On this date in 1741, at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.
Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.
Like countless others, Jenny found making a living in the metropolis through honest labour less profitable than relieving others of their possessions… Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.
The Newgate Chronicle lists some of the achievements of her agile fingers;
[S]he 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 above mentioned 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.
She also engaged in scammery of the credulous:
Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town…
The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.
Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.
The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.
The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.
Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies. But life in Virginia being miserable she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, sadly, in her last adventure she was nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act.
Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 victims.
It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:
In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.
Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.
“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years before Jenny’s time.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar