And The Real Underworld


Mention the name of Professor James Moriaty to anyone who has even a nodding acquiantance with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and a picture is immediately conjured - the tall, gaunt, scholarly figure threatening Holmes in his Baker Street rooms; the fight on the ledge at the Reichenbach Falls; a vast army of criminals ready to do his bidding; the clop of horses' hooves in the streets, and the rumble of hansoms; gaslight casting eerie shadows; the thick yellow fogs, "London particulars." creeping up from the river; sinister figures lurking in alleys and passageways; robbery, murder, extortion, violence; the sly tongue of the confidence man, the quick fingers of the pickpocket, the wheedling of the beggar, the wiles of the whore; the whole wretched, dingy, yet compulsive aura of the nineteenth-century underworld.

Holmes himself is reported to have said of the Professor (in "The Final Problem"), "... his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed - the word is passed on to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defense. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught - never so much as suspected."

This description has a strangely modern ring to it certainly Moriarty undoubtedly would have spent the bulk of his time within the underworld of his era, rubbing shoulders and passing the word of command throughout that society of villains which proliferated during the century.

Here we have a definite link which joins the shadowy world to the organized crime of our time, for the sprawling regiment of criminals in Moriarty's day referred to themselves, collectively, s The Family.

In 1841 an article in Tait's Magazine speaks of " 'The Family' ... the generic name for thieves, pickpockets gamblers, housebreakers et hoc genus omne." The term was certainly still in use at the end of the century, and villains spoke of each other as family men and family women.

We all know that today The Family, in criminal terms, takes on sinister connotations. So Doyle's Moriarty could well have been the Victorian equivalent of the twentieth-century Godfather. His influence would certainly have its starting point in the whirling vortex of the nineteenth-century underworld.

Briefly, then, one sees Moriarty as a ruthless criminal leader of high intellect and advanced organizational talents - the scientific criminal - a man determined to rule his chosen universe.

What sort of empire would he have ruled? Over what kind of subjects would he have held sway?

The picture we have of the London underworld during the first half of the nineteenth century is one of a perpetual war waged between the respectable middle and upper classes, and the great horde of criminals, many of them specialist technicians, who lived in the Rookeries - those swamped, fetid, and congested areas on the outer perimeter of the metropolis. These parasites would emerge from the Rookeries to perpetrate their villainy, only to disappear again into the warrens of courts, alleys, and cellars of the tightly packed, rogue-infested hives such as the great St.Giles's Rookery around Holborn - known as the Holy Land - or the Devil's Acre around Pye Street, Westminster; and a dozen more, including the terrain of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, which contained such unlovely byways as Flower and Dean streets and Dorset Street - at one time known as the most evil thoroughfare in London.

It appears to us now, looking from the distance of a hundred years or so, that there was a marked contrast, a frontier almost, between the glittering West End of London and the impoverished areas. Yet the whole period was one of gradual and massive progress. Great changes made themselves felt at all levels. Legal, penal and social reform, a more effective police force, the cutting of roads through the Rookeries - all played a part in bringing the crime rate down by the end of the century. But the criminal, while adept at altering his techniques, is basically conservative in outlook: so the underworld of the eighties and nineties still clung to past ways. Thus, while London's criminal society became more diffuse toward the end of the century, its business methods altered little.

Playing a major part in the life force of the underworld were the fences - the receivers of stolen property. Almost anything could be disposed of through the small back-street pawn brokers, the market traders, the hordes of middlemen and the few really big fences who often set up or instigated large robberies.

The most colorful of these to emerge during the first half of the century was the great and legendary Ikey Solomons, who lived, in a house full of secret trapdoors and hidden rooms, at he heart of Spitalfields.

Solomons was almost certainly Dickens's model for Faigin in Oliver Twist, ad when he was finally arrested, two coachloads of stolen goods were removed from his home on the first visit, while the officers had to return at least twice before the place was cleared of loot.

Working hand in glove with the fences were, of course, the cracksman, screwman, and sneak thieves. They still operate today with as much verve as they did in Victorian London, and in Moriarty;s tie they stood high in the criminal hierarchy. The sneak thief was a particularly cunning operator, an expert in picking his moment to nip through an open window, or indulging in the occupation of "area diving" - slipping down the area steps of terraced houses and into the basement, talking what came to hand before making a fast exit.

Into the same category one can place the snoozer, who would plan his job with considerable care, posing as a respectable businessman, staying at good hotels, mixing with his fellow guests in order to pick the best victims before stealing from them as they slept - snooed.

Cracksmen and screwmen were possibly the most sophisticated of thieves, developing a whole armory of tools and cutting devices ranging from skeleton keys to the jack-in-a-box - or screw jack - for prizing off the doors of safes. Before the end of the century, these gentlemen were expert in the use of the explosives and oxyacetylene cutting device.

Thieves of this kind certainly took their profession very seriously, using ingenious methods and careful preparation. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the great train robbery of 1855. This was probably the most sensational theft of the century, having an obvious parallel in the Great Train Robbery of 1963. In all, over 12,00 (pounds sterling) in gold and coin - a most considerable sum at the time - was stolen from a shipment en route from London to Paris.

The conspirators, Pierce and Agar, both professional cracksmen, and Tester, a railway clerk, spent over a year preparing the crime, going to great lengths in order to get information, to bribe the guard of the London-Folkestone passenger train on which the bullion was carried, and to provide themselves with duplicate keys to the three Chubb safes used for transporting it.

The crime was carried out with great flair. Pierce and Agar boarded the train with bags containing lead shot sewn into special pockets. Through the corrupted guard, they gained access to the guard's van, unlocked the safe, removed the gold, and substituted the lead.

The culprits were eventually caught in a classic manner. Agar's mistress, suspecting that she was being done out of her fair share, informed on them.

If the Victorian was not safe from burglary in his own home, the streets were also full of hazards. By far the largest number of criminals worked in the streets. Many were pickpockets, a problem still with us today, as warning signs in public places tell us. It is doubtful if the Victorian Londoner needed any warning, for the artful mobsmen, toolers, whizzers and dippers, together with their stickman accomplices, were everywhere in the crowds, in the underground, on railway trains and omnibuses. It is, perhaps, indicative of the proliferation that Havelock Ellis in his book The Criminal, published in 1890, illustrates his chapter on criminal slang with a passage describing events in a pickpocket's life, in the dipper's own words:

"I was jogging down a blooming slum in the Chapel," he says, "when I butted a reeler, who was sporting a red slang. I broke off his jerry, and boned the clock, which was a red one, but I was spotted by a copper, who claimed me. I was lugged before the beak, who gave me a six doss in the Steel. The week after I was chucked up I did a snatch near St. Paul's, was collared, lagged and got this bit of seven stretch."

The translation follows:

"As I was walking down a narrow alley in Whitechapel, I ran up against a drunk who had a gold watch guard. I stole his watch, which was gold, but was seen by a policeman, who caught me and took me before the magistrate, who gave me six months in the Bastille [the House of Correction, Coldbath Fields]. When I was released I attempted to steal a watch near St. Paul's, but was caught again, convicted, and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude."

The streets also had their fair share of confidence tricksters, often layabouts who practiced simple dodges like pretending to find a gold ring which they would sell for a mere five shellings (fawney dropping, as it was called), or even children crying over smashed milk jug, to whom the tender-hearted were fine prey. Begging also became a complex and truly histrionic art.

Demanding with menaces, mug-hunting and general foot-padding were common enough crimes in the badly lit streets, and in mid-century, law-abiding Londoners went in real terror from garotters who would choke their victims insensible before fleecing them.. Only strong penalties, including the barbarous cat together with better policing and street lighting, brought this epidemic to an end.

Yet even in daylight one was not safe from the macers, magsmen and sharps - tricksters, frauds, swindlers and cheats, the forerunners of every cheapjack and con man on our own streets and doorsteps and in the police files.

There were other villains who practiced their arts behind closed doors: the forgers, the shofulmen (the coiners), and the screevers, the writers of false character references and testimonials. Their heyday was in Moriarty's time, when anything which could be faked, from documents to bank notes to coins and jewelry settings, was duplicated in small crude dens or elaborate workshops equipped with molds, presses, engraving tools and electroplating devices.

Whatever its cause, vice has always been a magnet to criminals, and Victoria's London reeked of it. In mid-century it was estimated that there were over 80,000 prostitutes working in the city - good money for the cash-carriers (nineteenth century ponces), the minders and the madams - words which, like racket, mob and pig, have not altered with time. Many of these women doubtless doubled as pickpockets' accomplices and skinners - who literally stripped the clothes from the backs of terrified children; certainly women predominated among the "palmers" - adroit shoplifters, often working in pairs - while the "canary," who carried a crackman's tools and loot from a robbery, was usually a woman.

These, then, were the rank and file with whom, and through how a man with the intelligence and standing of a James Moriarty could skillfully mold a criminal community.

One can clearly see him, as Holmes suggested in "The Final Problem," sitting "motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them."

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 from "The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"