Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Base coin, forged notes, and magsmen

BASE COIN, FORGED NOTES, AND MAGSMEN.


The public, and even the police, have little idea of the system and ingenuity with which the utterers of base coin and the thieves’ gamblers pursue their nefarious avocations. The sinews of the trade are the professional thieves, and though many other classes are involved in it, yet but for the born thieves the unlawful trade would soon be virtually at an end. It is a complete system. When a returned convict wishes to enter the smashing line, he knows where he can lay out his Government gratuity money to the greatest advantage. He makes no experiments, and runs no risk with moulds, and stamps, and melted metals. Every trade has its emporium, and when a thief wants a stock of base coin, he has only to send his orders to Birmingham. They can suit him there with anything from a new farthing to an old guinea. Or if he does not care for head-quarters, there are London, Sheffield, and Manchester. So well are the manufacturers of base coin known to the regular members of the criminal profession, that there is not a thoroughbred thief in England who could not obtain for himself any amount of base coin in a fortnight or three weeks. The manufacturer of bad money generally considers himself a wholesale merchant, and seldom cares to engage in the retail trade of passing the goods. The base coin manufacturer never lives in the thieves’ quarter, but in some quiet and respectable neighbourhood. He always has some one on the alert, and his instruments are broken up on the slightest alarm. Copper and bell-metal are used for the manufacture of gold, and pewter and block tin for silver. The spoons of Messrs. Yates, of Birmingham, are so much liked as material out of which to manufacture silver coin, that nearly all the smashers now call a base silver coin a Yates. Moulds, batteries, and solutions play their several parts for the production of counterfeit money. The melted metal is poured into plaster of Paris moulds or “traps.” When the coins are cool they are well scoured, so as to make them smooth, then placed in a chemical solution, and by means of a galvanic battery the gold or silver coating is attached to them; after which they are ready for the market. Broken-down smiths, engravers, and electro-platers are the head manufacturers, but many of the habitual thieves take lessons in the art, and become accomplished in the only trade they ever learned. The scale of wholesale prices is regularly fixed, all the coins having a definite market value, and the unsliding scale is rigidly adhered to by the criminal trade, the base coin makers not being in the habit of underselling one another. The following is a regular base coin price-list, compiled from reliable sources. Bad sovereigns cost from three shillings to three and sixpence each; half sovereigns, eighteen pence to two shillings; crown pieces, ninepence to a shilling; half-crowns, fourpence halfpenny to sixpence; a florin, fourpence; one shilling, three pence; sixpence, twopence; fourpenny piece, three halfpence. Base coin is divided into soft and hard. The soft will not ring, and is only passed at races and fairs. The hard rings well, and is difficult to detect.

The methods of passing base coin are very ingenious. The straightforward “pitcher” is the most daring. He puts the base coin upon the shop counter, and takes his chance of detection. Should the shopman attempt to test his money, he will stop him if possible. He will ask the shopkeeper whether he means to insult him, snatch the halfcrown out of his hand, and threaten never to enter the shop again. The thief will sometimes pretend to stand upon his honour, and come back into the shop and insist upon having his halfcrown tested. But he has substituted a good halfcrown for the original bad coin, and so comes off with flying colours. The thief will now make a purchase, and, again changing the coin, he after all succeeds in passing his bad halfcrown. Twilight is the best time for passing bad money, and more counterfeits are passed at that time of day than at any other. The thieves always go two together for this work. One carries the base coin, but never attempts to pass any; the “pitcher” does the passing in the shops, and takes care never to enter a shop with more than one base coin upon him; so that if he comes to grief, the police find only one counterfeit upon him, and this he professes to have taken in the way of trade. Wherever a man is detected passing spurious gold or silver, his pal, the “swagsman,” is always close by. He carries all the base money, together with the small purchases which the pitcher makes in order to get rid of the “snide.” A first-class “pitcher” will do nothing lower than half-a-crown, and generally prefers gold. There is one method of passing base gold which I think would deceive any person not in the secret. The thief enters the shop with the intention of passing a bad sovereign. He makes a small purchase amounting to about eighteenpence, and offers a good sovereign in payment. The shopkeeper tests the coin, finds it to be good, and gives the thief his proper change. After receiving his change, the thief says, “Well, really it is a pity to deprive you of all this change; and, now I come to think of it, I know I have some small change about me.” The thief gives back the change, the shopkeeper returns the sovereign, which the thief puts into his pocket. He then searches for his small change, and on counting it finds that he has not quite enough, and must, after all, change his sovereign. He takes the golden coin out of his pocket again, and puts it into the hand of the shopkeeper. The tradesman has already rung and tested the sovereign, again gives the thief his change, and he walks quietly away. Nevertheless the shopkeeper is duped, and he has taken a bad sovereign. When the thief gave the sovereign the second time, he took a bad one which he kept ready in the same pocket with the good one.

Women are also very expert in passing base coin. They will go two together into a shop, make some purchases, tender a good sovereign in payment, and take their departure. In about a week after the purchase these two modest-looking and soberly dressed women return to the shop. They are very sorry to trouble the shopkeeper, but he gave them—by mistake, no doubt—a bad half-sovereign in change a week ago. The whole case is then gone into. They call to the shopman’s memory their having been in the shop a week ago; where they stood, what they bought, and who served them. A shopkeeper will occasionally, under such circumstances, take the bad half-sovereign, and give them a good one in exchange, rather than have any disturbance.

It is to be feared that a great many other people besides the professional thieves are concerned in passing bad money. Races, fairs, agricultural and other shows, furnish ample opportunity for this wretched trade. If any one doubts this, let him pass through some of these scenes, and change a few sovereigns here and there, as he goes along. He will soon find more base coin in his pockets than is agreeable. The thieves give the cab drivers and omnibus “cads” credit for a good stroke of business in base-coin transactions. The hotel waiters are classed in the same category. In times of popular gathering some of these waiters prepare themselves to reap a wicked harvest. They are said to have base coin in one pocket and good in the other. If they are serving a regular visitor to the inn, they go to the good pocket, but for the chance-customers and strangers in general the bad pocket is the bank of exchange.

The “magsmen” consider themselves the aristocracy of the criminal profession; they generally abstain from crimes of gross violence, and rely upon sharp tricks for their success. And it must be said that if people would avoid gambling, and be content to look well after their own, the swindling and card-sharping thieves would soon become extinct. A magsman is obliged to put on a respectable appearance, to keep cool, dress in many different characters, and act many different parts. Sometimes he is a foolish and green young man from the country, sometimes he is a respectable gentleman with a small estate, but he always seems to have plenty of money, and to know or care very little about its value. A magsman’s outfit consists of plenty of dresses and artificial whiskers and wigs, so that he may be one character to-day, and a different one to-morrow. His purse is well stored with Californian sovereigns, and his pocket-book is lined with spurious bills and flash notes. We engrave specimens of the two most popular flash notes. This paper-money the magsman takes care to parade before the eyes of his intended victim, who cannot without a close inspection perceive that the showy paper is only “flash.” Thus equipped, the magsman is ready for any customer that comes to hand.

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A gang of three or four magsmen generally work together. They will enter a railway train from different stations, dress in different characters, and keep up the pretence of being unknown to each other. They soon get into conversation and begin to gamble among themselves; winning, losing, and gaily paying the stakes in flash money. The strangers in the carriage get excited, and begin to make small bets over “cutting the cards.” I once asked a magsman how they contrived to induce strangers to play with them. “Oh,” said he, “it needs no contrivance. It’s human nature over again. They covet what is not their own. They look at our flash money, and stretch out their hand to gather the forbidden fruit, and we fleece them.” No stranger has the slightest chance of success with a mob of magsmen in a railway carriage. The flat can never win, though to his own eyes it may seem impossible for him to lose. The cards are “doctored,” and the magsman’s sleight-of-hand is wonderful. I once got one of them to show me some tricks, but he did them so neatly and quickly that I could not detect the act after it was explained, though when I lifted the card surely enough the trick was done. A magsman will sometimes return his winnings rather than get into a scrape; indeed, I am informed that many hundreds of pounds are returned every year in this way, though the process, no doubt, is a mortifying one to the community.

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The forged-note business generally falls to the lot of the magsmen. Suppose, for instance, a number of them agree to get up and pass a quantity of forged notes upon a certain provincial bank. A gang is formed, and one of them is chosen as head. This captain gives the order for a number of five-pound notes; and the order will probably have to go through two or three people’s hands before it gets to the original engraver. The members of the gang never know, and the head seldom knows, who engraved the notes. An engraver of false notes will sometimes accumulate stock, in which case he looks out for a magsman in whom he can place confidence. He lets the magsman have the forged notes cheap, and he gets up his gang and gets to work. The forged-note market varies, as all other markets do; a forged Bank of England ten-pound note fetches thirty shillings; a provincial ten-pound note is worth no more than twenty or twenty-five shillings. A forged five-pound note generally sells for about thirteen shillings. Bank of England notes are preferred, as they can be passed almost anywhere. Forged notes for a large amount are seldom turned out, and are always passed off in foreign countries. A gang of magsmen about to pass a quantity of five-pound provincial notes numbers at least twenty men. They work in pairs, and one or two generally keep watch over the whole gang, so that if any of the men get into trouble the rest may be informed, and leave the town immediately. They spread themselves over the whole town, and all begin to work at the same hour. One of the pair remains outside the shop into which his pal enters; and this one carries all the bad notes. The passer has one good note in his pocket, and only one bad note; so that, if he has a “tumble,” he says the fictitious note was taken in the way of trade. The policeman may search him, but he can find no other note; and thus the magsman escapes heavy penalties. What a pity the policeman does not seize on the pal outside! The magsman makes a small purchase, and offers the spurious paper-money. If the shopkeeper is awkward, and threatens to send for the police, the magsman will get the note out of his hand and swallow it in a twinkling. Should the note be accepted, the magsman gives his pal what he has bought, gets another forged note, and visits another shop. So the whole gang work until the town gets too hot to hold them, when they flee immediately to some other place, and so go through the district of the bank as long as it is safe for them to do so. The remnants are reserved for races and fairs. If they meet with any simpleton having genuine notes of the same bank, they will pretend to compare his notes with theirs—in short, resort to any trick to change the bad notes for the good ones. Should any of the gang be apprehended and brought to trial, his pals will supply him with money to defray his law expenses.

The magsmen are very fond of the notes of broken banks, and these notes are called “cracked jugs.” They use them for show in gambling, and they also pass them whenever an opportunity occurs. How they manage to get hold of these “cracked jugs” is a mystery. A large amount of fictitious paper-money was kindly furnished to me by a superintendent of police. The paper had been taken from magsmen, and amongst it there was a genuine banker’s bill. It was many years old, and had been duly honoured. The bankers could not imagine how this bill had ever found its way into the hands of the thieves. The following, related to me by a thief, is a remarkable instance of sharp practice with “cracked jugs.” A thief gave an order to a Jew for some clothes, paid him for them with two ten-pound “cracked jugs,” and received his change in genuine money. In a day or two Jacob found he had been done with two “cracked jugs,” and, knowing his customer to be a thief, he gave him in charge for having stolen a pencil-case out of his shop. The thief was apprehended, and Jacob pressed his charge; but the thief was acquitted. Jacob then had his customer apprehended for passing the two “cracked jugs.” This time the thief employed a solicitor, who asked Jacob if he took the notes as “cracked jugs,” which insinuation the Jew indignantly denied. But it so happened that Jacob had himself been formerly in trouble for passing “cracked jugs,” and would have been transported for the offence had he not somehow managed to square matters with his prosecutor. This old charge was revived by the thief’s solicitor, and the thief was again acquitted. Poor old Jacob then asked the magistrate if he could not have his clothes back, and he told him no. The “cracked jugs” were ordered to be destroyed in court, but the unfortunate Jacob could only produce one of them. His excuse was he had mislaid it that morning, somewhere or other. The trial and the trouble passed away; but Jacob, not liking to be done, passed the remaining “cracked jug” in some trading transaction with another Jew. The second Jew got pulled up for passing the worthless note, and he let it out from whom he had received it. So poor Jacob was overhauled again, and thus the biter was bitten both ways.

Of thimble-rigging it must suffice to say, as indeed it may be said of all other thieves’ games, the flat can never win. The pea may at any time be planted on the brim of the hat or close held under the long finger-nail; and even, where there is no trick of this kind, the practised evolutions of the thimbles are so marvellously adroit as to escape the detection of any ordinary vision. It is just the same with pricking the garter, or “rolling up the nob,” as the thieves call it. There is no possibility of the “green-horn’s” success. A thimble-rigging gang is made up of four or five men. One lends his companions money to play with,—he is called the banker; he stands in for equal shares of the gains, and systematically books every shilling that is won. The decoy walks about and picks up likely parties with money. He stands treat for his victim, takes him for a walk, and, as by accident, they approach the “joint,” or place where the gamblers are. They see the pigeon coming and begin to play; room is made for the flat and his friend. The decoy plays and wins, to excite the flat, who himself then begins to bet or play, and is soon eased of his cash. The gang always arrange their several parts, and the arrangements are strictly carried out. All sorts of artful dodges are used in what they call “right houses”—public-houses where their roguery is sanctioned. Dressed as a countryman, the decoy goes out in search of a victim, whom he leads at once to one of the thieves’ gambling dens. One would wonder how any one could be decoyed, but the thing is done very cleverly. The kid or decoyer is, from long practice and experience, well up to his business. He knows a countryman as soon as he sees him. The “kid” gets into conversation by asking some question about the time of day or the road. He makes free with him, crams him with lies, professes to have been drawing a large sum of money, and shows his flash notes and Californian sovereigns. Of course the kid professes to be a stranger in the neighbourhood, and while talking to the flat he will ask the way to some place from some one who happens to be passing. The countryman is thrown off his guard, if he has one, and goes to a “right house” with the kid, merely for a friendly glass, as the victim thinks. Let us suppose that the victim has entered the “right house,” and is seated in the chimney-corner, and enjoying a glass of ale with his new acquaintance. The magsmen, each having his preconcerted part to play, drop in one at a time, as if by accident, and all pretend to be strangers to each other.

The following are some of the many swindling games which may be played on the occasion.

The Three Cards.—These are shown to the spectators, and then turned the wrong side up and shifted about upon the table very rapidly. The bet is, that, although you saw the cards, you cannot tell which is which as they lie back upwards. The rapidity with which the cards are moved renders certainty in naming the right card an impossibility. The gaming begins sometimes by the entrance of the man called the player, who has pocket-knives to sell, and offers them to the company. If nobody will purchase a knife, he offers to raffle one by the cards. If the kid and his flat decline to play, some other members of the company accept the challenge. The player lifts the card, and says, without looking at it, “This is the right one.” The kid sees that the card is wrong, and whispers so to the flat. A bet is made, and the decoy bets as well as the victim; the company cause a confusion, in the excitement of which the card is dexterously shuffled and the victim is done. Before playing deep they often make a bargain—“No grumbling at losses;” and the kid bets heavily to keep the game sweet. The man who murmurs against fortune must stand glasses round. When they have won all they can, they begin to leave one at a time. Some member of the company, however, sympathises with the flat, and keeps him at bay until the rest of the gang are clear off, when he also absconds, and the flat is left to the misery which he has foolishly brought upon himself.

Blacks and Reds.—This game is worked by three or four magsmen, and the flat is picked up in some such way as we have already described. The game is cutting the cards,—which cuts most blacks or reds. The cards are mixed promiscuously, to all appearance, but not so in reality. The cards are “faked,” that is marked—there being a slight difference of sizes; the differentia, though small, is easily felt by the gambler’s educated touch. The kid is a man of fortune, out for a spree, and merrily pulls out his cards, and proposes a game. After playing awhile without bets they manœuvre into serious business. The man of fortune goes out of the room and leaves his cards upon the table. One of the gang tells the flat that he will have a lark with the gentleman; so he takes half of the red cards out of the pack and puts them into his pocket. The man of fortune returns, seems not to know that the cards have been tampered with, and at once offers a bet, that he can cut more reds than any of the company can cut blacks. If the flat will not bet some one else bets, and of course wins. Then the flat bets, and loses, by reason of the “faked” cards.

The Grease Pot.—A jug of ale stands upon the table, out of which the gambler drinks. He puts a shilling upon the table and sets his jug upon it. In a short while he turns his head, and one of the company quickly takes the shilling from under the jug without the gambler perceiving it. Then the kid offers a heavy wager that the shilling is not under the jug, and the flat joins his bet with his friend. The gambler accepts the bet, lifts the jug from the table, and there, sure enough, the shilling is, and the victim is swindled; for another shilling, made adhesive, was attached to the bottom of the jug, and loosened by a sharp-pressed draw of the jug along the table.

The Mallet.—This is an instrument similar to those used by carpenters, and is gambled with in some of the “right houses.” The owner shakes it, and a coin, or something of the kind, is heard to rattle inside the mallet. The gambler leaves his tool upon the table and goes out of the room. During his absence the kid and the flat, for a joke, take the coin out of the mallet and put something else in. On the gambler’s return to the room, the kid asks him what there is in the mallet; he mentions the piece of coin. Then the kid offers a wager that such a coin is not in the mallet, and the flat joins in the bet. The mallet is shaken and then opened, when out tumbles a piece of coin similar to the one which had been previously taken out. The flat is done. A second piece of coin had been fastened and concealed in the mallet, and was turned out by a little extra shaking.

The Sneezer is a round snuff-box with a loose ring inside, and a second ring made fast. It is used in the same way as the mallet, The magsmen also occasionally use a “Monkey,” which is a lock, and the bet is about opening it.

The cleverest card trick of the thieves which I have ever seen, is called bringing the king and queen together. Thousands of pounds have been wagered and lost on this game by unsuspecting and unininitiated people. It is difficult to explain without a pack of cards. The pack is divided into three heaps, the magsman takes a king and queen in his hand, shows them to the company, and says that he can lay them together, shuffle them, and bring them together again. The three heaps of cards lie upon the table with the face upwards; the magsman then lays the queen—face downwards—upon one of the heaps. He then turns his back upon the cards to show the company the king; and while he does so his pal places several cards upon the queen. He then puts the king upon the queen, as he thinks, says he can deal out the three heaps, and bring out the king and queen together. The company, knowing that several cards have been placed between the king and queen, offer heavy bets. The cards are shuffled, and thrown out of hand, one by one, upon the table; sure enough, the queen is the card which comes out next after the king, to the amazement of the spectators. The explanation is, that the magsman noticed what card it was which he placed the queen upon; he deals out until he comes to this card upon which the queen was placed, and after dealing it out, the rogue knows the queen card comes next; so he thrusts the queen back, holds it in his hand until the king is played, when he at once puts the queen upon it.

A magsman once told me the following stories, which I believe to be substantially true.

“I once attended an execution in the North, and I determined, if possible, to fleece Jack Ketch. My pals and I set to work, found out where he lodged, and by what train he would leave the town where the execution took place. I got to the station in good time, and kept a sharp look-out for my friend the executioner. Presently Jack Ketch arrived, and with him a mob, who hooted and groaned dreadfully. We thieves thought they were groaning at us, and we began to be alarmed; but we soon saw that they were hooting the hangman. He took his seat, and we took ours. Still the mob yelled and groaned. A gentleman asked what it was all about, when I told him that Jack Ketch was with us in the carriage. On this, several passengers became indignant, and declared they would not travel in the same carriage with a common hangman. I took Jack Ketch’s part, and told them that if there was no law there would be no living; and that, as murderers must be hung, somebody must do it. But they all left the carriage, and Jack Ketch quite took to me, because I stuck up for him, which pleased me exceedingly. I told him that I was sorry and ashamed to see a public servant treated in such a scurvy manner. After a while some of my pals—we acted the part of perfect strangers to each other—began to play at cards, winning and losing among themselves with varying fortunes. They asked me to join them, and I carelessly consented. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost; at last I began to lose heavily, and Jack Ketch, in pity for my easy-going nature and out of gratitude for my sympathy with him, began to offer me his advice and assistance. I refused his counsel, and persisted in losing. Ketch got excited, began to bet, and we soon fleeced him heavily. Gradually the truth dawned upon him that we were a swell-mob party, when he became furious. In angry tones he told us what we were, and demanded the return of his money. With a sneer I answered: ‘Give back the blood and life you took this morning, and I will give you back your blood-money.’ At the next station I made my escape, and left the hangman in the lurch.”

The other story was about a bubble bet—a case of orthography.

“I was travelling in the guise of a Scotch peasant. I had the dress exactly, and, as I could imitate the brogue well, I was naturally an object of interest to the English. I got out of the train at the station upon which I had previously determined, and when the train had started, I began to whistle for my dog. The people about the station laughed at me, and I acted the peasant fool to perfection. I went into a public-house with a company of farmers and others, and was greatly distressed about the loss of my dog, Bob. I got hold of the gas-burner, and pulled at it. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them I was ringing the bell for my Bob. They all concluded—much to my satisfaction—that I was a fool. I then made use of a word which I purposely mispronounced. They asked me what it meant, and I told them. Then they asked me to spell it, which I did. Then they said my spelling was wrong, and I said it was not, for I had received a good education, and knew what I was about, at which the company laughed heartily. I got very angry, and began to show my bank-notes (flash ones, though), to let them see that I was sombody. They offered to bet upon the spelling of the word to a heavy amount, and I accepted the wager. They asked me who should decide which was right and which was wrong. I gave the name of the old dame that educated me far away in the Highlands, and wanted them to telegraph for her, but they would not do it, and so we agreed that the dictionary should decide. So the waiter brought in the dictionary, and according to it I was right. Then I had to plot my escape with the twenty pounds which I had won, as well as I could. They swore they would take the money from me, and would not let me go. So I pulled away at the gas-burner to ring the bell for my dog. I heard Bob outside, sluggishly went through the door to bring him in, and in doing so I gave my dupes leg-bail, and as I twisted through the back streets, I laughed heartily at my victims. The word was spelt in two ways, but I knew the way in which the word was spelt by the dictionary of that house, and the English fogies little knew that the innocent-looking waiter was a friend of mine, and in my pay. I quickly doffed my Highland costume and red whiskers, and transformed myself into a steady, sleek, and intelligent Englishman once more.”

One method of swindling employed by the magsmen is called mazing. A magsman goes to a large outfitter, says he is going abroad, and represents himself as an emigrant, or naval or military captain, as the case may be. The magsman gives a large and costly order, and leaves his hotel address. Captain Mag will occasionally send his servant for a considerable portion of the goods, but never for the whole. Should he succeed in getting them, neither the captain nor the servant is ever heard of by the tradesman again. Sometimes they arrange for the tradesman to deliver the goods at the hotel at a certain hour. Captain Mag goes to the bar and gives his name, that he may be called when asked for. The goods are delivered, and the gallant captain receives them himself. He treats the servant handsomely, and pays him with a snide bill or a forged note, and particularly requests that the remainder of the order may be completed by a given date, and gives a further order; to keep the messenger sweet, perhaps “tips” him with a sovereign or so. Then the messenger goes home, and the noble captain retreats to lay siege elsewhere. The remainder of the order is delivered at the hotel, but the captain has left, and, alas! they do not know his address.

A country emigrant goes to the seaport full of fear and trembling, and determined not to be done. Poor fellow! his very caution will lead him into the destruction which he so much dreads. I am sure the reader will pardon a long and tedious exposition of the roguery, as its object is to save his country cousins. In connection with all seaports there is a class of men called “dudders.” These formerly travelled the country as pedlars,[1] selling waistcoat pieces, sham jewellery, &c., to countrymen. In selling for thirty shillings or two pounds a waistcoat-piece which cost them perhaps five shillings, they would show great fear of the revenue officer, and beg of the purchasing clodhopper to kneel down in a puddle of water, crook his arm, and swear that it might never become straight if he told an exciseman, or even his own wife. These men, frequently dressed like sailors, are a branch of the magsman clan, and sell cigars or other goods. One trick of theirs is to have a few good cigars to show. Their victim is taken to a public-house and treated; there the cigars or goods are dexterously changed, and the flat comes away with an imaginary good bargain under his arm, which is in reality nothing but rubbish. These quasi smuggled goods however are only by-play compared with the real games by which the poor emigrant is heartlessly robbed of all that he possesses. The chief game of the magsmen is called “wrapping up,” and takes three or four men to work it out. The kid visits the emigration offices and emigrant ships until he falls in with a likely flat. They get into conversation over a friendly glass. The emigrant makes no secret of his destination. The kid becomes very communicative, tells the story of his life, and shows his money, of which he seems to have an abundance. This kind of friendly intercourse goes on for a week or so. The kid then begins to unfold his plans for future emolument. He is going to take out with him a large quantity of goods which are in great demand in the colony. He insinuates his willingness to take the flat into partnership. At this stage the other members of the gang make their appearance, and they are also emigrants. They begin to wonder what they shall speculate in, and at length the kid and his friend take them into their confidence. At last they conclude that the goods in question will be the best investment, and the whole quintette agree to partnership. The question of capital is started, and they are all naturally anxious to know what will be the joint amount. The magsmen put their money upon the table in separate heaps, and the kid and the flat do the same. This is done to ascertain the amount of the flat’s money, and whether it is paper or coin. The money is counted back into the purses, or wrapped up, and no more is said. The kid leaves the company for awhile, and returns. But the cashier has forgotten to book the respective amounts, and so the money must all be counted out again upon the table. The cashier counts it, and his friends ask him to put it into their purses or wrap it up for them. When he is counting the flat’s cash the rest of the gang get up an excitement, in which they absorb the flat’s attention. The cashier quickly puts flash money into the victim’s parcel and hands it to him. They gradually leave the room, and the flat is stripped of all he has in the world. If these or other iniquitous measures fail, the last resort is to drug the emigrant’s drink.

In addition to forged and spurious notes, the police often find a number of spurious bills upon the magsmen. These bills are generally for show and sometimes for use. The history of them has been kindly furnished to me by a respectable accountant of considerable experience. As some poor tradesmen read this brief sketch it will recall to their recollection days and nights of agony and despair. These spurious bills first came into use about five-and-twenty years ago, just at the time when common people became too wide awake to be any longer duped by flash notes. These bills consist of drafts in the usual form, signed, and accepted, and bear several indorsations. They differ from forged bills in not pretending to bear the signature of any well-known firm. If intended for circulation in London, they are dated at some remote town, and addressed to imaginary firms in the provinces; but if wanted for provincial circulation, the drawer resides in the country and the acceptor in London. They are manufactured chiefly if not entirely in London, and there is good reason for the belief that there are not more than three or four manufacturers of the “long firm.” The mode of putting them into circulation is this:—The London fabricator has his agent in several large towns, who employs for scouts such persons as attornies’ clerks, bailiffs, and pawnbrokers. These give information of all persons who are embarrassed. The principal agent then makes his own private inquiries, and having selected his victim, sends his name with all necessary particulars to London. The chief forthwith despatches a circular to the victim, setting forth the various causes which may occasion temporary embarrassment even to firms of undoubted respectability. The circular urges the importance of preserving credit unimpeached, and that by accepting temporary assistance such firms may overcome their difficulties; and having thus dressed up the bait, the circular kindly offers any amount of accommodation by return of post, provided satisfactory references can be given. The embarrassed tradesman swallows the bait and sends his references. He receives a reply that all is satisfactory, and that on remitting five per cent, of the amount required, he shall receive bills drawn and accepted by firms of the first respectability. Poor wretch! driven to desperation by some frightfully urgent engagement which must be met, he scrapes together cash enough for the purpose, sends it to his benefactor, and receives the worthless bills, accompanied by a second circular informing him that he must provide for the bills on maturity. Should he not be able to do so, the circular says he may obtain a second accommodation at reduced prices. The confiding tradesman soon finds out that he has been swindled. Should inquiry be instituted at the place from which the circulars are addressed, it turns out to be some low shop or house, the inmates of which know nothing of the parties sought; they merely receive his letters and keep them until called for. Some twenty-five years ago this system of knavery was at its climax. It is now nearly extinct, but the magsmen avail themselves of it in all sorts of ways whenever an opportunity occurs. The bills are easily detected by a practised eye. They have not at all a commercial look about them. The handwriting is stiff and feigned; its sameness being feebly disguised by different kinds of ink.

Those who have studied human nature for themselves, by observing the huge masses who congregate on race-courses, will have come to the conclusion that races are very questionable in their associations, and that gambling, swindling, bubble bets, and foul play are but two rife upon our race-courses. The Welchers who now throng and annoy the stands are magsmen all. They pocket their winnings, but keep far enough out of the way to make their escape from their gambling creditors. These Welchers are generally the landlords of some low gambling-house, and eke out their winter living by the aid of “picking up” women. Out of the racing season others of them wander about the country with a hawker’s licence. The thieves who attend races are called “tug-stretchers.” They swindle and rob in the daytime, and plunder drunken men through the night. They have many tricks peculiar to races and fairs, of which we shall only mention two, “fawney dropping” and the “three bars.” The former practice is worked by two scoundrels. One tries to get some country simpleton engaged in conversation. As soon as the thief is able to accomplish this, his criminal companion walks in front, and drops an apparently gold ring, marked at a high figure. The thief who has the flat in hand picks up the ring, and pretends to be very much excited and delighted with the value of his find. He attempts to break the ring in two, and says that half of it belongs to the flat. But the flat objects, and says it would be a pity to break and spoil the ring. So the thief agrees to let the flat have it for so much, and probably bags eight or nine shillings for a ring that never cost him threepence. The three bars are worked in streets as well as at races and fairs. It requires three men to work the artifice—a kid, a dropper, and one to act as a policeman in plain clothes. Two common pencil-cases are the instruments, one containing a pin and a pen, the other a pen only. When the kid has got his victim to rights, he raises his hat by way of signal to his confederates. The dropper then walks past the kid, pulls out his pocket-handkerchief for the usual purpose, and in doing so drops a pencil-case with a steel pen in it. The kid picks up the pencil-case, and says to the flat, “That man has dropped this, let us see what there is in it.” The flat finds a steel pen in the case. Then the kid proposes to have a lark with the owner of the pencil-case, so he takes the pen out, puts in a pin, and gives the pen to the flat to hold. They call the dropper back, and the kid asks him if he has lost anything. He says that he is not aware that he has, and inspects his flash money in showy style. “It is not money that you have lost,” says the kid. Then the dropper examines his pockets, and finds that his pencil-case is gone. They give him the pencil-case, and the kid remarks that there is no steel pen it. The dropper shakes the case and says there is a pen in it. The kid replies, “But the pen is not like this,” producing the one which the flat is holding. Then the kid appeals to the flat, who also affirms that there is no pen in it. The dropper then offers a bet, and if it is taken he puts his hand into his pocket for the money, and at the same time adroitly changes the pencil-case for one with a pin and a pen in it. The case is handed to the flat, and he opens it to his astonishment. The policeman in plain clothes comes up, threatens to arrest them for gambling, and so they all “skedaddle.”


  1. Vide “Slang Dictionary.” J. Camden Hotten, London.