THREE GOLD BALLS
A Visit to the Pawnbrokers’ Shops
To the Editors of the Evening Post:
A week or two since I had occasion to visit several pawnbrokers’ establishments in this city, to redeem some articles pawned by a friend who had once seen better days.
A brief mention of my experience may be instructive as well as entertaining. The redemption of my friend’s tools (he was a mechanic) as accomplished after no little trouble in visiting the principal establishments doing business under the sign of the “Three Golden Balls,” in a certain street, and redeeming one or two articles here, another there and a third or fourth somewhere else.
I had been told of the system of universal cheating which the proprietors of these places practice, and the enormous exactions made in grinding the faces of the poor. I had heard described their dexterity in the substitution of colored glass and crystals for gems, while pretending to examine articles brought for pledges, and was prepared to encounter all that was sinister and heartless. But the half had not been told me, and I soon found that my previous conceptions fell far short of the reality. I was detained at each place which I had occasion to visit by the delays in finding the article I was in search of, and for which the holders had doubtless flattered themselves no inquiries would be made. The press of business at all of the shops was another cause of delay. As I recovered my friend’s articles, one by one, it appeared at once that the most outrageous system of extortion had been practiced in every instance. The sums advanced had been pitiful in amount, and the rates of interest charged exorbitant beyond belief. At every one of these dens a crowd of victims was collected—a motley company indeed: blacklegs and would-be gentlemen—the cheater and the cheated; the widow parting with her disposable article of dress, to procure one more meal for her famishing children; a consumptive girl, with the hectic flush upon her check. The grasping misers—sometimes a woman—read the condition of the sufferers from their countenances with cool calculation. The pick-pocket, the thief, and the purloining servant were received with equal readiness, and the spoils were divided with the fullest understanding that no questions were to be asked.
AT MY UNCLE’S
I had scarcely made my business known at the first of “my uncle’s” establishments, No. ___ street, to which I had been directed, when a middle-aged man entered with a bundle on which he asked a small advance, and which, on being opened, was found to contain a shawl and two or three other articles of female apparel. The man was stout and sturdy, and, as I judged from his appearance, a mechanic, but the mark of the destroyer was on his bloated countenance. The pawnbroker was examining the offered pledge when a woman with pale face and attenuated form came hastily into the shop and with the single exclamation, “O, Robert!” darted, rather than ran to that part of the counter where the man was standing. Her miserable husband, not satisfied with wasting his own earnings, and leaving her to starve with her children, had plundered even her scanty wardrobe, and the pittance received was to be squandered at the rum-shop. A blush of shame arose even upon his degraded face, but it quickly passed away; the brutal appetite prevailed.
“Go home,” was his harsh exclamation; “what brings you here, running after me with your everlasting scolding? Go home and mind your own business.”
“Oh, Robert, dear Robert,” answered the unhappy wife, “don’t pawn my shawl. Our children are crying for bread, and I have none to give them; or let me have the money. Give me the money, Robert, and don’t leave us to perish!”
I watched the face of the pawnbroker.
“Twelve shillings on these things,” he said, tossing them back to the drunkard, with a look of perfect indifference. “Only twelve shillings,” murmured the heart-broken wife, in a tone of despair; “O, Robert, don’t let them go for twelve shillings. Let me try somewhere else.” “Nonsense!” answered the brute. “It’s as much as they are worth, I suppose. Here, Mr. ___ give us the change.” The money was placed before him, and the bundle consigned to a drawer. The poor creature reached forth her hand towards the money, but the movement was anticipated by her husband. “There, Mary,” he said, giving her half a dollar. “there, go home now, and don’t make a fuss. I’m going a little way up the street, and perhaps I’ll bring you something from market when I come home.”
The hopeless look of the poor woman as she meekly turned to the door told plainly enough how little she trusted the promise. They went on their way—she to her children and he to the next “corner grocery.”
A BENEVOLENT CUSTOMER
While this scene was in progress another had been added to the number of spectators. This was a young man, dressed in the height of the fashion. He had a reckless, good-humored look and very much the air of what is called “a young man about town,” that is, one who rides out to the Central Park in the afternoon, eats game suppers at Delmonico’s in the evening after the play, spends the rest of the night and his money at billiards. The moment the poor woman was gone, he twitched from his neck a gold chain, with a gold watch, and placing it in the hands of the pawnbroker, with whom he seemed to be on terms of acquaintance, he exclaimed, “Quick now, Mr. ___; thirty dollars on that? You’ve had it before, and needn’t stop to examine it.” The money was instantly paid; and the young man of fashion, crumpling the bills up in his hand, hurried off at full speed, first looking up and then down the street. I followed him to the door and saw him accost the poor woman who had just left the shop, thrust into her hand either the whole or part of the sum he had just received, and then turning away to the other side of the street without stopping either for thanks or for explanation.
The reverie of mingled surprise and admiration into which I was thrown by this unexpected manifestation of benevolence was interrupted by a loud outcry from Mr. ___, the pawnbroker, and by seeing him, with a look of wrath and horror, hurry round his counter and out through the door, upon the sidewalk, where he stood for a moment, straining his eyes down the street, as if in search of the kind-hearted youth, who had by this time disappeared up one of the cross-streets. “The villain,” he exclaimed, “the swindling scoundrel! Which way did he go? The ungrateful thief! Tell me,” he continued, turning to me, “tell me which way he went.” I point out to Mr. ___ the course taken by his late customer, and mentioned also what I had seen take place between him and the poor woman. “Ah, it’s no use,” he then said; “he’s got off clear by this time, and my thirty dollars is a ‘gone case.’ But I’ll find him yet, someday.” And thus soliloquizing, Mr. ___ returned into his shop. Taking advantage of the familiarity that had grown up between the broker and his chain, the young man had substituted an oroide chain for the gold one which had been so often deposited with the watch, and the deception had passed unnoticed until it was too late. The watch itself was a cheap one, and probably worth about the sum advanced.
THE STORY OF A RING
A touching incident occurred at the place of my next visit. A woman about thirty-five years old, in the garb of mourning, entered, evidently with reluctance; she could hardly make the object of her visit known on account of her emotion. She was of a delicate frame, of easy and rather graceful manners, and but for the ravages of care upon her face might still have been beautiful. At length she took a ring from a pretty little morocco case, upon the pledge of which she wished to realize such an amount of money as would sustain herself and children through the winter. The extortioner took the ring in his fingers, and holding it up to the window pretended to examine it—assuming at the same time an air of affected disappointed; he began at once to depreciate the article, declaring that it was nothing but an Alaska crystal, and that he would hardly take it at any price. He was inexorable and peremptorily refused to advance more than four or five dollars. Tears glistened in the woman’s eye.
I had seen, as the man studied the ring with secret satisfaction by the window, that the gem was valuable. I was determined that the unfortunate owner should not be imposed upon. Just before a bargain was completed, however, as I was about to interpose myself, another gentleman, who had also been watching the proceeding, stepped forward and declared that the beautiful ring should not be sacrificed…in that way. The broker at once endeavored to hasten matters, and declaring the bargain to have been completed, would have succeeded in thrusting the jewel into the drawer, but for the resolution of the gentleman who seized and saved it. The wretch muttered something about people’s interfering in business that was exclusively his own concern, but to no purpose. The widow was rescued from his fangs, and received a fair amount for her ring.
This poor lady, whose history I afterward learned, was an orphan, a daughter of a Virginia planter, who had been reduced to poverty before our civil war, so that his children were left portionless, and had been married when quite young. The husband of this daughter was killed in the late war, and she had learned the miseries and uncertainties of life.
Doubtless these examples which came under my notice are but a few of many, the mere relation of which is sufficient to make one blush for his fellow men.
Evening Post [New York, NY] 13 January 1872: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Many ladies of this era were held hostage by drunken, improvident, and abusive spouses. Widows fared little better, if, as so often happened, the late husband lost the family fortune by imprudent speculation, went into a Decline, and died. The pawnshop, the sweatshop–or the street–were often the only recourse. Mrs Daffodil can only suggest to the attenuated spouse of the brute Robert, that she lay out part of the money thrust into her hands by the young man about town to secure an insurance policy on her husband. While the balance of the money should be well-hidden, enough should be retained to allow Robert to accidentally discover it and go on a spree so immoderate that it will inevitably bring a quick return on her investment.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.