Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jackasses of History: John Thurtell

John Thurtell (rhymes with "turtle") was known to his friends and family as "Jack." That's appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you're going to be one of those, make sure you're good at it, or, like Thurtell, you'll end up at the end of a rope.

"Now where did I hide that gun?"
Thurtell was born in the late 18th century into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father was a prominent merchant and city councilman who also served as mayor. Thurtell shared his father's ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant - which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don't know what he did, but they didn't kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell's service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.

Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war. It was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor's son.

Thurtell's father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who'd moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as "a man of integrity."

Thurtell's jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell's father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds (that is, £, a huge sum at the time) worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold, he returned without the money, saying he'd been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father's influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821.

It was a bad year for the Thurtell family - his brother Tom had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell's). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.

The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom's name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King's Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom's original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn't stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother's name.

Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom's name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom's name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he'd mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down - Thurtell's remodeling job ensured the night watch didn't see the fire until it was too late.

But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom's name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom in the ass, although Thurtell, as we'll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.

Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he'd racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell "suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality." He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he'd imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumors that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, he'd become a laughing-stock (not, of course, through his own jackassery).

In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we'll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne'er-do-wells - think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman's carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.

Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he'd already killed Weare - and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert's cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare's throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare's brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert's property - after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert's cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he'd taken off Weare's corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.

The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons - but he couldn't find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare's body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn't long before they showed up looking for Thurtell - whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare's friends knew he'd planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn't show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration - all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.

At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King's Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn't work. He was convicted of Weare's murder and hanged in January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: "I forgive the world!" His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.

Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.

Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell's jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.

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