[Although Reynolds, who frequently defends the poor against the wealthy, arguing that extreme poverty forces many otherwise good people into lives of crime, he also devotes so many pages in his extremely long novel to the very worst criminals that parts it becomes a Newgate novel — one of those works of fiction that relish criminal exploits and their punishment. In the course of the first volume readers encounter detailed explanations of how body snatchers work, one group of whom readily murder people when suitable buried corpses are not readily available. The Mysteries of London also devotes much of its length to counterfeiters, swindlers, pickpockets, and housebreakers. In the second volume we learn professional beggars’ tricks of the trade. Accompanying a policeman on a search for the loathsome Resurrection Man, Richard Markham enters the Rat's Nest, a bar and restaurant frequented by professional beggars. — George P. Landow

"What a strange assembly," whispered Markham to the constable.

"Strange to you, sir—no doubt," was the answer, also delivered in a tone audible only to him to whom the words were addressed. "That sturdy feller sitting at the head of the nearest table, with the great cudgel between his legs, is one of the class that don't take the trouble to clothe themselves in rags, but trust to their insolence to extort alms from females walking alone in retired parts. That feller next to him, all in tatters, but who laughs louder than any one else, is one of them whining, shivering, snivelling wretches that crouch up in doorways on rainy days, and on fine ones sit down on the pavement with 'Starving, but dare not beg,' chalked on the stone before them. The man over there in sailor's clothes tumbled down an area when he was drunk, and broke his leg: he was obliged to have it cut off; and so he now passes himself off as one of Nelson's own tars, though he never saw the sea in his life. That chap almost naked who's just come in, is going to put on his coat and shoes before he sits down to supper; he always goes out begging in that state on rainy days, and is a gentleman on fine ones."

"I do not understand you," said Markham, astonished at this last observation.

"Why, sir," replied the policeman, "there's certain beggars that always turn out half-naked, on rainy days, or when the snow's on the ground; and people pity them so much on those occasions that the rogues get enough to keep them all through the fine weather. If they have wives and children to go out with them, so much the better: but that feller there isn't married; and so he goes with a woman who frequents this place, and they hire three or four children from the poor people in this neighbourhood, at the rate of two-pence a day each child, and its grub. To see them go shivering and whining through the streets, with no shoes or stockings, you'd think they were the most miserable devils on the face of the earth; and then, to make the scene complete, the man and woman always pinch the little children that they carry in their arms, to make them cry, whenever they pass a window when several ladies are looking out."

"Is this possible?" whispered Markham, his face flushing with indignation.

"Possible, sir! Don't I see it all every day of my life? Look at them men and women blowing their hides out with all that good meat; and now look at the pots of porter that's coming in. Every soul there has sworn a hundred times during the day that he hasn't tasted food for forty-eight hours, and will repeat the same story to-morrow. But they all had good suppers here last night, and good breakfasts here this morning; and you see how they are faring this evening."

"But there are real cases deserving of charity?" said Markham, interrogatively,—for he almost felt disposed to doubt the fact.

"Certainly there are, sir," was the reply; "but it's very difficult for such as you to decide between the true and the false. Look at that man who carves at the second table: he can see well enough to cut himself the tit-bits; but to-morrow he will be totally blind in one of the fashionable squares."

"Totally blind!" said Richard, more and more astonished at what he heard.

"Yes, sir—totally blind; led by a dog, and with a placard upon his chest. He keeps his eyes fast shut, and colours the lids with carmine and vermilion. But that is nothing. That feller next to him, who uses his knife and fork so well, will to-morrow have lost his right arm at the battle of Salamanca."

"But how can that imposture be effected?"

"His right arm is concealed under his clothes, and the coat-sleeve hangs down loose," replied the constable. "That tall stout man who has just jumped so nimbly over the form in his way back to his place, has walked on crutches in the streets for the last twenty years; and when you see him so, you would think he could hardly drag himself along. The feller over there is a frozen-out gardener in winter, and a poor Spitalfields' weaver in summer. The one next to him will have a black patch over his left eye to-morrow; and yet you may see that it is as good as his right. The short man opposite to him bends his left leg back, and has a wooden one to support the knee, when he is in the street. That woman there has been dressed in widows' weeds for the last fifteen years, and always has a troop of six children with her; but the children never grow any bigger, for she hires fresh ones every year or so."

"This is the most extraordinarily combined mass of contradictions and deceptions I ever gazed upon," whispered Markham.

"You may well say that, sir," said the policeman. "The ragged feller down at the bottom of the second table sits as upright as you or me: well, in the streets he crawls along the ground with two iron supporters in his hands. He is the most insolent feller in London. The man next to him goes about on a sort of van, or chaise, and the world believes that he has no legs at all; but they are all the time concealed in the body of the vehicle, and the stumps of the thighs which are seen are false. Those three hulking chaps over there, sitting with the three women that laugh so much, are begging-letter impostors. The eldest of the three men has been seventeen years at the business, and has been in prison twenty-eight times. One day he is a bricklayer who has fallen from a scaffold, and broken his leg, and has a wife and eleven young children dependent on him; another day he is a licensed clergyman of the Church of England, but unemployed for two years—wife and six children totally dependent on him. Then he changes into a stanch Tory, ruined by his attachment to the cause, and proscribed by all his friends on account of his principles: in this shape he addresses himself to the old Tory noblemen, and makes a good harvest. The very next day he becomes a determined and stanch Reformer, who lost his employment through giving his vote for the Tower Hamlets to the liberal candidate at the last election, and has since met with an uninterrupted series of misfortunes—sold up by a Tory landlord,—his wife been dead only a fortnight, and seven motherless children left dependent on him. This kind of letter always draws well. Then he becomes a paralytic with an execution in his house; or a Spitalfields' weaver, with nine children, two of which are cripples, and one blind; or else a poor Scotch schoolmaster, come to London on business, and robbed by designing knaves of the means of returning to his own country. The women are just as bad. They are either wives with husbands in hospitals and bed-ridden mothers; or daughters with helpless parents and sick brothers and sisters dependent on them;—and so on."

"But if you be aware of all these monstrous impositions, why do you not interfere to protect the public?" inquired Markham.

"Lord, sir!" said the constable, "if we took up all persons that we know to be impostors, we should have half London in custody. We only interfere when specially called upon, or when we see cases so very flagrant that we can't help taking notice of them. Some of these chaps that are eating here so hearty now, will seem to be dying in the streets to-morrow."

"Merciful heavens, what a city of deceit and imposture is this!" observed Richard, painfully excited by the strange details which he had just heard. "Were the interior of this den but once exposed to general view, charity would be at an end, and the deserving poor would suffer for the unprincipled impostor."

Related material


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.

Last modified 4 August 2016