Image from The Spectre of the Hall, British Library
A TERRIFIC EXPEDIENT OF A THIEF.
Arthur Chambers was a thief endowed with uncommon address and talent. His adventures were marked by boldness in their object, and ingenuity in their accomplishment, as the following relation will shew:—
He hired the first floor of a house, and agreed with the landlord for fourteen shillings per week. Having been taken for a man of fortune, both from his appearance and expense, a mutual confidence was gradually established. When his plot was matured, he one day entered, with a very pensive and sorrowful look, the apartment of his landlord, who anxiously enquired the cause of his great uneasiness: Chambers, with tears in his eyes, informed him, that he had just returned from Hampstead, where he had witnessed the death of a beloved brother, who had left him his sole heir, with an express injunction to convey his dear remains to Westminster Abbey. He therefore entreated the favour of being allowed to bring his brother’s remains at a certain hour to his house, that from thence they might be conveyed to the place of their destination. His request was readily granted.
Chambers went off the next morning, leaving word, that the corpse would be there at six o’clock in the evening. At the appointed hour the hearse with six horses arrived at the door. An elegant coffin, with six gilded handles, was carried up stairs, and placed upon the dining-room table, and the horses were conveyed by the men to a stable in the neighbourhood. They informed the landlord that Chambers was detained on business, and would probably sleep that night in the Strand.
This artful rogue was, however, confined in the coffin, in which air-holes were made, the screw-nails left unfixed, his clothes all on, and only a winding-sheet wrapped above all, and his face disguised with flour. All the family went to bed except the maid-servant. Chambers arose from his confinement, went down stairs to the kitchen, wrapped in his winding-sheet, sat down and stared the maid in the face, who, overwhelmed with fear, cried out, “A ghost! a ghost!” and ran upstairs to her master’s room. He chid her unreasonable fears, and requested her to return to bed, and compose herself. She obstinately refused, and remained in the room;
In a short time, however, in stalks the stately ghost, took his seat, and conferred a complete sweat and a terrible fright upon all three who were present. Retiring from his station, when he deemed it convenient, he continued, by the moving of the doors, and the noise raised through the house, to conceal his designs. In the meantime he went down stairs, and opened the doors to his accomplices, who assisted in carrying off the plate, and every thing which could be removed, not even sparing the utensils of the kitchen. The maid was the first to venture from the room in the morning, and to inform her master and mistress what had happened, who, more than the night before, chid her credulity in believing that a ghost could rob a house, or carry away any article out of it. In a little time, however, the landlord was induced to rise from his bed, go down stairs, and found, to his astonishment and chagrin, that the whole of his plate, and almost the whole of his moveables, were gone and he had only received in return an empty coffin!
Chambers, after continuing his depredations, and being guilty of numerous acts of consummate art and villany, was at last detected, tried, sentenced, and finished his singular and vicious career at Tyburn.
The Terrific Register, 1825
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil hopes that this anecdote is new to her readers; it is rather an old chestnut and was told about a number of criminals, named and unnamed. Arthur Chambers was something of a legend in the London Underworld. An unsavoury character trying to lure the hero into a life of crime, states:
“Not know who Arthur Chambers was !” exclaimed Master Blake in surprise; “ well, that is a go! why, Arthur Chambers was the very prince of prigs [thieves]; the downiest diver [most cunning pick-pocket], the rummest [foot] pad, the kiddiest [most fraudulent] scamp, the prettiest cheat, and the most dexterous filch upon town.”
A footnote adds:
‘This prince of prigs was the most dexterous pickpocket of his own or any other day. He was of low extraction, and, according to Captain Charles Johnson, commenced pilfering even while he was in petticoats. He was a perfect master of slang in all its varieties, from the maunders’, or beggars’, cant, to the Romanee, or gipsy patter, and Newgate flash of the light-fingered gentry. Many curious stories are related by Johnson of Arthur’s proficiency as a cheat: one in which he got himself conveyed into his own lodgings as a dead man, and, in the character of a ghost, contrived, during the night, to rifle the house, is really dramatic, and might almost form a farce. After a long career of roguery in all the lower walks of his profession, for Arthur never aspired to the dignity of a housebreaker or highwayman, and being confined in Bridewell and many other prisons, he was detected in a street robbery, found guilty, and, some time before the birth of our hero, suffered the usual fate of such offenders at Tyburn.
The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard, Lincoln Fortescue, Esq., 1845, p. 42
The term “Newgate flash,” above, refers to a type of slang. It also reflected a certain admiration in society for the roguish criminal who could carry off an imposition like the one above with such panache.
At one time there was a brief passion for polished steel; and among the slang refinements of the day was the application of that metal to a watch-chain of long links, imitating fetters, and called “the Newgate flash,” indicating the sympathy that existed for the numerous felons who were then weekly being hanged at the Old Bailey. Bentley’s Miscellany, 1852, p. 621
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.