I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Her original name was Mary Young, but she was such an accomplished pickpocket, or “diver” as the occupation was known among the criminal classes, that her gang re-christened her “Jenny Diver.”
Impoverished and Neglected Childhood of Jenny Diver
Jenny Diver was born around 1700 in Northern Ireland. Her mother was Harriet Jones, a lady’s maid. But, Harriet became pregnant without the convenience of a husband, so she was fired. This was the normal procedure for women in domestic service in Harriet’s situation and they had almost no options but to take up prostitution to survive.
Harriet soon abandoned Jenny Diver, who lived in several foster homes until she was taken in by an elderly upper-class woman.
Jenny Diver Goes to London
Under the care of this lady, Jenny learned to read and write and showed a flair for needlework, her fingers being very nimble.
When she was about 15 a manservant in a nearby house was attracted to her and proclaimed his love. Apparently, Jenny had no fondness for the young man but saw in him the opportunity of getting to London.
The story is picked up by The Complete Newgate Calendar: “she, determining to make his passion subservient to the purpose she had conceived, promised to marry him on condition of his taking her to London. He joyfully embraced this proposal, and immediately engaged for a passage in a vessel bound for Liverpool.”
The journey was financed by the young man’s theft of a gold watch and eighty guineas from his employer. The crime led to his arrest and the couple was separated; he was transported to the colonies and Jenny traveled to London.
London and the Life of the Pickpocket
Jenny met up with an Irish girl named Anne Murphy who offered her a place to live. Anne Murphy was, as told by capitalpunishmentuk.org, “the leader of a bunch of pickpockets and introduced Jenny to the trade. As an apprentice pickpocket, she was given 10 guineas on which to live until she could start producing income herself.”
She proved to be an ingenious and clever thief, with a dexterity that made the picking of pockets easy for her. On one occasion she removed a diamond ring from a man’s hand without him knowing, until he missed it later.
The Newgate Calendar described another of her ruses: “[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship . . . in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.
“Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.” As she sat with her "hands" in her lap she was not suspected.
She was able to move among her wealthy targets without suspicion because she dressed fashionably and was extremely attractive. Her pickpocketing skills were so good that she could afford elegant clothes.
She was also adept at playing the so-called “Badger Game.” A wealthy gentleman would be lured to her lodgings with the promise of sexual favours. The gang would then relieve the unsuspecting fellow of his valuables and clothes.
One of these escapades is said to have yielded 100 guineas, an amount that would be equivalent to at least $13,000 today (estimates vary widely).
Jenny Diver Caught and Sentenced
In 1733, she was caught trying to pick the pocket of a gentleman and was sentenced to transportation to Virginia. But, using her attractiveness and bribing a ship’s captain she was soon back in London. To return from transportation before a sentence was completed was a hanging offence in Georgian England.
She was caught again in 1738 and transported again; having given a false name the authorities did not connect her to her earlier conviction. She used the same strategy to get back to England within a year.
By now, Jenny was 38 and had arthritis. The skill of her youth was deserting her. A ham-fisted robbery attempt of a young woman led to her capture in January 1741. This time the courts matched her to her previous convictions. This, and her illegal return from transportation, meant a death sentence.
Jenny immediately “pleaded her belly,” claiming a non-existent pregnancy that would have delayed proceedings. An examination proved this to be another of her many deceptions.
Date with the Executioner
On March 18, 1741, Jenny and 19 other condemned prisoners were taken from Newgate Prison for the two-mile journey to the gallows at Tyburn. Jenny’s wealth allowed her final trip to be taken in a mourning coach; this was black and enclosed and pulled by black horses decked out in black cloth.
The other criminals were put in open carts and seated in the coffins that would receive their bodies later.
Such a large number of hangings and Jenny Diver’s notoriety would have attracted a big crowd, perhaps as many as 200,000. She and her fellow prisoners stood in carts while the executioner secured the hanging rope to a beam. Then, the horse-drawn cart was whipped from under them and they dropped a few inches.
According to capitalpunishmentuk.org “Swinging back and forth under the beam, she would have made choking and gurgling sounds, her feet paddling in thin air and her body writhing in the agonies of strangulation.”
- Eighteenth century justice in England was harsh. More than 200 offences attracted the death penalty, with even children being hanged. Other punishments included the pillory, whipping, and branding. Even those found not guilty were required to pay “jailer’s fees” for their time behind bars awaiting trial. Of course, many could not afford the fees so back to prison they went.
- In John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera” there is a character called Jenny Diver who was modeled after the Jenny Diver in this story. She turns up again, this time as a prostitute in Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” of 1928 vintage.
- Public executions had great entertainment value and were promoted as tourist attractions. Here’s “The Foreigner’s Guide to London” of 1740: “The rope being put about his neck, he is fastened to the fatal tree when a proper time being allowed for prayer and singing a hymn, the cart is withdrawn and the penitent criminal is turned with a cap over his eyes and left hanging half an hour. These executions are always well attended with so great mobbing and impertinences that you ought to be on your guard when curiosity leads you there.”
- “The Dungeons.” Undated.
- “1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin Lyric.”ExecutedToday, March 18, 2008.
- “Jenny Diver (Mary Young.”Capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.
- “The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.”
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Glen Rix from UK on October 07, 2016:
A fascinating story.