A Guide to Elizabethan Con Games
Cosmopolitan Elizabethans were a circumspect bunch, given the number of cons at work in their midst. Feeding that pool of criminals was an unwieldy number of beggars and vagabonds forced out of home and livelihood by a range of factors in the 16th century, including inflation, public land enclosures, population increase, and poor harvests. This growing criminal population was described in a wealth of cheaply-printed pamphlets—the Elizabethan equivalent of tabloid news sites—that offered an exposé of criminal types, their scams, and even their cant (slang or coded language). Part of a genre called “rogue literature” including similarly themed books and plays, these pamphlets were purportedly created to warn and inform the honest farmer, merchant, and goodwife; however, their lurid portrayals of criminals and the ravenous public appetite for such stories suggest true crime reading was also a popular guilty pleasure. So what swindles populated the pages of rogue literature? Here are eight confidence games of real-life Elizabethan dodgers, cozeners, and rogues.
- Charity Cases: Abraham Men and Counterfeit Cranks
Posing as former patients of the Abraham ward at Bedlam hospital, Abraham-men traveled the countryside feigning mental illness and soliciting charity from the kind-hearted and credulous. They purportedly augmented their disguises by applying wax, paint, and other materials to affect sores and burns—the better to elicit sympathy. A cousin swindle, the counterfeit crank, involved a person affecting “the falling sickness,” or epilepsy, with the use of some dynamic movement and soap foam about the mouth.
- Identity Theft: the Jarkman
If your scam involved identity, the jarkman is who you saw for your counterfeit papers. Poor Laws, enacted throughout the 16th century, defined who were “deserving poor”—allowed to beg by mercy of the crown—and who might be whipped or put in the stocks for being out-of-work, on the road, and unable to produce a valid begging passport. The jarkman was an educated type of rogue: able to read and write, and possibly reproduce Latin on seals and licenses.
- The Full-Service Mary Kay Lady: Bawdy-Baskets
The bawdy-basket was a woman peddler with a basket full of lace, needles, song sheets, and other sundry trinkets to sell. Some pamphlets also include obscene books among the bawdy-basket’s wares. But what all pamphlets agree on is that these women made their true living through prostitution and—here’s the con—stealing from unsuspecting buyers before, after, (or during) sales transactions.
- The Magic Touch: Witches and Charlatans
Reginald Scot’s goal was exposing fraud, particularly concerning witches. In 1584 he published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, which sought to debunk magical acts commonly attributed to sorcery and to spare innocent women persecution as witches. (It should be said that Scot himself did believe in the supernatural, and in fact, included charms in his book to open locks, protect against scorpion bites, and ward off ghosts.) Scot also reveals the secrets behind numerous magic tricks employed by charlatans, such as making a coin jump out of a pot with magic words (tie the coin with “a long black hair of a woman’s head.”) Some of his “unmaskings” are astounding in their detail, such as the reveal of a trick called “John the Baptist” in which the severed head of a decapitated body appears to remain alive (a person hides in the coffin’s false bottom.) Some are less astounding. For example, to make a boy “danse naked” when charmed words are spoken, Scot explains, you pay the boy beforehand.
- Dirty Laundry: Courbers and Anglers
It begins as a straightforward dodge: the courber or angler uses a very long hook to snare clothing, linens, and other household items out of people’s open windows. But pamphleteer Robert Greene describes how the more sophisticated courber constructed his hooked pole to fold up into a walking stick to conceal his true purpose. Yet other courbers worked with accomplices. Some were “figgers,” light boys who were lifted into the window, replacing the hook. Some accomplices were “warps,” watch keepers who squirreled the stolen items away under their cloaks. And some were maids or prostitutes who weaseled their way into a wealthy house for work and then unlocked its windows for their partners.
- Fool’s Gold: Mediums and Diviners
A share of the Faerie Queen’s hoard of gold, all for a small initial buy-in . . . . This is the gist of a real hustle Ben Jonson made famous in his 1610 fictional play, The Alchemist. Subtle, the titular alchemist, promises financial glory via the occult in more scams, too, including one ruse in which Subtle offers to summon a spirit—for a fee—who can guarantee success in gambling ventures. A social satire, Jonson’s play takes aim at both the credulous dupes and the unscrupulous cons. In one scene mocking the bromidic minds of the bourgeois, a druggist asks Subtle to raise a spirit to guide him in how to arrange his shop.
- The Dine and Dash with Old Friends: Nips, Foists, and Cross-Bites
The nip (cutpurse) uses a knife and the foist (pickpocket) her hand, but both are out to steal your money. In one con, aimed at wealthy farmers in town to sell their harvests, the nip or foist uses a cross-bite, or conspirator. Here’s how it works: early in the day, the cross-bite pretends to recognize the farmer from home. The farmer protests, and the cross-bite steers him to reveal his real name and provenance. Later, the well-dressed nip or foist also “recognizes” the farmer, this time armed with enough true information to convince the farmer the con is an old acquaintance whose face the farmer has forgotten. The con invites the farmer to the pub, where the con racks up a hefty bill. Responding to an urgent call, the con slips out, leaving the farmer with the bill—and an empty purse.
- Conjuring the Conjuror: Edward Kelley and John Dee
Queen Elizabeth I employed an advisor named John Dee, sometimes called “the Queen’s conjuror,” who, among other things, used his skill in mathematics and astrology to select the most auspicious date for her coronation. Dee’s passion project, however, was communicating with the spirit realm. His interests led him to a scryer (diviner) named Edward Kelley who claimed many talents. One was alchemically transmuting base metals into gold. Another was conjuring angels. Through communications with a series of divine spirits, Kelley revealed to Dee an angelic language with purported magical properties. Dee’s trust in Kelley was such that when an angel named Madimi suggested that Dee share his wife with Kelley, Dee eventually agreed. Unfortunately for Kelley, not everyone was so credulous. He ended his days in a Bohemian prison after failing to produce gold for Emperor Rudolf II.
Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her debut novel is Sin Eater, a historical fiction mystery set in a reimagined Elizabethan England (Atria Books). Her plays have performed in China, France, and the United States. She has been a forest ranger, sous-chef in Paris, and a physical theater specialist around the world. In 2019, she received a Fulbright Specialist Award to give master classes in Ankara, Turkey. She attended Yale University and the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Megan lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. www.megancampisi.com