Exclusive to Genii Forum: Librarium Magicum #9

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Dustin Stinett » 03/08/08 08:06 AM

Clay Shevlin has graciously sent me the current installment of his Magicol column, "Librarium Magicum" to post here. This is the second part of his terrific "Visit to the Old Bailey."

Clay says:

Here's the Magcol piece for the good people of the Genii Forum. Please tell everyone hello and give them my apologies for being tardy in getting this to the Forum.

Apology accepted Clay (though I feel there is no need to apologize) and The Genii Forum thanks you!

And now, please to enjoy:

Librarium Magicum
by Clay H. Shevlin
A Visit to the Old Bailey Part II

During the trial of Mary Pearse and Sarah Cook for shoplifting shoes and cloth at two stores on the same day, we learn how people of the day might describe an individual who is skilled at deception. However, since these ladies were found guilty in the January 11, 1717 proceedings, neither of them deserved the title, Mistress of Dexterity!

On February 25, 1719, William Wilson was tried for theft with violence of about 19 Guineas from Ambrose Walford, a provincial man. In a classic ruse, Wilson, pretending to be a fellow countryman, befriended Walford and invited him to drink some wine at the Swan Tavern. One of Wilsons confederates showed up at the tavern looking for his purse, and having found it at the feet of the victim, then joined the two for a drink as he seem'd to be mightily rejoyc'd at his good Luck. After a drink or two, a Pack of Cards was found, and the Gentleman [the confederate] shewed a great many Tricks with them, offering to lay Wagers, which the Prisoner [Wilson] prompted him [Walford] on to do. Apparently, our dear Mr. Walford was not that nave and recognized a good sleight of hand man when he saw one. But his refusal to engage in any betting did not deter the confederate, who then simply snatched Walfords purse out of his hands and ran out of the tavern! The court records indicate that Wilson worked from time to time with at least three accomplices, but none apparently were found and so Wilson alone was tried and convicted for this crime.

The manner in which John Cobidge robbed a small sum of money from two men on a dark February night was rather unoriginal, but the description of his profession is worthy of note. The account of Cobidges March 1, 1721 trial for highway robbery and theft with violence states that he hath been a Thimble-man, or Cups and Balls Man all his Life. While the sleights used may have been very similar, the aims of the thimble-man (or thimble-rigger) and the cups and balls performer were very different. A thimble-man ostensibly offered a game of chance in which the spectator who correctly guessed under which of the three (or sometimes four) cups the ball was located would win his wager. But of course the spectator would almost never win due to the trickery of the thimble-man. As we shall see in our discussion below, most of the references to the cups and balls and their operators in the Old Bailey records appear to describe the work of thimble-men. But it does not seem a stretch of the imagination to consider that many of these thimble-men also used the same apparatus to present magical entertainment, a strategy which not only made efficient use of equipment, but also perhaps more importantly allowed seamless transitions between licit and illicit activity. Such a relationship would help explain the statement in the 1694 trial account of young Diana Lawrence that she was known to be an old Gamester in the Art of Legerdemain..., although in her case we would have to consider her a thimble-girl!

While the relevance to conjuring of Susan Brockways and Mary Gardners trial for theft and pick-pocketing may be dubious, it certainly seems to have had all the requisite elements for intrigue: sex, religion ... and whipping? Read carefully, dear reader, for with this case justice is best served by quoting from some of the parties court testimony. The victim, a Mr. Joseph Richmond, told the jury:

About Nine o'Clock on Sunday Night, the Prisoners pickt me up upon London-Bridge. I went with them to the Cross-Key Tavern upon Fish-street-Hill, and there we staid about an Hour. I agreed to give them a Crown apiece, to - to - , not to do them over, but for them to strip naked, and show me some Tricks....

According to Mr. Richmond, when he produced the money to demonstrate that he could pay for the ladies services, one of them snatched the money out of his hands and stuffed it into her bosom. The record indicates that Mr. Richmond then called for the local constable, who ordered the women to be strip searched. But no money was found. The women then spoke in their defense:

This Man took us to the Tavern, and offered us a Crown apiece to strip ourselves naked, and stew him Postures. He gave Mary Gardner Money to fetch a Penny-worth of Rods, for him to whip us a-cross the Room, and make us good Girls; and then for us to whip him to make him a good Boy: But we told him it was neither a proper Time nor Place for any such thing, for it was Sunday Night, and others might over-look us in the Room we were in, tho' the Curtains were drawn. He bid us look to it; for it should be worse for us, if we would not do as he would have us...

On August 27, 1725, the jury acquitted the two women. Further analysis of this account and the parties conduct could be entertaining, but we shall resist such temptation and close with the observation that the editor/compiler of the Proceedings must have had a wicked sense of humor! Or the prescience to disprove the notion that Las Vegas was the birthplace of nude female magic acts.

John Taylor faced a charge of "Coining two False and Counterfeit Shillings in the Likeness of the Lawful Coin of this Realm at his trial on December 8, 1731. The counterfeit coins had been detected when they were offered for payment to a soldier selling gingerbread. In his defense, Taylor testified that he had made the coins not with a Design to defraud any Body, by putting them off for Good Money, but only to make a Fortunatus's Wishing Cap with 'em, to divert his Fellow-Servants, and his Master's Child, in an Evening, and the Old Bailey account goes on to note that Fortunatus's Wishing Cap is a Thing that Jugglers show Tricks with. Taylor was apprenticed as a gold chain-maker, and his master and several of his co-workers confirmed his story, and thus, it appearing a silly boyish Trick, the Jury acquitted the Prisoner.

Taylors trial account contains one of the earliest known references which associates a feat of conjuring with the fable of Fortunatus, and so we pause, alas all too briefly, to consider the mysterious Fortunatus's Wishing Cap. The morality tale of Fortunatus may be traced back to at least the early 1500s, and proved to be rather popular throughout Europe and England for several centuries. It reflects the classic theme that love, wisdom, humility, etc., bring true happiness, and that the likes of greed, jealousy and worldly goods do not. We are told that during his travels Fortunatus acquired two items with supernatural qualities the first a purse which provided him with an endless supply of gold coins, and the second a cap which, when placed on his head, transported him to wherever he wished but lived to regret his involvement with them. [FN1] How Fortunatuss story figured into Taylors magic trick is unclear, and the record is also silent on the specific role Taylor intended for his manufactured coins. Parsing the relevant language in the report may only increase the uncertainty [FN2], and a perfunctory review of the standard conjuring histories sheds little light on the nature of this trick in Taylors time. The courts willingness to accept Taylors explanation does, however, suggest that Fortunatus's Wishing Cap was a commonly-known effect. We conclude our petit detour with the observation that perhaps Mr. Taylor and/or the Old Bailey court reporter were a little confused that day about the details of Fortunatuss adventures with his miraculous paraphernalia, and that perhaps Mr. Taylor had actually intended to use the counterfeit coins to recreate Fortunatuss inexhaustible purse.

Another female magician makes her appearance in the trial of Richard Price, held on May 10, 1733. Price had stolen Eleanor Jones pocket-apron early in the morning of April 18, the apron holding a small amount of money and Hocus Pocus Things to shew Tricks with. We learn that Eleanor plays at the Cups and Balls, but that is the only clue provided regarding the magical content of her apron, although we can surmise that such apron was likely the type used by most itinerant magicians of the time. Price was acquitted on the technicality that he was charged with the wrong crime, a relatively rare occurrence. Equally unusual, it seems, is the fact that Eleanor was unjustifiably jailed immediately after Prices act of thievery, which earned the authorities who did so a strong reprimand from the court. Perhaps Eleanors imprisonment is an example of the prejudice suffered by magicians of the time, or perhaps, like John Cobidge, the authorities knew that she used her cups and balls less for entertainment and more for thimble-rigging.

The record for the September 11, 1734 trial of Elizabeth Cook and Mary Bartlet for theft offers little of magical interest, but redeems itself by being one of the funnier and more entertaining of the Old Bailey accounts we have read. As to conjuring content, we only learn that Elizabeth Cook was famous for slight of Hand, which could mean that she was a magician, but could also mean, as we have discovered in other court accounts, that she was adept at theft. Here, the victim (Edward Mason) steals the show, largely due to his verbal hair-splitting and deferential contrarianism in response to the judges questions think Monty Pythons The Argument Clinic meets George F. Will. We conclude this case with an amusing exchange which provides insight into the physical appeal of one of the accused:

Court: When you were so drunk as you say, could you take so much notice of Cook as to know her again, and especially as you had been such a little while in her Company?
Mason: Yes; for I'll tell you what - It's just like as when a Man was frighted, his Senses strike quicker than ordinary at such a Time.
Court: That's a new Piece of Philosophy.

Conjuring is barely a factor in John Latours September 8, 1736 trial for theft and simple grand larceny, but the testimony of Rev. Charles Brockwell I have seen many things done by Legerdemain lends support to the proposition that magical entertainment was widespread in London (and perhaps that men of the cloth were not opposed to being among its spectators).

The modus operandi detailed in the summary of George Mays trial on October 15, 1740 is similar to that used by William Wilson, et al., in 1719: first, the victim is convinced under various pretences to have a drink with a man claiming to be his countryman; then, at the tavern one or two of the cheats confederates appear and insinuate themselves into the drinking session, and finally the victim is cheated out of his money, usually by rigged games of chance. In this case, Mays confederate entered the parties private room looking for a lost receipt, found it, and decided to join the two for a celebratory drink. As the trio drank, May demonstrated some card tricks and claimed to be able to name any card pulled from the pack, a claim on which he and the stranger decided to wager the large sum of 100. Naturally, May did not have enough money to cover his bet and inveigled the victim (one William Silver who else?) into lending him the 80 shortfall, assuring Silver that he could not lose since he was an expert card man. Silver traveled about town collecting sums of money from various sources and depositing the money into his purse, to which May added his 20 in an obvious effort to encourage Silvers trust. The two men stopped at a house to determine how much money they had, and when Silver turned his head, May replaced the purse with another one which held slugs of lead. Counsel for the prosecution had informed the court that May was a Member of that Set of Men, who go under the Denomination of Gamblers; the most dangerous Community to the Publick in the Schemes they lay to trap their Neighbours , yet May was acquitted on a technicality. The court did, however, order that May remain in custody pending issuance of a corrected indictment, but the record is silent about Mays ultimate fate.

Brief note is made of the potential magic connection in the burglary trial of Peter Delgens, held on October 17, 1744, as the victim was Christopher Pinchbeck, and the goods stolen from his shop suggest that he may have been the son of Christopher Pinchbeck, Sr., the elder Pinchbeck famous for his exhibitions of automata in association with Isaac Fawkes conjuring act.

The description of John Cossetts trial is noteworthy for two reasons: it provides some clues about a trick in Cossetts magical repertoire, and names a man who was likely performing ventriloquism at the Sun Tavern when the crime took place late Saturday night, January 12, 1745. Cossett was accused of stealing a silver tankard from the tavern, which had been found concealed between his legs. [FN3] In his defense, Cossett said, I thought at a proper time to shew them a fancy, for I always carry a live pidgeon, and I took this tankard to make use of upon that occasion. From the testimony we learn that Cossett was a slight of hand man, that he shewed tricks to divert people when he was out of work, and that he had performed at the tavern with the proprietors permission about two years ago. We dont know exactly what he planned to do with the pigeon and the tankard, but a production effect seems a reasonable guess (or perhaps The Decollation of John the Pigeon?). Performing that night was Stephen Moore [FN4], an entertainer who has a mock voice, described later as a man who has two voices. In the early 18th century, this was not an unusual way to describe the work of a ventriloquist.

[FN1] See Rev. Ebenezer Cobham Brewers The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, giving the Derivation, Source, or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that have a Tale to Tell - to which is added a Concise Bibliography of English Literature (London, 1870).
[FN2] For example, a literal reading of Fortunatus's Wishing Cap is a Thing that Jugglers show Tricks with suggests that the Wishing Cap was not an effect per se, but a prop, similar perhaps to an Egg Bag.
[FN3] There is no scarcity of double entendres in the Proceedings, especially in its first fifty years of publication. In the course of describing how the tankard was found, the tavern proprietor is quoted as follows: My man went up to him, put his hand between his legs, and said, now I have got what I wanted
[FN4] Moores talent is also mentioned by his wife, Ann, who testified as a witness at the trial of Henry Sims on January 16, 1745: I have a husband who has a gift of two voices, a gift which God Almighty has given him; and he goes to gentlemens houses and other places to divert gentlemen and ladies.
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Dustin Stinett
 
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