On this date in 1741,* at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.
Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.
What the Newgate Calendar reads as ingratitude, the modern reader might more sympathetically see as the allure of a burgeoning city for a teenager full of dreams.
Dreams may nurture the spirit, but flesh must have bread. Like countless others through time — indeed, like countless other clients of Tyburn — Jenny found metropolis less than convivial to aspirations of honest labor.
Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.
The Newgate Chronicle bursts with almost doting memoirs of her agile fingers, like this one:
[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 above mentioned 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.
Not neglecting also to celebrate the gang’s more Sting-like ruses, like this hilarious turn of the tables on a credulous cuckolder:
Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town.
The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.
Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.
The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.
The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.
Alas to say, they all can’t come off like clockwork. Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies.
Finding little to recommend colonial Virginia, she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, however: one is saddened to find her in her last adventure nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act: perhaps those nimble hands, now pushing 40, had finally slowed down.
Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 (unrelated) victims.
It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:
In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.
About That Name
We also have a modern context** for the name “Jenny Diver” as one of several women mentioned in the song “Mack the Knife”:
The sequence of female names Bobby Darin rattles off in this version of “Mack the Knife” all draw from these operas: Suky (sometimes Sukey or Sukie) Tawdry and Jenny Diver are underworld women in The Beggar’s Opera who set Macheath up for arrest; Lucy Brown is The Threepenny Opera‘s version of the original character Lucy Lockit, who under either name is the daughter of a law enforcement officer in love with Macheath who helps him escape.†
One might suppose such a fortuitous connection of Jenny Divers was a calculated one, but it seems both the character’s name and the thief’s were independently and coevally drawn from the rich vein of English thieves’ cant.
“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years, according to Philip Rawlings, so it was a natural sobriquet for an expert thief … and for an author (whose script is chock full of suggestively-named characters — Wat Dreary, Molly Brazen, Jemmy Twitcher) conjuring such a character. There’s no direct evidence indicating that either the cutpurse or the dramatist knowingly cribbed from the other.
A pity it was for the real Jenny that art and life couldn’t imitate one another more strongly.
PLAYER. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.
BEGGAR. Most certainly, Sir.—-To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice—-Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all hang’d or transported.
PLAYER. Why then Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.
BEGGAR. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—-So—-you Rabble there—-run and cry, A Reprieve!—-let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.
* 1740, according to the original documentation; 1741 by modern reckoning, since the new year’s onset was at the time not recognized on January 1.
** There’s still another Jenny Diver reference in the literate comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
† The fourth name of the sequence originally was Polly Peachum, Lucy’s rival for Macheath’s affections — but when Louis Armstrong made the first popular recording of Mack the Knife, he ad-libbed the line “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” referring the actress who played
Polly Jenny in both the original German production and the then-current Broadway importation, and who also happened to be present at Armstrong’s recording. Darin’s subsequent (and eventually canonical) version followed that lead and replaced the original name outright.