From the very instant that humanity invented pockets and purses, there have been men and women eagerly lining up to pick them. So numerous and commonplace is this profession, that virtually all of its practitioners have passed through history either unrecorded or long forgotten. For that reason, the subject of today's post deserves a round of accolades. Anyone can gain lasting historical fame through acts of heroism or the production of great works of art. It takes a certain genius to gain it through petty theft.
Mary Jones was born in Ireland sometime around 1700. She was the illegitimate daughter of a "lady's maid" named Harriet Jones. After becoming pregnant, Harriet lost her job, forcing her to abandon her baby daughter and resort to prostitution. Mary was shuffled between several foster families until she was fortunate enough to find a home with an elderly woman of some wealth and social position. Mary's new guardian taught her to read and write, as well as needlework. The bright, quick-witted girl proved to be an apt pupil.
Like many an intelligent but impoverished girl, Mary longed to better herself, but saw few chances for doing so. When Mary was 15, she believed she had found that chance. It was the oldest one in the book: marriage. A young man who worked as a servant in a neighboring house fell in love with her. Mary cared little for him, but adored the opportunity for freedom he represented. She promised to marry him on the condition that he take her to London. He agreed. Unfortunately, his method of financing their wedding trip was by stealing a gold watch and eighty guineas from his employer. He was soon arrested and transported to the colonies. Mary--no doubt feeling that everything had worked out for the best--went on to the capital city.
In London, Mary made the acquaintance of one Anne Murphy, the ringleader of a thriving gang of pickpockets. Murphy agreed to take her on as an apprentice. Mary proved to be a natural-born thief. The manual dexterity that had made her an accomplished seamstress was put to less reputable, if more lucrative uses. She soon became renowned for her pickpocket abilities. On one occasion, it was said, she lifted a diamond ring from a man's hand without him even noticing. Her skill at "diving" into pockets earned her the nickname by which she has gone down in history, "Jenny Diver."
Mary used her ill-gotten gains to buy an expensive wardrobe, enabling her to mingle freely among her wealthy victims. She also brought an inventive spirit to her crimes. According to the "Newgate Calendar," "she procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship...in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.
"Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew." As all the while, Mary was sitting with her "hands" primly folded in her lap, no one suspected a thing.
Mary expanded her repertoire to include that favorite money-maker among attractive female crooks: the "Badger Game." Our heroine would lure rich men to her lodgings, whereupon her associates would instantly relieve him of all his clothes and other valuables. On one of these occasions, Mary and her gang reputedly earned the princely sum of 100 guineas.
Inevitably, however, Mary's luck began to run out. In 1733 she was caught in the pickpocketing act, and sentenced to transportation to Virginia. Before leaving England, she shrewdly scooped up all the stolen property she could get her hands on, and bribed her ship's captain into letting her bring the goods on board, enabling her to arrive in the New World a wealthy woman. However, Mary just could not leave bad enough alone. She soon bribed another captain into allowing her to sail back home, boldly ignoring the fact that returning to England before her sentence was up was a hanging offense. She trusted luck--and the large array of pseudonyms she used--to carry her through.
In 1738, she was again arrested and sentenced to transportation. (As she was tried under a false name, the law did not connect her to the earlier conviction.) Within a year, she had paid another captain into taking her back to London.
This proved to be her fatal mistake. Mary was now nearly forty, and the onset of arthritis took its toll on her legendary skills. A failed theft led to her arrest in January 1741. This time, the courts were aware of her previous convictions, which earned her a death sentence. Mary tried escaping the noose by pleading pregnancy, but a medical examination proved this to be the last of her many frauds.
On March 18, 1741, Mary went to Tyburn in style. She used her wealth to be driven to the gallows in an elegant mourning coach, pulled by a team of black horses decked out in black crepe. An estimated crowd of 200,000 gathered to watch her and 19 other prisoners die. As befitting such a renowned criminal, she reportedly faced the hangman with great composure.
Mary was not forgotten. Her contemporaries produced many pamphlets extolling her exploits. John Gay's wildly popular 1728 play, "The Beggar's Opera" featured a pickpocket named "Jenny Diver." Two hundred years later, "Pirate Jenny" made an appearance in Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera." In "Mack the Knife," Bobby Darin sang,
"Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Oh, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky's back in town."
It's not many thieves who can go from the "Newgate Calendar" to the Top of the Pops.