A Master of Thieves' Slang, who was full of Artful Tricks, which, however, did not save him from the Gallows at Tyburn, where he found himself in 1706
ARTHUR CHAMBERS was of base extraction, and consequently void of education, good manners or any other qualification that was amiable. The first step, in his opinion, to complete him a thorough master in the thieving art was to have at his finger ends all the canting language (which comprehends a parcel of invented words, such as thieves very well know, and by which they can distinguish one another from the other classes of mankind), in order to the attainment whereof he put himself under the direction of an experienced teacher that way; and, what was soon observable, attended so closely to the dictates of his preceptor that he not only outrivalled him but became superior to any of his contemporary thieves.
Chambers quickly demonstrated how pleasing his new language was to him, for he could not enter an ale house but he would be punning with the landlord: indeed his gay apparel (for Arthur could not endure the thought of being called a sloven) very often induced the masters of the houses he frequented to sit down by him and listen to his jocular way of talking. Sometimes, from the ignorance of some of them, he would impudently assert that what he now and then mixed with his ordinary English was the purest Greek in the world, and, to convince them he was sincere in what he advanced, would frequently pull out of his pocket a Greek testament and say: "Sir, this book was made by one of the oldest philosophers; believe me, I have studied it this dozen years, and every moment I looked into it I gained a twelvemonth's knowledge." The landlord would be gazing all the while open mouthed at Chambers, and, to be sure, he on his part was very intent upon something besides his Greek Testament, for, soon after, a general complaint was made of abundance of money being lost; but which way was the question. In Launceston, in Cornwall, whither he went, the inhabitants received him with open arms for a considerable time, and his merry disposition soon procured him the acquaintance of men of note in that country. He had taken care, too, before leaving London, to supply himself with a great number of false crown and half crown pieces, which, on his arrival, he uttered at all the places he frequented; but abundance of persons having been deceived with these pieces, and a general complaint made round about, search was made everywhere for the apprehending of the cheat, and poor Chambers was taken up; the consequence of which was the sending of him to jail, where he remained a year and a half before he could get his enlargement. Cornwall now became too hot for him to stay any longer there; so he made the best way he was able to London, where, on the very first day of his arrival, he performed the most cunning, artful and yet barefaced piece of felony that was ever heard of.
Having alighted from the wagon, he went directly to an ale house in West Smithfield, where, seating himself in a box, and calling for a pint of beer and a slice of bread and cheese, he comfortably refreshed himself; then, falling into discourse with some tradesmen in the next box to him, about the country and quiet enjoyment of a rural life, the talk was insensibly turned upon diving or picking of pockets. "Look ye, gentlemen," said Chambers, "I can pick a pocket as well as any man in Great Britain, and yet, though I say it, am as honest as the best Englishman breathing. For an instance of what I say, observe the country gentleman just now passing by the window. I'll step out and take his watch though it is now scarce five o'clock." A wager of ten shillings was immediately laid that he did not perform it. Chambers answered the bet, and presently, pushing out of the door, made a quick round till he came to the end of Long Lane, where he met with the gentleman, and courteously pulling off his hat to him asked if he could inform him which was the nearest way to Knave's Acre; to which the gentleman replied: "Lackaday, friend, you ask a very ignorant person, for I am a stranger here, and want to know the nearest way to Moorfields." "Oh, Sir, I live there, and can acquaint you which way to take; excuse me, Sir, I would willingly bear you company thither, but extraordinary affairs calling me to find out a place called Knave's Acre I must necessarily be jogging on; but be pleased to take my directions." So saying, he pointed with his hand. "Look you, Sir, you have no other way to go than directly along this lane, which will bring you into a street called Barbican, that into a dirty lane over against it, and that into Chiswell Street, the end whereof will lead you into Moorfields." All this while the country gentleman was staring the way Chambers pointed, who in the interim made sure of his watch, and after the gentleman and he had left one another returned back to the company, laid down the spoil on the table, and claimed the wager which was accordingly paid.
One day, being very well dressed, he goes to the Exchange and mixes with some Italian merchants, and after some little conversation, which ran on trade and shipping, calls one of them aside, who was a very comely and grave person. With him he seems to be in a close and eager dialogue, the merchant all the while nodding and biting his thumb. Meantime one of Chambers's confederates comes up and begins to discourse with the merchant much after the same manner as he had done. Upon which Chambers says: "Sir, I perceive you have no liking to my proposition, but possibly you may not meet with such another bargain as mine I mean as to profit." "No liking!" answered the merchant. "Yes, yes, Sir; I had as lief chap with you as the best man alive, so I find but my advantage in it." Upon this the merchant spoke a few words to Chambers's confederate, and then, calling Arthur to him, said: "Here is another gentleman who has a bargain much like yours to dispose of; if you can join together, we'll throw the commodities together and make but one lot of them." "Agreed," replied Chambers, who without any further ceremony, as the merchant stood close to his confederate, dived nimbly into his pockets and drew thereout a purse of gold and his gold watch, and imperceivably conveyed them to his confederate. But this spoil not satisfying the avaricious temper of our adventurer, and seeing a very good handkerchief hanging out of the merchant's coat pocket, he snaps at it, but unluckily for his first prize. The merchant, it seems, caught him in the act; and seizing him by the collar, called out, "Thief! thief!" which words raised abundance of persons then on the walks about them, and everyone was desirous to know the bottom of the matter. The merchant was for having our adventurer before a magistrate; and he, on his part, strenuously denied the fact (for by this time the purse and watch were found gone), and even threatened the injured tradesman to punish him for defaming his character among the only persons in the world he got his living by. During this contention the confederate, who had received the purse and watch from Chambers, had marched to the porter at the gate, to get proclamation to be made on the Exchange that if any person had lost a purse with gold in it, and a gold watch, on giving the true marks he might have it again. These words reaching the merchant's ears, he, glad of the opportunity of regaining his lost things, let go Chambers, with a thousand excuses for his rudeness and rash accusations, and went directly to the crier; but both Chambers and his confederate procured means of slipping away in the meantime.
This disappointment but the more sharpened the wit and cunning of our adventurer, who was resolved to use his talents (as he called them) to a much better purpose than his last endeavour had produced. To this end he takes a first floor of a house in Soho Square, and contracts with the landlord to pay fourteen shillings a week for the same. For a while good harmony and understanding ruled between Chambers and the gentleman of the house, who took him for a man of fortune, as his dress and expenses might have very well argued him. One evening as they were at supper —- I mean the family of the house our adventurer —- came in, seemingly in a vast uneasiness, which made the good folks importune him to let them know what it was that disturbed him. "I have so much friendship for you, Mr Woodville" , said the landlord (for you must know this was the name he had given himself), "that if I can be of any real service to you, it is but opening your mind to me, and you may depend to find me both your counsellor and benefactor." Chambers, pleased with the landlord's frank kindness, made no further doubt to unravel the great mystery he had at his heart, and thus began: "It is with a thousand struggles of the soul that I find myself obliged to speak. Landlord, I am very sensible of the obligations I already owe you, and that thought makes me decline being any further burthensome to you; you must know, then, that, having been at Hampstead this afternoon, where I frequently used to go to divert myself with an affectionate brother of mine, I was there a mournful spectator of his death. 'Tis too much for me" (here he pretended to weep) "to acquaint you with every sad particular about the struggles he had before his soul departed out of his body; let it suffice to say that he has left me heir to his possessions (but his life would have been of greater value to me), and in his will appointed me to inter him in the cloisters in Westminster Abbey. Now, Landlord, the favour I have to desire of you is, for convenience of his funeral, to have his body brought here, and carried hence to his grave."
These last words Chambers pronounced with a deep groan, which made the landlord and all the family compassionate towards him; they told him anything they had was at his service, the landlord left him at his own liberty to bring the corpse, and choose whatever room he pleased to place it in. He thanked him for his civility, and told him he would certainly repay it very shortly, in a way he should be very sensible of. Which indeed he was as good as his word to perform. Chambers accordingly went out the next morning, leaving word that the hearse with the corpse would be with them about six in the evening. And true was he to his word. For just upon six o'clock a stately hearse with six horses arrived at the door, and men, suborned to this end, took thereout a beautiful coffin, with fine hinges and nails, wherein our adventurer had put himself, there being private holes in the sides for respiration. The counterfeit load was straightway borne up one pair of stairs and placed on a table in the dining room, where the landlord, to grace the deceased brother of his lodger, had set out a very fine and rich sideboard of plate, besides other valuables. You must know Chambers was laid in the coffin in his clothes, and a winding sheet wrapped round him, and one of his confederates had taken care to draw the screws. All this time our adventurer was missing, which made the landlord ask the fellows where he was, who said he had bade them acquaint him that having a multitude of things to dispatch about the funeral, it was probable he might not come home that night, but should be obliged to stay with a friend of his in the Strand. The landlord took the excuse for granted, the hearse and men departed, and the family of the house, excepting the maid, at their usual hour went to bed, leaving Chambers to rise out of his silent mansion of death and perpetrate his villainous design.
Accordingly he gets out, with his winding sheet about him, and going downstairs places himself in a chair over against where the maid was sitting, who, hereby frightened at the apparition, as she thought, screamed out, "A ghost! a ghost!" —- and without speaking another word ran as fast as she could up into her master's chamber and told him and his wife the story. "A ghost!" says the master; "phoh, you fool, there's no such thing in nature; you have been asleep, woman, and waking suddenly have fancied you saw a thing there never was." Scarce were these words out of the mouth of the landlord when in steps, with a solemn tread, our adventurer, Chambers, in his winding sheet, and presenting himself and his face, which was covered over with flour, full to the maid, the landlord and his wife, sets himself down in a chair in the room, where he continued full half an hour, putting the above three persons into the greatest panic in the world all the time. After which the imaginary ghost stalks downstairs and opens the door to six of his accomplices, who, while their director, Chambers, raps the doors to drown the noise of more persons being in the house than himself, strip the dining room of all the plate and other rich furniture therein, and then, making a general search through out the other chambers and the kitchen below, rifle and carry off everything of value to the amount of six hundred pounds. All this while the family, believing a spirit was actually in their house, and making the horrid noise they heard, kept close hid under the bedclothes; but the dawn of day soon appearing, their fears began to abate. Where upon the maid gets up, and has the courage to go down and see the consequences of the late bustle. She finds all her pots and pans removed effectually out of the way, and a dreadful havoc made among the pewter, which, to the very last plate, has all vanished. She hastens to her master, who is still in bed, acquaints him with the spirit's having robbed the house, and tells him that she cannot in conscience live with him any longer, since a bad and thieving ghost visited his family, which proved that his house was not a good one, nor were the persons that composed his family fit to be lived with. Whereat the landlord could not forbear bursting out into an extreme laughter: "Why, thou silly jade, can it be supposed that ghosts, or spirits, who have neither flesh, blood nor bones, can rob? Phoh, banish thy foolish conceits, and let me come and see what has been a working all this night." The maid, displeased with her master's words, goes downstairs, and finding some of her fellow servants and neighbours about the door tells them what she had seen; whereat all seem astonished, and say they should not dare to stir an inch out of their houses in the night if the case was so as she related it. Meantime the landlord had roused his indolent body from his bed and made a strict search in those places where he thought the most valuable part of his movables lay, which he found entirely conveyed away; but coming into the dining room, and seeing the plate gone, and an empty shell of a coffin, he, too late, is made sensible of the imposition, which we will leave him to mourn, or banish the thoughts of, just as he pleases.
Chambers during a few years committed actions the most daring and artful that were ever known, and he received a just recompense for his ill spent life at Tyburn in 1706.