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Authors: Michael Knox Beran

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Some patricians, so far from discouraging their sons from gambling, took pains to initiate them in the costly amusement. Among these was Henry Fox, Lord Holland, who educated his boys, Lord Shelburne wrote, with an “extravagant vulgar indulgence.” In the spring of 1763, Lord Holland “could think of no better diversion than to take Charles from his books, and convey him to the Continent on a round of idleness and dissipation. At Spa his amusement was to send him every night to the gaming-table with a pocketful of gold; and, (if family tradition may be trusted where it tells against family credit,) the parent took not a little pains to contrive that the boy should leave France a finished rake.” Charles James Fox was fourteen years old at the time, and a scholar at Eton. On the other hand, it is said that the Duke of Wellington became a member of Crockford's only in order that he might blackball his son, Lord Douro, in the event he sought election to the club. The Duke, who thought nothing of the satire of cartoonists, admitted that there was one caricature of himself that genuinely pained him—Douro.


The Rake's Progress

flesh'd villains, bloody dogs


adesmill, a pleasant village on the road from London to Cambridge, stands not far from Ware, the old brewing town. Thurtell went down in the company of Miss Dodson and took rooms in the Feathers, a coaching inn still extant. It was a brilliant time. “Squire” Elliot, Hickman's principal backer, was there; so, too, was Baird, the proprietor of a hazard table in Oxenden Street. Thurtell was in his element, and he soon devised a training regimen for Hickman: “exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise.” But after a hard day of physical exertion, a little play could do no harm, and in the evenings Thurtell took his seat at the card table.

His luck had changed for the better. Mr. Weare, whom Thurtell knew from Rexworthy's, had joined the company, as “neat and clean
in his person” as ever. Whether he brought his gun and hunting dogs with him—Weare was fond of a day's shooting—has not transpired; but Thurtell was doubtless gratified to find himself beating the veteran player so regularly at Blind Hookey.

Weare affected the character of a lawyer—more precisely, of a solicitor; and he had chambers in Lyon's Inn, the nursery of such luminaries of the Bar as John Selden and Sir Edward Coke. But he was not a lawyer. A “man of low birth” and “slender education,” he had started in life as a tavern waiter. Later he found a place in a gaming house, got up a thinnish veneer of gentlemanliness, and by degrees became a croupier and a leg. In addition to his
Rouge et Noir
table in Pall Mall, he had an interest in a couple of gaming houses in the East End. No spider, it was said, darted with more alacrity upon a fly than Weare upon a novice gambler. After drawing Thurtell in with an affectation of unskillfulness, he took him for £300, skinning him of his last sovereign guinea.

Thurtell's situation was now desperate. The £1,500 he had filched from his creditors was gone. The license of the Black Boy was revoked. And yet we catch a glimpse of him, in December 1821, in all his habitual swagger, riding in the Bath Mail to Newbury. At Reading a fellow passenger, who had been up on the box with the coachman, took shelter from a dripping mist in the saloon of the coach, and there made the acquaintance of Thurtell. Both men were going up for the fight between William Neate and the “gas-light man,” and Thurtell expounded to his brother aficionado his philosophy of training: “exercise and abstinence, abstinence and exercise.” He soon fell into a heavy slumber. But his fellow passenger did not forget him; he was William Hazlitt, and he recorded his encounter with Thurtell in his essay “The Fight.”

In the summer of 1822, as Thurtell descended ever deeper into the hell of gaming, another hell-diver was exploring a different pit. Thomas De Quincey, thirty-six years old, had in his own explorations of the abyss already made notable discoveries, and the previous year that black pearl of English letters, the
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
, had appeared in installments in the
London Magazine
. The writing had cost De Quincey great pains, and he had found himself relying on the very opium-demon he was anatomizing to see the piece through the press. But in the summer of 1822 he was trying to wean himself from his “dark idol,” the opium tincture known as laudanum to which he had for many years been addicted.

De Quincey had been born in 1785, in Liverpool, the son of a prosperous merchant who died young. He was a brilliant scholar; “that boy,” one of his schoolmasters said, “could harangue an Athenian mob, better than you or I could an English one.” But the boy could not endure a settled routine. He ran away from school; had adventures in Wales; explored the “unfathomed” depths of London. He dissipated his fortune; studied at Oxford without taking a degree; was admitted to the society of the Lake Poets, and had become friends with its two foremost figures, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Such experiences, duly recorded in books and essays, were the foundation of De Quincey's literary reputation: so also was his opium-taking. For opium was not merely the subject of the book that made him famous: it was a literary tool, one that, if it was ruinous to his health, enabled him to illuminate those deeper levels of experience which the eighteenth-century writers had overlooked.

Perhaps, then, it was for the best that his attempt to kick the habit failed. “I must premise,” De Quincey wrote a friend from his retreat at Fox Ghyll in the Lake District, “that about 170 or 180 drops [of laudanum] had been my ordinary allowance for many
months. Occasionally I had run up as high as five hundred, and once nearly to 700.
In repeated preludes to my final experiment I had also gone as low as 100 drops, but had found it impossible to stand it beyond the fourth day, which, by the way, I have always found more difficult to get over than any of the preceding three.” “I went off,” he said, “under easy sail—130 drops a day for three days; on the fourth I plunged . . . to 80. The misery which I now suffered ‘took the conceit' out of me at once; and for about a month I continued off and on about this mark; then I sunk to 60, and the next day to—none at all. This was the first day for nearly ten years that I had existed without opium.” It was agony—“
infandum dolorem
,” grief not to be uttered, though symptoms might be enumerated: “violent biliousness; rheumatic pains; then pains resembling internal rheumatism—and many other evils; but all trifles compared with the unspeakable, overwhelming, unutterable misery of mind which came on in one couple of days, and has continued almost unabatingly ever since.”

As De Quincey lay, that summer, in a darkened room, “tossing and sleepless for want of opium,” he amused himself “with composing the imaginary
Confessions of a Murderer
,” the “subject being,” he said, “exquisitely diabolical.” These murderous
were never committed to paper, or at any rate were never delivered to the world; but the exercise bore fruit in a little essay on murder, the first of several De Quincey would write. It was to shed a curious light on what was to be the most notorious murder of the age.

In spite of so many reversals of fortune, Jack Thurtell was as sanguine as ever, and in the autumn of 1822 he even appeared to
contemplate a return to the crape-and-bombazine business. He purchased £500 worth of fabric, the money apparently furnished him by his father in Norwich; and he leased a space in Watling Street in the East End, just above a wine-and-spirits shop kept by a man named Penny. He then set about making repairs to the property. These were of a peculiar nature; and it was noted that, among other things, he instructed the carpenter to board up all the windows of the place. A short time later, he went to the offices of the County Fire Office in Regent Street. There, in a spacious office overlooking Piccadilly Circus, he insured the merchandise at Watling Street for £2,500.

Not long afterward, in January 1823, he went out on the town. He crossed Westminster Bridge into Lambeth, and in the Mitre Tavern came upon an acquaintance, Joseph Ensor, a young clerk in the Bank of England. They had a drink together, and Thurtell told Ensor he had tickets for the opera. Would Ensor care to join him? It happened that some of Ensor's family were to be at the opera that night, and the young man accepted the invitation. It was snowing when they reached Covent Garden. The opera was
Maid Marian
, the story drawn, the playbill said, “from one of Mr. Peacock's very clever novels.” Afterwards, Thurtell and Ensor sauntered in the crush-room. But the crowd was great, and Ensor could see nothing of his family. It was snowing hard when he and Thurtell went out again. Ensor proposed that they go for a drink at the Cock, a tavern in the Haymarket. “No,” Thurtell said, “I will take you to a better place; I will take you to the Saloon in Piccadilly.”

In the Saloon they sat carousing till a late hour. The snow lay deep in Piccadilly when, at half past four, they ventured forth. “It was the most dreadful night I ever remember,” Ensor said; “there was snow half up the leg.”

“Let us try and get a coach,” he said to Thurtell.

But there were no coaches to be had, and he and Thurtell made their way through the snow on foot. When they reached the King's Mews, where the National Gallery now stands, Thurtell said, “You
had better go and take a bed at the warehouse” in Watling Street. “No,” Ensor said, “I will go to my mother's.” They parted. Ensor went down Whitehall, where he heard the Horse Guards' clock striking five. Thurtell went east to the Strand and reached his lodgings on Garlick Hill sometime before dawn.

The next morning, he was lying in bed with Miss Dodson when the washerwoman came in, greatly excited. Mr. Penny's shop in Watling Street was in flames.

Thurtell lounged languidly in the bed.

“Thurtell,” Miss Dodson said, “the warehouse is on fire; get up, come on, get up!”

Thurtell called for the landlady and told her to grease his boots (to protect the leather against the snow). He later submitted a claim to the County Fire Office for £1,913 in losses as a result of the conflagration.

Thurtell seemed at last to have gotten the better of fortune. But Barber Beaumont, the head of the County Fire Office, was suspicious. Thurtell, he conceded, appeared to have a solid alibi, having been out all night with a Bank of England man. But curiously enough, no traces of burnt fabric were found in the ashes of Watling Street. Nor had Thurtell been able to produce the customary certification, signed by two inhabitants of the parish, that the fire was the result of accident, not arson. Beaumont refused to pay. Thurtell brought suit against him and won his case. The court awarded him £1,900. As for poor Mr. Penny, the wine-and-spirits man, he had no insurance and was ruined.

De Quincey said that at the height of his opium addiction he had taken “so large a quantity as a thousand drops” of laudanum a day.

BOOK: Murder by Candlelight
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