18th century

The Urban Mysteries: Organised Crime in Victorian Popular Literature | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

The Following was a lecture delivered by Stephen Basdeo at Richmond: The American International University on Wednesday 18 November 2020 to students in GEP4180: Organised Crime in Popular Culture.

Although limited in space, and carefully watched, this quarter serves as the lurking-place, or rendezvous, of a vast number of the very dregs of society in Paris, who flock to the tapis-franc. This word, in the slang of theft and murder, signifies a drinking-shop of the lowest class. A returned convict, who, in this foul phraseology, is called an “ogre,” or a woman in the same degraded state, who is termed an “ogress,” generally keep such “cribs,” frequented by the refuse of the Parisian population; freed felons, thieves, and assassins are there familiar guests. If a crime is committed, it is here, in this filthy sewer, that the police throws its cast-net, and rarely fails to catch the criminals it seeks to take.

Eugene Sue, The Mysteries of Paris (1842–43)

Crime is abundant in this city: the lazar-house, the prison, the brothel, and the dark alley, are rife with all kinds of enormity; in the same way as the palace, the mansion, the club-house, the parliament, and the parsonage, are each and all characterised by their different degrees and shades of vice. But wherefore specify crime and vice by their real names, since in this city of which we speak they are absorbed in the multi-significant words—WEALTH and POVERTY.

G.W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844–48)

Then he asked himself:—Whether he had been the only one in fault in his fatal history. Whether it was not a serious thing, that he, a labourer, out of work, that he, an industrious man, should have lacked bread. And whether, the fault once committed and confessed, the chastisement had not been ferocious and disproportioned. Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

On 19 June 1842, in the ‘feuilleton’ section of the Parisian daily newspaper Journal des Debats, the first instalment of a new serialised novel appeared. Written by an author of historical novels named Eugene Sue, who had been dubbed ‘The French Cooper’—a reference to the American historical novelist James Fenimore Cooper—Sue’s latest novel was of a wholly different character. The novel was called Les Mysteres des Paris and, instead of being set in the past, was set in Paris during the 1830s. The novel caused a sensation in Parisian society. The circulation of the hitherto niche Journal des Debats soared. Public libraries and reading rooms across France were forced to ration readers’ time with the latest instalments; cafés began charging customers ten sous for a copy; and if the author was a day late in submitting his copy to the editor, ‘beautiful society ladies and chambermaids [were] all in a state of turmoil’.[1] Even Karl Marx, a political scientist who did not engage in literary criticism, made an exception to this rule with Sue’s novel and offered an extended critique of it in The Holy Family (1844–45).[2]

Rodolphe in Mysteries of Paris

The novel was a hit with all classes of French society.[3] If a person could not read, it might be read to them by a work colleague or literate family member. Yet France had a thriving literary scene in the 1830s and this, at first glance, was ‘just another novel’—so what, then, made it so special? Briefly put: it was the first novel of its kind to shine a light on the crimes, vices, and follies of both high and low life in Paris. Through the eyes of a man named Rodolph, a mysterious wanderer in the dirty and dingy courts and alleyways of Paris, readers were presented with shocking pictures of depravity—girls of sixteen whom poverty had reduced to prostitution, organised crime figures such as the menacing ‘Schoolmaster’ and his comrade Bras Rouge. What was even more sensational was that these criminal characters often did the bidding of the seemingly genteel and respectable upper class figures. In Sue’s novel the activities of underworld and ‘upperworld’ figures were inextricably connected.

Title page to Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris” (c) Stephen Basdeo

The novel featured clear good characters and bad ones. Much of the action took place in the dimly lit labyrinthine courts and alleys of the French capital. As the hero, Rodolphe, made his way through the dark parts of Paris on his self-imposed mission of doing good for the poor and destitute, danger awaited him at every turn. Menaced by the Schoolmaster and his henchmen, at one point Rodolphe is captured and interred in a subterranean vault and almost dies. Many of the Sue’s Parisian ‘mysteries’ unfolded through the revealing of secret notes. Some of the prominent characters were of ‘mysterious’ birth. The novel therefore gave birth to an entirely new genre: the urban gothic.[4] Sue took classic gothic motifs that had been a feature of older English-language gothic novels and French-language romans noir, such as The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Coelina, ou l’Enfant du Mystère (1799), and  Les Mémoires du Diable (1838), to name but a few in these genres. But instead of setting his tale in a historical period or in very remote rural areas, as many early gothic novels did, Sue instead superimposed these motifs onto his stories of life in the modern industrial city.

Mysteries of Udolpho – one of many precursors to the urban mysteries genre

The ‘mysterymania’ soon spread to Britain where, because there were very few international copyright agreements, a number of translations of Sue’s work appeared. There were six English translations of the full novel by 1844.[5] Commenting on the enthusiasm with which the novel was received in Britain, Alfred Crowquill in Bentley’s Miscellany declared that

Mysteries, it appears, are no longer to remain so. Authors … start up and show to the world that at least to them there never have been such things as mysteries. The veil of France is torn from her by a Frenchman, who certainly pays no high compliment to his country, by exposing vices of the most hideous character, and which are certainly much better hidden from both the young and old. The moral to be drawn from melodramatic vice and virtue is very questionable.[6]

Crowquill’s comment, that some of the ‘mysteries’ would be ‘much better hidden from both the young and old’ may at first glance appear like the typical pearl-clutching Victorian moralism which was a feature of much contemporary newspaper literary criticism. But we have to remember that Sue’s tale was one in which, while the hero Rodolphe does do many good deeds, he is also a hero who is unafraid to dispense summary, and violent, justice to some of the villains from the Parisian underworld.

The Schoolmaster, the undisputed villain of the Mysteries of Paris

Rodolphe is actually the Grand Duke of Gerolstein and can help the Parisian poor because he can afford to assist them. Yet his exalted rank means that, in some cases, his attitude is that of judge, jury, and executioner. The Schoolmaster attempts to murder Rodolphe but his plans are foiled, for Rodolphe and his servants get the miscreant completely in their power, and Rodolphe decides to punish him. But Rodolphe deems it useless to hand over the man to the powers that be. Sue was highly critical of the French justice system, for it seemed to him, and indeed many reformers of the time, to be ineffective at actually punishing criminals and simply allowed them to refine their criminal talents in concert with other reprobates. Thus, giving up the Schoolmaster to the galleys or the guillotine would do no one any good:

“If on the other hand, you had braved the scaffold – as one having the murderer’s only redeeming quality, personal courage – equally little would it have availed with me to have given you up to the executioner. For you, the scaffold would be merely an ensanguined stage; where, like so many others, you would make a parade of your ferocity; where, reckless of a miserable life, you would exhale your last breath with a blasphemy … It is not good for the people to see the criminal cracking jokes with the executioner, breathing out in a sneer … All crime may be expiated and redeemed, says the Saviour; but to that end, sincere repentance is necessary. From the tribunal to the scaffold, the journey is too short; it would not do, therefore, for you to die thus.”[7]

Rodolphe therefore begins to speak more cryptically:

“You have criminally abused your strength – I will paralyse that strength; the strongest have trembled before you – you shall tremble before the weakest. Assassin! You have plunged the creatures of God into eternal night – the shadows of night eternal shall commence for you even in this world. This night – in a few minutes – your punishment shall equal your offences. But … the punishment I am about to pronounce leaves you a boundless horizon of repentance … I forever deprive you of all the splendours of creation … Yes! For ever isolated from the external world you will be forced to look constantly within yourself.”[8]

Rodolphe does say, however, that the Schoolmaster will be provided for financially and places in the Schoolmaster’s waistcoat 3,000 francs. At this point, the schoolmaster is tied to a chair so tightly that he cannot move an inch, and a doctor in attendance arises and the Schoolmaster out of the room. All goes silent. Rodolphe’s servant, the Chourineur, has no idea what is transpiring in the next room. And then the Schoolmaster is brought back in:

“Blind! Blind! Blind!” cried the brigand, in an increasing tone of agony.

“You are free – you have money – go!”

“But – I cannot go! How would you have me go? I cannot see! Oh it is a frightful crime thus to abuse your strength, in order to–”

“It is a crime to abuse one’s strength,” said Rodolphe, in his most solemn tones. “And then, what hast thou done with thy strength?”

“Oh death! Yes, I should have preferred death!” cried the schoolmaster, “to be at everyone’s mercy, to be afraid of everything! Ah! A mere child can beat me now! What, oh! What shall I do? My God! My God! What shall I do?”

“You have money.”

“I shall be robbed.”

“You will be robbed! Do you understand these words which you pronounce with so much terror? Do you understand them – you, who have robbed so many? Go.”[9]

Rodolphe is not totally unfeeling, however, and he commands his servant to ensure that the Schoolmaster is cared for by being given a place to stay the night, and he is subsequently placed in the care of an honest and respectable family who live in a rural part of France.

Rodolphe passes judgement upon the Schoolmaster

Blinding ceased to be used as a punishment for crimes in Britain and France during the early modern period, and even then, it was rarely used. Its heyday as a punishment in England was during the Anglo-Saxon period, when, along with castration, it served as a punishment for counterfeiters.[10]

By the time Sue was writing, it would have been regarded in both countries as a barbaric punishment. Eugene Sue, in spite of his novel having been inspired by readings of socialist literature, was hardly sympathetic to those whom he viewed as irredeemably criminal. When Sue was elected to the French Legislative Assembly, while he declared his opposition to capital punishment, he did advocate blinding as a means of reforming criminals, or at the very least, placing them in solitary confinement perpetually. In the novel, Sue’s Rodolphe views the righting of the wrongs and crimes of the poor as part of his aristocratic rights and responsibilities. Rodolphe has a lot of sympathy with those whom he views as the ‘respectable’ poor—that is, those who are deferential to their betters and strive to be virtuous. Hence the sixteen-year-old Goualese—eventually revealed to be Rodolphe’s long lost daughter—who strives to be good in spite of her history as a prostitute, is a member of the deserving poor. But Sue also accepts that there are some members of the poor who stand little chance of being reformed and should, like the Schoolmaster, be cast out from society. Sue’s Rodolphe, then, simply wants to remove from society all of those people who do not conform to his world view.

G W M Reynolds

As Sue’s novel was making waves in Britain there was one writer who, in need of cash, decided to launch his own mysteries tale. This writer was George William MacArthur Reynolds who, although some of the motifs in the story were borrowed from The Mysteries of Paris. However, Reynolds’s own tale surpassed Sue’s and gave, not only a thrilling tale of the crimes and vices of those in high and low life but offered thoughtful critiques on the condition of the poor and, because he was a radical, even hinted that a revolution might be required for them to ameliorate their condition. It is therefore completely wrong, as some literary critics have done, to reduce this great writer’s status to that of a mere imitator.[11] The title of Reynolds’s novel was The Mysteries of London, which was serialised in weekly penny numbers by George Vickers—a publisher known for his smutty publications—between 1844 and 1848 and eventually ran to four volumes. A scale of The Mysteries of London’s popularity—or notoriety—can be gleaned from the words of one commentator who remarked:

How is it that in quiet suburban neighbourhoods, far removed from the stews of London, and the pernicious atmosphere they engender; in serene and peaceful semi-country towns where genteel boarding schools flourish, there may almost invariably be found some small shopkeeper who accommodatingly receives consignments of “Blue-skin,” and the “Mysteries of London,” and unobtrusively supplies his well-dressed little customer with these full-flavoured articles? Granted, my dear sir, that your young Jack, or my twelve years old Robert, have minds too pure either to seek out or crave after literature of the sort in question, but not un-frequently it is found without seeking. It is a contagious disease, just as cholera and typhus and the plague are contagious, and, as everybody is aware, it needs not personal contact with a body stricken to convey either of these frightful maladies to the hale and hearty. A tainted scrap of rag has been known to spread plague and death through an entire village, just as a stray leaf of “Panther Bill,” or “Tyburn Tree” may sow the seeds of immorality amongst as many boys as a town can produce.[12]

A dispute with Vickers meant that Reynolds went on to produce a further eight volumes of the novel, under the new title of The Mysteries of the Court of London, which was serialised between 1849 and 1856, and published by John Dicks. Some historians have tended to view The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London as two separate novels but they are not, for Reynolds himself stated that they should be viewed as one single novel.[13]

The Mysteries of London

Great Britain in The Mysteries of London is a dystopia, much as, arguably, Victorian Britain was in real life.[14] Reynolds guides the reader, much like Virgil in Dante’s Inferno, through the social hell that is the modern industrial capitalist society. British society as Reynolds imagined it was one in which a large underclass worked day in, day out on poverty wages, living in dwellings that are little better than hovels, while supporting the lifestyles of an aristocratic oligarchy. The aristocracy and their associates from criminal gangs combine together to prey upon the good and virtuous in society. It was The Mysteries of London which was perceived by one commentator in The Times as having ‘invented’ the idea of the criminal underworld:

The supposed “Mysteries of London”’ influenced people’s belief in ‘an underworld of crime and horrors … and deeds [that] are daily perpetrated in this great city of which no one ever hears.[15]

The first two volumes tell the story of two brothers, Richard and Eugene Markham, whose lives follow wildly different paths. Richard follows the path of virtue and honesty, while Eugene makes his fortune through fraud and deceit. While one would expect in such a novel that all goes well for Richard, it does not. Although his life looks set to follow that of any normal middle-class Victorian, he is befriended by conmen and, as a result of their machinations, is wrongly accused of and sent to Newgate gaol on a charge of uttering a forged note. From there his life spirals into relative poverty and he has the misfortune to make an enemy of the sinister Anthony Tidkins, ‘the Resurrection Man’. Given that Reynolds sees society as being divided into three distinct classes: the aristocracy, the industrious classes, and the criminal classes, Reynolds’s depiction of organised crime subtly challenged emerging Victorian stereotypes of a criminal class. Crime in The Mysteries of London is not merely a story of ‘the wrongs and crimes of the poor’; it is also a story of the wrongs and crimes of those in the upper world, which, of course, suited Reynolds’s radical sentiments.

 The Resurrection Man is in many respects a prototype of the modern-day organised crime gang leader,[16] and Reynolds had a good idea of how such gangs operate. There is a clear hierarchy in his gang, for Tidkins tends to direct all of their activities; all of their crimes are a business venture and their ultimate aim is to make money.[17] Tidkins’s gang is a loose hierarchy, however, and while they who work together they also commit crimes independently of one another, and there is a sense that they are part of a larger network of criminals. Some of the Resurrection Man’s associates, for example, include an organisation that goes by the name of The Forty Thieves and meet at regular intervals in the Mint:

The association consisted of thirty-nine co-equals and one chief who was denominated the Bully Grand. The fraternity was called The Forty Thieves — whether in consequence of the founders having accidentally amounted to precisely that number, or whether with the idea of emulating the celebrated heroes of the Arabian tale, we cannot determine, The society had, however, been established for upwards of thirty years at the time of which we are writing, — and is in existence at this present moment.[18]

It is not only with the Forty Thieves that the Resurrection Man has dealings for we are also introduced to ‘The Old Hag’—a woman who is never called by her proper name—who entices one of the heroines, Ellen Monroe, into a life of vice. Through the agency of the Old Hag, Ellen becomes a model for statuary, a sitter for an artist, a model for bust-sculptor, her whole form to a photographer, and finally she sells her virginity to an MP named Greenwood.[19] The fictional Ellen’s fate was all too real for many young women whose choice was between starvation and prostitution.[20] At first the Old Hag’s activities, which involve dealing with many a young girl as she does with Ellen, seem to be carried out on an individual level. Yet by degrees Reynolds shows how the Old Hag’s activities are connected with those of the Resurrection Man.

The Resurrection Man, Cracksman, and their partners in crime Dick Flairer, Bill Bolter and the Buffer inhabit these dark places of the metropolis. They are described as natives of

‘all the flash-houses and patter cribs … of Great Saffron-Hill’.[21]

The same area is described by Reynolds as

‘a labyrinth of dwellings whose very aspect appeared to speak of hideous poverty and fearful crime’.[22]

Reynolds was not the first to compare the metropolis to a vast, dark place as Henry Fielding writes in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) that the capital was ‘a vast wood or forest, in which a thief may harbour with great security’.[23] Indeed, the idea of the capital being a labyrinthine maze of criminality stretches back to the early modern period. The places from which these criminals hail are areas into which the police seldom venture. Even if the police make an appearance in the back streets of Saffron Hill, there are places in the labyrinthine alleyways of that district in which

‘a man might hide for fifty years and never be smelt out by the police’.[24]

One stimulus to the growth of criminal networks is the weakness or complete absence of state law enforcement.[25]

Whether there were, historically, any places that police never ventured into by the time that Reynolds was writing in 1844 is unclear. Looking back at the history of the police force in 1870, an article in The Quarterly Review noted how during the late 1820s and 1830s, Deptford ‘was without a single policeman or watchman’.[26] Perhaps Reynolds was trying to give a flavour of the relatively weak policing of certain areas in the years immediately following the establishment of the police. When he began writing the Mysteries in 1844, the Metropolitan Police had been in existence since 1829, and the first detective branch had only been established in 1842.[27] When Bill and Dick are discussing the abilities of the police, it is clear that both criminals view the nascent force as quite inept:

“Lord, how much coves as you and me laugh when them chaps in the Common Council and the House of Commons gets on their legs and praises the work of the bluebottles up to the skies as the most acutest police in the world, while they votes away the people’s money to maintain ‘em!”[28]

The Resurrection Man and his gang at their trade

When the virtuous hero Richard Markham does approach the police to help him with matters they are not of much use and it is Richard and his friends who have to foil the plots of the notorious criminals. Clive Emsley notes that in the early years, despite the successes of the police force being lauded by public officials there were often instances in the press which highlighted cases when ‘the police were not around when they were needed either to prevent crime or to help victims seize offenders’.[29] Emsley points to a case, in fact, from the very year Reynolds began writing the Mysteries in which the victim of a crime is quoted in The Brighton Gazette as saying that, after having been robbed, ‘he searched the town from Steyne to Ship Street without being able to find a single policeman to take the rascal into custody’.[30] This is not to say that the police were completely ineffective: Emsley notes that the physical presence of the police force on many Victorian streets contributed to statistical decline of theft and violence by the mid-Victorian period that was observed by both the public and the authorities.[31]

Another way in which Reynolds shows that his criminal protagonists set themselves apart from mainstream society is in their use of flash language or thieves’ cant. Since the eighteenth century there had been some publications which aimed to shed light upon the words and phrases used by criminals. Alexander Smith’s influential A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, first published in 1714 and then revised and extended in 1719, contains The Thieves’ New Canting Dictionary, as well as The Thieves’ Grammar, The Thieves Key Found Out, and The Thieves’ Exercise.[32] Reynolds does not just append a dictionary of thieves’ cant onto the end of his novel, however. Instead, he works such language into the criminal characters’ dialogue. There are numerous examples throughout the book of this, but the following one will suffice: ‘The Thieves’ Alphabet’ is a song sung by the Cracksman in one of the ‘boozing kens’:

A was an Area-sneak leary and sly;

B was a Buzgloak, with fingers so fly;

C was a Cracksman, that forked all the plate;

D was a Dubsman, who kept the jug-gate.

            For we are rollicking chaps,

            All smoking, singing, boosing;

            We care not for the traps,

            But pass the night carousing!

E was an Efter that went to the play;

F was a Fogle he knapped on his way;

G was a Gag, which he told to the beak;

H was a Hum-box where parish-prigs speak.


I was an Ikey with swag all encumbered;

J was a Jug, in whose cell he was lumbered;

K was a Kye-bosh that paid for his treat;

L was a Leaf that fell under his feet.


One hitherto unexplored aspect of Reynolds’s writings is the amount of original poetry that he authored. Footnotes then explain some of the language used by the thieves: ‘ikey’ is a Jewish fence, no doubt inspired by the real-life Jewish fence Ikey Solomon;[34] ‘efter’ is a thief who frequents theatres; ‘leaf’ refers to being hanged.[35]

Whether Reynolds invented this thieves’ slang or not is unknown: these footnotes, however, lend an air of authenticity to his depiction of the criminal underworld, much in the same way that Walter Scott had employed citations to fictionalised primary sources in Ivanhoe (1819). As in Scott’s novels, Reynolds’s footnotes provide readers with an external editorial voice which, while they might seem to shed light upon thieves’ language and solve one of the many ‘mysteries of London’, they simultaneously make the world of thieves more alien to the reader.[36] These men are different to those in respectable society. They live apart from mainstream social and legal structures, and they have their own language. It is the world of a criminal ‘other’.

The pursuit of profit is what drives organised crime gangs, and financial gain as the motivational factor in their illicit activities is what usually separates organised criminal networks from terrorist groups. The latter group usually have either a religious ideology or a political goal that underpins their operations. This is despite the fact that both groups, in a modern context, often perpetrate the same types of crimes, such as drug and human trafficking, money laundering, and the smuggling of firearms.

A highway robbery as depicted in the Mysteries of London

In the undertaking of most of their criminal activities, Reynolds’s villains are motivated solely by the prospect of financial gain. As the Resurrection Man exclaims, ‘I can soon learn any business that’s to make money’.[37] They carry out a variety of illegal activities to make money. As the Resurrection Man’s alias implies, one of the major crimes that he commits on a regular basis is body snatching. The Anatomy Act had been passed in 1832 to regulate the trade in cadavers in response to public outrage at the illegal trade in corpses, which grew particularly when news of Burke and Hare’s murders first broke in 1828. The Act allowed medical professionals to be given access to unclaimed bodies, particularly those who died in prison or workhouses. Reynolds, of course, was writing in the 1840s, and the Resurrection Man’s trade was all but defunct by the time he was writing. But the figure of the Resurrectionist lived on as a type of folk devil in the two decades succeeding the passage of the Anatomy Act. Dickens, of course, includes Resurrection Men in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), while Robert Louis Stevenson authored The Body Snatcher much later in 1884. While the study of the trade in bodies makes for unsettling reading, some scholars from the medical profession who have written on the subject have noted how it did contribute to medical advances.[38] The Resurrection Man, however, is uninterested in the advancement of medical knowledge. He and his confederates dig up fresh corpses to earn money. When the Resurrection Man and the Cracksman give a body over to a surgeon, they are each paid ten sovereigns.[39] That is the end of the matter as far as the Resurrection Man and his team are concerned.

Bodysnatching is not the only activity that the Resurrection Man undertakes, however: for example, extortion is another, with the motivation behind the perpetration of this crime being monetary gain. In the novel there appears a Mister Tomlinson is a crooked stockbroker who, having made bad investments, accuses his faithful clerk, Michael Martin, of embezzlement. Tomlinson emerges from the affair unscathed and returns to his former profession after having declared bankruptcy. The Resurrection Man, however, is acquainted with the real truth of the matter and decides that he can make money out of the stockbroker. This following scene depicts the extortion:

“And what can I do for you, Mr. Tidkins?” asked the stock-broker, In a tremulous tone; for he felt a desperate alarm lest the Resurrection Man should have discovered the one secret which he had taken so much pains to conceal — the secret of the abode of old Michael Martin. “I have but two wants in the world at any time,” answered the Resurrection Man, lighting his pipe: “money most often — vengeance now and then. But it is money that I want of you.”[40]

Extortion is still one of the principal means of financial gain for modern organised crime groups, and it is one of the ways in which the activities of the Resurrection Man and his accomplices correspond closely with modern organised crime groups.[41] There are cases of blackmail and extortion carried out by gangs which were referenced in the Victorian press as the following letter to The Times illustrates:

Sir,—Would you, through the medium of your columns, put the timid on their guard against a horrid system of extortion, carried on at dusk by a gang of wretches who infest the passage leading from St. Martin’s Church to Bear and Orange streets, Leicester-square? The plan adopted is as follows:- A smartly dressed, well-looking boy comes up to you, and asks some frivolous question as to the time of closing the National Gallery. He manages to keep you in conversation for some seconds, and walks on by your side as far into the obscurity as may be. On a sudden a man comes up, and asks, “What are you doing with my son?” On this, the boy affects to cry, and hints that the gentlemen got into conversation with him for a grossly immoral purpose. The man then says, “There, you hear what he says; now the only way to get out of it is to give the boy a sovereign, or to the police you go.” Now, Sir, a nervous man is so thrown off his guard by this threatened imputation, that he submits to this or any other infamous demand. Surely, Sir, the police must be remiss in their duty not to scare away a gang of monsters who loiter at dusk near what are meant to be “public conveniences,” but which have become “public nuisances.” The foregoing, Sir, happened to me the other night, and if you would insert the same, others might profit by my experience and loss.

I remain, Sir, &c.


Quite how the victim who wrote the letter to The Times expected the police to tell the ‘monsters’ apart from honest citizens is unclear. Evidently arrests were made, however, as there was certainly a steady supply of defendants who were found guilty of extortion in the 1840s, the decade that Reynolds was writing. Thirty offenders were found guilty of extortion between 1840 and 1850. The offence was considered to be severe enough by the authorities to be punished with transportation. Although Reynolds’s case is centred on financial misconduct, a lot of the extortion cases that appeared at the Old Bailey during this period were related to alleged sexual offences on the part of the victims.[43] In 1841, for instance, William Fletcher and James Chittem were found guilty of attempting to extort money from Matthias William Cundale, ‘and threatening to accuse him of having attempted and endeavoured to commit the abominable crime of —.[44] While Reynolds was writing another such case appeared at the Old Bailey: one George Middleditch was found guilty of ‘accusing Frederick Rennell Thackeray, of a certain infamous crime … with a view to extort and gain money from him’.[45]

Taking his cue from Sue, Reynolds’s even shows the Resurrection Man and his gang collaborating with politicians when the Cracksman is asked to undertake of a highway robbery. The hero’s brother Eugene eventually becomes the MP for a place called Rottenborough, the naming of which is an allusion to pre-Reform Act constituencies such as Old Sarum. Eugene, who goes under the assumed name of Montague Greenwood—who is actually the bad brother of the virtuous hero Richard Markham—plots to defraud Count Alteroni of his fortune but he must first acquire a vital document from him. For this, Eugene must employ the services of the Cracksman and his fellows:

“What’s the natur’ of the service?” demanded the Cracksman, darting a keen and penetrating glance at Greenwood.

“A highway robbery,” coolly answered [Eugene …]

“All right!” cried the Cracksman. “Now what’s the robbery, and what’s the reward?”

“Are you man enough to do it alone?”

“I’m man enow to try it on; but if so be the chap is stronger than me –“

“He is a tall, powerful person, and by no means likely to surrender without a desperate resistance.”

“Well, all that can be arranged,” said the Cracksman, coolly. “Not knowing what you wanted with me, I brought two of my pals along with me [one of these pals is the Resurrection Man], and they’re out in the street, or in the alley leading into the park. If there’d been anything wrong on your part, they would either have rescued me or marked you and your house for future punishment.”

“I am glad that you have your companions so near […] I will now explain to you what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet, with a tiger, only twelve years old, behind. The cab is light blue – the wheels streaked with white. This is peculiar, and cannot be mistaken. The horse is a tall bay, with silver- mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain – everything, mind – must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours, and I will add fifty guineas to the amount: – but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be handed over to me.”[46]

Note the precision with which the robbery is to be carried out: clear and concise instructions are given. The deed is not a romantic highway robbery of the type conducted by Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford; according to Reynolds, crime in the urban, industrial society is cold and calculated.

 Highway robbery is not the only crime which the aristocratic and bourgeois elites ask the Resurrection Man to carry out for them, for occasionally they involve even those of a darker nature—murder!

Lady Ravensworth arranges the murder of a servant

We are introduced to Lady Ravensworth whose life, having been married to Lord Ravensworth, would seem to be one of everlasting bliss free from the evils of toil and penury suffered by the poor. Yet by chance a new Lady’s Maid is engaged named Lydia. However, Lady Ravensworth and Lydia have a history: the pair were once friends and the latter knows that Lady Ravensworth got pregnant out of wedlock and disposed of the baby. Once this happened the lady cast Lydia aside, after which she fell into dire poverty. When she enters into service at Ravensworth Hall—initially without Lady Ravensworth’s knowledge—the pair finally meet and Lydia threatens to tell all to both the other servants and the newspapers unless she is kept as a servant. Lydia then devises mental tortures for her former ‘friend’ and now her mistress. A flavour of the tortures that Lydia inflicts on the proud and haughty aristocrat is given below which is worth quoting at length to see the full fiend-like nature of the once passive Lydia:

“Yes — I am here again,” said the vindictive woman. “It is time for you to rise.”
“Oh! spare me, Lydia,” exclaimed Adeline; “Let me to repose a little longer. I have passed a wretched — a sleepless night: see — my pillow is still moist with the tears of anguish which I have shed; and it was but an hour ago that I fell into an uneasy slumber! I cannot live thus — I would rather that you should take a dagger and plunge it into my heart at once. Oh! leave me — leave me to rest for only another hour!”

“No: — it is time to rise, I say,” cried Lydia. “It has been my destiny to pass many long weary nights in the streets — in the depth of winter — and with the icy wind penetrating through my scanty clothing till it seemed to freeze the very marrow in my bones. I have been so wearied — so cold — so broken down for want of sleep, that I would have given ten years of my life for two hours’ repose in a warm and comfortable bed: — but still have I often, in those times, passed a whole week without so resting my sinking frame. Think you, then, that I can now permit you the luxury of sleep when your body requires it — of repose when your mind needs it? No, Adeline — no! I cannot turn you forth into the streets to become a houseless wanderer, as I have been: — but I can at least arouse you from the indolent enjoyment of that bed of down.”

… Then the revengeful woman seated herself in a chair, and said in a harsh tone, “Light the fire, Adeline — I am cold.”

“No — no: I will not be your servant!” exclaimed Lady Ravensworth. “You are mine — and it is for you to do those menial offices.”

“Provoke me not, Adeline,” said Lydia Hutchinson, coolly; “or I will repair straight to the servants’ hall, and there proclaim the astounding fact that Lord Ravensworth’s relapse has been produced by the discovery of his wife’s frailty ere their marriage.”

“Oh! my God — what will become of me!” murmured Adeline, wringing her hands. “Are you a woman? or are you a fiend!” 

“I am a woman — and one who, having suffered much, knows how to revenge deeply,” returned Lydia. “You shall obey me — or I will cover you with shame!”

Adeline made no reply; but, with scalding tears trickling down her cheeks, she proceeded — yes, she — the high-born peeress! — to arrange the wood in the grate — to heap up the coals — and to light the fire.

 And while she was kneeling in the performance of that menial task, — while her delicate white hands were coming in contact with the black grate, — and while she was shivering in her night gear, and her long dishevelled hair streamed over her naked neck and bosom, — there, within a few feet of her, sate the menial — the servant, comfortably placed in an arm-chair, and calmly surveying the degrading occupation of her mistress.

“I have often — Oh! how often — longed for a stick of wood and a morsel of coal to make myself a fire, if no larger than sufficient to warm the palms of my almost frostbitten hands,” said Lydia, after a short pause; “and when I have dragged my weary limbs past the houses of the rich, and have caught sight of the cheerful flames blazing through the area-windows of their kitchens, I have thought to myself, ‘Oh! for one hour to sit within the influence of that genial warmth!’‘ And yet you — you, the proud daughter of the aristocracy — recoil in disgust from a task which so many thousands of poor creatures would only be too glad to have an opportunity of performing!”

Adeline sobbed bitterly, but made no reply.[47]

Thus is Lady Adeline Ravensworth driven to find someone who will help to put an end to her troubles forever, and the Resurrection Man is just the demon to do it:

“…Now, ma’am, answer me as frankly as I have spoken to you. You have a bitter enemy?”

“I have indeed,” answered Adeline, reassured that she was not known to the Resurrection Man: “and that enemy is a woman.”

“Saving your presence, ma’am, a woman is a worse enemy than a man,” said Tidkins. “And of course you wish to get your enemy out of the way by some means!”

“I do,” replied Adeline, in a low and hoarse tone — as if she only uttered those monosyllables with a great exertion.

“There are two ways, ma’am,” said the Resurrection Man, significantly: “confinement in a dungeon, or — “

“I understand you,” interrupted Lady Ravensworth, hastily. “Oh! I am at a loss which course to adopt — which plan to decide upon! Heaven knows I shrink from the extreme one — and yet — “

“The dead tell no tales,” observed Tidkins, in a low and measured tone.[48]

Lydia is soon murdered by the hand of the Resurrection Man and her body is unceremoniously buried in a shallow grave in the grounds of Ravensworth Hall.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in The Communist Manifesto in 1848—when the third series of The Mysteries of London was being published—that the emergence of bourgeois capitalist industrial society had

Destroyed all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations between men. They relentlessly tore asunder the many-sided links of that feudal chain which bound men to their “natural superiors,” and they left no bond of union between man and man, save that of bare self-interest, of cash payments.[49]

(Marx and Engels, in fact, much like urban fiction writers, drew heavily upon gothic imagery in their seminal text, with its talk of ‘spectres’, hauntings, secrets, while Marx’s Capital, using Dante’s Inferno as its model, guided readers through the ‘social hell’ of capitalism).[50] Whereas in the pre-modern era the lords felt some social obligation to their peasants, in the modern capitalist the elites feel as though they have very little responsibility to provide for the less fortunate. Enclosures of common lands had been ongoing since the sixteenth century, meaning that by the nineteenth century people could no longer freely take, for example, kindling from forests or grow crops on common lands and grow food for their own subsistence. The Victorian elites’ answer to poverty, for example, was to extend the existing workhouse system. Now every interaction between people became, as Marx and Engels pointed out, essentially a business transaction. The poet John Keats, in fact, used the medieval criminal Robin Hood to criticise the emergence of the cash nexus, as he looked back to a time when ‘men knew nor rent nor leases’.[51] Economic and social developments in the underworld mirror those in the upperworld. There may have been, once upon a time, a sense of honour among thieves; Robin Hood and his men, and the highwaymen of the eighteenth century were rarely extravagant in robbing from people—they mostly took only what they needed for their own subsistence and nothing more. Yet it was a different moral standard which urban criminals had, and which Reynolds shows us in his novel; crime in The Mysteries of London is now a business transaction. Before the Cracksman commits the crime for Greenwood, for example, he receives an ‘advance’ of twenty guineas, at which the Cracksman exclaims: ‘that’s business!’[52] The robbery is carried out, and at Eugene and the Cracksman’s second meeting the villains are paid in full for their work. The meeting is concluded with the Cracksman hoping ‘that he should have his custom in future’.[53] To the villains of The Mysteries of London crime is a business carried out with the sole purpose of financial gain, and they do not wince at carrying out crimes of the blackest dye. Surgeons are their customers, or they make themselves available as henchmen-for-hire willing to do the dirty work of those in from supposedly more respectable stations in life as long as the price is right.

Modern-day organised crime groups have proven time and again that they are resilient. If the head of the organisation or some of its key members are killed or incarcerated, the network usually carries on. The reader does not, in fact, encounter the Resurrection Man until chapter twenty-eight, for both him and Crankey Jem are incarcerated in Newgate.[54] Nevertheless, in the early part of the novel, despite the absence of their accomplices, Bolter and Flairer express their intentions to carry on with the ‘jobs’ which were planned at a previous point by their now-imprisoned accomplices:

“Well, now, about this t’other job, Dick?” said Bill.

“It’s Jem as started it,” was the reply. “But he told me all about it, and so we may as well talk it over. It’s up Islington way – up there between Kentish Town and Lower Holloway.”

“Who’s crib is it?”

“A swell of the name of Markham. He is an old fellow, and has two sons. One, the eldest, is with his regiment; t’other, the youngest, is only about fifteen, or so – a mere kid.”

“Well, there’s no danger to be expected from him. But what about the flunkies?”

“Only two man-servants and three vimen [sic].  One of the man-servants is the old butler, too fat to do any good; and t’other is a young tiger.”

“And that’s all?”

“That’s all. Now you, and I, and Jem is quite enough to crack that there crib. When is it to be done?”

“Let’s say to-morrow night; there is no moon now to speak on, and business in other quarters is slack.”

“So be it. Here goes, then, to the success of our new job at old Markham’s;” and as the burglar uttered these words he tossed off a bumper of brandy.[55]

As the novel progresses, it transpires that the Resurrection Man turns evidence against Crankey Jem in return for immunity from prosecution, while Jem is sentenced to Transportation.[56] But the gang survives despite the fact that one of its prominent members is transported. Although Jem returns to England at a later point in the novel, he never re-joins his old accomplices.  Matters only become complicated for individual gang members when they commit crimes that are not related to the pursuit of financial gain. For example, in a scene reminiscent of Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy, Bill Bolter kills his wife:

The woman fell forward, and struck her face violently against the corner of the deal table. Her left eye came in contact with the angle of the board, and was literally crushed in its socket – an awful retribution upon her who only a few hours before was planning how to plunge her innocent and helpless daughter into the eternal night of blindness. She fell upon the floor, and a low moan escaped our lips. She endeavoured to carry her right hand to her now sightless eye; but her strength failed her, and her arm fell lifeless by her side. She was dying.[57]

The murder of Bill Bolter’s wife

However, Bolter’s wife is not a sympathetic character such as Dickens’ Nancy is: she had plotted to make her four-year-old daughter blind as she believes that the well-to-do will be more inclined to give a small blind girl charity. But in adherence to the adage, ‘murder will out’, despite his attempts to hide from the law, Bolter is eventually arrested and hanged for his crime.[58]

The seeds of the Resurrection Man’s downfall are laid at the beginning of the novel when he turns evidence against Crankey Jem. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century organised crime gangs are known for having a code of honour. The Italian Mafia is reputed to adhere to omerta, a code which stipulates that its members should keep silent about their criminal activities and that no member shall give evidence to the police about a colleague.[59] Although a code of conduct for the Resurrection Man and his gang is not explicitly stated in the novel, it appears to be understood amongst its members that they shall not betray each other. At another point in the exchange between the Cracksman and Eugene Markham, referred to above, for example, the former exclaims that ‘the Resurrection Man and the Buffer will stick to me like bricks’.[60] Because the Resurrection Man initially betrays Crankey Jem, the latter swears vengeance upon him by foiling his plans to abduct and murder Richard Markham. Eventually, the Resurrection Man is imprisoned in a subterranean dungeon by Jem to perish by starvation:

Ten days afterwards, Crankey Jem set to work to open the door of the dungeon […] And what a spectacle met his view when he entered that cell! The yellow glare of his lantern fell upon the pale, emaciated, hideous countenance of the Resurrection Man, who lay on his back upon the cold, damp pavement – a stark and rigid corpse![61]

Had the Resurrection Man adhered to the unwritten rule of organised crime not to betray a fellow gang member, he should not have met such a violent end at the hands of Crankey Jem. In spite of the deaths of Bill Bolter and the Resurrection Man, however, the wider criminal network known as the Forty Thieves continues. To quote one of Reynolds’s statements again: ‘the Forty Thieves […] is in existence at this present moment’.[62]

Reynolds does not portray the poor as saintly. The preceding discussion has shown that Reynolds imagined some members of the poorer classes to be guilty of heinous criminal acts. But it is the way that society treats the poor that makes the upper classes responsible for their criminality. This is the case with the Buffer, for example, who is given a lengthy history in chapter ninety-nine. He is briefly incarcerated when a young man. When he completes his sentence, he is released from gaol with no means of support and so enters the workhouse. It is an abhorrent place, and the Buffer discharges himself from the workhouse after six weeks. On the evening that he discharges himself he falls in with some criminals, and they immediately set about robbing a watchmaker’s shop, and they earn thirty guineas from a fence for the stolen goods.[63] Clearly, to the Buffer, crime is a more attractive mode of life than living in a workhouse.

Although the Resurrection Man is a menacing character, Reynolds humanises him by giving him a lengthy backstory. In his youth, his father is arrested for smuggling and, despite the fact that the local worthies all purchased his contraband without compunction, and even the local Baronet is implicated in the smuggling ring, he finds his whole family condemned:

“This business again set me a-thinking; and I began to comprehend that birth and station made an immense difference in the views that the world adopted of men’s actions. My father, who had only higgled and fiddled with smuggling affairs upon a miserably small scale, was set down as the most atrocious monster unhung, because he was one of the common herd; but the baronet, who had carried on a systematic contraband trade to an immense amount, was looked upon as a martyr to tyrannical laws, because he was one of the upper classes and possessed a title. So my disposition was soured by these proofs of human injustice, at my very entrance upon life.”[64]

He is soon after imprisoned at the whim of a local baronet, and the Resurrection Man begins to realise the inherent nature of the hypocrisy of the upper classes towards their social inferiors. He starts to resent the double standards of morality applied to the aristocracy and the working classes. He then relates his metamorphosis from a once virtuous adolescent into a hardened criminal in the following manner:

I could not see any advantage in being good. I could not find out any inducement to be honest. As for a desire to lead an honourable life, that was absurd. I now laughed the idea to scorn; and I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work. Oh! How I then detested the very name of virtue.[65]

The Resurrection Man says towards the close of history that

‘the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor’.[66]

By this means, as Reynolds shows, nineteenth-century society has received the criminal that it deserved. The Resurrection Man is merely living up to society’s expectations of him.

From the Resurrection Man’s History

The biographies of the criminal characters provided in The Mysteries of London is Reynolds’s way of providing nuance to emerging views surrounding the existence of a supposed criminal class.[67] The idea of a criminal class was not fully developed until the 1850s, but as previous research has pointed out, moves towards a class-based explanation of criminality were evident as early as the 1830s.[68] Most of the offenders who appeared in the dock during the early part of the nineteenth century were drawn from the poorer classes. In tandem with the fact that British society was perceived as becoming increasingly stratified according to class, so a great majority of the working poor were increasingly perceived of as a criminal Other.[69] At other times they were spoken of as a race. The historian Heather Shore points to the words of William Augustus Miles who said of juvenile criminals in 1839:

There is a youthful population in the Metropolis devoted to crime, trained to it from infancy, adhering to it from education and circumstances, whose connections prevent the possibility of reformation, and whom no punishment can deter; a race sui generis, different from the rest of society, not only in thoughts, habits, and manners, but even in appearance, possessing, moreover, a language exclusively of their own.[70]

It is likely that the Resurrection Man and his accomplices, many of whom were trained to crime from their youths, formed their own separate society, and who spoke in their own cant would have fitted neatly into Miles’ assessment.

Although examples have already been given of collaboration between members of the upper world and the underworld, Reynolds shows that members from the supposedly respectable classes were capable of committing crime independently of their counterparts from criminal class. Eugene Markham, for instance, along with several MPs, a Lord, and the Sheriff of London are seen conspiring together to establish a fraudulent railway company at a dinner party held by Eugene for his fellow conspirators:

Algiers, Oran, and Morocco Great Desert Railway.

(Provisionally Registered Pursuant to Act.)

Capital £1,200,000, in 80,000 shares, of £20 each.

Deposit £2 2s. per Share.

Committee of Direction: The Most Honourable Marquis of Holmesford, G. C. B. Chairman. – George Montague Greenwood, Esq. M.P. Deputy Chairman.[71]

The conspirators require capital, but as Eugene assures those assembled at his dinner party, no such railway scheme exists, and it has only been devised solely for defrauding investors:

“And now, my lord and gentlemen, we perfectly understand each other. Each takes as many shares as he pleases. When they reach a high premium, each may sell as he thinks fit. Then, when we have realized our profits, we will inform the shareholders that insuperable difficulties prevent the carrying out of the project,- that Abd-el-Kadir, for instance, has violated his agreement and declared against the scheme,- that the Committee of Direction will, therefore, retain a sum sufficient to defray the expenses already incurred, and that the remaining capital paid up shall be returned to the shareholders.”[72]

This is an example of what might now be termed ‘white collar crime’ and reflects the ‘Railway Mania’ of 1846-47, precisely when Reynolds was writing. The enthusiasm for investing in speculative railway schemes was felt among both the upper and middle classes, and it was the first time that companies relied heavily on investors’ capital rather than on government bonds.[73] As George Robb notes, the mania for investing in railway companies was perfect for fraudsters wishing to embezzle funds from their investors: bills for the establishment of new railway companies could be obtained from parliament relatively easily, and investors had little access to sound financial advice and accurate financial data.[74]

There were, in fact, plenty of instances of white collar crime in Reynolds’s serial. Another example is found when a solicitor named Mister Walkden cons the good-natured but naïve Alexander Craddock out of £20,000 by convincing him to invest in a new factory opening in the north of England. The predicable result is that Craddock soon ends up in a debtors’ prison, and in Reynolds’s own melodramatic style, Craddock loses his reason and dies, while his wife follows him into the grave.[75] Reynolds is perhaps unique among Victorian writers in that for many of his good characters things do not get better at all, and London truly is the ‘social hell’ where people’s hopes and dreams die, just as their physical bodies often perish. Reynolds was not the only writer to highlight the fact that white collar crime was just as endemic as that committed by lowly ruffians, for Victorian writers, it seems, were under no illusions about the opportunities for fraud and embezzlement that were available to unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen in the nineteenth-century financial world.[76]

The snake-like Uriah Heep

There are many characters in Victorian literature who exemplified the crooked businessman in popular culture. There was Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849–50), a snakelike, devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White (1859–60), who plots to claim Laura Fairlie’s fortune by faking her death.[77] Heather Shore similarly points to some contemporary press reports which expose she what calls ‘a hidden financial criminal underworld, straddling a line between the criminal class and the respectable class’.[78]

For the most part, however, members of the supposedly respectable upper and middle classes who turned to crime were just viewed by contemporaries as ‘bad apples’ that had been led astray or placed in tempting situations.[79] When it came to members of the respectable classes committing more serious crimes like murder, writers such as Bulwer Lytton endeavoured to downplay their guilt. But Reynolds’s depiction of criminality amongst members of respectable society is more nuanced than Dickens or Collins: according to Reynolds there is a criminal upper class, and a criminal lower class; the underworld mirrors the upper world. Sometimes members from both spheres collaborate to cause harm to members of ‘the industrious classes’. Eugene Markham is not merely a ‘bad apple’ who has been led astray. Instead, he actively pursues a white collar criminal career. Portraying the upper world of crime, of course, suited Reynolds’s radical sentiments: he detested the political establishment and ensured that in The Mysteries of London its members were implicated in criminal acts, even if their complicity is limited to merely purchasing smuggled goods.[80] If a majority of the poor are indeed criminal, it is because their upper-class counterparts facilitate or indeed, as we saw with the exchange between Eugene and the Cracksman, take a leading role in directing such crime.

The Mysteries of the Court of London

The mysteries genre was here to stay. Reynolds continued with The Mysteries of the Court of London, pursuing similar storylines to those featured in The Mysteries of London. Soon readers in England were treated to another big city mystery: The Miseries and Mysteries of New York (1848–49) by Edward Zane Carroll Judson Sr., who went under the pen name of Ned Buntline.[81]

In the nineteenth century, New York was in many ways comparable to Paris and London; it was a large industrial city with ‘dark Satanic mills’, or factories, in which the poor were crowded into unsanitary dwellings in the city; paupers lived a hand-to-mouth existence and for many, a life of crime as part of an organised criminal gang was more attractive to a life of toiling for a pittance in a factory. And just as London and Paris with their alley-ways and courts provided the perfect settings for Reynolds’s and Sue’s crime novels respectively, so Ned Buntline imagined New York as the perfect place to set his own crime novel.

Buntline was, like his British counterpart Reynolds, a moralist and social reformer, although Buntline’s radicalism and ideology were of an entirely different hue to that of Reynolds. Buntline was a ‘nativist’; he was a racist and fiercely anti-Catholic, an attitude which likely stemmed from prejudice against Irish people who arrived in New York in large numbers during the 1840s; and he was strongly opposed to immigration. Above all other ethnicities, however, he hated English people. When he and those who shared his views could not achieve an end to immigration through democratic means, they incited riots. Buntline became notorious as one of the leaders of the infamous Astor Place Theatre Riot on 10 May 1849. It should be remembered that the United States was, at this point, a young nation, having won its independence from Britain in 1783. The cause of the riot at Astor Theatre was because some of the nativists, who had some dubious connections with the gangs located around the Five Points area of New York, objected to seeing an English actor, William Charles Macready, on stage playing in Macbeth and outselling a performance of the same play at a rival theatre a few days before, starring an American, Edwin Forrest.[82] It was on the side of the American actor, Forrest, that Ned Buntline marshalled support in the riot. Intensely distrustful of the English, in The Miseries and Mysteries of New York, the most notorious organised crime gang is one in which all its members are English:

There is a house in Cherry Street, not far from Catherine Market – a low, frame-house, painted yellow – a two storied building, which is well-known to every police officer in city … [which] was a kind of general assembling room for the English burglars and pickpockets, who, driven from their own land, pursued their “profession” in New York.[83]

The gang is arranged in a “traditional” hierarchy with a clear leader, named Jack Circle, and under him:

They have formed themselves into a regular confederacy, agreeing to act upon the orders of their chief, which were to be given in consultation with the gang in assembly. And the gang had their regular meetings, when the report of each member was as duly given to the chief as the reports of the city police are to their worthy head.

Thus, Circle’s gang mirrors traditional legal and social structures. Buntline then introduces readers to several of the most prominent members of the criminal, who are all ‘Englishmen of the real St. Giles’s order’, and in their appearance recall Bill Sikes from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838). Circle is a rather brutish fellow, about fifty years of age, red-faced from a life of heavy drinking, but large and muscular. He was probably based upon a real-life criminal named Harry Hill, an Englishman born in 1827 but who emigrated to New York at an early age and, throughout his life, maintained several gambling dens in the Bowery area.

 There were, in fact, a number of English criminals who had made a life for themselves in New York City during the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, Harry Lazarus emigrated to the city from England and made his name as a boxer while simultaneously establishing himself as an important underworld figure. There is also a female member of Circle’s gang who, unlike in most organised crime units, past or present, takes an active role in the network’s criminal activities. There was indeed a notorious Englishwoman who flourished in New York during the mid-nineteenth century named Gallus Mag, though readers may be more familiar with the character of Hell-Cat Maggie in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). The ferocity of the historical Hell-Cat Maggie was described thus:

It was her custom, after she’d felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar…. She was one of the most feared denizens on the waterfront and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.[84]

From Asbury’s Gangs of New York

Being English criminals, of course, they speak in a special language called “English flash”, which Buntline says is similar to the cant spoken by thieves found in the East End of London. And being English, Circle attempts to model himself, presumable without much sincerity, however, upon the English criminals of folklore and history, and he is a huge fan of the novels of Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer Lytton.

Sweeney Todd’s Chair [Source: Yesterday’s Papers].

What will have been evident thus far throughout is that changes in society are often reflected in its crime literature. Just as the rise of capitalism witnessed the decline of the outlaw poem and rise of the urban rogue in the sixteenth century, so too in the nineteenth century do criminals, and their corresponding portrayals in print, find new ways of harming people. Soon readers encountered an industrial killing machine in a story called A String of Pearls (1846). This story is the original tale of Sweeney Todd, the ‘demon barber,’ is perhaps one the most famous penny bloods of the nineteenth century. The story is set during the 1780s ‘when George the Third was young’.[85] It begins when a young gentleman returns from overseas intent on marrying his fiancée, Johanna. He is carrying a gift of a string of pearls which he intends to give to her. Before visiting her, however, he decides to go for a shave. Both the gentleman and the pearls go missing. Investigations begin into the missing gentleman’s whereabouts, and suspicions are raised in London when Todd attempts to pawn a matching set of pearls because he cannot give ‘satisfaction as to how he came by them’.[86] Subsequent investigations into Todd’s business reveal that there are many valuable items of all descriptions kept within his residence. The outcome of the subsequent investigations reveals a horrifying truth. The owners of the valuables have all been killed by Todd. With the collusion of his neighbour, Mrs. Lovett, who runs a pie manufactory in which she has imprisoned numerous subterranean workers, the victims’ bodies have been served up as meat in her veal pies. Thus the reader in the 1800s encountered Todd first as a suspected thief, and only later as a murderer.

 The mystery of the novel centres around the chair in which his unfortunate customers sit to be ‘polished off’, for ‘there is some horrible mystery connected with the chair’[87] The chair is revealed to be a mechanical device which facilitates the speedy disposal of the victims’ bodies into an underground vault:

There was a piece of the flooring turning upon the centre, and the weight of the chair, when the bolt was withdrawn, by means of a simple leverage from the inner room, weighed down upon one end of the top by a little apparatus, was to swing completely round, there being another chair on under the surface, which thus became the upper, exactly resembling the one in which the unhappy customer was supposed to be ‘polished off’.[88]

Todd’s modus operandi may have had particular resonance for working-class readers whose lives were beginning to be dominated by machinery and manufactory. Thompson writes that ‘one after another, as the nineteenth century ran its course, old domestic crafts were displaced’ by machinery.[89] Indeed, anxiety over the effects that machinery was having upon working-class people’s livelihoods in the early nineteenth century led to Luddite rebellions between 1811 and 1812, and machine breaking riots amongst farm labourers in the 1830s.[90] The chair, the intricate mechanical device which takes away people’s valuables (their livelihoods), and finally disposes of them in the subterranean ‘pie manufactory’, represented ‘an expression of profound social anxiety…the growing perception that the sanctity of selfhood is threatened by the aggressive commercial forces generated by the industrial city’.[91] Rebecca Nevsett explains further that the use of the term ‘pie manufactory’ is significant:

Todd runs an extremely tiny corporation…he murders his barber shop clients and sells their bodies as ‘veal pies’ with the help of Mrs. Lovett…and a nameless sequence of subterranean ‘pie manufactory’ workers who may not leave the factory floor and are quietly killed when they become exhausted or unmanageable.[92]

Working-class people’s fears surrounding urban living and industrialisation in both The Mysteries of London and A String of Pearls were thus, as Crone says, ‘clothed in everyday dress’.[93] What at first glance appeared to be yet another ‘blood and guts’ type of story which ‘ministered to the mob’, as it were, A String of Pearls was actually a thought-provoking story about the working masses’ place in an industrialised world—penny novelists were not hacks.

The Mysteries of London and A String of Pearls were frequently reprinted throughout the century and many authors sought to imitate them. However, in 1862 a translation of a brand new French novel appeared for sale in England. It was the story of an ex-convict who, in attempting to cast off his disreputable past, must encounter all the dregs of society and, finally, participate in the French Revolution of 1832. The novel was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean

Hugo was less interested in depicting organised crime than he was in the working out of grand ideas of morality and civilization, as Jean Valjean muses in the early part of his history:

Athwart the unhealthy perceptions of an incomplete nature and a crushed intelligence, he was confusedly conscious that some monstrous thing was resting on him. In that obscure and wan shadow within which he crawled, each time that he turned his neck and essayed to raise his glance, he perceived with terror, mingled with rage, a sort of frightful accumulation of things, collecting and mounting above him, beyond the range of his vision,—laws, prejudices, men, and deeds,—whose outlines escaped him, whose mass terrified him, and which was nothing else than that prodigious pyramid which we call civilization.[94]

Class-legislation—laws made in the interests of one class against another—which deemed it a crime for a starving man to feed his family—for all basic human needs must now be met through the cash nexus—ensured that Jean Valjean was imprisoned. A chance meeting with a good priest convinced the man who hated the world to strive to be a good man, but he cannot do this without casting off his old identity. In the course of time he must then abandon his first assumed identity of Mr Madeleine—that of factory owner—because is found out by Javert, one of the guardians of class-legislation. He assumes the role of protector for a young girl whose childhood is made a misery by two rogues, yet to fully protect her he must retreat from society completely and enter a convent. Yet even though he is free from the pursuit of the police in the convent, he is still unfree because that religious communist is a very closed one. So he enters the world once again and becomes a citizen of Paris—the capital being a perfect place to become anonymous—and Valjean attempts to ‘do good’ by becoming philanthropist. Along the way meets many misérables (‘wretched’) and does what he can for them. Yet even here the rogues from whom he had rescued Cosette catch up with him and he is forced to assume another identity. The revolution in which Valjean participates brings many strands of French society together—Valjean is linked with Javert and also with Thenardier—yet even though the revolution fails, the city is no longer for these men. All three of them make grand exits from the story and the city.[95]

Reynolds had nothing but praise for Victor Hugo, whom he probably met at some point during his days in Paris and in his view, Hugo was the only writer who could equal Walter Scott.[96] Not only had Reynolds translated Hugo’s Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné but he had earlier, in 1836, translated a volume of Hugo’s poetry titled Songs of Twilight (the original French title was Chants du Crépuscule) with the explicit aim of furthering the then as-yet-unknown Hugo’s fame in England.[97] Indeed, perhaps there was some exchange of ideas between the two men; one possible influence upon Hugo’s Les Misérables may have been Reynolds’s early story Alfred: The Adventures of a French Gentleman (1839). Being a story of wrongly imprisoned French convict who escapes from the galleys, falls in with a corrupt pub landlord, before making his way back to Paris and taking part in the 1830 revolution, the novel bears a few resemblances to Hugo’s masterpiece.

Although The Mysteries of Paris and The Mysteries of London have been forgotten by the reading public, the genre is of course still with us today. Just like The Mysteries of London captivated the public from the 1840s until the 1920s—when new editions of The Mysteries of the Court of London were published in the United States and in India—so today an adaptation of Hugo’s mystery novel, Les Misérables, dominates the West End and Broadway theatre circuits. In the next decade a new genre of crime fiction entered the literary marketplace: the “sensation” novel. Marked by its evil aristocrats, secret documents, and the like, it made the themes found in the urban mysteries mainstream. The sensation novel is the subject of our next chapter.


[1] Berry Chevasco, ‘Lost in Translation: The Relationship between Eugene Sue’s Les Mysteres des Paris and G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London’, in G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press, ed. by Anne Humpherys and Louis James, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 135–47 (p. 135).

[2] Karl Marx [online], The Holy Family; or Critique of Critical Criticism. Against Bruno Bauer and Company, Trans. Richard Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), Transcribed by Peter Byrne and Andy Blunden, accessed 4 July 2020. Available at: http://www.Marxists.org

[3] This section of Sue is a revised and significantly expanded version of two short essays which appeared on my blog: Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” ’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, 7 June 2015, accessed 4 July 2020. Available at: http://www.gesteofrobinhood.com and Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘Blind Justice in Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” (1842–3)’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, 26 July 2018, accessed 4 July 2020. Available at: http://www.gesteofrobinhood.com

[4] Richard C. Maxwell, ‘G. M. Reynolds, Dickens, and the Mysteries of London’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32: 2 (1977), 188–213 (p. 213).

[5] Chevasco, p. 137.

[6] Alfred Crowquill, ‘Outlines of Mysteries’, Bentley’s Miscellany, 17 May 1845, 529.

[7] Eugene Sue, The Mysteries of Paris (London: E. Appleyard, 1844), p. 52.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alyxandra Mattison, ‘The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c.850-1150: An Examination of Changes in Judicial Punishment Across the Norman Conquest’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2016), p. 40

[11] See for example: Richard C. Maxwell, ‘G. M. Reynolds, Dickens, and the Mysteries of London’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32: 2 (1977), 188–213 (p. 190). This is the following highly unfair and unwarranted assessment of Reynolds: ‘The great English imitator of Hugo and Sue was G. M. Reynolds, who, after much immersion in French fiction-he published an enthusiastic book on the subject-put pen to paper and brought forth The Mysteries of London’.

[12] James Greenwood [online], ‘The Seven Curses of London’ (London, 1869), accessed 10 July 2020. Available at: https://www.victorianlondon.org.

[13] G.W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of the Court of London, 8 vols (London: John Dicks, 1849–56), VIII, p. 412.

[14] This section is republished from a peer-reviewed academic paper of mine: Stephen Basdeo, ‘ “That’s Business”: Organised Crime in G.W.M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 53-75.

[15] Anon. ‘[untitled article]’, The Times, 9 December 1864, 6.

[16] Philip Curry and Steeve Mongrain, ‘What is a Criminal Organization and why does the Law Care?’, Global Crime, 10: 1-2 (2009), 6–23 (p. 6).

[17] For a definition of organised crime see Mark Galeotti, ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction’, Global Crime, 9: 1-2 (2008), 1-7 (p. 6); Galeotti bases his definition upon previous research presented in Howard Abadinsky, Organized Crime, 3rd Edn. (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1990).

[18] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 2, p. 187.

[19] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, II, p. 218.

[20] Stephen Knight, The Mysteries of the Cities: Urban Crime Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), p. 2.

[21] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p. 149.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p. 58.

[24] Ibid., p. 6.

[25] Stergios Skaperdas, ‘The Political Economy of Organised Crime: Providing Protection When the State Does Not’, Economics of Governance No. 2 (2001), pp. 173-202 (p. 180).

[26] The Quarterly Review Vol. 129, No.257 (1870), pp. 87-129.

[27] Histories of policing and detection in Britain include: Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (London: Penguin, 2009); Iain Channing, The Police and the Expansion of Public Order Law in Britain, 1829-2014 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015); Chris A. Williams, Police Control Systems in Britain, 1775-1975: From Parish Constable to National Computer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014); Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 3rd Edn. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014); Gregory J. Durston, Burglars and Bobbies: Crime and Policing in Victorian London (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2012).

[28] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p. 5.

[29] Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900, 2nd Edn. (London: Longman, 1996), p. 234.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), pp. 201-10, 583-96.

[33] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p.60.

[34] See Judith Sackville-O’Donnell, The First Fagin the True Story of Ikey Solomon (Melbourne: Acland, 2002).

[35] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p. 60.

[36] Fiona Robertson, Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 118-19.

[37] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, II, p. 83.

[38] Piers D Mitchell, et al. ‘The Study of Anatomy in England from 1700 to the Early 20th Century’, Journal of Anatomy, 219: 2 (2011), 91-99.

[39] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p. 127.

[40] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, II, p. 238.

[41] David Anzola et al. ‘National Mafia-Type Organisations: Local Threat, Global Reach’, in Social Dimensions of Organised Crime: Modelling the Dynamics of Extortion Rackets, ed. by Corinna Elsenbroich, David Anzola and Nigel Gilbert (New York: Springer, 2016), pp. 9-25.

[42] Anon. [online], The Times 11 December 1849, accessed 21 December 2016. Available at: http://www.victorianlondon.org/crime/extortion.

[43] Joseph S. Bonica, ‘The Unmanly Fear: Extortion Before the Twentieth Century’, Law, Crime and History, 3: 2 (2013), pp. 1-29.

[44] Old Bailey Online, William Fletcher, James Chittem Theft > extortion,1st February 1841 (t18410201-645), accessed 11 January 2017. Available at: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org.

[45] Old Bailey Online, George Middleditch, Theft > extortion, 19th August 1844 (t18440819-1916), accessed 11 January 2016. Available at: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org

[46] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p. 149.

[47] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, II, pp. 253–54.

[48] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, II, p. 271.

[49] Helen Macfarlane, Trans. ‘Manifesto of the German Communist Party’, The Red Republican, 9 November 1850, 161–62 (p. 162).

[50] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [online], The Communist Manifesto (1848), accessed 4 August 2020. Available at: http://www.marxists.org. See the famous opening lines: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies’. On Marx’s Das Capital and its connection to Dante see William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton University Press, 2017).

[51] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, and the Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1820), p. 135.

[52] Ibid. p. 149.

[53] Ibid., p. 150.

[54] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[55] Ibid., p. 5.

[56] Ibid., p. 93.

[57] Ibid., p. 51.

[58] Ibid., pp. 99-101.

[59] Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 13-14.

[60] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, Vol. 1, p. 149.

[61] Ibid., p. 418.

[62] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, Vol. 2, p. 187.

[63] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, pp. 304-10.

[64] Ibid., p. 192.

[65] Ibid., p. 196.

[66] Ibid.

[67] For discussions of the ‘criminal class’ see the following works: Randall McGowen, ‘Getting to Know the Criminal Class in Nineteenth-century England’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 14: 1 (1990), pp. 33-54; Drew Gray, Crime, Policing & Punishment in England, 1660-1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 19-21; Emsley, Crime and Society in England, pp. 56-91.

[68] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 65: This is in contrast, of course, to the early modern idea that crime was the product of original sin.

[69] Emsley, Crime and Society in England, p. 56.

[70] William Augustus Miles, Poverty, Mendicity, and Crime (London, 1839), p. 45, cited in Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999), p. 1.

[71] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, Vol. 2, p. 95.

[72] Ibid.

[73] George Robb, White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 31-32.

[74] Robb, White-Collar Crime, p.34.

[75] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, III, p. 404.

[76] Robb, White-Collar Crime, p.3.

[77] Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.

[78] Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, p.3.

[79] Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.

[80] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, I, p.191.

[81] This is a revised and expanded version of an article which originally appeared on my blog: Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘The Mysteries of New York’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, 16 May 2018, accessed 4 July 2020. Available at: http://www.gesteofrobinhood.com

[82] John W. Frick, ‘The Wicked City Motif on the American Stage before the Civil War’, New Theatre Quarterly 77, 20: 1 (2004), 19-27 (p. 21)

[83] Ned Buntline, The Mysteries of New York: A Tale of Real Life (London: Milner [n. d.]), p. 22.

[84] Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (New York: Knopf, 1928), p. 31.

[85] J.M. Rymer, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ed. by R.L. Mack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.3

[86] Rymer, p.55

[87] Rymer, p.261

[88] Rymer, p.276

[89] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 273

[90] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Machine Breakers’. Past and Present, 1 (1952), p. 58

[91] S. Powell, ‘Black Markets and Cadaverous Pies: The Corpse, Urban Trade and industrial Consumption in the Penny Blood’, in Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation, ed. by A. Maunder and G. Moore, G. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 45-58, p. 46

[92] Rebecca Nesvet [online], ‘Welcome to the Pie Manufactory: Sweeney Todd and The String of Pearls’, Ethos, accessed 4 August 2014. Available at: http://www.ethosreview.org

[93] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-century London (Manchester University Press, 2011), p. 83.

[94] Victor Hugo [online], Les Miserables, Trans. Isabel F. Hapgood, 5 vols (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1887), accessed 12 July 2020. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org.

[95] Richard Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1992), pp. 191–224.

[96] Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, II, p. 4.

[97] G.W.M. Reynolds, Trans. Songs of Twilight (Paris: Librarie des Etrangers, 1836), pp. vi–vii.

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