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  • Victorian Urban Legend: Pickpocket Death November 28, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Beach has taken great joy over the years in celebrating the Victorian pickpocket. This figure, a positive urban legend magnet, offers a lot of fun to the casual reader. Here is a particularly nice story, the hero (or antagonist?) is Mr White a good and honest preacher. He has been told that a man is dying and needs ghostly counsel:

    Mr. White at once dressed and accompanied his guide through the purlieus of what he recognised as the lowest quarter in his pariah. Arrived at a house he was, after some parley between the woman and the custodian of the door, admitted and followed the wife into the back-room. Here he found a still young man lying on the bed, evidently close at the gates of death. It was a squalid room, but Mr White noticed that the thin candles were set in a massive silver candlestick, whilst about the room were strewed many articles of portable property of a character strangely diverge from the ordinary poverty of the apartment. He spoke to the sick man some words of comfort, and finally promised to pray with him. As he spoke he observed a gleam in the sick man’s eye, and following his glance saw that it rested on the slight gold watch chain that hung from the pocket of his waistcoat. Leaning over the man he prayed for him, the wife standing by bitterly. Where the ‘amen’ should have come in, he heard the death-rattle in the man’s throat, and moved away. Then discovered that the dead man’s fingers were entwined in his watch-chain, and he quickly started back the watch came out and fell on the bed. The man was a noted burglar and pickpocket, and even in the throes of death had been unable to resist the temptation unconsciously pat in his way.

    A couple of thoughts here. The story is entertaining. But for a pious nineteenth-century audience the lesson here is surely that the pickpocket damns himself by not properly repenting: or is that too histrionic and Catholic, the priest was actually Anglican? Second, the story does not come from a friend of a friend, but rather from Mr White himself. He was chaplain of the House of Commons and allegedly told the story in Parliament. It does not, unfortunately, appear in Hansard, though presumably it emanated from the good White? Other pickpocket stories: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    The sources is Edinburgh Evening News (25 Jan 1890), 3

    8 Dec 2016: Bruce T writes, ‘That one is older than the dirt they buried the fellow in. It would be interesting to see how far back it goes. I heard a simplified version of it as a boy. I also saw it used as device in a slew movies and cowboy shows as a kid, with the pickpocket normally faking his death to get the chance to swipe the watch, or even better, our hero drawing the bad guys in to hear his last words on where the old treasure/map/deed might be, then grabbing a gun to get the jump on them, and haul ’em off to jail.’