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19 January 2010

Crowds and crime in Defoe's Moll Flanders

DANIEL DEFOE WAS a restless and energetic writer who produced over 270 books and pamphlets from the late 1690s to just before his death in 1731. It’s not surprising then how works such as History of the Plague in London and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders revolve around action and dialogue, with only scant accounts of sights and sounds.

Moll Flanders does, however, contain some descriptions of how the public strove in very vocal ways to apprehend thieves and pickpockets. The central character of the book, Moll Flanders, makes her living in London first as a confidence trickster and then as a shoplifter and pickpocket. There is no police force to set her before the judiciary. Instead it’s the public who step up to the job of thief-taker. In this excerpt, a Covent Garden crowd mistakenly identifies her as having stolen from a shop:

It happened that while I was going along the street in Covent Garden, there was a great cry of ‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’ some artists had, it seems, put a trick upon a shopkeeper, and being pursued, some of them fled one way, and some another; and one of them was, they said, dressed up in widow’s weeds, upon which the mob gathered about me, and some said I was the person, others said no.

On another occasion, individuals in a crowd raise the alarm while Flanders goes pickpocketing among them:

I had no sooner said so, but the other gentlewoman cried out ‘A pickpocket’ too, for somebody, she said, had tried to pull her watch away.

When I touched her watch I was close to her, but when I cried out I stopped as it were short, and the crowd bearing her forward a little, she made a noise too, but it was at some distance from me, so that she did not in the least suspect me; but when she cried out ‘A pickpocket,’ somebody cried, ‘Ay, and here has been another! this gentlewoman has been attempted too.’

At that very instance, a little farther in the crowd, and very luckily too, they cried out ‘A pickpocket,’ again, and really seized a young fellow in the very act.

Flanders is eventually caught and confined to Newgate, the same prison where Defoe himself had been incarcerated after writing the satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters:

I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.

Newgate is where the uproar of the streets is confined and concentrated. The most extensive sound description in the whole of Moll Flanders is of the morning of an execution in the prison:

But I go on with my relation. The next morning there was a sad scene indeed in the prison. The first thing I was saluted with in the morning was the tolling of the great bell at St. Sepulchre’s, as they call it, which ushered in the day. As soon as it began to toll, a dismal groaning and crying was heard from the condemned hole, where there lay six poor souls who were to be executed that day, some from one crime, some for another, and two of them for murder.

This was followed by a confused clamour in the house, among the several sorts of prisoners, expressing their awkward sorrows for the poor creatures that were to die, but in a manner extremely differing one from another. Some cried for them; some huzzaed, and wished them a good journey; some damned and cursed those that had brought them to it—that is, meaning the evidence, or prosecutors—many pitying them, and some few, but very few, praying for them.

It’s hard to think of any examples today of strangers calling and acting together in public as a matter of routine. Gigs, demonstrations, sporting events and religious gatherings are special occasions for most people, rather than part of everyday life.

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