Tattooing is a common, if illicit prison practice. A tattoo gun can be improvised from the motor of a CD player, the barrel of a pen and a stapler spring. Some tattoos are a badge of one’s time inside. The swallow symbolises ‘doing bird’. Others are simpler, such as the five dots like those on a die. The mark in the middle represents the prisoner, the outer ones the prison walls. It is most commonly found on the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger.
In 1828 the London newspapers began to describe a new ‘youthful gang of depredators’. It was based on the Surrey side of the Thames, in Lambeth, and said to be ‘the terror of the neighbourhood’. It went by the name of the ‘Forty Thieves’. Each member of the gang was allocated a number and trained by a ‘captain’ whose own age did not exceed 18. ‘They were in the habit of committing the most daring depredations. Several girls were connected with them, and they recognised each other by five blue spots on the hand.’
The Forty Thieves was already a well known street gang – not in London, but New York. It was the first such group in the city that was organised, and the vanguard of others including the Plug Uglies, Shirt Tails and Dead Rabbits. Largely consisting of Irish immigrants, the Forty Thieves – its name a homage to the Arabian Nights – helped terrorise the Five Points area of the city, a violent, mosquito-infested slum which rivaled the worst of London.
The American gang had formed in the early 1820s, but become well enough established to franchise into the ‘Forty Little Thieves’. These younger members mimicked their elders in dress and actions. The band which appeared in south London towards the end of the decade would, most likely, have had no direct connection with its transatlantic counterpart beyond the infamous name and, of course, its felonious habits which would see many of its associates through the doors of Brixton prison.
Edward Greyson, ‘a fine youth’, was among the first of the Forty Thieves to be brought before the Surrey magistrates. He had been indicted for stealing a handkerchief from a passenger on a horse-drawn coach. Greyson, the court was told, was the illegitimate son of a well-to-do resident of Newington who had offered no support to his offspring. The boy, ‘buoyed up with expectations not realised, had joined the gang of forty thieves.’ The magistrate sent him to Brixton for six months, one month of that time in solitary confinement, and to be publicly whipped 150 yards from where the robbery was committed.
Greyson had got off lightly. The public had a terror of street crime and the magistracy, in an attempt to nip this new threat in the bud, often exercised its powers to the full. William Saunders – another of the ‘Forty’ – had also been caught stealing a handkerchief from one of the stage coaches travelling through Borough. The boy, deemed ‘irreclaimable’, was ordered to be transported for life. The next month, three members of the gang named Chalk, Lancaster and Hunt were each sentenced to seven years overseas for stealing cheese.
The gang’s notoriety was enhanced by the ‘five dots tattoo’ by which its members were said to recognise each other. Its meaning is not clear, but may have been connected with the Five Points in New York, the heartland of the original Forty Thieves. It was said to be made by ‘first pricking with a pin, and afterwards rubbing the part over with gunpowder.’ Reference is also made to the use of Indian ink.
And it was in prison that the tattoo could be applied – a fact which would have confirmed fears prisons were little more than recruitment grounds for child gangs. In November 1829, 13 year old Thomas Robert Linchin was charged by his grandmother with ‘repeated acts of thieving, endeavouring to set fire to her house, and threatening to take away her life.’ The tattoo between thumb and forefinger distinguished him as one of the Forty Thieves:
After the grandmother made her complaint . . . the magistrate asked the prisoner where it was that he had got these marks? He replied, in the Greenwich Naval School. The grandmother said it was not; that it was in the House of Correction at Coldbath Fields, to which he had been sent for three months as a common thief and rogue, about a year before.
The five dots was not the only tattoo worn by the Forty. Some members, it was discovered, were individually numbered, emphasising the group’s level of organisation. In September 1828, numbers five and eight, described only as ‘two little urchins, about twelve years of age’ were brought to court having been found ‘loitering about Convent-garden market’. The figures were found on the palm of the hand.
Other tattoos were of a romantic bent. William Creamer, charged in September 1828 with stealing a roll of flannel in Newington, was found to not only have the five dots between his thumb and forefinger, but on his arm ‘a heart penetrated by a dart, and underneath the initials of the name of the prostitute with whom he cohabited.’ Another member called Rutledge, who was ‘under 12 years of age’, was caught attempting to pick a gentleman’s pocket of a handkerchief. The magistrate had his interest piqued when it was stated ‘that the thieves belonging to the gang had peculiar marks on their hands and arms, by which they were known to each other’:
The prisoner was ordered to exhibit his, upon which he pulled up the sleeve of his waistcoat and pointed out two capital letters, marked apparently by gunpowder on the skin. The letters were described to be the initials of his name, and also that of a prostitute, for every juvenile thief belonging to the gang was stated to have each his “fancy woman’. There was also a similar mark between the prisoner’s fore-finger and thumb.
The girls, it seems, were as integral a part of the gang as the boys. In October 1828 about a dozen youngsters were sent to Brixton prison for a month, charged with disorderly conduct. The group had been drinking in a pub, but on being turned out by the landlord at 11 o’clock:
…had paraded the streets singing indecent songs and shouting, to the great annoyance of the peaceable part of the community. Several of the young girls, the eldest not above 17, have dots upon their hands, made with Indian ink, similar to what the party called the “Forty Thieves” have.
The infamy of the gang spread – and so, it appeared, did the area in which they committed their crimes. In May 1833, the Morning Post reported on separate cases involving the ‘Westminster gang of forty thieves’, the ‘East End gang of forty thieves’ and the Clerkenwell gang of forty thieves’. It may well have been that these were just copycat groups taking advantage of the prestige of the name, rather than examples of a growth in organisation and power.
Indeed, the impact of repeated imprisonments, transportation, not to mention the passing of time, would eventually have its impact on the original Forty. The midsummer session of the Surrey magistrates in 1838 took place a full decade after the gang had first appeared in London. Among the defendants was John Craw, said to be 20 years of age, accused of stealing two waistcoats from a shop door. The court was told he was suspected of being one of the Forty Thieves:
Chairman: “I thought that the gang was broken up long ago.”
Craw: “It’s false to say that I am one of the forty thieves. Look at my age, and that will show you that I am too old for them; they are all boys.”
The chairman suggested the examining the prisoner to ascertain whether he had the usual marks between the forefinger and thumb to denote that he was a member of the Forty. Craw instinctively thrust both his hands into his pockets, but one of the turnkeys reported such was the fact. When his allegiance confirmed, the prisoner said that although he might have once belonged to the Forty Thieves, he had since reformed, and ‘cut the connection’.
In a case the following year, William Gravill, ‘a boy of 15 years of age’, was charged with frequenting the Victoria Theatre ‘for the purpose of committing felony’. The court was told he was one of the Forty Thieves, ‘and had the distinguishing mark between his fore-finger and thumb’:
Gravill: “If I was once bad that’s no reason I should be always so. I gets a honest living wood cutting. I’ve nothing to do with the “Forty Thieves” now; they are gone to pot long ago; and there’s no harm, I suppose, now in having the mark.”
But cases naming the gang – and referencing the idiosyncratic tattoo – continued to appear well into the 1840s – a period when the role of women became more prominent, with even suggestions they were the dominant force. A ‘young woman’ called Mary Garmer, appeared at Clerkenwell court in September 1846 charged with stealing a shawl, a fact she boldly denied. Mr Combe, the magistrate, inquired if the prisoners was well known.
Sergeant Archer: “She is one of the most notorious characters in London. She is connected with a daring set of female thieves.”
Garmer (sneeringly): “No she isn’t, Mr Ugly” (laughter).
Sergeant Archer (approaching to take hold of her): “Why, you know you are. Your worship, she has got the five dots on her hand.”
Garmer (clenching her fist): “Don’t come near me, or you’ll catch it.”
Mr Combe: “The five dots were the marks for the “forty thieves,” were they not?”
Archer: “Yes, your worship. She is one of the gang.”
Garmer: Indeed! How wise you are.
By the 1850s the New York gang of Forty Thieves had broken up. In London, the name persisted well into the twentieth century, with regular cases involving young boys – but also men – identified as belonging the gang. These groups were often said to be based north of the river, in places including Islington, Camden, Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Clerkenwell, Limehouse, Greenwich, Chelsea and Woolwich, but also south of the river in Southwark. On several occasions the authorities claimed an individual gang had been successfully ‘broken up’ – but another proclaiming the same name would soon resurface.
Towards the end of the century an incarnation of the Forty Thieves appeared that was exclusively female and became as notorious as any which had gone before. It was led by Mary Carr, aka Mary Crane, who was known as the ‘Queen of the Forty Thieves’. An occasional artists’ model with ‘an exceptionally fine figure’, she possessed ‘unusual tact and ability’ and said to be one of the most astute criminals of the time. She assembled a gang of young women which specialised in robbery and blackmail and gave her complete obedience as their leader.
This female gang persisted through to the twentieth century, when the role of Queen was taken over by Alice Diamond, aka ‘Diamond Annie’, whose punch was said to rival that of any man. Later, the name of this particular group was corrupted into the Forty Elephants, a reference to the Elephant and Castle – the area in Lambeth where the group was based.
It seems likely there was only the vaguest of connections between the female gang of the twentieth century and the child gang of a century or so earlier. The ‘Forty Thieves’ was a name passed on across the years, one which appealed to the criminals, for whom it gave prestige, and to the public, which liked to give an identity to its fears. And although references to the five dots as the badge of the gang evaporate after the 1840s, the tattoo itself has outlasted the name of the Forty Thieves as a mark of street villainy.