Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Notorious History: Jenny Diver, Pickpocket

Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Susan reports:

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:

Jenny, 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....

[Soon 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."

At 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.


Richard Foster said...

Clever girl, that Jenny Diver. No wonder Macheath liked her.

LaDonna said...

In the movie "Gangs of New York," there's a female pickpocket who does the fake-arms trick in a crowded carriage. I guess thieves have always been imaginative!

Finegan Antiques said...

Once again you have introduced us to an interesting character. Quite a woman Jenny Divers. I wonder what her total take was during her career? And I sure bet she had a lot of captivating stories to tell.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for this post. I had no idea that she was a real person like Moll Frith.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Richard, yes, she was a favorite of the good Captain's - but then, as I recall, almost every woman in the cast can make the same claim to his affections. *g*

LaDonna, I'd forgotten that scene with fake the arms in "Gangs of New York" until you mentioned it. Wonder if they were inspired by Jenny, or if this was a common scam?

Donna, yes, the bad girls can be just as interesting as the good ones. *g* I found myself wishing to know more of her, too. The Newgate Calendar descriptions of criminals have just enough info to tease you into wanting more -- more that, sadly, is lost forever now.

Elizabeth Kerri, I hadn't realized that "artful Jenny Diver" was real, either. Such a perfect name!

Soft Fuzzy Sweater said...

Thank you ladies. I love notorious history.

And I think MacHeath was the first irresistible "bad boy".

Or maybe it was "Tom Jones"?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Soft Fuzzy Sweater, "Tom Jones" was published in 1749 and "Beggar's Opera" in 1728, so I guess Captain MacHeath beats out foundling Tom. But that's purely on date, not bad-boy-dom. *g* Then it's probably a draw.

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