Monday, March 30, 2009

A Female Fagin

Many people are familiar with the character of Fagin in Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST. Today's case from the Old Bailey proves such people really existed, and weren't always men.

Sarah Hewlet, apparently "a person of ill Fame, and a common Receiver of stolen Goods," is accused of receiving some food stolen by two boys, George Dawson and Thomas Curtis.

George tells the court she didn't just pay them for stolen goods. She "did entice and encourage Boys to go a thieving, lodg'd them in her House, and us'd to give them what she pleas'd for the Things they stole, and then made them spend the Money at her House."

On what were they spending their ill-gotten gains? "They spent the Money in Gin. and Hot-Pots."

How old were these boys? They give their ages as twelve, but look much younger (8 or 9).

Sarah is found guilty, given two years' imprisonment and fined. It doesn't say in this case what happened to the boys; however, a search revealed a "little boy" named George Dawson accused of theft in 1733. At the time, and despite the court description of him as a "little boy," he says he's 14. The George in the first case is supposedly twelve in 1731, so this could very well be the same George, who may, however, be older - church records show the 2nd George could be over seventeen. So, is this the same George and was he just really small for his age? In either case, the second George is found guilty and sentenced to death.

There's a (very brief) record of a Thomas Curtis being accused of house breaking and stealing two pieces of cloth in 1738. He's found guilty and sentenced to transportation, which at this time meant to America.

So here we have the female equivalent of Fagin and his band of pickpockets.

If I were to write a romance about this, Sarah Hewlet couldn't be the heroine. But a villain? Oh, yes. Especially if she gets away with this for years, and instead of living in a rundown building in a bad part of town, lives in a more upscale neighborhood. Let her appear a charitable, well-to-do widow.

The hero and heroine could both be kids she exploited in their youth. Or the heroine could be, and the hero a Bow Street Runner or some other sort of authority figure who's figured out the widow may not be what she appears. What if the heroine is related to Sarah (maybe even her daughter) and lives with her, but doesn't know where Sarah's money comes from?

As the truth about Sarah's income begins to come out through the efforts of the hero, will she upset with the hero for ruining her world? Or will she be horrified by what she learns about Sarah? No reason she couldn't have both reactions.

What about Sarah? Why does she have the gang? What other financial alternatives would a woman have to earn a living at that time? Maybe she felt she had no choice - and maybe she had the same upbringing. Maybe there hadn't been a way out for her. What if she both fears exposure, yet truly loves the heroine and wants her to live the life she couldn't have? That would make for an interesting, three-dimensional villain, because it isn't only heroes and heroines who can have internal conflict.

And what of the hero? If he's a very strong law-and-order type, what does he do when he realizes he's developing feelings for the daughter of a woman he thinks is a criminal ring-leader? How are those feelings affected when he realizes the heroine has no idea how Sarah gets/got her money? He'd be torn between duty and desire - always good for an internal conflict - plus the realization he's going to totally ruin an innocent woman's life.

This case was a fairly brief and simple one, yet even then, there can be some pretty interesting seedlings for a story.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Magic of Name-Dropping and the ol' switcheroo

Today's case from the records of the Old Bailey really caught my eye. First, because of the reference to Sir Isaac Newton and secondly because of the location. The prosecutor (that means the victim, who was the person who brought charges in those days) lived in Shoe Lane, which was very close to Cloth Fair, where we stayed in London. Map

We stayed in the flat that had belonged to Sir John Betjeman, which is one of several properties belonging to the Landmark Trust. You can see a picture in the Wikipedia entry - the flat is through that side door and above the wine bar named after him. It's also directly across from St. Bartholemew's, the setting for one of the weddings in Three Weddings and a Funeral and the hospital by that name. It was outside the church that William Wallace was executed.

The Landmark Trust takes places that are of historic interest and renovates them for holiday accommodation. As you can see by the map, the location of this flat in Cloth Fair is fabulous and the price was very reasonable - although it did feature the sort of wacky plumbing we often encountered in England. (Please, what is with the two separate taps, one for hot, one for cold? And we had a shower in one hotel that I swear was designed by a crazed engineer. We had to have somebody come up and show us how to work the thing, and even then, I gave up and suffered through freezing water.) We also stayed in a House of Correction in Lincolnshire that been built on the site of a Norman castle and still had the moat. It also had a lovely bathroom, a kitchen I used as inspiration for our own kitchen remodel and a picture of the guy who had once been the fattest man in Lincolnshire.

Now on to the case and how I could use it for story seedlings:

In 1738, Honour Penery was charged with stealing several items, mostly clothing, from Jane Ellard.

Jane claimed that, in the course of looking for work, she encountered Honour and another woman who claimed they could help her. When they showed up at her lodgings the next day, they also claimed to be apprentices of Sir Isaac Newton and before they could help her, "they must first calculate my Nativity." They then pulled out "a great Book with Heads and Hands in it", spouted all sorts of stuff that seemed to confuse her until they told her she had to bundle up all her things. Jane claims she was skeptical from the get-to - she told them, "that's quite silly, and if any body should hear this Business besides our selves, they would laugh at us."

Nevertheless, Honour and her cohort, who is supposedly her mistress, keep up the pressure, with the interesting argument that "suppose you were Sick, and a Physician comes and prescribes Physick for you, - if you won't take it, what Good can he do you? 'Tis all the same Thing, we can't pretend to do you any Good, unless you'il do as you are ordered."

Jane caves and does as they say. Honour and her partner then tell her the goods must be wrapped in brown paper very tightly, which she does. Then they tell her to kneel and say the Lord's prayer. "I refused at first, but by fair Means and foul they made me at last say the Lord's Prayer."

Next, Jane says, "Then they bid me turn about and open the Windows, which we had shut, for fear any body should see what we were about."

Honour's friend then tells her that "she must treat with me upon such a Spot of Ground, and bid me, - because it rain'd, - put on my Hat, least I should catch Cold. I went out with them as far as the Royal Bed, the Corner of Holborn, there they told me a young Man was to meet me, and would give me a Gold Ring, charging me not to look at my Bundle 'till Eight o'Clock at Night; at Eight o'Clock I found myself a great Sufferer by them, for all my Cloaths were gone, that I had worked for a great while."

It turns out the bundles had been switched, and Jane's now contained nothing by hay and straw. And the women had gotten clean away.

However, Jane did find a new place, in the above-mentioned Shoe Lane, and after about a fortnight, happened to see Honour pass by. She's completely gobsmacked, so much so she's too stunned to move. When Honour passes by again, Jane calls for a young man to go after her, Honour's caught and imprisoned.

Honour denies everything.

Another woman, Mary Lee, then testifies that Honour pulled the same switcheroo on her, taking "two large Silver Spoons, two small Spoons, two Gold Rings, and several other Things, exactly in the same Manner."

Honour denies that, too, saying, "I am a Mantua-maker, and never kept Company with any other Woman in my Life. I am as innocent as the Child that is born, - and welcome is the Grace of God."

Three women all named Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woods, Elizabeth Wheeler and Elizabeth Whiting) testify for Honour, saying they "never heard of the Prisoner's being a Conjurer, never heard Harm of her, nor ever saw any fine Book with Heads and Hands in it in her Custody."

The word of the three Lizzies doesn't do much for Honour. She's found guilty, fined 39 shillings and transported.

Here's what I find interesting in this case - and there's lots.

The woman's name, Honour Penery, because "penery" sounds a lot like "penury" which means "severe poverty." A con artist named Honour whose last name means poor. Sounds like something out of Dickens!

The notion that the con artists claim to work for Sir Isaac Newton. Now, Sir Isaac was already dead. Either the dupes didn't know this, or if they did, it means the women were claimed they had been his apprentices. Would a man like Sir Isaac have had women apprentices? In either case, Sir Isaac did apparently dabble in the occult, so claiming that they had learned magic from the man wouldn't have been completely out of the realm of believability.

I also note they produced a "great book," which suggests it was large and therefore, presumably, rather impressive. I don't know if Jane or Mary could read, but it was likely impressive nonetheless.

Jane seems to take great pains to note that she was skeptical from the start and was more or less bullied into taking part in the ritual. I also note that she was wary of being observed. Either she was afraid of looking foolish, or frightened for another reason. Witchcraft was only abolished as a crime in 1736, a mere two years before this, so I can believe people still believed in and were frightened of witches, and therefore ready to attack anybody they suspected of such activity.

Jane also relates that the two con artists were concerned about her catching cold - the better to make her think they were nice, I assume.

So, what seedlings to do I have here?

Well, the whole con, for one thing, and especially the fact that the women mention Sir Isaac Newton and the fact he got into the occult (which was news to me). That would make for some interesting historical elements that a lot of readers wouldn't know but might, like me, find interesting.

I note the promise that Jane would be met by a young man who would give her a gold ring. Not money, not the job she was apparently looking for when she first met the women, but a gold ring like, say, a wedding ring?

I don't think I could make a dupe the heroine. That makes her seem too dim. But she could certainly be tied to the heroine (say, a sister, cousin or servant). I like the notion that while the dupe claims she was seeking help finding a job, she may have had romance on her mind (the young man).

What if a young man happened along at the same time the dupe was waiting? What if he had a ring? Not that he's on his way to propose to somebody...wait - why not?

Better yet, what if the heroine takes the place of the dupe because she wants to catch everybody involved in the con and this comely young fellow happens along on his way to propose to another woman. The heroine assumes he's in on the fraud and...mayhem ensues.

If I had paranormal leanings, I could make what seems a con, not a con. The spell really works and this meeting is the result.

Or I could make this meet really sexy by having it take place not in the street, but in a bedroom. In the dark. And the hero assumes she's his bride-to-be.

Indeed, I like this last idea a LOT. I may very well use it. You heard it here first!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Not a story, but...

Sometimes you find things doing research that you hadn't really expected. Maybe it's not something you can use to start a story, but information you can use in another, or in some way.

Today's case is, alas, one of many I've come across on Old Bailey Online. A woman is charged with killing her bastard child. In this case, the woman nearly died and the body of the child was found in the toilet (or, I suppose, the cess pit beneath the seat).

Now, one could use this in a romance, but I probably wouldn't. It's too grim for me. Note I'm not saying I'd never use it. One thing I've learned over the years is never say never when it comes to writing. And there's no reason somebody else couldn't write an intensely emotional story based on this.

Still, there are a few points of interest for me here:

1. The woman had a common-law husband who was apparently a "wicked base Rogue of a Husband." Not just a rogue. A wicked base rogue. Yikes.

2. The woman was acquitted, and this doesn't seem to be unusual in such cases. The juries (all men) were clearly not without sympathy for a woman in a difficult situation.

3. The midwife's name was Elizabeth Taylor!

4. The different names for the outhouse. (I say outhouse, but I think the actual place might have been in the cellar or attached to the house, although it wasn't easy for the mother of the child to be heard.) It's called House of Office and, most often, the vault.

So while I don't think I'd make a story from this, there are some interesting points to ponder, and perhaps use in another story.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What the heck's a higler?

Do you know what a higler is? Neither did I. Apparently, it's basically a peddler.

In today's case at Old Bailey Online, Elizabeth Howard is charged with stealing from the higler Joseph Reeves.

Seems good ol' Joe was out trying to make a buck and met Lizzie standing in the doorway of a dram-shop (basically, a bar). They strike up a conversation, go inside and he buys her a drink. A lot of drink: a quartern of gin, which is a fourth of a pint or about 2 ounces, and then a pint of "hot." I tried googling this - you can imagine what I got and it wasn't drinks, so I'm going to assume it's hot rum punch. Joe doesn't mention if he had any drinks.

They then go into a room where, Joe says, "we stood pretty close together." Nice try, Joe, but I suspect they were doing more than standing.

Joe then realizes his pocket has been picked after she "whipp'd out of the House." I confess I was surprised by that verb. I'd have thought that a fairly modern usage.

Joe doesn't know anybody there but somehow or other (it's not explained) he meets the constable, identified here only by the wonderful name "Bunch", who gets him to swear out a warrant for the alleged thief. They go back to the dram-shop. The landlady of the dram-shop claims she doesn't know Lizzie.

Bunch then threatens to bring the landlady before the judge (on what charge? Accessory, I suppose.) and lo and behold, it turns out the landlady is Lizzie's sister.

They find Lizzie. Bunch demands to know "how she could be guilty of so vile a Thing." Lizzie replies that "she had but 9 s. of the Man's Money; and that was given her for Favours."

So it was a transaction of a certain nature, according to Lizzie, who also kept her money "stuck together with Yolks of Eggs in her Pocket."

What is up with that??? I suppose it would keep it from clinking or making any noise....

Then somebody named Davis testifies, and pretty incoherently, although it's quite possible that some of this was simply left out: "I have known the Prisoner these six Months, and better, and never have seen any Ill by her, but I have heard. - She has a very ill Character here, but I can give her none."

He's known Lizzie 6 months, doesn't know anything bad about her, but he's heard something. She's portrayed in a bad light in the court, and he can't give her a better character? Is that what he's trying to say?

Whatever it was, something about the evidence didn't add up for the jury, because Lizzie gets acquitted.

So what, of this, would I use in a book?

I love the name "Bunch." I think it's great for a secondary character.

You've got the two sisters, one running a bar, the other presumably working as a hooker and/or a thief. What if Lizzie's Sister had a different kind of business, something a bit more respectable, like say a dressmaking shop, and then her sister gets accused of theft and/or prostitution? What if Lizzie was innocent and she thought Joe loved her? What if she's guilty? Do you want the conflict inherent in a dysfunctional family? Then what if she's guilty and doesn't care if that causes problems for her sister?

What if Joe thought Lizzie loved him and then discovered she was only out to rob him? What if that money was all he had and he thought they were going to be married?

What if he was drunk? What if Lizzie purposefully tricked him to get his money? How would Joe feel if she was acquitted?

What if Lizzie and Joe really did just stand close together? What if she was trying to hold him up before he passed out and he was robbed by somebody else but thinks it was her? Or there wasn't any theft at all and he spent all his money or his brother's money or his father's money on booze and accuses her rather than reveal the truth? Could he be the hero if this is what happened?

The accusation could be at the start of the book, the inciting incident, or it could come later on, creating a pivotal moment in the relationship. I think with this story, I'd go with having this be at the start. It's got lots of potential for conflict and misunderstanding, family dysfunction, and even humor (Bunch and Davis' kinda wacky testimony). What really happens between Joe and Lizzie in the other room would depend on the sort of romance you were writing, from just standing there to...well, you can imagine. In fact, the tone and the actual activity of that encounter could pretty much decide just where in the romance spectrum your book would fall.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Not much of a defense....

Today's case at the Old Bailey doesn't just highlight the lack of defense counsel, which in Britain wasn't routinely provided or was even available until the Prisoners' Counsel Act passed in 1836, but also demonstrates how one seemingly simple, but somewhat mysterious reaction, can be a story seedling.

In 1754, Ann Palmer is accused of manslaughter in the death of her common-law husband, John Aubrey.

The watchman (who was the closest thing to a policeman at the time) testified that he heard a fight outside an alehouse. Aubrey hit Ann and she threatened to kill him if he did it again. He did and she stabbed him. He later bled to death.

Another man who knows the couple testifies that he saw the fight, too: "I saw him use her very ill; he struck her two or three times, and knocked her up against a window shutter by striking her on the side of the head, I be-believe, as hard as he could, as it seemed to me by her falling about. After that she said, If you strike me again I'll stab you. He made another blow at her, and immediately cried out, I am a dead man."

The woman who "keeps" the alehouse, Mary Manton, testifies and gives a clue as to the cause of the fight: "The deceased came and asked her to go home; she said she would not, and he then struck her on the side of her head. He asked her the same again, and she said she would not; he then struck her again. On this she said, G - d blast me, if you strike me again I'll slab you; then he immediately cried out, O Lord, O Lord, I am a dead man."

The surgeon who attended Aubrey then testifies about treating the dead man, who seemed to be recovering, then began to bleed again and died several days later.

And what is Ann's defense? "We had been at supper, and had no words till we came to this door, where he struck me and knocked me down. I know nothing at all of it, and had never a knife about me."

Now, I have to say, what the heck was she thinking? Three people testify that they saw Aubrey hit her more than once. She told him to stop or she'd kill him; he didn't and she did. I think a defense attorney might have been able to make a case for self-defense. So could Ann, except...she didn't.

Why not?

Because she wasn't his legal wife? Would that have a made a difference in the eyes of the jury?

Was she drunk at the time? If we believe Ms. Manton, she certainly could have been.

On the other hand, it sounds like her husband was really beating her. Was that his right? (I'd have to do more research to find out if I wanted to use this case as a story seedling.) Where did his right as a husband and hers as his wife end? Except she wasn't really his wife.

Verdict: Guilty. I couldn't find any record of her punishment.

If I were to use this as a story seedling, the first thing I'd want to address is why Ann didn't try to defend herself better. Why does she just claim ignorance, when it's pretty obvious there's considerable evidence as to what happened? Is she stupid? Frightened? Just resigned to her fate?

(Note: It could be that the three have it in for her, but I don't find that plausible. Also, what happened to the knife?)

Stupid wouldn't work for a heroine. Resigned doesn't really, either. Frightened would. Of what? Or whom? What would happen if she defended herself, both at the time and at the trial? What consequences does she fear? Why does she think letting herself be found guilty is the best thing to do?

In my mind, making a decision not to defend herself is what would make her a heroine. She acts by deciding not to act - but she'd also better have a valid, reasonable, understandable, sympathetic reason why.

Once I had my answer to that, I'd have a motive, and from there, I'd backtrack to create the reasons for the motive. In those reasons, I'd find an external conflict - something to do with the cause of the fight itself.

And that would probably be the route to finding the hero. He would have some relationship to the dead man - brother, perhaps. Or good friend.

If the murder happens at the start of the story, how do you get them together and keep them together? You might have to change the verdict to Not Guilty or some other verdict that would leave her free. Then together they set about finding the truth -- and at some point, if this is my story, the evidence has to give them a reason they could mistrust each other, or one to feel betrayed by the other. How they react to that evidence and that apparent betrayal reveals the true nature and depth of their relationship.

If the murder is a climatic event, it could be the ultimate test of their relationship - does he believe she's innocent or not? Does she give such a lame defense because she believes he thinks she's guilty, and if he thinks so, she has no hope anybody else will? But that's making herself a victim, isn't it? What if she decides she has to sacrifice not just her freedom, possibly her life, but even her love for the hero? What would compel her to do that? What would the hero think? How would he feel? What would he do?

So from this one woman's inadequate defense, it's possible to come up with the basics of a pretty intense romance.
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