A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A young dressmaker emerges with her reputation untarnished

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October 21 1855 was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson but the England that emerged from the long wars with France looked quite a different place from the world Horatio Nelson was born into. By the 1850s his Norfolk descendants would have been able to take the train to the capital rather than the bone-shaking stage coach, and the Navy office might have been able to summon the admiral by telegraph instead of a despatch rider.

Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was the largest ship of the line in the Royal Navy in 1805 but it was powered by sail and built of oak. In 1859 the very first ironclad warship was launched in France, and in the American Civil War (1861-65) floating ironclads helped usher in a new sort of warfare that had more in common with the Great War of 1914-18 than the battlefields of Austerlitz, Salamanca or Waterloo.

Britain had demonstrated its military might during the Napoleonic wars but the much less ‘glorious’ Crimean War (1853-56) had exposed the extent of disease in the army and poor command and infrastructure of the British forces, despite its victory. Nelson (and Wellington) would most probably have been horrified that the nation’s armed forces had been allowed to reach such a parlous state by mid century.

Meanwhile of course the business of fighting crime and dealing with the everyday regulation of the capital continued despite the nation being at war with Russia. Nelson would never had seen a ‘bobby’ on the beat nor been very family with a Police Court Magistrate. Nor it seems was young Miss Eliza Greaves, yet she found herself in the dock at Marlborough Street accused of a very serious offence.

At about 7.30 in the evening of 16 October 1855 Eliza, a ‘respectable’ dressmaker who resided 11 Bruton Street, near Berkley Square – a fashionable address – entered a haberdasher’s shop at 272 Regent Street.  She asked the assistant for some ‘riband and blonde’ and paid with two half-crowns and coated for her change. However, when the assistant  handed the money to the cashier he immediately declared they were ‘bad’ (i.e they were counterfeit).

The cashier, John Wilson, took the coins over to where the young woman was seated and asked her where she had got the coins from. She told him they came from her sister, who lived in Hanover Square. Wilson then enquired whether she had any other money and she handed over a shilling which he again realised was counterfeit.

Poor Eliza was now in some difficulty because she was seemingly committing the offence of passing (or ‘uttering’) false coins. The police were called and Eliza was taken away by PC 27 of E Division. On the next day Eliza was produced in court to answer a charge of trying to pass ‘bad’ coins and so defraud Messers. Sowerby &. Co of the value of their property.

Enquiries were made and Eliza’s sister was consulted about the money she had given her her sibling. It transpired that she ‘had put a small packet of quicksilver [mercury] in her pocket, in which was her purse, and some silver’. It was this that had caused the discolouration of the coins. The magistrate’s chief clerk examined the coins carefully and declared that he ‘very much doubted if they were bad’. Mr Bingham (the magistrate) sent a police inspector off to have them properly tested and he returned to state for the record that the coins were ‘good’. To everyone’s relief (not least Eliza’s) she was cleared of any wrongdoing and set at liberty to return with her friends, who were people of ‘the greatest respectability’.

Just what her sister was doing with mercury in her pocket is far less clear. Mercury was used to treat syphilis and other forms of venereal disease but I hardly think the other Miss Greaves bought it for that purpose. It had some use in making dental fillings, and of course was used in thermometers, but why Miss Greaves needed it remains a mystery to me. Please enlighten me if you know!

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 21, 1855]