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The Wounded Egotist

A great deal of bankrupt vanity had taken quite the malignant shape.

Thomas Carlyle

n the surface, life was as amusing as ever. Thurtell, who was again in money, took the lease of another public house, the Cock in the Haymarket, and acquired an interest in a house in Manchester Buildings, Westminster, a stone's throw from the Thames, which was to be a repository for fraudulently obtained goods. Yet he was uneasy. All around him there were ominous portents. His brother Tom was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; and in May his old friend Squire Elliot met his lurid end. That gentleman of fortune was awakened one morning in his house in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, by the sheriff's officer, come to arrest him for debt. Dressed only in his nightshirt, he begged a moment's leave. Retiring to his bedroom,
he sat down and put a horse pistol to his belly. The jurors at the coroner's inquest charitably returned a verdict of insanity.

A Greek chorus could not more effectually have admonished Thurtell of the fleeting nature of a sporting man's prosperity. He had long been accustomed to defy conventional prudences and restraints, and had trusted to the charm and swagger of his person to see him through. But it was not enough; charm, he now conceived, was nothing without an income; he must look about him if he were to procure a steady stream of funds.

Among the habitués of the Cock was a wine merchant named Probert. He was in his early thirties, and of a gigantic physical stature; his wine business had recently failed, with debts of £14,000. But he was not stony broke, for some years before he had married a Miss Noyes, the generously dowered daughter of a prosperous brewer whose money was beyond the reach of his creditors. Miss Noyes—she was now Mrs. Probert—had an unwed sister with dowry money of her own. Here, Thurtell thought, was the means to an income.

One day, Probert took Thurtell down to his country “lodge,” a cottage near Radlett in Hertfordshire, where he introduced him to his sister-in-law. When Thurtell returned to London, he professed himself in love with the lady. The comely Miss Dodson was peremptorily dismissed; her embraces no longer pleased him; he
wed Miss Noyes. She, however, had promised her hand to another, a Major Woods. Thurtell determined to supplant the obnoxious rival, and whenever practicable he went down to Probert's cottage to call upon the lady. But it was in vain; a chum of Thurtell's recalled how “one Saturday, when he was going down there, he met Major Woods and Miss Noyes coming to town in company together.” This “very much vexed and mortified him”; but when he endeavored to retrieve the situation by writing love letters to Miss Noyes, they “were either unnoticed or returned under cover.” This “only served to irritate” Thurtell still more, and “he inveighed most bitterly against Woods.”

The failure of the love-suit was followed by a still more consequential reverse. A grand jury indicted Thurtell for conspiracy to defraud Barber Beaumont's County Fire Office.
For the first time, his bright assurance failed him. An abyss had opened up before him, and he was consumed by morose thoughts. In his bedroom above the Cock, he poured forth a stream of vituperation against those who had betrayed him, punctuating the wild invectives with bullets fired from an air gun. But the Cock itself soon became too hot for him; there were warrants out against him, and he was liable to arrest at any moment. Probert advised him to take refuge in the Coach and Horses, an inn on Conduit Street. Mr. Tetsall, the proprietor, was an obliging fellow and would “keep a good look-out” for him.

At the Coach and Horses, the wounded egotist wallowed in his grievances. He dreamt of revenge. Major Woods was to be the first victim. Thurtell would invent some spurious pretext to entice him to come to the warehouse in Manchester Buildings, where he would bludgeon him to death with a pair of dumbbells. One of his confederates, a slow-witted fellow named Joe Hunt, promised to assist him in the business.

Dressed as a servant, Hunt went one morning to Major Woods's lodgings in Castle Street and told him that Mrs. Brew (a great friend of Woods's) wished him to come at once to a house in Westminster. Major Woods followed Hunt to 10 Manchester Buildings. The door was ajar, and Hunt went in, expecting Woods to follow. But when he looked round, he saw that Woods had stopped on the threshold, being “no doubt deterred from going in” by the sight of Thurtell standing “at the foot of the stairs, close to the back parlour door, with his coat and shoes off, a red shawl over his head to disguise him, and a dumb bell in each hand ready to strike.”
Deterred Major Woods no doubt was, and a moment later was seen judiciously running off.

“It was lucky for him he did run,” Thurtell said, “or else he would never have run again.” He toyed with other plans for doing away with Major Woods, but in the meantime his cronies were becoming impatient. “Damn and blast Woods,” one of them exclaimed. “What is the use of killing him? Barber Beaumont is the man we want out of the way.” “Never fear,” Thurtell replied: “he is booked . . . you may depend on it.” And indeed, for several nights Thurtell lay in wait for Beaumont with his air gun. But Beaumont, too, eluded him.

The jury was satisfied that before the fire in Watling Street, Thurtell had sold the fabrics he had insured to two purchasers, William Steadman, a merchant in Cumberland Street, and the firm of Margrave & Co. His actual losses in the fire did not exceed a hundred pounds.


Ultra Flash Men

Weare, Thurtell, Hunt, and Probert, were all
sporting blades
, ultra
flash men
, and gamblers—preying alike upon each other. . . .

The Fatal Effects of Gambling (1824)

he maples were beginning to change color when, on an afternoon in October 1823, Jack Thurtell and his brother Tom were walking in Spring Gardens, near the eastern end of St. James's Park. With them was Joe Hunt. As they approached Rexworthy's billiard rooms, Jack expressed a desire to go in. He exchanged a few words with Rexworthy himself, then went over to a fastidiously dressed little man who was sitting at one of the tables.

“Mr. Weare, how are you?”

Weare stood up and shook hands. After an interchange of pleasantries, the two men left the room together. When, some twenty
minutes later, they returned, Tom Thurtell said he must be off. Jack, too, had to be going, and he and Hunt went out together. Hunt would later recall how, as they went up the Haymarket, Jack told him how he had accused Weare of cheating him with false cards. “You dare not say a word,” Weare had replied, “for you know you have defrauded your creditors of that money”; and he had afterwards refused Thurtell a loan of five pounds. “Go and rob for it as I do,” he told the desperate supplicant.

“I do not forget this treatment,” Thurtell said.

While Thurtell struggled in the pit, another young man, a year his junior, was beginning his ascent from the regions of the damned. In October 1823, Thomas Carlyle was living in Kinnaird House in the Tay Valley of Scotland, having sequestered himself to “clean and purify” himself in the “penal fire” of his own inward inferno. It was (he supposed) the price of illumination. As his fellow mystic and somewhatish friend De Quincey said, “Either the human being must suffer and struggle as the price of a more searching vision, or his gaze must be shallow, and without intellectual revelation.” After a tussle in the pit “with the foul and vile and soul-murdering Mud-Gods” of his epoch, Carlyle took up the prophetic mantle and howled, much as Isaiah and Jeremiah had howled before him. The customs of his people were vain: fed on a diet of materialism and rationalism, they were withered up, he said, “into effete Prose, dead as ashes.” Having sacrificed the native splendor of their being on the altars of profit and loss, they were become automatized, pattern-figure persons, unacquainted with the “mystic deeps” of their souls. They had sold their birthright for a mess of merchandise, and were less content than ever.

It was, Carlyle said, characteristic of his generation that it should crave romance, yet fail to see that romance was all around them. Even in an age of prose and political economy, there were
romantic passions great enough to “suspend men from bed-posts” and “from improved-drops at the west end of Newgate” prison. A passion that “explosively shivers asunder the Life it took rise in,” he wrote, “ought to be regarded as considerable; no more passion, in the highest heyday of Romance, yet did. The passions, by grace of the Supernal and also of the Infernal Powers (for both have a hand in it), can never fail us.” Yet Carlyle's own passional architecture was warped. His words and thoughts were as iron, but his manhood was soft, flaccid—limp. As he lay amid the doleful shades of Kinnaird House, he was courting, through the post, Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he was later to marry. The marriage would never be consummated, and the passion that found no healthy outlet became muckish and unclean, like the waters of a standing pond. Ever thrifty, Carlyle converted his thwarted passion into the prose with which he made his name and reputation. Time has since tarnished his fame as an Eminent Victorian; but for the historian of murder he will always have his value. The morose star-voyaging philosopher, angrily condemning the “dim millions mostly blockhead” whom he simultaneously sought to enlighten, was able to cut to the core of a lowly, flesh-and-blood crime more readily than those who, as Lord Byron said of himself, had no “poetical humbug” in them and piqued themselves on their practicality. There was “endless mystery,” Carlyle said, in even the crudest
, a “Sentence printed if not by God, then at least by the Devil,” a “hieroglyphic page” in which one could “read on forever, find new meaning forever.” Of all those who were soon to interest themselves in the facts of Jack Thurtell's murderous career, few would see farther into their significance than Thomas Carlyle.

In the middle of October, Thurtell went again to Rexworthy's and spoke affably to Weare. Rexworthy afterwards heard from Weare himself an account of the conversation and supposed that the two
men were reconciled. So far from nursing a grudge against his old antagonist, Thurtell had invited him to come down to Hertfordshire with him for few days' shooting. Weare had accepted the invitation.

Not long afterwards, Thurtell came across Hunt in the Coach and Horses. “Hunt,” he said, “I wish you would take a walk with me.”

It was a brisk fall day, the mercury reaching fifty-six. The two men, the one tall and commanding, the other short and sullen-faced, went up to Oxford Street together and crossed into Marylebone, where they stopped before the window of a jeweler's shop. Thurtell was intrigued by a pair of pistols on display. They went in, and Thurtell told the shop-man he wanted to kill some cats. He purchased both guns.

When Thurtell and Hunt returned to the Coach and Horses, Probert was there. He chided Thurtell for his failure to “book” Major Woods. “You made a bad business of that, Jack,” he said, adding that he doubted whether an air gun could kill a man “on the spot.”

Thurtell brandished his newly acquired pistols. “I know that as well as you, Bill, or what the hell should I buy these pops for? I was a bloody fool to go all the way to my friend Harper, at Norwich, to borrow the air gun.”

They melted the lead to make the balls and cast four bullets.

Probert said he doubted whether the balls were large enough to kill a man “on the spot.”

“You would be damned sorry to have one of them through your head, small as they are,” Thurtell replied.

The pistols were loaded, and Hunt greased the hammers and the triggers.

“Bill,” he said to Probert, “will you be in it?”


Lyon's Inn

But I full of thoughts and trouble touching the issue of this day; and to comfort myself did go to the Dog and drink half-a-pint of mulled sack. . . .

BOOK: Murder by Candlelight
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