One of the few industries which have not benefitted materially by the march of progress is that of robbery from the person. In the old days, before pockets were invented, men carried their money at their girdles in gipcieres, or purses, and an experienced practitioner found it an easy task to remove the prize by a dexterous slash of his knife. All that was needed by the aspirant to success was an open ear, a quick eye, and a nimble hand. Soon, however, the times changed. Pockets were invented, and to effect a capture now required higher qualifications than before. To meet the increased demand for talent, a certain man named Wotton opened, in the year 1585, what he described as “an academy for the education and perfection of pickpockets.” The principal of this seminary was of gentle birth, and had at one time been a merchant of some standing in the City. Later, however, becoming reduced in circumstances, he set up an ale-house at Smart’s Quay, near Billingsgate, and, in the words of Stow, “commenced a new trade in life,” the opening of the school referred to. “Two devices,” continues Stow, “were hung up—one was a pocket, the other was a purse. The pocket had in it certain counters, and was hung about with hawk’s bells, and over the top did hang a little sacring bell. The purse had silver in it, and he that could take out a counter, without noise of any of the bells, was adjudged a judicial ‘nypper.’ According to their terms of art a ‘foyster’ was a pickpocket, a ‘nypper’ a pick-purse or cut-purse.” In short, the well-born Mr. Wotton appears to have conducted himself much in the same way as did the somewhat more repulsive Fagin. The above quotation might very well, making allowances for Stow’s archaic style, have come from “Oliver Twist.”

Perhaps the most celebrated of Wotton’s pupils was John Selman, one of the “great names” of pocket-picking. Whether or not he was really the most skilful old pupil of the school can never be ascertained. The work of the pickpocket is essentially unostentatious. He does not advertise or roll logs. He works silently and alone. The fact that in the end Selman was caught in the act would seem to point to a certain lack of skill. The story of his capture is interesting from the distinguished names that come into it. It happened on Christmas Day, 1611, when King James, Queen Anne, the Duke of York, and several of the nobility were receiving the sacrament in the Chapel Royal of Whitehall. A Mr. Dubbleday observed a stranger, whose looks he did not like, hover for a moment round another gentleman, of the name of Barrie, and then attempt to leave the chapel as swiftly as possible. Mr. Dubbleday accosted Mr. Barrie, and, like a modern policeman, inquired if he had lost anything. Barrie, as men in such a case always have done and always will do, first answered “No,” and then felt in his pockets, when he discovered that his purse, containing forty shillings, was no longer there. Selman was pursued and captured. An interesting fact is that he was dressed in “a fair, black cloak, lined and faced with velvet, the rest of his apparel being suited thereto,” thus presenting a good picture of the type of man who is known nowadays as the swell mobsman. Selman was duly executed, and a grimly humorous episode took place at the time, for a colleague of the prisoner’s, being reluctant to waste opportunities, whiled away the moments by stealing purses, with the result that he, too, was captured, and fared as Selman had done.

The most noted pickpocket in what Dr. Johnson called the “Biographia Flagitiosa” was, curiously enough, a woman. Her real name was Mary Frith, but she was better known as Moll Cutpurse. She was born in 1585, and soon rose to the head of her profession. Her method of working was as follows: In company with two other thieves, she sought her victim. One, called the “bulk,” created an obstruction. Moll herself, acting in the capacity of a “file,” as it was technically termed, cut the purse, and handed it to a third, named the “rub,” who carried it off. In this way she amassed considerable wealth. At one time she was reputed to be worth £3,000, but she was as generous as she was dishonest, and gave away so much to distressed cavaliers that, when she died, she left behind her little more than £100. She died at the age of seventy, having written the following epitaph on herself, in the form of an acrostic:

Merry I lived, and many pranks I played,
And without sorrow now in grave am laid:
Rest and the sleep of death doth now surcease
Youth’s active sins, and their old-aged increase.
Famous I was for all the thieving art,
Renowned for what old women ride in cart,
In pocket and in placket, I had part,
This life I lived in a man’s disguise,
He best laments me that with laughter cries.

The whole history of Mary Frith is full of romance. The last line but one of the epitaph alludes to her custom of always wearing male attire. She was a bold fencer, and on one occasion played the highwayman, and robbed the Parliamentary General Fairfax of two hundred gold Jacobuses on Hounslow Heath. Also she was one of the first Englishwomen who smoked tobacco. The large sums acquired by Moll Cut Purse by the exercise of her dishonest skill were not uncommon. Another instance of a female acquiring a large sum of money by picking pockets occurred in the eighteenth century, when a noted female pickpocket of the name of West died. She left, according to a magazine obituary, no less than £3,000 to her two children, one of whom was actually born inside a prison, West being at the time imprisoned in Clerkenwell Bridewell for picking pockets in Exeter Change. It seems somewhat curious that this £3,000, which was known to have been come by dishonestly, was not confiscated by the law.



Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse
in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Transcriber’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; except for a few comments, nearly all of the column is adapted from “Cut-Purses and Pickpockets” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864. Wodehouse is doing a better job here of rewording the abridged material and creating a smooth flow of ideas than in some of the other turnovers.

Neil Midkiff