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’. 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. 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. In 1788, he was again taken before the magistrate at Bow Street, this time for making a copper plate to forge bills of exchange. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
 Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, 11 Oct 1790.
 OBSP, R. versus Tyler, 20 Oct 1779, t.17791020-39.
 Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, 9 Nov 1780; General Evening Post, 14-16 Nov 1780.
 The Times, 16 Oct 1788.
 OBSP, R. versus Tyler, 27 Oct 1790, t.17901027-7.
 The World, 6 Oct 1790.
 The Times, 11 Oct 1790.
 A Complete Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Frauds, and Forgeries of Thomas Tyler the Celebrated Swindler (London, 1790), 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.