital of both politics and crime, and was clearly enjoyed by readers who continued to buy a multitude of pamphlets purporting to be by or about George Barrington.  More generally, the opportunity to link Whigs and criminals is constantly capitalised upon by the newspapers. As the Public Advertiser put in on 19 June 1792:

What the Blue and Buff Squad can mean by their opposition to the Police Bill, at a time when the streets of London are constantly infested, not only by nocturnal, but by diurnal depredations, is wonderful, unless upon the old principle of ‘a fellow feeling makes one wond’rous kind.’


Emotions in the Courtroom: The case of George Barrington

One of the main concerns of my current research project is the way emotions function in the eighteenth-century criminal courtroom.  How do criminals, prosecutors, and lawyers use emotion to make their cases?  How open are the judge, jury, audience and general public to emotional manipulation?  My research deals with many trials which were described only briefly in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers (shortened to OBSP), the official publication for Westminster trial reports.  Across the eighteenth-century, however, there were a number of cases, and a number of particular criminals, which attracted particular attention.  As you might expect, the trials which the engrossed public tended to be the more unusual or scandalous ones: sexual content, unusually violent cases, or a particularly flamboyant defendant all merited longer write-ups in the Sessions Papers and in newspapers alike.  The reading public were fascinated by characters surrounded by mystery and intrigue, so it’s no surprise that George Barrington was a particular favourite with newspapers and hack writers in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

From ‘The memoirs of George Barrington, containing every remarkable circumstance, from his birth to the present time’ (London, 1790)

Barrington, an Irish-born upstart with a taste for the high life, was infamous throughout London after several high-profile trials, and was known for the boldness of his crimes, and the eloquence of his defence speeches.  Known as the ‘gentleman pickpocket’ due to his dress, behaviour, and his habit of stealing from places of public entertainment such as theatres, racecourses and churches, he was a newspaper favourite.  From the beginning of his career as a thief in the 1770s to his eventual transportation in 1791, his name featured regularly in reports from the Old Bailey, but also in various satires and salacious stories.  Barrington was seriously concerned with shaping his own image as a gentleman in the courtroom, and in print.  His interactive relationship with the press is fascinating: we see numerous rebuttals and reprimands printed in a variety of papers as he attempted to maintain his veneer of respectability.  Even after his transportation, Barrington continued to be a household name.  Several memoirs of his criminal life were in circulation, as well as an account of his ‘voyage’ to Botany Bay, and various observations on Australia. As Nathan Garvey has shown, it is unlikely that Barrington had anything to do with any of these opportunistic publications, which are often attributed to him, and certainly contributed to keeping his persona before the public into the early nineteenth century.

Barrington’s life and legend could furnish material for a multitude of posts, so here I want to focus solely on his speeches in court, and the role of emotion in shaping his defence.  By the time he first came to trial, Barrington was already semi-famous as the ‘young gentleman’ who had allegedly picked the pocket of Count Orlow at the theatre.  The Count declined to press charges, and the Public Advertiser described how Barrington ‘wept much, and seemed exceedingly shocked at the ignominy of his situation’ (2 Nov 1775).  This performance of a gentlemanly ‘character’ and sensibility was central to Barrington’s defences at numerous trials.  Arrested for picking the pocket of Ann Dudman at the theatre, Barrington complained that his accusers ‘were taking a gentleman’s character from him’ (OBSP, 15 Jan 1777).  Having failed to impress the dignity of his character on Dudman and her witnesses, he attempts to discredit the prosecutor: she was blind in one eye, and on learning that her pocket had been picked, ‘her fear might make her believe’ anything, however improbable.  Dudman’s female sensibility becomes a potential impediment to truth, but it also leaves her open to attempts to play upon her feelings.  It emerges that Barrington sent Dudman a letter from prison, which is a masterpiece of emotional manipulation.  In it, Barrington portrays Dudman as sympathetic: he implies that she regrets her harsh treatment of him, injuring his reputation and perhaps condemning an innocent.  Appealing to Dudman’s ‘humane and feeling mind’, the shameless Barrington also suggests that while she has maliciously pursued her case against him, he is concerned for her emotional wellbeing.  How would she cope with the guilt of having helped to condemn an innocent man?  ‘I have suffered severely,’ he writes,  ‘suffered more than you can think or suppose’.  Despite his best efforts, Barrington was found guilty and sentenced to hard labour on the hulk in the Thames.

Very soon after his release for good behaviour, Barrington was back in court, this time for stealing a watch in a crowded church.  This time, Barrington portrays himself as the victim of an overzealous arresting officer: ‘gentlemen, I am convinced, from many circumstances, that this man would pursue me with the utmost rigour’.  The thief-taker in question, Payne, lacks the proper feelings for his job, being ‘lost to every just and tender feeling, destitute of any means of sensibility’.  Failing to make an impression on the jury, Barrington is again found guilty, and so switches to supplication: ‘My Lord, permit me, before I leave this place, humbly to appeal to the feelings and humanity of your Lordship; […] mercy has always been considered as the darling attribute of Heaven.’  This pitiful appeal comes with the wish ‘may your children and children’s children, never experience the misery I now suffer’ (OBSP, 29 April 1786).

Barrington’s appeals to clemency took many forms over multiple trials, but most rested on the premise that creating an emotional story could somehow get him off the hook.  Whether he was constructing himself as a gentleman whose reputation was compromised, an innocent condemned, or a naïve youth led astray, he understood how to pull on the jury’s heartstrings by appealing to their family sensibilities, their pity, and even their religion.  And he became increasingly confident in his ability to do so: at his final trial in 1790, addressing the jury:

the passions animate the heart; and to the passions we are indebted for the noblest actions, and to the passions we owe our dearest and finest feelings; and when it is considered, the mighty power you now possess, whatever leads to a cautious and tender discharge of it, must be thought of great consequence, for, as long as the passions conduct us on the side of benevolence, they are our best, our safest, and our most friendly guides (OBSP, 15 Sept 1790).

Between 1775 and 1791, Barrington served hard labour on the hulks at Woolwich, disobeyed a sentence to leave England and return to Ireland, escaped confinement and was an outlaw for several months, and was eventually transported to Botany Bay.  On this occasion, Barrington’s genteel sensibility was a cause for general merriment:  ‘the Captain asked whether George Barrington was among them? – and being answered in the affirmative, he immediately ordered the heaviest pair of irons in the ship for him, which were accordingly put on the unfortunate culprit, who shed tears on the occasion, and was exceedingly depressed’ (Public Advertiser, 2 March 1791).  Stories of Barrington’s dramatic reinvention and accession to superintendent of convicts, and later a high constable, ensured that his fame continued long after his disappearance from London life, and to some extent confirmed his gentlemanly character.  The reports of his trials are an excellent resource for studying the construction of celebrity in the eighteenth century, and the way that emotion permeated the criminal courtroom in this period.  But they also show us just how much sympathy and sensibility he expected to encounter in the courtroom, suggesting that emotion had a place in the actions of thief-takers and the decisions of judges and juries.


When is a Jacobin not a Jacobin? Part 1: France

The name Jacobins carries with it something at once ridiculous and sinister.  It smacks of faction, and it ruins the most eloquent and patriotic things that are spoken at the tribune of the club.  But things have got to the point where perhaps it is not possible for the Amis de la Constitution to renounce the name Jacobins, by which they are known, and against which Robespierre has complained in vain.  All they can do is make it respectable through prudence and civic responsibility, good deeds and enlightenment.

Révolutions de Paris, 3-11 May 1792

If you Google ‘Jacobin’, you’ll get a confusing mixture of Jacobin pigeons, Jacobin monks, a socialist magazine, and even a Canadian rock band, alongside descriptions of the French Revolutionary club.  And it’s clear that in the early 1790s, ‘Jacobin’ also meant different things to different people.  Throughout the 1790s, they were described as everything from friends and protectors of the people, patriots and liberators, to republicans, spies, factionalists, and murderers.  This isn’t particularly surprising, given the amount of propaganda produced by friends and enemies of the revolution (some examples of which will be explored in a later post).  Some people self-identified as Jacobins without being members of a particular club, and likewise, in many instances ‘Jacobin’ was used as an insult to imply that someone was a troublemaker.  Some of these negative ideas about Jacobinism have become deeply ingrained popular understandings, and I believe it’s worth questioning who the Jacobins really were, and what they stood for.

The club took its name from its meeting place in the Jacobin convent on the Rue St Honoré, Paris.  In 1790, the Jacobin club had morphed out of the Club Breton, a group of deputies to the new French National Assembly.  It was officially known as the Société des Amis de la Constitution (the Society of Friends of the Constitution) until the declaration of the French republic 1792, when the nickname ‘Jacobins’ became an official title. Its members were fairly genteel in the beginning: a mixture of lawyers, financiers and well-to-do gentlemen, and as such the club functioned as political pressure group, a philosophical and debating society all in one. In late 1790 into 1791, many provincial political clubs began to request affiliation with the Paris Jacobins, creating one of the most powerful networks of communication and affiliation across France.

The Jacobins acted as a springboard for topics to be discussed in the National Assembly. Issues would be debated at the club before they debuted in the Assembly, meaning that Jacobin members could impress a consensus upon their fellow deputies.  This meant that they encountered almost immediate hostility in some circles, particularly among monarchists, and they were soon accused of debating national issues without a mandate.  But due to their ever-expanding club network and skyrocketing memberships, the Jacobins really were best placed to claim the title of ‘representatives of the people’.

'Les trois Jacobins' (1819), shows the extent to which the meaning of Jacobinism has been confused and diluted over time: here it appears to represent fanaticism, anarchy, and monarchism all at once. Copyright of the British Museum.

‘Les trois Jacobins’ (1819), shows the extent to which the meaning of Jacobinism has been confused and diluted over time: here it appears to represent fanaticism, anarchy, and monarchism all at once. Copyright of the British Museum.

The slide into Terror, and the Jacobins’ rise to power through a process of surveillance, suspicion and the elimination of opposition is a familiar narrative.  For many people, including some historians, the word ‘Jacobin’ now conjures images of the guillotine, massacre and extremism.  But a recent revival of interest in Jacobinism has suggested that in fact, the Jacobins were a highly principled group negotiating unprecedented situations, and they were driven by ideals about virtue and justice.  My own research suggests the importance of philanthropy, education, public spiritedness and fellowship to Jacobinism as it was practiced at a national and local level.  Jacobins opened schools, fed the poor, designed hospitals, and endorsed family and community values.  And in many ways, the horrific practices of the Terror, such as encouraging citizens to denounce counter-revolutionary neighbours, holding summary trials, and guillotining opposition politicians as traitors to the nation, were born out of attempts to safeguard these peaceable principles.  Some excellent recent work by Marissa Linton has shown how Jacobin leaders attempted to reconcile their personal feelings about Terror with their public practices.  There is still plenty more space to reconsider what Jacobinism meant to different people in France and elsewhere.  How ideas about Jacobinism were constructed, and by whom, will be the subject of many future blog posts.

Further reading:

Patrice Higonnet, Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998)

Michael L. Kennedy, The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The First Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982)

Marissa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 2013)

Christine Peyrard, Les Jacobins de l’Ouest: Sociabilité révolutionnaire et formes de politisation dans le Maine et la Basse-Normande (1789-1799) (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1996)