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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.

I have been working hard at what’s turning out to be a total rewrite of the WIP (Work In Progress). I hope to have it out for an outside read soon …. Nevertheless, the pages keep needing to be re-written.

It’s been fun learning about boxing in the Regency.  It’s not been so fun learning about how wagers work. It’s slightly more complicated than I wanted it to be.  Lay down money! Lose money/Win money! But now, I hope, I don’t have an egregiously wrong/hopelessly vague scene(s) involving money and betting and such.

My brain hurts. And no effing wonder some of these guys lost fortunes!

An Iniquitous Past

In a previous job, I ran the office football pool. I had all the games, the spread, the actual points scored by quarter etc. in a database and I used to slice and dice the results. This was long enough ago that Joe Montana was the 49ers new QB and it looked like maybe he was a better player than anyone expected… and here’s what I learned:

1. The 49ers ALWAYS beat the spread, even when they lost. There was no point EVER not taking the 49ers. Long before any of the papers were writing about the 49er defense, I could see from the mid-season numbers that there was no team even close to as good as the 49ers D. They were the #1 defense across all teams — that is, basically, almost no one scored against the 49ers D, and if they did, it usually didn’t happen in the 2nd half.

2. There were several teams that were consistently favored to win by large spreads and they almost never did. By mid-season, the numbers simply did not support ever picking those teams. The same was true of a couple of other teams, who were doing consistently better than the spreads would imply.

3. I issued a mid-season report to the office so that everyone had the same data I did. Despite the overwhelming numerical evidence, some people continued to pick teams based on their personal biases and gut feelings.

4. The people who were setting the spreads could not possibly have been looking at the same numbers I was. If they had been, they would have been setting different spreads.

5. I won the end of season pool that year. (There was a weekly pool, but a percentage went toward the end of season pool).

6. The 49ers won the Superbowl.

Yes, it’s true that on any given day, any team can win or lose, but the fact was that there was data in those numbers that predicted with a high degree of certainty the outcome of future games. There’s no question that Joe Montana was magic on the football field. But the 49er defense was completely underrated for three seasons, and the odds makers took a strangely long time to adjust to the facts/data.

The Bill Walsh era transformed football in ways that I think still aren’t entirely recognized. I could see from watching my data  and from watching the games that the West Coast Offense (led by one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game) and what I will call the West Coast Defense (paid for by a very rich owner, Eddie DeBartelo) was essentially not beatable in the long run — until other teams got faster, bigger players (who were in better shape) and learned how to read offenses and defenses more quickly.

5 superbowls people. The 49ers won three superbowls pretty close together because it took about that long for other teams to understand they needed to play a different game and then acquire and train the coaching and athletic talent necessary to do that. The NFL made some rule changes that affected talent acquisition, so Walsh had to tweak his game, as it were. Boom. Two more superbowls.

Magic happens here.

Now watch me tie this into the Regency:

People gamble with their guts. And they do it in the face of mathematical evidence that their gut is wrong. Anyone who is at all interested in gathering information and looking at it over time will have an advantage, in a sport, in the long run, over someone who goes with their guts. You will take a few losses, but in the long run, you will be ahead of everyone who contaminates their picks with emotion.

The math is more like arithmetic, really. It’s not hard. You just assemble your numbers and let them tell the story. Even in the Regency, there just had to have been people who were geekish enough about some sport — like boxing –to do that sort of thing.

Interesting, no?

Long ago when I was writing The Wagering Widow, I created a fictitious gambling house run by “Madame Bisou.” I used the gambling house again in A Reputable Rake and Innocence and Impropriety. So, as I was starting my new gambling house story, I resurrected Madame Bisou’s establishment. Why reinvent the wheel?

Gambling houses or gaming “hells” appear often in Regency romances, but what were they really like?
The History of Gambling in England by John Ashton gives us a good idea.
Ashton quotes a 1817 pamphlet that describes some of the actual gambling houses of the period:

BENNET STREET, ST JAMES’S. CORNER HOUSE–RED BAIZE DOOR–called A CLUB HOUSE: This is what is called a topping house, where high rank and title resort. We mentioned in the poem (the Annual Register also included a long poem about gaming houses) the luck of a certain Duke’s son there; and, of late, there has been a lucky run in favour of the frequenters of the bank–but lauda finem. Its crisis has arrived. The noble  Marquess, on the night that he lost the money at No. 40 which was closed against him, went full charged with the Tuscan grape, and attacked poor Fielder, vi et pugnis, and, at length, was necessitated to leave this house also….The receipts of these houses are immense: We know the wife a proprietor of a hell…who was so majestic in her attire, that she gained the name of Proserpine.

MRS. LEACH’S, No. 6 KING STREET, ST JAMES’S: is a particularly snug and quiet shop, and the name of the proprietor is singularly appropriate. This concern is suspended.

THE ELDER DAVIS, No. 10 KING STREET, ST JAMES’S: Is but a small affair, recently opened. It gets on swimmingly.

Most of the gambling houses had a Hazard Table. Hazard is a dice game, the precursor to Craps. There is some strategy involved in which numbers the player selects to role, but it is essentially a game of chance which always favors the house. Some houses had other games of pure chance like Rouge et Noir and Faro, both played with a deck of cards.
Gaming houses could make vast fortunes with these games of chance as this description states:

No. 10 ST JAMES’S SQUARE. A low HOUSE, HUMOROUSLY CALLED the Pidgeon hole: This snug little trap is doing remarkably well. Fama volat, that it has netted thirty thousand within twelve months.

My fictional gambling house needs to make lots of money quickly, so needless to say it specializes in games of chance!
Do you like gaming hell stories? What are your favorites?
Did you ever read the traditional Regency (a Signet, I think) that had the villain taking secret photographs in a gaming hell at night? Great research on that one….
Don’t you love the smattering of Latin and French that crops up in some of the writings during the Regency?

Who doesn’t like to win a game of chance? Goodness! How many of us buy lottery tickets and dream of wealth? That dream of winning by chance fueled many a gambling addiction of the Georgian and Regency periods. Think of the ruin of Brummell and the terrible debt of the Duchess of Devonshire.

As I told you a couple of weeks ago, I’m writing a Gaming Hell story where games of chance play a prominent part. My hero hopes to make a lot of money, because he will be running the games of chance, like Hazard or Faro, and the odds always favor the house.

Games of chance never really favor the player. The odds of winning the lottery are infinitesimal, but I have a nice giveaway to tell you about where the odds of winning are a whole lot better!

The Harlequin Historical authors are offering a Beach Bag Giveaway to kick off the summer vacation season. We have a June vacation calendar in which there are author giveaways at least four days out of each week. On the contest days, all you have to do is click on the author’s bookcover and follow the instructions. Each author is giving away a daily prize, but every time you enter, you gain a chance to win the grand prize–a Kindle Fire!!
(If you miss a day, you might miss the author’s daily prize, but you can still catch up and be eligible for the Grand Prize)

Click here for all the details.

The giveaway starts today!

My day to play is the very last day, June 28. I’ll be giving away a signed copy of A Not So Respectable Gentleman — or an ebook copy–to one lucky entrant. Details will be on my website.

Amanda’s day is June 14.

The Grand Prize winner will be selected on June 29.

So take a chance! Enter the giveaway. If you don’t win you won’t have to sneak away to escape your debtors!

What’s your favorite game of chance?

Ah . . . Regency gambling. Dice, horse races, and most of all — card playing. What’s not to love?

For both writers and readers, gambling scenes hold the promise that anything can happen. Fortunes (and brides) won or lost on the turn of a card . . . men arrested for playing illegal games like hazard or faro . . . duels that originate with allegations of cheating . . . ladies who lose their reputations for gambling too deeply, or for visiting a gaming hell . . .

Even the games have fabulous names: bizarre names like piquet, loo, basset, E-O, Pope Joan, vingt-un, cassino, quadrille, lansquenet, faro; names that hint at what goes on in the game, like commerce and speculation; and a few games that are still played today under the same names, like whist and cribbage.

Authors: have you used card games (or other forms of gambling) in your novels? What challenges did you face in doing so? Did you find yourself writing less or more detail about the actual gambling than you originally intended?

Everybody: which are your favorite gambling or card-playing scenes in Regency-set fiction? Which works do you think succeed best in this area? Or are there scenes in Regency-set films or television which you think have great gambling scenes?

Have you ever played Regency card or dice games? Which ones? Did you love them . . . hate them . . . become desperately addicted, and lose the family estate . . . or find yourself eating your chocolate coins instead? 🙂

Cara King —
MY LADY GAMESTER — Signet Regency, November 2005

Posted in Regency, Research | Tagged , | 10 Replies
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