If you're familiar with John Gay's famous 18th c. ballad opera The Beggar's Opera,
then you've heard of Jenny Diver. For his character, Gay borrowed the
name of one of London's most infamous female pickpockets. Mary Young
(1700?-1741) was an Irish seamstress who found thieving in London much
more profitable than stitching in Dublin. Known by the name of Jenny
Diver in honor of her dexterity at plucking purses, her ingenuity and
daring soon made her a legend, and her exploits earned her a place in The Newgate Calendar. Here are two:
accompanied by one of her female accomplices, joined the crowd at the
entrance of a place of worship...where a popular divine was to preach,
and, observing a young gentleman with a diamond ring on his finger, she
held out her hand, which he kindly received in order to assist her: at
this juncture she contrived to get possession of the ring without the
knowledge of the owner; after which she slipped behind her
companion....Upon his leaving the meeting [the gentleman] missed his
ring, and mentioned his loss to the persons who were near him, adding
that he suspected it to be stolen by a woman whom he had endeavoured to
assist in the crowd; but, as the thief was unknown, she escaped....
after] this exploit, Jenny procured a pair of false hands and arms to be
made, and concealed her real ones under her clothes; she then, putting
something beneath her stays to make herself appear as if in a state of
pregnancy, repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above
mentioned in a sedan chair, one of the gang going before to procure a
seat among the genteeler part of the congregation, and another attending
in the character of a footman. Jenny
being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch
by her side, she conducted herself with great seeming devotion; but, the
service being nearly concluded, she seized the opportunity, when the
ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered
to an accomplice in an adjoining pew. The devotions being ended, the
congregation were preparing to depart, when the ladies discovered their
loss, and a violent clamour ensued. One of the injured parties exclaimed
"That her watch must have been taken either by the devil or the
pregnant woman!" on which the other said, "She could vindicate the
pregnant lady, whose hands she was sure had not been removed from her
lap during the whole time of her being in the pew."
last Jenny's luck ran out, and she was captured, tried, and hung at
Tyburn in 1741. Yet even at her execution, her notoriety separated her
from common thieves: instead of traveling the last journey to the
gallows in an open cart, she was granted a lady's farewell, and made the
trip in a coach.
Above: Detail from The Rake's Progress: The Rake at the Rose Tavern by William Hogarth, 1732.
Update: I'd intended to include the link to Jenny's complete entry in The Newgate Calendar for those who are interested. My apologies for forgetting - here it is: Jenny Diver.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.