If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

679a0eec834a8441a142709377bfed69.jpg

Daniel Risbey was in East London to visit his wife, who was an inmate at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street. The fifty year-old fisherman from Essex was unfamiliar with the capital and certainly a stranger to the dodges and pitfalls that often befell the unwary. He must have stuck out like sore thumb.

As he left the hospital and was making his way along Mile End Road a man stopped and chatted to him. As they conversed he noticed another person just ahead stop and appear to drop some pieces of paper on the street. The first man, who had introduced himself as Thomas Windsor, picked them up and showed them to Risbey.

‘Why’, Windsor declared, ‘these are £5 notes!’ and he called the other man back. He now joined them and said his name was George Boyce and that he’d recently come into money following a payout for an incident on the railway. Boyce had received the princely sum of £300 and declared that ‘he meant to do some good with the money, and would lend to any deserving man’.

What a stroke of luck then, for Risbey to run into two such generous chaps on his visit to London. The pair now said that they trusted him enough to have some of the money up front while they sorted out the ‘usual arrangements’ of a loan and suggested he wait in a local pub while they did so. This proved, they said, that they had ‘confidence’ in him. To show them that he was worthy of that confidence they asked him to hand over his purse and money while they sorted things out. He had several £5 notes, they had his money – which only amounted to about 5s anyway.

The fisherman took out a few pennies for a beer, handed over his purse and walked over to the nearest pub to wait. After an hour they hadn’t returned and he was about to leave when a police sergeant appeared and asked him to accompany him to the station. When he got there Boyce and Windsor were in custody and Sergeant Rolfe explained the situation.

The officer had seen the two men talking to Risbey, knew them as ‘sharpers’ (or confidence tricksters) and watched them. He followed them after they left Risbey and, with some assistance, arrested them. When searched all they had was three pence, the notes, a few Hanoverian medals, and the Essex man’s purse. Both were charged with theft and presented at Worship Street Police court on the following morning, Thursday 6 July 1882.

The whole episode was related to Mr Hannay the sitting magistrate. The notes were fake – from the ‘Bank of Engraving’ Sergeant Rolfe explained. The medals were used to represent sovereign coins and the two men were well known to the police. On this occasion Daniel Risbey was lucky, thanks to the sharp eyes and wits of the local police all he lost was his innocence and he left London a little wiser than he arrived. At least on the next occasion he visited his wife in hospital he’d have a tale to tell, if he chose to tell it at all. As for the two ‘sharpers’, Mr Hannay committed them for trial.

I think we’ve all heard of the confidence trick but it isn’t often that it is so clearly described in those terms. The paper was reporting this as news, as a warning to readers, and as gentle dig at the expense of the ‘country bumpkin’ come up to town and taken for a fool. We might nod sagely at how gullible he was (as many of those reading the Standard in 1882 would have done) but how many of us have fallen, or come close to falling, for internet scams that have promised us easy money or other benefits that have few strings attached. Remember folks, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 07, 1882]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

One thought on “If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s