Review: “The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption” by Stephen Carver

By Stephen Basdeo

Everyone nowadays seems fascinated by the Victorian criminal underworld. From Ripper Street to Peaky Blinders, it seems people cannot get enough of murdered sex workers and brutal yet gentlemanly gangsters. We all now know the tropes: most of the action—murder, rape, theft, domestic violence—in these television dramas takes places at night in gas-lit slum courts and alleyways where downtrodden working-class people eke out a living on poverty.

In The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption, historian and novelist Stephen Carver, drawing upon a wide range of archival and literary sources, takes us on a journey through the seedy courts and sinister alleyways of the criminal underworld which existed during the nineteenth century. Yet while we today—as many Victorians did also—associate the idea of an underworld solely with the poor and destitute, Carver’s subtitle is significant: he examines the actual crimes which occurred in the period, taking us through the various laws which were passed against specific crimes theft and murder; he then takes us through a discussion of the controversy surrounding these crimes which was aired in the press and popular literature; and through his discussion of “white collar” crimes such as fraud, shows us how corruption reigned supreme in the higher echelons of society.

There are 9 chapters in total, each of which deals with a separate aspect of the various crimes and vices of the nineteenth-century underworld. Carver is also a novelist (see his other works), and it’s truly a blessing to have him bring his literary talents to a history book. I’ve read many academic histories on crime and many of them can end up reading a little drily, endlessly lost in theories and debates. Academic debates have their place in Carver’s history here, of course, but the reader is not overburdened with incomprehensible jargon from the likes of Michel Foucault—it seems literally every academic work on crime now feels obligated to cite the Foucault in some way or other these days.

Cover of the forthcoming paperback edition

Some of the events Carver recounts are unpleasant, but because he is a skilled writer he manifests a certain sensitivity in dealing with the more horrid aspects–child murders, for instance, are dealt with maturely and soberly. So this is not some rather rubbish true crime book–which always seem to be about ogling the foul deeds committed by brutes–but a well-written book which entertains where possible but treats the source material and subject (and the reader) with respect. I enjoyed all of the chapters, but I have to admit my favourite was chapter 5 on ‘The Real Oliver Twist’. He does not attempt to find a ‘real’ Oliver Twist in the manner that some would try and look for a ‘real’ Robin Hood; instead, he contextualises Dickens’s famous tale alongside contemporary high-profile cases and scandals such as baby farming, pick-pocketing epidemics, and the career of Ikey Solomon, a Jewish fence who almost certainly provided inspiration to Dickens for Fagin.

We find the ‘problem’ of prostitution laid bare to public view. While many true crime books often present sex workers as the helpless victims of fate, consigned forever to ply their trade on the rough street corners of the East End, Carver, refreshingly, at least gives some of these now long dead women some of their agency back—turns out some of them thoroughly enjoyed their profession and had no qualms about admitting it, as one ‘shrewd and clever’ girl told one of Henry Mayhew’s social investigators in the 1850s:

What are my habits? Why, if I have no letters or visits from any of my friends, I get up about four o’clock, dress (“en dishabille”) and dine; after that I may walk about the streets for an hour or two, and pick up any one I am fortunate enough to meet with, that is if I want money; afterwards I go to the Holborn, dance a little, and if any one likes me I take him home with me, if not I go to the Haymarket, and wander from one café to another, from Sally’s to the Carlton, from Barn’s to Sam’s, and if I find no one there I go, if I feel inclined, to the divans. I like the Grand Turkish best, but you don’t as a rule find good men in any of the divans. Strange things happen to us sometimes: we may now and then die of consumption; but the other day a lady friend of mine met a gentleman at Sam’s, and yesterday morning they were married at St. George’s, Hanover Square. The gentleman has lots of money, I believe, and he started off with her at once for the Continent. It is very true this is an unusual case; but we often do marry, and well too; why shouldn’t we, we are pretty, we dress well, we can talk and insinuate ourselves into the hearts of men by appealing to their passions and their senses.”

She may have been classed as a ‘fallen woman’ by pompous moralists, but there was also a chance she could rise to the higher echelons of society through her profession as well.

Yet the nineteenth-century underworld was by no means a poor man’s world.

Many true crime books rehearse those well-known tropes of gas-lit seedy alleys on their front covers. Yet the first thing that strikes the purchaser of Carver’s book is that, instead of such dark streets or a picture from Gustave Doré, we get a splash of colour—an image of pugilists adorns the spine, while the centrepiece of the front cover shows a well-dressed gentleman chatting up a lass whose breasts are partially exposed, although the paperback edition has a slightly different image on the front from Egan’s work. These images are taken from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821)—the father of Pierce Egan the Younger (1814–80) whom I have written quite a lot about—and the images were a good choice because as Carver shows in his book, the underworld could be a very fun place if you had the money to enjoy the various attractions which London had to offer. It was a place where, as Egan said:

Every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable.

As Carver further points out:

In Life in London, the underworld is never represented by Egan as the menacing, gothic space it became to the Victorians. If [the characters of Life in London] wander somewhere scary, they do not hang around.

So, for a modestly priced volume which will soon be available in paperback as well, you too can, with Carver, navigate the seedy underworld of nineteenth-century London which could be both fun and frightening!

Carver, Stephen, The 19th-Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy and Corruption (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), ISBN: 9781526707543 209pp.


Yobs from Richmond Arrested for Stealing Football

By Stephen Basdeo

Young lads have always enjoyed playing football, but sometimes their love for it can land them in trouble with the police. This is as true today as it was in the Victorian era, where in court records we find two residents from Richmond, London, William Ford, aged 19, and Henry Hold, aged 15, arrested for having broken into a shop and stealing a football.

On 20 December 1894, Mr James Burford, the Managing Director of the London and Birmingham Manufacturing Company, left £1 in the cash register and 1 shilling and threepence in the bowl on the cashier’s desk, locked up the office went home for the evening. When he came back the next morning, he found that the till and the money on the side had been emptied, and that a football was missing from his shop.

Hooligans in the Victorian Era

It’s pretty obvious that Ford and Holt were not master criminals; the best criminals are never caught and they tend to keep quiet about the offences they’ve committed. Not so with these two delinquents; to other members of the local community they decided to announce their intention to burgle other businesses in their home neighbourhood.

Their inability to keep their traps shut about their past robberies and their intentions to go about robbing other people naturally aroused the suspicions of the local bobby, Sergeant Hawkins, who decided to collar the lads a few days later – policemen were much more heavily involved in their local communities than they are today – and at their homes the policeman informed Holt that he had come to arrest them for breaking into Burford’s shop. In their possession, he found a brand new football which matched the description of the missing football from Burford’s factory.

The Old Bailey in the 19th Century

The two delinquents were hauled to the Police Court (now known as the Magistrates Court) where they were cross-examined; they insisted that they had purchased the football off a random stranger, a defence that was given very little credit by all present, for in the words of Burford himself, although the design was common, he had no doubt that the ball in the boys’ possession was his missing football:

Cross-examined by MR. DRAKE. Castle Yard is in Hill Street, about three minutes’ walk off—this football has been very little Used—I recognise it by the letter “U” stamped on the bottom—we have only just commenced keeping them—it is a common class of football—the “U “is not our mark; it is a common trade mark; we have no private mark on it.

Re-examined. I have very little doubt it is the ball I missed.

Holt had pleaded Not Guilty originally while Ford changed his plea to Guilty, but the magistrate found them Guilty.

Ford was sentenced to six months hard labour, while Holt was given nine months.

We know little of Ford and Holt’s life after this event. Holt died in 1904 but his death records do no state the cause of it.

Ford, however, was charged with theft again in 1901, and sentenced to another 9 months of hard labour, after which he was discharged as an ‘Habitual Criminal’. Today, of course, 9 months for stealing a few pounds and a football would barely even attract the attention of a magistrate and still less would it warrant a custodial sentence.

Further Reading: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 01 November 2018), January 1894, trial of WILLIAM FORD(19) HENRY HOLT(15) (t18940108-209).

The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

Royal 2 B.VII, f.206
Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

12827.h.1/3, opposite 148
19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog:

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 [Accessed 5 June 2018].

An English Republican’s View of Crime and its Causes

By Stephen Basdeo

George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79) was one of the Victorian era’ most prolific novelists. Inspired by Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1843), Reynolds’s famous The Mysteries of London (1844-46) shined a light on the crimes committed by members of criminal upperworld and underworld.[1] Reynolds was also famous as the editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper, a radical newspaper which eventually became the leading left(ish) wing periodical of its day (sometimes our modern definitions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not easily translatable on to historical figures).[2] The paper was published every Saturday, and the first page would feature an editorial from the man himself, commenting upon a variety of social issues. As a man who obviously had a firm understanding of the nature and causes of crime in nineteenth-century London, evident by his Mysteries novels, in 1851 he wrote an essay entitled ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’ in Reynolds’s Newspaper, which delineated what he thought were the causes of crime.[3]

Portrait of G. W. M. Reynolds on the cover of his other magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany.

Reynolds hated the monarchy and the aristocracy with a passion, although, ever the gentleman, he had respect for Victorian herself; it was merely the institution that she represented which he abhorred. One of the reasons he campaigned for reform to Britain’s state apparatus was because, in his view, the state should exist for the betterment of the social condition of the people:

The political institutions of a country are supposed to be established to ensure the well-being of the community at large. It is consequently fair and rational to deduce an answer to the question – Whether our much-vaunted institutions be really valuable and beneficent, or whether they be inefficient and pernicious?[4]

Armed with statistics, Reynolds pointed out that, in 1851, the crime statistics compiled by the government and the police made for grim reading:

To show the amount of depraving, demoralizing, criminal and vicious influences at work in the metropolis alone, the subjoined estimate has been drawn up from official documents, by persons whose veracity can be relied upon: Children trained to crime, 1600; Receivers of stolen goods, 5,000; Gamblers by profession, 15,000; Beggars, 25,000; Thieves, &c., 50,000; Drunkards, 30,000; Habitual gin drinkers, 180,000; Persons subsisting on profligacy, 150,000.[5]

Victorian intellectuals often praised the English constitution as being one of the best in the worlds; governed by a constitutional monarch whose MPs exercised power on her behalf, resulting in a stable form of government; and this in turn, so it was thought by the political establishment, meant that Englishmen (and it was thought of in exclusively gendered terms at this point) enjoyed wonderful degree of political liberty, in spite of the fact that only the middle classes and the aristocracy could vote.

The Resurrection Man from The Mysteries of London (1844-46): Punished by society simply for being poor, he has no choice but to turn to crime.

Yet Reynolds had no time for people who praised what he saw as a corrupt and undemocratic system, having declared in an earlier article that,

Nothing can be more disgusting than to hear individuals boast of English freedom. There is no real freedom in this country; and the persons who idolise a shadow are either knaves or fools. Those who fatten upon the corrupt institutions of our country will, doubtless, applaud them to the skies; and those who are too prejudiced or too ignorant to view them in their proper light, echo the praises which the selfish and interested bestow upon them.[6]

After citing his crime statistics, Reynolds asks

Who will dare boast of our “blessed institutions” and “our glorious laws” after this fearful exposure? Those stupid vaunts are annihilated by the statistics of crime in a moment.[7]

According to Reynolds, the rottenness of the English constitution was the cause of crime in nineteenth-century London. The narrow upper middle and aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain at the time had passed a series of laws which were deliberately designed to punish the poor for being poor. What did the establishment expect, then, but for paupers to turn to crime because they were voiceless? The poorest in society, according to Reynolds, were being systematically excluded from it due to the self-interest of the aristocracy and ‘moneyocracy’.

Reynolds Queen
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as depicted in Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-46); frivolous and without a care for her subjects, the queen is kept in ignorance of the plight of the working classes who live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Nine-tenths of crime, according to Reynolds in the article, have as their cause the punitive and self-serving actions of the British establishment, and at the head of this system was the monarch and the royal family, too spineless to ever intervene on behalf of her subjects whom she professed to care for.

Reynolds’s attitude was articulated some years before in his Mysteries of London, in the character of the Resurrection Man. Had the establishment not enacted laws such as the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which expanded the workhouse system and made it incredibly harsh, or had they not pursued the cut-throat ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, then crime would be much lower than the statistics he cited.

Reynolds’s attitude raises interesting questions today about who really is to blame for crime. Ultimately, as Reynolds recognises in his article, societies get the criminals they deserve.

[1] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘That’s Business: Organised Crime in G. W. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 53-70.

[2] For further reading see Anne Humpherys and Louis James, eds., G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

[3] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 May 1851, p. 1. Reynolds is cited as the author.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘Our Boasted Freedom’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 May 1850, p. 1.

[7] Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, p. 1.

The Mysteries of New York


By Stephen Basdeo

During the nineteenth century, a series of ‘Urban Mysteries’ novels were published. The most famous of these are Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1843), and two of G. W. M. Reynolds’s serials entitled The Mysteries of London (1844–46) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1848–56). Reynolds’s original serial was then continued by Thomas Miller and E. L. Blanchard as The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1848-52). As their names suggest, these stories were set in the modern industrial city and focused upon crime and depravity in high and low life.

tenement 1
Poverty in 19th-century New York

In the Victorian era, New York was in many ways comparable to Paris and London; it was a large industrial city with ‘dark Satanic mills’, or factories, in which the poor and the rich lived “cheek by jowl”; paupers lived a hand-to-mouth existence and for many, a life of crime as part of an organised criminal gang was more attractive to a life of toiling for a pittance in a factory. And just as London with its alley-ways and courts provided the perfect setting for Reynolds’s and Sue’s crime novels, so Ned Buntline imagined it as the perfect place to set his own crime novel: The Miseries and Mysteries of New York (1848–49).

A contemporary print depicting the Astor Theatre Riots

Buntline was, like his British counterpart Reynolds, a moralist and social reformer, although Buntline’s radicalism and ideology were of an entirely different hue to that of Reynolds. Buntline was a ‘nativist’ (racist); was fiercely anti-Catholic, an attitude which likely stemmed from prejudice against Irish people who arrived in New York in large numbers during the 1840s; and he was strongly opposed to immigration. When he and those who shared his views could not achieve an end to immigration through democratic means, they incited riots. Buntline became notorious as one of the leaders of the infamous Astor Place Theatre Riot on 10 May 1849. It should be remembered that the United States was, at this point, a young nation, having won its independence from Britain in 1783. The cause of the riot at Astor Theatre was because some of the nativists, who had some dubious connections with the gangs located around the Five Points area of New York, objected to seeing an English actor, William Charles Macready, on stage playing in Macbeth and outselling a performance of the same play at a rival theatre a few days before, starring an American, Edwin Forrest.[i] Indeed, cordial relations between the citizens of the USA and the UK, and their respective governments, really only came about after the Second World War (1939–45).

Anti-English Posters printed in the lead up to the Astor Place Theatre Riots

It was on the side of the American actor, Forrest, that Ned Buntline marshalled support in the riot. Intensely distrustful of the English, in The Mysteries of New York, the most notorious organised crime gang is one in which all its members are English:

There is a house in Cherry Street, not far from Catherine Market – a low, frame-house, painted yellow – a two storied building, which is well-known to every police officer in city … [which] was a kind of general assembling room for the English burglars and pickpockets, who, driven from their own land, pursued their “profession” in New York.[ii]

The gang is arranged in a “traditional” hierarchy with a clear leader, named Jack Circle, and under him

They have formed themselves into a regular confederacy, agreeing to act upon the orders of their chief, which were to be given in consultation with the gang in assembly. And the gang had their regular meetings, when the report of each member was as duly given to the chief as the reports of the city police are to their worthy head.

Thus, Circle’s gang mirrors traditional legal and social structures. Buntline then introduces readers to several of the most prominent members of the criminal, who are all ‘Englishmen of the real St. Giles’s order’, and in their appearance recall Bill Sikes from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838). Circle is a rather brutish fellow, about fifty years of age, red-faced from a life of heavy drinking, but large and muscular. He was probably based upon a real-life criminal named Harry Hill, an Englishman born in 1827 but who emigrated to New York at an early age and, throughout his life, maintained several gambling dens in the Bowery area.

Downtown Saloon
A “low” drinking establishment in Downtown New York

There were, in fact, a number of English criminals who had made a life for themselves in New York City during the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, Harry Lazarus emigrated to the city from England and made his name as a boxer while simultaneously establishing himself as an important underworld figure.

There is also a female member of Circle’s gang who, unlike in most organised crime units, past or present, takes an active role in the network’s criminal activities. There was indeed a notorious Englishwoman who flourished in New York during the mid-nineteenth century named Gallus Mag, though readers may be more familiar with the character of Hell-Cat Maggie in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). The ferocity of the historical Hell-Cat Maggie is described by Alfred A. Knopf in this manner:

It was her custom, after she’d felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar…. She was one of the most feared denizens on the waterfront and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.[iii]

Being English criminals, of course, they speak in a special language called “English flash”, which Buntline says is similar to the cant spoken by thieves found in the East End of London. And being English, Circle attempts to model himself, presumable without much sincerity, however, upon the English criminals of folklore and history, and he is a huge fan of the novels of Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer Lytton.

To cite this article:


Basdeo, Stephen, ‘The Mysteries of New York’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood (2018), [Date Accessed]


Basdeo, Stephen, 2018. ‘The Mysteries of New York’. Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood. Available at: [Date Accessed]

[i] John W. Frick, ‘The Wicked City Motif on the American Stage before the Civil War’, New Theatre Quarterly 77, 20: 1 (2004), 19-27 (p. 21)

[ii] Ned Buntline, The Mysteries of New York: A Tale of Real Life (London: Milner [n. d.]), p. 22.

[iii] Alfred A. Knopf, The Gangs of New York (New York: Knopf, 1928), p. 31.

All photographs taken from Wikimedia Commons or the works of Jacob A. Riis.

Organized Crime

The following essay is adapted from a paper, written by Tyler Welch, on the theory behind the concept of organised crime. Tyler is a first year undergraduate student at Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA). Originally from Maine, USA, he is also a talented soccer player and is a striker for his university’s team. Tyler also has another forthcoming article which he will be contributing to this website on terrorist subcultures.

Let us imagine that there is a robber who wants to steal from a convenience store. This robber is fairly intelligent and a few days before plans ahead by first walking into the store to find out where all of the security cameras are placed. He may also take note of the hours that are the most popular for customers to go in. After all of his research and planning, he finally carries out the robbery. This crime was certainly organised and executed in a methodical way, yet most people would not consider this robber’s crime as constituting an example of organised crime, for that term, for most people, often brings up images of the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian Mafiya, or the Yakuza, to name but a few. This post discusses how we should define organised crime and how such criminal networks operate. We will then take a more in depth look at the origins of the Sicilian mafia and discuss their ways and customs.

The cast of Goodfellas – this is the image that most people have of organised crime.

The criminologist, James Finckenauer, highlights some of the problems inherent in defining organised crime, saying that,

“the problem […comes] not from the word crime, but from the word organized’.[i]

Crimes such as murder, robbery, and theft are mala in se (wrong in and of itself). Prostitution, drug dealing, bribery, and in some regions, gambling, are mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited by law).[ii] All of the above offences would require a degree of method in their execution, therefore, “any definition must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised”.[iii] Thus, a satisfactory definition which distinguishes the actions of mafia groups from the two-bit robber is the fact that organised crime is non-ideological; there is a hierarchy and structure under which its members operate; the hierarchy must facilitate continuity, enabling the group to exist even if its leading members are arrested and imprisoned; the highly secretive yet powerful hierarchy is often reinforced by restricting its membership to a chosen few who are highly vetted; and finally traditional organised crime groups must penetrate the “upperworld” of local and sometimes national governments, as well as businesses, through bribery and extortion.[iv]

Not all organised crime groups are organised in the same way, however, for different groups organise themselves differently, as we can see through the illustrations of the “traditional” hierarchy of organised crime groups and the “loose network”. In the first, the “soldiers” would have to go through the underbosses to get to the boss. Likewise, if the authorities were trying to take down the group, they would have to track down some of the members in the lower parts of the chain so that they can get more information on where the head man is and take the organisation down. This is how the mafia in nineteenth-century Sicily and twentieth-century New York typically operated.

Mafia Structure 1
The “Standard” Criminal Network Hierarchy (C) Larrisia Hall

However, organised crime groups require a particular set of conditions under which they can grow and flourish. To understand the origins of a group such as the Sicilian Mafia, we must turn to the political and social history of nineteenth-century Italy. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is well-known as the homeland of the mafia. This island became a part of the nation state of Italy when it was unified under the Royal House of Piedmont-Sardinia in the 1860s. However, Italy at this time and lacked sufficient resources to enforce the law in what had already been an unruly region prior to its unification with Italy, and many of whose inhabitants resented the new regime. Banditry became endemic throughout the southern regions of Italy, and the landowning classes didn’t want their stuff to be taken and vandalized. Since there was no effective police system at the time, the landowning classes turned to private armies, known by the name of mafie, to watch over and protect their estates for a fee. Over time these groups became known as the mafia because they gradually exerted their influence, not only over businesses and farms, but also over local government. The mafia gained a lot of attention at this time, although the people in the mafia rarely call themselves mafia. They rather call it cosa nostra which means “our thing”. These clans are called families or cosche. These families or cosche come together to form a mafia. They all have a strong bond with each other and kinship is applicable as well because everyone is like a brother to one another. Also every mafia has a territory and in the territory they have a monopoly or violence policy. Which means that every business is owned by one of the family members in the mafia and if there is a business that is in operation in the mafias territory and they aren’t willing to pay the mafia they will take matters into their own hands to see that they start paying. Being arranged in such a close knit community comes at a price: no one can leave the mafia because they have to go through an initiation ritual that includes an interrogation, a blood oath to never betray the family, and holding a burning piece of paper. Anyone of the members can move up in the chain of command if they work hard enough because it was a democratic system with an election based on the other family members. To keep track of all these criminals there has to be something to keep them in check. That one thing is honor. A member of the mafia has honor if he always puts the family first and abides by the mafia rules. If a member has no honor they are nothing. There is one sacred term that every member of the mafia must follow and that term is Omerta. That word signifies a code of silence which forbids mafia speaking about the group to non-members, which in practice is a prohibition upon speaking to the police. No two members of the mafia, furthermore, can introduce themselves to one another and only a third member can introduce the two if he knows they are both members of the mafia. Thus, organised crime groups such as the Sicilian mafia are subcultures because their moral values, and the activities they engage in, set them apart from mainstream society with its legal and cultural apparatus.

mafia Structure 2
The Modern “Loose Network” Structure. Source: Source: Klaus von Lampe, “Understanding Organised Crime in Germany” (1995)

While the traditional hierarchy worked well for organised crime groups in the twentieth century, their activities could be significantly disrupted by the authorities if the boss was imprisoned, and the group’s activities could even cease. From the mid-twentieth century, therefore, organised crime groups evolved into a more unorthodox structure called a “loose structure”, facilitated in part by globalisation from the 1980s onwards. In the second image, we can see there are many operational sub-units in the organisation. There is no single place to find the head boss because they are all equally important which makes it very difficult for the authorities to track them down and eliminate because there is no clearly identifiable center of power; the latter structure also facilitates continuity more effectively than the traditional hierarchy does; as no single unit depends upon another, if the leader of one unit is tracked down and sent to prison, the organisation simply carries on.

Although Finckenaur says that that organised crime groups are non-ideological, they are essentially capitalist, and aim to provide people with some type of service.[v] Thus,

making a profit, through whatever means are considered necessary, is in fact the primary goal of organised criminal groups.[vi]

Nowadays many Americans, for example, want sex, drugs, opportunities to gamble, and to obtain outlawed arms, and so organised crime groups are only too ready to make money by providing consumers with such things through illegal means such as drug and people trafficking, and loan-sharking. Often, as in the case of the Sicilian mafia, they even provide protection from robbery, and so they charge law-abiding businesses owners a fee (what we could call extortion). On occasion, organised crime groups invest in restaurants and bars gains to get respectable social status, and present themselves as some type of Robin Hood figures by giving back to the local community. Their legitimate businesses are, of course, also an effective way to launder money.[vii]

Although there is not a universal agreement on the definition of organised crime, the definitions provided by Finckenaur and Galeotti provide a good basis from which researchers and policy makers can move forward in combatting organised crime. This can only be done when the history of these groups is considered; when their hierarchies are analyzed; and by asking questions of mainstream governments such as whether it is productive to prohibit things which people want, when organised crime groups are only too willing to supply them. Finally, it should be remembered that it will always be difficult for anybody to fully investigate the workings of these groups because they form highly secretive subcultures.


[i] James Finckenaur, ‘‘Problems of Definition: What Is Organised Crime?’, Trends in Organised Crime, 8: 3 (2005), 63-83 (p. 64). Crime itself can be straightforwardly defined more simply as an action which is an offence and punishable by law.

[ii] Ibid., p. 65. A simpler form of this is there are actions that can be committed and by the general public it is looked down upon but other actions can be up for debate in what is right and wrong based on preference and the area where the rules are made. Much of the Middle East operates under Islamic laws, which forbid gambling, with one possible penalty for this being beheading. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, gambling is very lenient. In almost every city center there is a casino or place to make bets on football matches and no one gets punished for it.

[iii] Ibid., p. 64.

[iv] Ibid., p. 65. Finckenaur recognizes something very important in defining organised crime. Some people may believe that groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda are classified as organized crime but they are not. The criminal organizations actually collaborate with terrorist organizations and the terrorist help in crimes to help finance their own organisation. The difference between the two groups are the ideological and non-ideological sides to them. This means that the organised crime groups go about their business to receive a profit while the terrorist organisations go about their business to advance a political and/or religious agenda.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., p. 67. Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. 1; Mark Galeotti, whose own definition of organised crime is broadly in agreement with Finckenaur’s, sheds further light on our understanding of organised crime networks as a subculture which mirrors the structures of mainstream society, saying that “When societies get organised, so too their criminals; and in this way, organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order.” Further information on organised crime and the Siclian mafia can be found in the following works: John Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004); Petter Gottschalk, ‘How Criminal Organisations Work: Some Theoretical Perspectives’. The Police Journal, 81 (2008), 46-61.