Former Riskies,  Regency,  Research

The House was the Resort of Swindlers, Thieves, and Prize-Fighters

As I close in on finishing The Next Historical, I’m also researching as much as I can about pugilism. As so often happens, one gets on a tangent … this one was fruitful but a bit macabre. In 1820, a Mr. Thurtell and confederates were involved in the murder of one William Weare. The events were, it would seem, fairly infamous. In 1824 there appeared The Fatal Effects of Gambling Exemplified in the Murder of Wm. Weare which relates, in a frustratingly circuitous manner, the events of that evening, the days leading up it and the aftermath.

Yes, it’s early True Crime. The title of the work should clue you in on any personal biases of the author.

At any rate, I have gained some new-to-me Regency vocabulary and a sense that some people are just … not … good.

Here’s the gist of what happened: A Mr. Thurtell was out with some compatriots (Weare and Hunt. One Probert appears to have at least known them) and in the wee hours of the morning one of them, William Weare, had been shot in the head and his body dumped in Probert’s pond. Probert (only Hunt and Thurtell were tried) objected to the body dumping and so the corpse was moved to a different pond. As an aside, at trial, Thurtell, who represented himself, expressly identified the property owner Mr. Probert as the likely murderer. The suspects were observed after the fact looking for items lost and when asked, claimed to have been in an carriage accident that did not result in the carriage tipping over or any injury to man or horse, but did result in the loss of personal effects. The clothing of Mr. Thurtell was found to be bloodstained.

And now, I’m going to pull out bits of some of the narrative.

Among other anecdotes which he [Thurtell] related of himself, were the two following : He was in the neighbourhood of Cheltenham some time ago with a noted boxer, and some of the visitants and inhabitants made a match between two men, and considerable bets were pending. He, himself, made bets to the amount of £200 on the worst man, and he and his boxing friend by acting, the one as second, and the other as time-keeper contrived to make the worst man win the battle; and so, as he said, the Cheltenham yokels were nick’d, and he carried off the £200.

He [Thurtell] was with the English at the storming of St. Sebastian, and when they entered the town, he saw a Polish officer in the French service, leaning against the wall, “seemingly done up with wounds and hard work. I thought by the look of him,” he continued, “that he was a nob, and must have some blunt about him–so I just stuck my sword in his rib; and settled him; and I found a hundred and forty doubloons in the pocket!–a good booty, wasn’t it, Joe?

Thurtell was known among his flash friends by the nick-name of “Old Flare.” He was always remarkably reserved and thoughtful in company. He would sit for hours and scarcely speak. When he did speak, his conversation was of the most hardened and disgusting kind, and his general conduct was such, that two of his worthy companions made a bet of a dozen of wine, that he would be hanged within three years.

In other research that branched off from here, the attendees of an infamous trial had trouble finding rooms. In the town where the trial was taking place. Two weeks before the trial, the going rate was “5 guineas for 2 bedchambers and a sitting room” and after that there were “… no rooms to be had.”

At the trial, a witness said:

I observed the chaise in which Thurtell was, merely because of its being on the wrong side of the road.

And this answers a point I’ve often wondered about. It seems OBVIOUS that traffic could not been unregulated enough that you could drive any which way. There just had to be formal or at least generally accepted traffic rules. So here, yes, that chaise was on the wrong side of the road.

Another interesting linguistic fact is the reference to distance in “poles” as in the gate was about thirty poles from Probert’s cottage. This measurement is referenced many times in this account. Wikipedia is of some assistance:

The rod or perch or pole is a surveyors tool and unit of length equal to 5½ yards, 16½ feet or 1/320th of a statute mile and one-fourth of a surveyors chain. The rod is useful as a unit of length because whole number multiples of it can equal one acre of square measure. […] Since the adoption of the international yard on 1 July 1959, the rod has been equal to exactly 5.0292 meters.

A rod is the same length as a perch also sometimes called a pole which measure using cordage or wood, slightly antedated the use of both rods and surveyors chains, made of more dimensionally regular materials. The measure also has a relationship to the military pike of about the same size and both measures date from the sixteenth century when that weapon was still utilized in national armies. Wikipedia

It is stated that a plan had been organized by a gang, at the head of which were Thurtell, Hunt, and Probert, by which the lives of all persons, who were either obnoxious to the parties, or whose deaths would lead to the possession of property, were to be sacrificed. Manchester-buildings, Cannon-row, Westminster, was chosen for the scene of those dreadful doings; and considering the vicinity of the river, and the facility thence afforded of floating the bodies of their victims downward to the ocean, the situation was but too well adapted for the purpose. A house in Manchester-buildings was taken under the pretence of Thurtell’s carrying on there his old occupation of a bombasin merchant, but it was wholly without furniture; and whoever considers the situation must be convinced that a wholesale warehouse there was entirely out of the question. It could be taken for no other purposes than those of robbery and murder; and there is little doubt that this more sequestered spot was selected for both. It does not, however, appear that any person has fallen a victim to this diabolical scheme, although a Mr. Woods has had a very narrow escape, as will appear from the following statement:

On the morning of Monday, October 7th, about a quarter before seven o’clock, a man, habited as a journeyman carpenter, about five feet eight or nine inches high, of dark complexion, and with large black whiskers, called at Mr. Woods’ residence, and stated that a lady of the name of Brew, with whom Mr. W. was well acquainted, was desirous of seeing him upon some important business, at a house in a street in Westminster, the name of which he did not know, but it was a street just beyond the Horse-Guards. Mr. Woods was not satisfied with the account, and questioned him as to the cause of Mrs. Brew being in Westminster, as she resided at Kensington. His answer was, that she was stopping at a friend’s house, and wished to see Mr. W. that morning as she was going out of town. Upon this, Mr. Woods accompanied him to Manchester Buildings, where he stopped at No. 10, which Mr. W. immediately saw was an uninhabited house. The door being ajar, his suspicions were awakened that all was not correct, and he desired the man to step in, and tell Mrs. Brew that he (Mr. W ) was there. The man entered, and having proceeded along the hall or passage as Jar as the back-parlour door, Mr. Woods saw John Thurtell spring from the back-parlour and strike the man a heavy blow, which knocked him with great violence against the opposite wall. The man hallooed out something which Mr. Woods did not distinctly understand, but to the effect that Thurtell had mistaken his man. Mr. W. immediately retired, and, on looking back from the end of the street, he saw the messenger at the door of the house gazing after him, but not attempting any pursuit. Upon this Mr. W. waited on the son of Mrs. Brew, and was informed by him that that lady had been for three weeks in the Isle of Man. What follows is very mysterious. On his return home, he found the following letter, which had been left at his residence by a man of shabby appearance, almost immediately on his quitting the house with the messenger.
An unknown friend informs you that there is a writ cut against you for £10. ; keep out of the way till after Friday next.

In the evening of the same day he received the following letter also:—
Sir, Monday Afternoon, Four o’Clock.
I am happy to inform you, that an unknown friend of yours [has?] settled the action, which you were about to be arrested for this morning for £10 and costs; therefore you have no aeration to make yourself uneasy about it. I understand – you are; indebted to a Mr. Cozens for his interference in this ungentlemanly act. I am, Sir, yours,
Clifford’s-Inn. Clarke.

The inference drawn from this statement was that the first note was for the purpose of preventing any inquiry after Mr. Wood, had his intended assassination been carried into effect, until sufficient time had elapsed for his body to have been effectually disposed of.

Some conclusionary Remarks

After spending considerable time relating how awful Thurtell was, the tone switches entirely. Thurtell was sentenced to death, with his body to be given afterwards to surgeons for dissection. And now, he’s a heroic soul meeting his fate as only a gentleman can.

Next week, if it seems fitting, I’ll post about some of the Evils of Gambling and the French. They seem to get blamed a lot.

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Louisa Cornell
8 years ago

Sociopath, anyone? I think Mr. Thurtell qualifies. Fascinating information and proof criminals aren’t any worse these days, simply more media covered!

Carolyn Jewel
8 years ago
Reply to  Louisa Cornell

I know, right?

If all that is true, a scary person. After reading so much of the book… I’m glad we have forensics now. I kept thinking, but what about the physical evidence?

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