Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - A Short Way to Newgate

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THERE is a plague that is striking its upas roots deeper and deeper into English soil - chiefly metropolitan - week by week, and flourishing broader and higher, and yielding great crops of fruit that quickly fall, rotten-ripe, strewing highway and by-way, tempting the ignorant and unwary, and breeding death and misery unspeakable. Were it possible to keep a record of the wreck and ruin the plague in question engenders, and to officially publish it as the cholera and cattle plague returns were published, a very considerable sensation would undoubtedly be the result; but since its baleful influence is - as is generally supposed - confined almost entirely to the vulgar ground it is indigenous to, and there is little fear of its spreading beyond certain well-defined and ascertained limits easy to avoid; since it is not, according to the popular acceptation of the term, "catching" and one need labour under no alarm lest it come on the wings of the wind in at our pleasant chamber window, and street cabs are not likely to be impregnated with it, nor omnibuses, nor theatres, nor halls of public assembly, why - why, there's an end of it.
    It is, however, a plague not included in the ordinary category that is the subject of this paper - the plague of poisonous literature.
    Before me I have twelve penny packets of the poison, gathered at random out of a choice of at least twice as many offered me at [-159-] the little shop - one of a thousand - devoted to its propagation. It was not on account of their unpromising titles that the remaining pen'orths of poison were not secured. There was "The Boy Bandit," "The Black Monk's Curse," "Blueskin," "Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman," "The Vampire's Bride," "The Boy Jockey," "The Wild Boys of London," and many more, of the names of which I have not a distinct recollection. The dozen I received in return for my shilling are entitled, "The Boy King of the Highwaymen," "The Skeleton Crew," "Roving Jack, the Pirate Hunter," "Tyburn Dick," " Spring Heel'd Jack," "Admiral Tom, the King of the Boy Buccaneers," "Starlight Nell, " Hounslow Heath, or the Moonlight Riders," " Red Wolf, the Pirate," "The Knight of the Road," "The Adventures of an Actress," and "The Pretty Girls of London."
    Nasty-feeling, nasty-looking packets are every one of them, and, considering the virulent nature of their contents, their most admirable feature is their extremely limited size. Satisfactory as this may be from one point of view, however, it is wofully significant of the irresistibly seductive nature of the bane with which each shabby little square of paper is spread. I have been at the pains to weigh them, and I find that the weight of each pen'orth is but a fraction more than a quarter of an ounce. The "Leisure Hour" weighs nearly eight times as much, so do the "Family Herald" and one or two other penny publications of a decent sort. It is the infinitesimal quantity of trash that may be palmed off for a penny that serves as the carrion bait to attract towards it the blow-flies of the book trade. They are enabled to hold out strong inducements to the needy shopkeepers of poor neighbourhoods. The ordinary discount to the trade on ordinary publications is 25 per cent., but the worthy publishers of "Alone in the Pirates' Lair" and "The Skeleton Crew" can afford to allow double that, and more. Wholesale you may buy the precious pen'orths at the rate of fivepence a dozen, and there is no risk to the [-160-] dealer, since all unsold copies from last week are changed for a similar number of the day's date. This is the lure that tempts the tobacconist and the sweetstuff vender and the keeper of the small chandlery, and induces these worthy tradesmen to give to this pernicious, though profitable, class of goods all the publicity of which their shop window is capable. No doubt that many of these retailers engage in the business utterly unconscious of the sin and shame they are aiding and abetting. It was at a chandler's shop where I purchased my twelve pen'orth, and quite a wholesome, matronly woman, with a baby in her arms, served me.
    "To be sure, sir," said she, "you are quite right. 'Tyburn Dick' and 'The Pretty Girls' just make the dozen;" and made up the parcel with as much indifference as though it were sugar or biscuits. She would have been mightily astonished, and not improbably indignant, had she been informed that this branch of her trade was as injurious to public morality as if she had kept a repository for stolen goods. It would have been no more than true had she been so informed, however; and if she and other sellers of poison for the minds of girls and boys should happen to read this, and take it to heart, why, so much the better.
    A delectable company appears to be foremost of the gang whose profit is the dissemination of impure literature; but there are many rivals in the field - some bearing the printer's or publisher's name and address, others without either - and each vies with his neighbour in the decoction of the pen'orths of muck, endeavouring to outshine him. One and all of the poison packets are illustrated on the outside, and we will give a glance at each, both inside and out, as the fairest method of testing its quality. It may be mentioned that this may be done no less fairly by a weekly instalment of eight pages than by a review of the completed story. There is no such thing as "plot" in this sort of literature. Such an arrangement would only embarrass [-161-] the publisher, whose sole and single aim is to go on supplying his public with "The Red Wolf" or the "The Skeleton Crew" just so long as they will swallow it. One pen'orth of my collection- "Black Bess; or, The Knights of the Road" - is a hundred and eighty four weeks old; and is quite as vigorous now as at the first week of its birth.
    "Spring Heel'd Jack, the Terror of London," is the first on the list. Picture : Jack-with the spring visible at his heels, punching savagely at a policeman's face, and dashing his head against the wall. Summary of contents: Jack indecently assaults a maiden lady, drags her about her bed-chamber by her bed-gown, which is pulled over her head, and finally thrusts her into another bedroom to pass the night with an elderly bachelor gentleman. Somebody springs a rattle, neighbours rouse, bachelor's door forced, bachelor in night garment exposed, and maiden lady dragged nude from beneath bachelor's bed. Next chapter: the loves of a policeman and a maid-of-all-work, and a "spicy" scene of the pair in the shadow of a tomb in a churchyard at midnight.
    "Says the policeman : 'You lets them catamarans (the girl's mistresses) frighten you from doing your duty, you does.' 'My duty?' 'Yes.' 'What duty?' 'What duty, Peggy? Can you look me in the face and ask the question?' 'I don't know what you mean.' 'You don't?' 'No.' 'I do.' 'What is it?' Bristles placed his hand beneath his belt, and heaved a deep sigh. 'Don't you tumble?' he asked. 'No.' 'Then you is green.' 'What do you mean, Mr. Bristles?' asked the girl, in surprise. 'Mean? Oh! dull of comprehension!' 'I know I am.' 'You are.' 'But tain't my fault.' 'Not yours; no, no, not all ; but part - but part,' said Bristles, shaking his head sadly. 'Oh! do explain,' said the girl, in a pleading and half terrified tone. 'What can I do? What do you want me to do? What do you ask ?'"
    And, in reply; Mr. Bristles, makes a joke disgusting enough [-162-] to provoke the ghost of Lord Campbell, and so the story is left "to be continued in our next."
    "Tyburn Dick" is the next. Picture: A young gentleman, presumably the King of Highwaymen himself, with lace and ruffles, cocked hat, jack-boots, and a splendid jewelled star extending across his chest by way of denoting his rank, sword in hand, on a lonely heath at midnight, defiantly receiving the "warning of doom." (Doom being represented by a hideous spectre rising in flames out of the grass.) Summary of contents of part : " Dick in Newgate - The gaoler trapped into Dick's cell  - "Give me the keys, or with my manacle, will I scatter your recreant brains against the slimy wall!"- Newgate on fire : the cell growing red-hot - "Give me the keys!" "Ha! ha! never!"
    "Dick was exasperated to madness. Putting his two hands together, he grasped the long links, and, poising them straight and firm, dashed them into the gaoler's exultant face. The iron ring joining them struck him between the temples, the two long links dashed into his eyes. He uttered a fearful groan, and fell blind, stunned, and bleeding. 'It grows frightfully hot,' he muttered, as the hot beads of sweat rolled down his face. 'The cell is like an oven. There must be a furnace outside. Am I doomed to perish here? Confusion! why don't they batter down the walls? Ho, there! Help! help! I am here, chained to a wall, amidst the flames!'"
    However, it is all right. A friend of Dick's has gone on a visit to the incarcerated highwayman's mother, who is a countess. There is a ball at the countess's, to which all the bloated aristocracy of the kingdom have been invited. However, hearing that she is wanted, the countess hastens down to the parlour, where Claude (the friend) is waiting, and is thus addressed by that gentleman:-
    "Be not alarmed! I am not come to taunt you with the wrongs you have done me, though they have seared my brain, [-163-] I am come, unnatural and adulterous mother, to warn you of your persecution of that poor boy, against whom you have steeled your bosom - forgetting that he first drew his sustenance from it. You have hurled him from these halls, which are rightfully his, and have driven him to a life of roadside robbery, and even now have hounded him to a prison, whose walls he may only quit to go forth to a felon's doom. We shall free him this time, but I warn you, fair-faced devil! - cold, callous, unwomanly demon! - I warn you that if the bitter death you desire befals him - if a hangman's accursed hand crushes out his young life - you shall pay the penalty, and the penalty shall be death, though I myself tear your infamous heart from your unnatural breast!'"
    And since, so far as the story goes, the lady shows no signs of relenting, the reader is justified in his expectation of getting a very fair pen'orth next week.
    No.3. "The Skeleton Crew."  Picture: A pair of ghostly, bodyless legs advancing towards a cavalier who has an affrighted lady under his protection, and who, with hair on end, stands with his rapier advanced to receive the goblin remnant. Since the typographical part of the number makes no allusion to this mystery, it may be assumed that it was accounted for in the last pen'orth, or will be in the next. From what can be gathered in the eight pages, the "Skeleton Crew" are a band of decayed robbers risen from their tombs, and still continuing the nefarious pursuits that was their bent while in the flesh. They, however, retain an appetite for the substantials of life, and rob and murder wholesale and retail. Death-wing is the chief, and here is a specimen of his every-day employments:-
    Old Redgill had two ships on their way from the Indies, laden with gold, spices, and silks. In consideration of receiving half of the cargo, Death-wing and his infamous crew resolved to waylay these two ships and attack them when about fifty miles from the Land's End. This was done. The crews of both ships [-164-] were murdered in cold blood. This system of villany was repeated more than once, but as Philip's father's ships did not arrive in port except at intervals of many months, the villanous young man frequently found his money running short. "Bloodshed to him was quite a usual thing." So he murdered his father's cashier, and made merry with the money. However, the detectives are on his track, and unless his friends the skeletons assist him, he may look out for squalls. Humorous fellows are these fleshless ones, and the number is agreeably lightened by a droll account of how they hanged half a dozen innocent men in a belfry.
    Pen'orth number four is entitled "Hounslow Heath." Picture : A poor wretch undergoing some frightful torture. He is extended on the ground, a waggon wheel is lying atop of him, and by his side are various instruments of torment, consisting in a knife, two flaming torches, a glue-pot, and a spoke-shave. Gloating over his agony stand two ruffians with highwaymen's masks on. Dick Turpin figures in this story. Our number opens with an account of how he was hard beset by the officers of the law, how he blew out the brains of a Jew and sliced up others with his sword ; but, overpowered by numbers, is about to yield, when in the nick of time he is rescued by some old friends who "suddenly appear on the scene." Then Dick stops a stage-coach single-handed, and robs the passengers in his customary polite and graceful manner. Further on, it seems that the band of which Mr. Turpin is the captain capture a person whom they suspect of planning to place them in the hands of justice. So they proceed to torture him as the picture on the front page faintly foretells.
    "Firstly, they fastened him securely round the ankles with some stout cords. Then they passed two more ropes through these thongs, and dexterously enough hauled him up to the roof of the cave, where he was allowed to hang head downwards. In this unpleasant predicament they put him through such a [-165-]  course of novel tortures that a tribe of North American Indians might have picked up a wrinkle there. And they made merry while he was in the greatest agony. The more he shrieked with pain, the louder grew their shrieks of laughter. They probed him with their swords and burnt the tip of his nose with a red-hot poker, while one of his torturers held back his arms. A huge, square block of stone was brought and tied across with stout cords, the ends of which were made into a noose, and slung around Toby Marks's neck. No rack ever known could create such awful torture as this."
    After a while, however, they released the victim from the weight of the stone. "Toby Marks dangled now a dead weight by his legs; the two robbers saw the thick and deep-coloured blood roll sluggishly from his nostrils. Then it burst in a torrent from his ears and mouth, and soon his face presented a horrible spectacle to look upon. The blood had completely saturated his hair, until he looked as though he had been newly scalped. The torture was over. The traitorous wretch could bear no more in safety, and so they cut him down. And thus did they avenge the sad end of the gallant Tom King!"
    "The Pretty Girls of London" has, as its title was doubtlessly calculated to imply, more to do with the tender passions than with the bravery of masculine adventure. The illustration on the outer page depicts a hideous lady administering the Russian knout to three young women, who are naked to the waist and gracefully writhing in agony. A young lady named May would appear to be the heroine of the tale, and we find her immured in a convent over which the Rev. Mr. Blinker has authority. An interview between this person and May occupies a considerable portion of the part.
    "'I tell you I want to be your friend; come with me quietly,' says the Rev. Mr. Blinker. 'And if I don't?' 'I shall take you by force.' May shuddered. 'Come along then.' As he spoke he gently drew her a few steps. She followed him mechanically [-166-] out of the room door and into the passage. What did his conduct mean? She trembled and recoiled from him in terror. He held her hand tighter and drew her into a room, the door of which was locked when May tried it. He seated her on a couch and himself beside her. 'Listen to me,' he said in a thick whisper, while his eyes had a strange wolfish glare in them which made May shiver and flush deeply beneath his devouring gaze. 'I do not wish to harm you or get you into trouble. Will you leave this house with me quietly, or stay till your persecutor returns? you know your doom if you stay.' 'I will not go with you,' said May firmly. 'Then I shall take you.' She gave a violent start, although his words were more than half expected by her. She endeavoured to disengage herself from the encircling arm which he stole round her waist. She pushed back the hideous face which he thrust close to hers. She was like a child in his arms ; her struggles were without avail. With loosened hair, flushed face, and disordered apparel, she struggled madly in the monster's arms. His hot and hateful breath upon her face, his dry lips glued to hers so red and moist. She felt her last remaining strength fast failing away, and soon nothing could save her from the clutches of this odious ruffian. But in her desperate striving to free herself from this monster's embraces, her hand fell upon some hard substance in her pocket; she recollected a little knife she always carried about her. With a desperate effort she tore herself from his arms, and to open the knife was the work of a moment. She plunged the tiny weapon into the man's face. He started back from her with a sharp cry of agony, and staggered away a yard or two, the blood streaming down from his wound."
    The pestilence in question is old enough to be gray-as one of its earliest promoters is alive to attest. It is now nearly a quarter of a century since the "Mysteries of the Court" and similar works from the same talented pen appeared to poison the minds of boys and girls; and at the present writing I have [-167-] before me a "penny number," by the author of the "Mysteries of the Court," and I am bound to state that a cursory glance through it convinces me that it lacks none of the ancient fire - and brimstone. It is, therefore, quite a mistake to suppose that the literary ape is an animal of recent birth - a mistake the less excusable, because for a very long time past he has been at no pains to conceal his existence. Any day within the past ten years he may have been seen in his most hideous complexion staring bold-eyed from a hundred shop windows in and about London, alluring the unwary by means of pictures so revoltingly disgusting and indecent that modest eyes unexpectedly encountering them tingled in shame, and of which as much of the text pertaining as was exposed to view was the faithful echo. Possibly this ape, turned romancist - this "old man in the cloak" - has grown bolder of late. It is not unlikely that by dint of patient wallowing and groping in muck he has contrived to scrape together a considerable sum of money, and his terrors of a sentence of fine or imprisonment have consequently decreased, while it has enabled him to push the sale of his contagious trash by means of millions of handbills and advertisements in the few nasty newspapers remaining open to him. Anyway, it is certain that for a shameful length of time he has dared to bring his wares to the public market openly and unblushingly, and with the cool assurance of an honest man; and it is not a little curious that the lynx-eyed guardians of public morality have not ere this joined hands to catch and crush him.
    It is always better, if possible, to show what a thing is in its own shape and colour than to endeavour to describe it. Half the abuses and miseries that, as a civilized nation, disgrace us, might be cured if the public could be brought to view them with its own eyes instead of trusting to the evidence of those of other folk. Undoubtedly it is very convenient to rely on hearsay, but there can be no question that it fosters dilatoriness [-168-] and a neglect of individual duty, and should therefore be discouraged as far as possible. People believe only half what they hear, and, though it may concern never so grave a grievance, are content to do no more than join in the general lukewarm cry of condemnation, leaving the vigorous application of a remedy to those who have inquired into what is amiss, and who are therefore in a position to know all about it. It is so with this iniquitous boy literature and the sudden outcry against it. Everybody believes it to be odious and abominable because everybody says so and so the dog, and most deservedly, gets a bad name-but he is not hanged; he is simply avoided. Because he is such a mangy, ill-looking cur, offensive alike to the nose and to the touch, all decent people shrink away from him. But he would much rather have their room than their company, and grins to himself as they give him the path, and permit him to continue his career of ravening and rending. He must be discovered in the act of mauling one of our little ones before we are moved to take hold of the brute and strangle him.
    Now, it may be fearlessly asserted that there never lived an animal of prey of uglier type than this two-legged creature, who poisons the minds of little children to make his bread. Never a more dangerous one, for his manginess is hidden under a sleek and glossy coat, and lips of seeming innocence conceal his cruel teeth. His subtlety, too, is more than canine. He is gifted with a devilish power of beguiling boys and girls to take to him and nourish him in secret. Beware of him, O careful parents of little lads He is as cunning as the fabled vampire. Already he may have bitten your little rosy-checked son Jack. He may be lurking at this very moment in that young gentleman's private chamber, little as you suspect it, polluting his mind and smoothing the way that leads to swift destruction. You may scout the idea with indignation, knowing your Jack to be a boy of honest mind, and one least of all [-169-] likely to conceal matters of this kind from you; but, my dear sir, pray bear it in mind that nine-tenths of the parents of England are as ready as yourself to stand forward and vouch for the purity of their Jacks and Jills but for all that, it is estimated that upwards of a million of these weekly pen'orths of abomination find customers.
    I find, on looking through my "weekly numbers," that one "plot" serves for the construction of the whole. It is a simple and at the same time comprehensive plot, and may be briefly summarized as a mocking and laughing to scorn of the full number of the Ten Commandments. The main arguments are, that there is no creature so noble as the thief, and that the noblest fellow's primest reward consists in boundless debauchery, in which intoxicating liquors and the loveliest of her sex, of course, figure most conspicuously. Here is a little ditty that may more clearly express my meaning. It is extracted from No. 5 of a stirring romance entitled "Tyburn Tree":-
        "Let the asses who choose drive the plough or the spade,
        Let the noodles of commerce get guineas by trade,
        Let the sailor for wealth skim the wild raging sea,
        I envy not either-the high road for me!

        "Brave fellows who, scorning to flinch or to falter,
        Defy full-wigged beaks, and don't care for the halter;
        Who taxes alike spendthrift, miser, and churl,
        Then is off with light heart to his crib and his girl.

        "And if, boys, at Tyburn, our exit we make,
     A curse on the sneak who shall peach, or shall shake
        Let's swear to be faithful, if such our end be,
        And manfully drop, like ripe fruit, from the tree."

    The talented author, however, does not seem to regard this wind-up of the convicted ruffian's existence as a sine qua non, for at page 40 of his story he feelingly remarks "Thank God! the torture of the Inquisition is now abolished, as we trust that the gallows will be before long. But we must not moralize."
   [-170-] Well, to be sure it does seem a little out of place, considering that a little further on our author puts into the mouth of one of his most famous characters such a sentence as the following:-
    "Who the devil would be chained to a dull shop, to plod for paltry shillings, when he could jump on the back of his good steed, cry 'Stand and deliver' to the first he meets, and return to his girl and his glass with golden-lined pockets?"
    There is always a banding together by means of some terrible oath amongst the ruffians and murderers of penny romance. Wretched little London errand boys, following to the best of their ability in the footsteps of their heroes, not uncommonly imitate them in this respect. To be sure they cannot hope just at present to get up so imposing a ceremony as the "Tyburn Tree" band engaged in, but no doubt it has furnished them many valuable hints.
    "A large goblet nearly filled with red wine was brought and placed on a low stool; on either side of this were laid a dagger, a phial of deadly poison, a halter, a loaded pistol, and a hideous-looking human skull from which the hair had not yet all fallen away, and which had an earthy and charnel-like odour.
    "All the lights in the hall excepting the one which hung immediately over the low stool, and the fearful things placed thereupon, were then extinguished, and the red light now glaring on the instruments of death and on the grinning skull produced a fearful effect
    "One of the gang, who had a rude lancet in his hand, then commanded Hawkins to bare his left arm. This having been done, he was made to kneel down, and the lancet having made an incision into one of the small veins at the bend of the elbow, the blood which streamed from the orifice was suffered to fall into the wine goblet, and when about the sixth part of a pint had issued, the flow was stopped and the slight wound bandaged up.
    [-171-] "'Lieutenant, administer the oath!' commanded Captain Fury.
    "Fresnean now requested Hawkins to repeat after him-
    "'I hereby, in the presence of God, man, and devil, bind myself to serve as a freetrader in this gang; to obey my captain in all his commands, whether at the peril of my life or otherwise ; to keep faithfully all his secrets, and never to betray those with whom I am associated. Also to guard against all treachery; in the performance of my duties to spare neither friend nor foe-young or old-man, woman, or child; and if guilty of traitorhood, to agree to take my choice of halter, poison, or dagger, and never until death to quit the Black Gang.'
    "As soon as Hawkins repeated the words of this oath, the goblet of mixed wine and blood was handed to him, and he was ordered to drink to the dregs the fearful mixture. The cord, the poison, and the dagger were then handed to him, the halter being dropped over his neck, the poison phial placed to his lips, and the dagger's point placed to his breast. His hands also, during the speaking of these words, were placed on the hideous relic of mortality.
    "It was the head of a former member of the gang. Pointing to it, Captain Fury informed Hawkins that the crime of which the man to whom it once belonged had been guilty, had been a violation of his oath, and that his skull would be so used should he be guilty of a similar offence."
    And so, having bound himself in the eyes of God, man, and devil, the new member of the villanous brotherhood was entitled to participate in the manifold advantages the high distinction confers. Chief among these is the companionship of "female beauty." It is in this branch of his profession that the cankerer of young minds shines brightest. His tactics are invariable. Awaiting the return of every "highwayman," or "burglar," or "burker" of his collection is a "lovely young female," who as soon as he takes his seat perches herself on [-172-] his knee, and enfolds his neck with her "soft, plump arms, white as alabaster."
    But further to select from the ugly batch of seventeen would be to suggest the possibility that in only a few instances were they so very bad. This would be conveying a false impression. Undoubtedly, some of the weekly numbers contain more of obscenity and flagrant indecency than others; but of the ingredients indicated they are one and all composed, and differ only in proportion and mixing. In every one of the "romances" in question there is a highwayman, or a burglar, or a footpad, who is wonderfully successful in all he undertakes, and with whom guineas are as common as nuts in a squirrel's nest. In every instance there exists the fiercest hatred between the "hero" and the law, and it is the author's aim to show constantly what a purblind, weak-minded affair the law is; and considering how very little a "daring spirit" has to encounter in defying it, and how that same defying it means every luxury that can be desired without the mean, degrading drudgery of working for it, what a wonder it is that there are so many "asses who drive the plough or the spade," and so few valiant ones "who defy full-wigged beaks, and don't care for the halter." This is the theme never-ending - this and the other deadly pernicious ingredient, the "lovely wanton," in a description of whose "charms," from her eyes to her heels, the author wallows with evident great personal gratification.
    What more remains to be said, except once again to apologize to my readers for so boldly uncovering the unsavoury stew and clapping it so immediately under their nostrils ? It is a most unthankful task to do so; but the effect will be salutary, I hope and believe. It is hard to credit that fathers of families would so long have endured the existence of the "Boy Highwayman," or the "Boy Burglar," or "Tyburn Dick," if they really knew the monsters each and every one of these worthies were.