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1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey

March 22nd, 2009 Thomas Levenson

(Thanks to Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog. Prof. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and author of the forthcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter.)

Early in the morning of March 22, 1699, William Chaloner raged.

Chaloner, a convicted coiner, refused the Newgate Jail Chaplain’s plea to show proper penitence, shouting with “more Passion than Piety,” of his wronged state and unmerited destination (according to his anonymous biographer in the one surviving account of his life). In time, he calmed sufficiently to accept the sacrament, and so proceeded to the execution convoy to be borne from Newgate to the hanging tree at Tyburn (now Marble Arch, just to the west of the old City of London).

There Chaloner’s fury mounted again, and he shouted to the crowd, drawn as always to the spectacle of public hanging days, that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law.” He mounted the ladder to the top of Tyburn’s gibbet. He prayed, and then pulled the hood over his eyes without aid. When the moment came, the executioner’s men pulled the ladder out of the way and Chaloner dangled, twitching and jumping (the “hangman’s dance”) as long as it took –- minutes, at least — for life to choke out of him. Richer men often paid the hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.

The investigator who had sent Chaloner to the noose was not present; or at least nowhere in his copious notes and letters did he admit to curiosity about the fate of a man whose pursuit occupied him for almost three years. The Warden of His Majesty’s Mint had more pressing duties to perform, and so Isaac Newton allowed the date of Chaloner’s death to pass unmarked.

Isaac Newton? That Newton?

Appropriately, Newton himself wound up on the currency.

The accidents of place and time that brought the man who was recognized in his own day as the greatest mind of the age into conflict with Chaloner, an uncommonly gifted common criminal have fascinated me since I first learned of them through reading Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to the implacable Newton, written days before the hanging. In it Chaloner begged, writing “O dear S[i]r nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me.”

What I wanted to answer was the obvious question: how and why did Isaac Newton come to pass judgment on the life of any other man? I had always thought of him as the nearly cloistered scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, his home for more than thirty years. It was there he performed the experiments and the calculations that led him, in 1687, to write his masterwork, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy — better known simply as the Principia -– as well as pursuing his decades-long program of alchemical research.

So how, I wondered, did he end up in London, wallowing in the muck with the capital’s criminal underground?

Not to put too fine a point on it, finding out has turned into a book Newton and the Counterfeiter, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and scheduled for release on June 4. But, to anticipate that longer story, here is the gist: Newton, after Principia found himself an international celebrity, and, as one of Cambridge University’s representatives to the Convention Parliament of 1689 that legitimized William of Orange‘s seizure of the English throne from the deposed Stuart King James II, he had nearly a year to enjoy the acclaim of London and Europe’s thinking and political elites before returning to the quiet of Cambridge, then a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants. It was an intellectual backwater too, especially compared to the big city in which he encountered figures like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke (whom he despised), Samuel Pepys (whom he did not) and so on. So he started, with Locke’s help, to seek a patronage appointment that would allow him to live comfortably in London. It took six years to find the right one, but ultimately he was offered the Warden’s post at the Mint. That job was supposed to be a sinecure, a nearly no-show position that would pay him a very comfortable wage.

And so it would have turned out were it not for the terribly debased state of England’s silver coinage, which had deteriorated to about half its legal weight for a whole host of reasons. So Newton arrived at a time when (a) the Mint was attempting to recall and recoin the entire stock of silver money for the entire country –- all the smaller units of money essential to everyday transactions –- and (b) coining, counterfeiting, was flourishing as enterprising men and women set out to get rich by filling in the gaps in the money supply with coins that never felt the stamp of an official Mint die. As Warden, it became Newton’s duty to see that legal money was produced fast and fairly, and to pursue all those who set up on their own.

Of those who did none were more technically skilled or ambitious than William Chaloner. His is a fascinating story, told at much greater length in my book, in which you see the currents of rapid economic change, class and ambition all converge within this one, barely remembered life. He was born desperate poor, a weaver’s son in Lincolnshire. He ran from his first apprenticeship to London, where he started out at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking porn on street corners. He rose rapidly, first with his clearly impressive gift of gab, and then, after falling in with someone who knew how to gild surfaces, as the central figure in a series of ever grander schemes to counterfeit gold and silver money. He had sidelines as an informer, betraying conspiracies that he would himself set up, but his central gift and fascination was in the creation of fakes. Ultimately, he was one of the first to recognize the power of paper, and he started to counterfeit a variety of the early experiments with paper money and bank instruments.

In this sense Chaloner’s career –- and Newton’s urgent pursuit of him –- offer a window into the birth of the modern idea of money, of finance. And one of the things that fascinated me about this case is the degree to which this old story tracks some of our immediate problems. England’s and Europe’s economies were in rapid revolution in the late seventeenth century. The old idea of money as a chunk of metal with a pretty picture on it could no longer come close to accommodating the kind of enterprises governments and individuals wanted to undertake, from war to the funding of global webs of trade. And so people came up with all kinds of different ways of trying to represent value and exchange and even the idea of the changing worth of an investment over time. And the people making these experiments did not fully understand the implications of each expedient they tried. The last piece of paper Chaloner counterfeited was called a Malt Lottery Ticket, and it was at once simply paper money, a bond, and a gamble. Traders attempted to value these kinds of things in embryonic financial markets -– which would in a couple of decades blow up in a financial collapse that possess some striking similarities to our current predicament. Newton himself would lose a considerable fortune in that collapse, a sum worth a couple of million pounds, maybe more, in 21st century money.

It was that sense of precariousness that made the pursuit of counterfeiters so urgent in the midst of the late 17th century; England’s money supply was genuinely at risk, and no one had a good grasp of what it would take to make both the daily experience of small transactions and the high finance of war and trade go smoothly. So anyone threatening either or both levels of money was public enemy number one.

Of those who tried their hand at currency crime, Chaloner was the most accomplished, and notorious. By his own admission he counterfeited on the order of 30,000 pounds worth of currency over a seven- or eight-year career, an enormous fortune for the day. His big mistake, though, was to challenge Newton directly, accusing him in public of incompetence or fraud in his management of the recoinage of silver money between 1696 and 1698. He laid that charge both in testimony to Parliament and in a pamphlet he had printed for public distribution, and the scandal could genuinely have wounded Newton, were it not for the influence of his friends in power in Parliament at the moment.

It was enough, certainly, to propel Newton into an extraordinary investigation, an exercise of what may be seen as true non-fiction scientific detection. He set up a net of agents and informers throughout the worst neighborhoods and pubs in London, tracking any instance of coining he could find, interrogating suspects at the Tower or in jail, trying to build a web of connections around Chaloner. That story is contained within a collection of several hundred depositions and summaries of interrogations, all signed by Newton, that have survived, largely unexamined until now. Those records show that it took Newton almost two years in all, but aided in the end by listeners whose lives he held at his disposal inside Chaloner’s cell at Newgate, he managed to collect a sufficient weight of testimony to ensure that he could convict a prisoner clever enough to have escaped several previous attempts at prosecution.

The trial itself was something of a sham. Chaloner had feared being charged on the Malt Lottery Ticket forgery, (as we know from the accounts in Newton’s files of informers in the cells) but Newton actually presented evidence of a coining spree that almost certainly did not take place as described. Among other confounding facts, Chaloner was supposed to have made six different denominations of both silver and gold coins in a single day, which would have involved an enormous confusion of tools and materials that ran counter to basic counterfeiting practice.

No matter: the sheer volume of precise detail that Newton’s witnesses were able (or convinced) to provide produced a conviction within a very short time –- the whole trial took no more than an hour or so on March 3, 1699. There was a truncated appeal process -– really just a request for clemency from the crown, which was denied, and Chaloner’s sentence came down.

Formally, he had been found guilty of high treason, an assault upon the crown in the form of the king’s likeness and authority represented on the face of England’s coins. The punishment for high treason was essentially that suffered by William Wallace of Braveheart fame: to be strangled to the point of death, to be disemboweled whilst still living, to be beheaded and then quartered. By the date of Chaloner’s execution, the punishment had eased this far: convicted coiners were drawn to the place of execution on a rough sledge, subject to all the filth and abuse London’s open-sewered streets possessed; then hung until dead, and then, on rare occasions, to suffer post-mortem dismemberment. Chaloner himself was not, so far as any records revealed, actually cut into pieces. (As a gesture to public decency, women convicted of coining or other capital crimes were not supposed to be hung, lest their twitching at rope’s-end seem lewd. So they were burnt instead – though by the eighteenth century it was common to strangle them to death before lighting the pyre. Mercy, after the fashion of the times.)

Levenson lectures on his book at the MIT Writer’s Series.

One last note in a post gone much too long: Newton was involved in a number of counterfeiting investigations, and by some reckonings at least two dozen people went to their deaths as a result. Some historians, notably Frank Manuel, have speculated that Newton pursued this work with implausible eagerness, out of a kind of frustrated blood lust born of his abandoned and unhappy childhood.

This seems to me to be nonsense. The specific historical context matters here: Newton did not author the bloody code, nor did he send everyone he could to the gallows. Rather, the record of his depositions shows him to be simply a relentless practical man doing his job. He used little fish to catch big fish, and at least some of those low on the ladder received their escape from the gibbet. What you can see here, surprisingly, is the birth of a modern idea of a civil service. The Warden -– even Isaac Newton — was simply a man in a job doing the functions of that job, which included organizing the investigation and prosecution of counterfeiters.

What’s striking, of course, is that this civil servant, this bureaucrat, happened to possess the greatest scientific mind in history. And that’s the real sting in this tale. There is a connection between Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters and his attempts to understand nature. He did employ the same resources of concentration and logical organization in his criminal investigations that he did when he tackled any problem. But more than the commonality of work habits, there is, I think this link: Newton can be seen as many people: the mathematician, the theoretical physicist, the empirical experimentalist, the alchemical mystic, the heretically devout religious thinker –- and the government functionary too.

And yet he was, of course, a single man, one with many interests, but ultimately with a consistent ambition, to reduce to order the complexity of any problem which was posed to him. Newton did not expect as Warden to have to chase crooks; when he found out that was part of the job he wrote a rather whiny letter to the Treasury to see if he could wriggle out of the duty. When he found he could not, he responded as he always had to the job at hand.

As one consequence, on this day three hundred and ten years ago, William Chaloner died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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21 thoughts on “1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey”

  1. levi9909 says:

    I’ve just been notified of Ann Challender’s comment above that seems to have been posted and approved today and yet a query from me on 22 March is still awaiting moderation.

    Can someone approve my comment which queries the reference to this Chaloner “hawking porn”?


    PS Like Ann Challender, I appreciate this site. Great window on history and not just of the immediate subject matter.

    Thanks again

  2. Ann Challender says:

    I thank you for all the information this site has on the execution of William Chaloner. I saw the episode of Mysteries of the Museum that showed how William Chaloner was caught by Sir Issac Newton and when they said his name it sounded like Challender . I have been searching for any information about this man and here it is. Thank You Ann Challender

  3. Interesting thoughts here. Thank you!

  4. mark francis says:

    Lest we have any sympathy for Chaloner, remember that he commissioned a seditious pamphlet to be printed- grassed up the printers (or “whiddled them to the cuffin quier” as they would have said then) and collected the reward money. The printers were hanged drawn & quartered.

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