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1741 in London, United Kingdom

Jenny the Lady

Legend - told by Victoria Dainton

Jenny’s real name was actually Mary, she was a young Irish pick pocket extraordinaire who rose to fame in the 1700’s. Being an expert “diver”, as pick pockets were referred to, Jenny’s life started in the north of Ireland as an illegitimate child of a lady’s maid. Her mother lost her job, and sought shelter in a brothel where she gave birth. Jenny was soon deserted and sent to various foster homes before an elderly gentlewoman took her in and taught her to read, write and sew.

Jenny quickly learnt to sew, and developed nimble fingers that proved handy when reaching into the pockets of unsuspecting passers-by. She aspired to become a seamstress in London, but struggled to find the money for the long trip from Ireland. Being a beautiful young girl, Jenny turned her attention to one of her admirers, whom she persuaded to rob his master so they could run away together. She waited for him on the ship whilst he did the robbery and the journey across the seas took two days. Jenny was very seasick on board the ship, so the young couple married in Liverpool and stayed there for a while to recover. When her husband was arrested for the thefts in Ireland, Jenny sent him some clothes and travelled onward to London, leaving him to return to Ireland to stand trial.  

When Jenny arrived in London she met up with an old friend from Ireland, Anne, the ring leader of a group of pick pockets. Anne trained her and Jenny took to it very quickly. She was in fact so talented, Jenny ended up taking over the organisation as head of the gang.

A beautiful young girl, Jenny would dress up in fine clothing to lure her victims in. She would pretend to be a damsel in distress, taking items out of the pockets of those who tried to help. She had once observed a young gentleman with a diamond ring on his finger in a place of worship, held out her hand for his assistance, he had kindly agreed and remained unaware that she had slipped the ring of his finger and passed it to one of her accomplices.

With it being her first recorded offense, her death sentence was reduced to transportation to America.

Being educated, smartly dressed and attractive made it easy for Jenny to blend into the wealthy middle-class circles. Watches, jewellery, and bags would disappear from church services, or others would fall victim to her cons on the streets of London. One day, in St James’ Park, she lay on the ground appearing to be in great pain, attracting a crowd of people offering her assistance. Members of her gang were disguised as her footman and maid, and whilst the members of public tended to the distressed Jenny, she cautiously removed items of value from her victims and passed them on to her friends.

She used the same ploy to gain access to people’s homes, and whilst the owners were upstairs searching for remedies and aids to alleviate her pain, Jenny and her boyfriend helped themselves to valuable items and cash found in drawers. She quickly gained notoriety, and eventually was caught picking the pocket of an elderly gentleman in London. Although she had many aliases, Jenny used her real name and was found guilty. With it being her first recorded offense, her death sentence was reduced to transportation to America.

Jenny used her charm and wealth to bribe the captain and the governor, ensuring she would not have labour in the plantations. It would not be long before Jenny returned to Britain, craving the excitement of her previous life. It was a capital crime to return without completing one’s sentence, but Jenny was able to use her good looks and resources to persuade a returning captain to take her back.

Returning to her thieving ways, Jenny went back to London but life wasn’t as easy now. Many of her friends were either out of the gang, awaiting transportation or hanged. Her fingers were less nimble due to arthritis and her looks were fading. Jenny was arrested trying to take the purse of a woman, but managed to use an alias to evade the death sentence. Unfortunately, her fame eluded her, and newspapers quickly made the link. She was again shipped off to America aboard a prison ship. Jenny didn’t take to this too kindly, and quickly bribed the captain to help her return to London.

Using the help of two of her previous gang members, Jenny crafted a scam whereby a male member would offer his hand to help women cross the wet ground by use of wooden boards laid out previously. Judy, an unsuspecting younger woman, took the hand of this man to cross the boards only to find Jenny’s wrist deep in her pocket.

She lunged at Jenny, holding on to her and screaming for help, attracting the attention of passers-by. Jenny tried to get free, hitting Judy over the head, but Judy hung on to her coat. The young man that had offered his hand managed to escape, but Jenny was arrested along with her colleague.

Her court case did not go very well for her, although she tried to defend herself, the jury sided with Judy’s rendition of the events and Jenny was sentenced to death. She tried to argue that she was pregnant, hoping it would save her life but the panel of matrons examined her and found it not to be the case.

Jenny’s days were numbered, and she turned to religion for salvation. Many were sentenced to be hanged that day, but not all of the convicts had Jenny’s wealth. She dressed in her finest clothing adorned in a large black veil and was allowed a Mourning Coach, so she could hide from the masses en route to the gallows.

When they came to collect her for her execution, she briefly lost her composure but managed to regain herself. She had to put on a good show for the crowd and her followers. Execution days were a big event and a public holiday for the working class, a carnival atmosphere with food and drink. The journey was two miles from the prison to the gallows, and throughout the journey the procession would stop at taverns so prisoners could enjoy a final drink.

What today is known as Oxford Street was the road Jenny’s procession followed. Many convicts throughout the times encountered the same gruesome ending that poor Jenny endured. If a convict was lucky, they would have loved ones or friends in the crowd to pull their legs to ensure a faster death. She opted out of the traditional night-cap and drew the veil over her face. The cart was whipped away by the driver, and Jenny’s feet dangled freely in the air. She didn’t suffer for long, like many other unfortunate souls. Spectators offered up prayers and her friends arranged for her body to be taken away and buried.

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