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BAD MARY 1779

*

Mary’s youngest sister Nora Whiston had grown into quite some young lady. By the end of 1779 she was nineteen and working as a maidservant for a gentle butcher, a man called John Carpenter, his wife Ann and their son Joseph in Dean Street, just off Fetter Lane. The girl had only been with the family for six months and already blotted her copybook.

‘She got up on my bed once with two or three fellows,’ the butcher’s wife said, ‘and broke down my bed.’

Quite what Nora could possibly be doing is not recorded but Ann Carpenter had her own theories;

‘She is a whore.’

Most employers would have dispensed with their servants had they found them shagging anybody in their own bunk, let alone servicing several young men in such an enthusiastic fashion but Ann Carpenter was evidently a very understanding woman.

‘I’d given her civil warning,’ she said, not that her words had any effect at all on the girl’s behavior. If anything, they probably made it worse.

Nora was obviously not the innocent she professed to be. Perhaps, faced with the inevitable prospect of dismissal she opted to go out with a bang at a time of her own choosing, perhaps she was duped, perhaps the temptation of John Carpenter’s cash box was too much for her – most probably all three – whatever the reason an elaborate plan was formed to rob the good butcher.

According to Nora it was all Mary Higgins’ fault.

*

When she was in town Mary moved between her sisters for a bed, sharing their upstairs rooms on occasion when the master’s back was turned, spending the rest of her time out and about, God only knows where or with whom. She was certainly down in town for Christmas 1779, sleeping in a garret somewhere between St. Andrew and St. Sepulcre’s watch houses in Holborn, deep in the warren of streets that had grown up around Smithfield Market.  Her elder sister lived on the first floor and her youngest was not far away.

Nora said ‘that her sister had been with her above a week before to induce her to rob me,’ and she may have had a point; there were probably few people who could withstand Mary Higgins in full flight, least of all her younger sister. Mary’s visits were clandestine; the Carpenters ran their shop at fixed hours, their whereabouts were largely predictable so when the cat was away, the Whiston sisters could play.

‘She [Mary] has been several times concealed in the house,’ the butcher said later, ‘and lain with the maid without my knowledge.’

Nora had long ago found the Carpenter’s hiding place for their weekly takings; hours every day spent combing through her employer’s belongings had thrown up every secret they possessed. Amongst her several accomplishments she turns out to be a budding locksmith, owned a set of ‘pick-lock keys’ and later admitted ‘she could open any door in the house,’ so that locked wooden box perched on top of the wardrobe in her master’s bedroom presented little challenge.

It didn’t take too smart a girl to work out that the takings were going to be at their absolute maximum right after the Christmas/New Year holiday, just before the banks were open again after the break – all that income from the festive season neatly piled in golden guineas just waiting to be nicked.

*

John Carpenter was flat out feeding the good folk of Fleet Market when he noticed the lass slip out the front door. He didn’t give it much thought; New Years Day 1780 was a huge trading day for the butcher – he was far too busy to care about the comings and goings of a maidservant.

Nora normally headed back to the Carpenter home to prepare lunch in the morning but on this occasion the girl ‘staid longer than her common time… she was gone from ten till about three before she returned to my shop again.’

John thought no more about it. The day drew to a close around ten p.m., the blood and bone was cleaned away and the shop finally closed.

‘It was after midnight,’ he said, ‘my son, my apprentice, my wife, myself and Eleanor Whiston all went home together… ‘

The tired group didn’t have far to walk; Fleet Market was a small local market just on the other side of Fleet Street – there probably wasn’t much conversation as they all staggered up Fetter Lane by lantern light. They took a right into Dean Street. Carpenter’s place was half-way along and his son Joseph went ahead to unlock the door. As it swung open the group stood looking in amazement – the house had been robbed.

With ‘a great deal of courage’ Nora was first into the room.

‘Lord have mercy upon me,’ she squawked, ‘here’s a piece of work!’

Showtime!

*

*

The rest of the group stumbled in. The house had been ransacked.

‘My wife’s clothes lay all about the room [and] my clothes were flung about in the next room on the bed and the floor. We looked in the other room and there was a door broke open …’

Then Carpenter remembered the Christmas takings hidden in a box on the top of a corner cupboard ‘which went up almost close to the ceiling.’

His wife Ann knew exactly how much was inside.  Forty hard earned guineas.

‘I counted the money that day at eight o’clock, and put it there,’ she said angrily, ‘they were all good guineas; I put in five guineas that day to make it up even.’

Carpenter groaned.

‘I bid my wife see if the money was safe, but I was afraid it was gone… ‘

Forty guineas was a great deal of money; enough to get half Fetter Lane hanged if they could catch who stole it. Not that anybody had to look very far. John looked at his wife, Ann looked back and together they both looked at Nora Whiston – she had ‘guilty’ written all over her face.

Nora protested, ran rapidly through her known gamut of emotions but, despite the recital, was dragged up the road to St. Andrew’s watch-house on Holborn and placed in custody to sweat on her fate.

*

Carpenter’s son Joseph was a kind young man. He urged Nora to spill the beans. ‘It’d be better,’ he said later, ’if she knew anything of it, to confess.’

Nora motioned him to one side and dobbed her sister in. It was all Mary Higgins’ fault.

According to Nora her sister turned up outside the house about one p.m., barely twelve hours previous, probably with young William on her hip. Nora was back from the market cooking dinner for the family when Mary tapped at the windows. Sweet, stupid Nora ‘let her in and shewed her where the money was.’

The lass neglected to mention that in order to do this she would have had to pick the locks on both the bedroom door and the cash-box.

Then, out of the blue, ‘her sister took the money and went out of the house and she never saw her afterwards.’

*

John Carpenter hurried down Skinner Street to St. Sepulchre’s watch-house for help. Samuel Roberts was directing the nightly parade.

‘Mr. Carpenter came up between one and two in the morning and acquainted me he had been robbed of forty guineas,’ Sam said later. ‘I asked if he had a suspicion of anybody; he said yes, of his servant maid and her two sisters. He said she was in custody at St. Andrew’s watch-house and desired me to go with him to the sister’s and take them.

I told him I couldn’t without a warrant, unless they opened the door. We went and knocked and one of the sisters opened the door.’

This must have been Ann, the most mysterious of the four Whiston girls. Sam Roberts asked where the other sister was.

‘She’s not here,’ Ann lied sweetly, ‘but she’ll be back in the morning.’

By opening the door willingly she had inadvertently given the watchman a chance to enter legally; by lying to protect her sister she had implicated herself. Now Mary’s little plot had drawn in another potential victim.

*

Either Ann was very sure her sister was not there, very confident she was well hidden or just plain stupid because she let the visitors enter the house. It’s possible she was completely unaware of events – but the arrival of forty stolen guineas in her house that very morning must have had some impact. It’s difficult to believe these three sisters weren’t as thick as the proverbial thieves.

Sam and John Carpenter ‘went upstairs and found the other sister in the garret.’  Here she is – Mary Higgins, in the flesh.

‘I searched her,’ Sam said, and found ‘eleven shillings and a half crown upon her.’

‘She behaved with a good deal of impudence,’ Carpenter added, ‘and laughed.’

We have few direct references to Mary’s personality; this sparse description gives us the only glimpse into the kind of woman she was at this time. Faced with an angry butcher and a watchman beating on her door at two a.m., discovered in hiding, body-searched, accused of complicity in the theft of enough money to have her and her sisters strung up fifty times over – what does Mary do?

She laughs.

It takes a certain kind of chutzpa to laugh in the face of such a situation, a particular lack of fear. Bullshit and bravado it undoubtedly was but Mary must have had considerable experience in the ways of her particular world to pull a stunt like that in the face of what was a very dangerous situation. In the back-street netherworld she inhabited it would be seen as courage.

*

Mary and Ann Whiston spent an uncomfortable night at St. Sepulchre’s watch-house while stupid Nora languished alone up the road in St. Andrew’s. The next morning the two older sisters joined the ragged parade of mediocrity that shuffled in front of the Compter, one Mr. Alderman Sawbridge, for their preliminary hearing, the farce that would determine whether or not they went to trial.

Just as Sam Roberts feared, Mr. Carpenter’s case fell apart. It can’t have taken long. What’s the charge? Theft of forty guineas. Where’s the evidence? None was found. Then why are they here? Because their sister Nora said they did it. Where is her evidence? She has none. Where is this sister? She’s not here. Case dismissed.

‘Mr. Sawbridge discharged them because there was no evidence against them –  except [Nora’s] confession.’

Mary and her sister ran off into the morning laughing, leaving Nora to face the music alone. Nora faced the Compter at St. Andrew’s the same day and by nightfall was in remand in Newgate on a charge of theft; simple grand larceny.

Ten days later, on January 12th 1780, faced with the judge at the Old Bailey, she changed her story and denied the lot.

Mr. Justice Nares was on his third trial for the day. He’d already consigned one young man to the gallows for the theft of fourteen guineas and some silver teapots and then sent a prostitute to the House of Correction for six months for nicking exactly the same amount of money. The Old Bailey was a wild and unpredictable place. Evidently the courts were in a good mood that day: only eight were sentenced to death – the remaining twenty all received very light sentences; whipping, imprisonment for one, three, six months for a variety of crimes. The prisoners either got a light smack or death – there was nothing in between.

‘I never saw the money,’ she lied, ‘I never knew my master had the money in my life.’

She squinted against the sunlight and professed her innocence, Isaac Ganden said his piece as a character witness, Mary Field followed suit – all to no avail.

Guilty.

*

CLICK THE KEYS FOR OLD BAILEY TRANSCRIPT:

Her sentence was a foregone conclusion, she was a goner. However, miraculously, either Nora’s patent lack of intelligence, her youth or some superlative acting on her part made an impression on the jury and they settled on a penalty more suited to the theft of a few handkerchiefs than the princely sum she’d been charged with.

Juries had the power to influence sentencing, a sort of legal amnesia clouded those cases where they felt the victim deserved a second chance, a strategic forgetfulness that might see a girl charged with one large offence yet convicted of a much smaller one. She was sentenced to be whipped, a typical punishment for naughty girls, and imprisoned for just six months.

Clearly they believed the Mary Higgins sub-plot, saw idiot Nora as the pawn in the game and sentenced her as such. So do I – headstrong Mary once again successfully orchestrated the disgrace of most of her family. Her particular greed, her persuasiveness and power had sent one sister to jail, implicated the other one, embarrassed her parents in front of their friends, involved the neighbors, Sam Roberts, two watch-houses, two Compters, the court at the Old Bailey, Mr. Justice Nares and the London Jury, let alone those of the Harrold tribe that were in on the act. In the midst of all this a kindly butcher and his family lost forty hard-earned guineas, ‘not a farthing’ of which they ever saw again.

Mary didn’t give a rat’s arse whether they lived or died. She was forty guineas richer and free as a bird. Sisterhood meant nothing at all.

*

 WHAT HAPPENED TO NORA?

 

© NIGEL TRIFFITT 2010

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