His Misapplied Talents led to his Downfall, and he was executed before Newgate, 1st of July, 1789 for making Base Coin
THOMAS DENTON was born in the north part of Yorkshire. He was bound apprentice to a tinman, and served his time with much credit to himself and profit to his master. His genius, it appears, expanded beyond the making of kettles, for he evinced a taste for literature. He opened a bookseller's shop in the city of York, where he particularly attended to works on mechanism; and, with a superficial store of such arts, he gave up his few shelves of books and, on their sale, went as an adventurer to the great mart of genius, London.
He had formed no settled plan of life, but determined to employ some days in viewing minutely the great metropolis. Passing through the parish of St James's, his attention was arrested by some foreigners exhibiting a speaking figure. He immediately paid his admission, and took a very correct examination of the automaton. Returning to his lodgings, he fancied that he could construct a similar machine equal to that of the ingenious foreigner, and he determined, without further delay, to set about this work. Difficulties, however, insurmountable to a man without genius and perseverance, presented themselves. An unknown individual as he was, he had to furnish himself, in a strange place, with a workshop, tools and materials. Yet man's industry, which, he had read, had levelled mountains, diverted the course of large rivers, and carried navigation into the bowels of the earth, would hardly stop at forming the figure of a pigmy. To set to work took time, labour and money; but once seated thereat, his ingenuity soon made rapid progress, and, with but one more hired view of the original, he completed a far superior figure to that of the vaunting German.
His work having been deemed the most complete, he wisely determined against all opposition in London, where the milk of such a rare show had already been skimmed, and accordingly set off with it into the country. There he collected vast sums of money at each city which he pitched upon for the exhibition of his famous speaking figure.
His active mind, it seems, still was discontented. He, looking upon his first essay in mechanism as far inferior to his expanded ideas, determined upon returning to London, in order to undertake a superior work. He soon found a purchaser for the speaking figure (a printer in the City of London, who melted it down for his types) and set about a writing automaton. This, too, he finished with most exquisite and ingenious workmanship.
The artificial penman delighted him no longer than the speaker; and he next applied himself to chemistry. In pursuit of this science he met with Pinetti's book of deceptions, which he translated (having previously to learn the language in which it was written), and added to it various notes and observations.
He also made himself master of an improvement in the art of plating coach harness. Conceiving this profitable branch of business united to that of a bookseller would make his fortune, he for some time carried on both in Holborn. Here his good fortune, by his own indiscretion, failed him. The art, thus self-acquired, of plating metal, led him into company with others professing that branch of business, and among them was a coiner of base shillings.
Here, too, as with the Germans, he fancied he could far excel in this criminal proceeding; and the powers that assisted him to make several mathematical instruments, as pentagraphs, etc., enabled him to imitate the current coin of the kingdom in a manner that deceived the best judges, and which upon his trial at the Old Bailey for that offence kept the Court in doubt for seven hours. Nor could he be convicted of coining, but he was found guilty of having implements for coining in his possession, which alone proved fatal to him.
He was condemned to die; and we are reluctant in adding to the character of such a man of genius as Thomas Denton that his behaviour after condemnation was impious in the extreme. To sum up the whole, he died a professed infidel.
A few minutes before he was brought out of his cell for execution he requested pen, ink and paper; and in the most composed manner sat down and wrote the following letter:--
DEAR FATHER AND MOTHER,
When you receive this I shall be gone to that country from whence no traveller returns. Don't cast any reflections on my wife, the best of mothers, and the best of women; and if ever woman went to heaven, she will. If I had taken her advice I should not have been in this situation. God bless my poor Dick [his son]. The bell is tolling. Adieu!