Friday, December 12, 2008

King of the Garrotters

Signals of Distress by Blanchard Jerrold, London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co. 1863.

Blanchard’s book was meant as an inquiry into the condition of the poor, but in one section he inadvertently recorded the title and much of the text of a broadside Dying Confession that took a topical subject : garrotting ; and ran with the story, using a ‘cock,’ or invented story, that played off of a common subjects of street conversation and rumour. Garroting referred to the ugly practice where footpads strangled their victims into unconsciousness before looting them of their valuables. Many scholars think that the amount of garrotting was exaggerated but judging by the amount of news accounts I have uncovered I would say it was a very real, widespread and terrifying occurrence.

In the Seven Dials, “where the great gin-palaces blaze with gas on every corner,” on a Saturday night, Blanchard Jerrold was attracted by a crowd reading a poster in front of a store that sold tobacco and cheap literature. In addition to appearing in shop-windows the poster was meant to be bawled through the streets by the hawkers :-

“The Fearful and Appalling Dying Confession of Andrew Garrotte (a Returned Convict), the King of the Garrotters. The horrors of transportation ! Life in the bush and at the diggings in Australia, where, in company with other criminals of Newgate notoriety, he murdered 256 unfortunate helpless gold-diggers. In the ‘bushes’ he cohabited with the paramour of Burke and Hare, who, it will be remembered, was sent, at her wish, to Australia, after she had turned King’s evidence against those human butchers. Andrew Garrotte narrates this woman’s awful end in startling language. She died raving mad ! Andrew Garrotte studied Thugism, and, having committed a series of fiendish barbarities, he returned to England in the ship ‘Mary.’ In London he made friends with two ticket-of-leave men, and having slightly altered Thugism, they at once commenced garrotting. The three were termed ‘Front Stall,’ ‘Back Stall,’ and ‘Ugly Man ;’ and Andrew Garrotte confesses to have murdered six people in London in three months, and to have cut fingers and ears off to obtain jewellery. The back slums of London; the garrotter’s home and women; depravity and vice; Concluding with Andrew Garrotte’s dying advice to the unprotected populace of London, showing how people may walk the streets in safety.”

A copy purchased by Blanchard shows that the story lived up to it’s promise. It survives as a living example of the penny-a-liner’s art. There was a garrotting scare but the creation of Andrew Garrotte was pure fiction. The notoriety of any criminal who killed six people in three months in the city of London would have survived in newspaper accounts and folktales to this very day. The immortal Jack the Ripper only killed five victims. The author, says Jerrold, “speaks from experience.” The story of the King of the Garrotters “comes direct from the places it describes. It is a genuine bit of slum literature, that will fall into the hands of many an honest lad, whom poverty has driven to be the next-door neighbour of a cracksman.”

Andrew Garrotte tells his confession in the first person, using familiar thieves slang; of how he was born in 1816 to a coiner and a prostitute named “Flash” Poll. In league with his mother he robbed shop-keepers, picked pockets, gambled and swore. He delighted in scenes of atrocious cruelty. “This delight was greatly encouraged by my parents, for my father taught me to skin a live cat, when I was but nine years old, and my mother, who afterwards sold the skin for 2s., laughed at the sport.” His father was transported when Andrew was 13 and his mother deserted him to the streets of Westminster. He made his living as a thief and was finally, after many scrapes with the law, transported to Australia.

Once back in London he worked “the ‘garrotting business’ on principles of Thugism and Millbank Penitentiary silence system.” It’s odd that the author of this tract for the working classes does not write down to his readers, who would be assumed to be near illiterate. “But again must I speak of death. In London and round it’s suburbs we murdered six people in three months. Indeed, it almost seemed that we could commit the same atrocities in police-protected London as we could at the police-less diggings. Amongst other cruelties perpetrated, we have two or three times cut fingers or ears off to obtain jewelery, if we had not time to wrench them off.”

His advice to readers on evading the garrotters was given as promised; walk in the middle of the road, spring a large rattle (cost 1s. 6d.), or “have two very sharp spikes attached to your elbows with leather thongs, and one on each heel of your boot. Thus simply equipped, and thus walking in the middle of the road - if you are out late at night- and I guarantee that you are safe from all attacks from garrotters.”

“Now I have done! my games of death are over. The dark curtain of eternity is about to be drawn between me and you. Angels fled weeping from my side, and the spirits of sin are hovering round my bed in glee. Horror upon horror ! Hold ! it shall not be said- though I have confessed my crimes- that the King of Garrotters ‘rounded on his mates or died a cur.’ Reader, suffice it, may you die happier, and a better man than I.- Andrew Garrotte.”

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