Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A prison break from 1795

A passing mention in the chapter on Jews in London in Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century caught my eye. In a paragraph on Jewish criminals, White writes,
And a dozen Jews and Christians combined again in a desperate attempt to rescue a suspected Jewish forger from the New Prison, Clerkenwell, in 1795.
Having mentioned the prison break, White moves on--but I couldn't very well leave it there, could I?

White's note attributes the story to the Annual Register for 1795--and, thanks to the Internet, I had the full story in less than a minute. Here's the account, from April 5:
This morning between one and two o'clock a very desperate attempt was made to rescue Isdwell Isdwell, a jew, who stood charged with some others, with being concerned in a late forgery of stamps, and who, in a scuffle, lost his life in the following manner: Isdwell, who was confined in New Prison, Clerkenwell, persuaded two of the turnkeys, that an aunt of his, who was very rich, then lay at the point of death., and that he had been informed, that could she see him before she died, she would give him a thousand pounds; and therefore, if they would let him out and accompany him to the place, he would give them fifty guineas each for their trouble, and that the matter might be effected without the knowledge of the keeper of the prison or any other person, they having the keys of it at night, and the time required being very short. To this proposal the turnkeys agreed, and accordingly, about one o'clock in the morning, the gates were opened, and Isdwell, with bis irons on, was conducted in a hackney coach by one of them, armed with a blunderbuss, to the place directed, which was in Artillery-lane, Bishopsgate-street, where they gained immediate admittance on ringing a bell; and, on enquiring for the sick lady, were ushered up one pair of stairs. Isdwell went into the room first, on which several fellows rushed forth and attempted to keep the turnkey out; but not succeeding in that respect, they put the candles out, wrested the blunderbuss out of his hands, and discharged it at him. At this instant, it was supposed, Isdwell was endeavouring to make his escape out of the door, as he received the principal part of the contents of the blunderbuss in his back, and fell dead; the turnkey also fell, one of the slugs having grazed the upper part of his head; and the villains by some means finding their mistake, though in the dark, beat him in so shocking a manner with the butt end of the blunderbuss, while he lay on the ground, as to break it to pieces, fracture his skull in two places, and bruise him dreadfully about the body. The noise which the affair occasioned brought a number of watchmen and patroles to the house, who secured ten persons therein, mostly jews. There is every reason to suppose that they would have completely murdered the turnkey had not timely assistance been afforded.
It's not much of a plan, is it? I would say that turnkeys were pretty easily fooled back in 1795, but in an essay on the history of jailbreaks in The Getaway Car (which will be reprinted in Vice this fall), Donald Westlake tells of a mid-twentieth-century prison guard who got nothing but broken promises of eventual cash for helping an inmate escape in a shipping crate. The greed of guards may be a constant in our universe.

Isdwell, it seems, died of his wounds (though, confusingly, the Register tells of an Isdwell who was hanged on June 22 for forgeries "on the stamp office" and the Bank of Amsterdam). The rest of his string faced the rough justice of their era on June 30, and in the process we get a bit more detail about the scheme:
Yesterday Jonathan Jones, William Tilley, George Hardwick, James Haydon, John Henley, John Delany, William Heanlon, Simon Jacobs, John Solomon, John Philips, and Charles Croswell, were severally indicted for felony, in aiding and abetting Isdwell Isdwell in an attempt to escape from New Prison, Clerkenwell. The first witness on the part of the prosecution was Mr. Newport, head keeper of the gaol, who proved the warrant of commitment against Isdwell. Roberts, his deputy, concurred in the same point, and also said that he knew not of the plan designed between Isdwell and his turnkeys, one of whom (Day) on his examination, said, that being induced by the promise of a large sum, he went with Isdwell to Artillery-lane, to see, as Isdwell said, a sick aunt, who wished to see him. When they arrived there, three of the prisoners, James Haydon, John Henley, and William Heanlon, seized him and wrested from him a blunderbuss, which was fired off in the dark, by which Isdwell, was killed, and he himself wounded.

Bernard Solomon, the next witness, said he lived servant with Mrs. Isdwell; that he often went with messages to Isdwell; that he had been sent to Gosport for Jonathan Jones, who was Mrs. Idwell's uncle; that Jones came to town and took lodgings for her in Artillery-lane.--On Good Friday, the day of the evening of which Isdwell was killed, he observed that Mrs. Isdwell had set out her bedroom with a number of phials and other apparatus, so as to give the room the appearance of a sick person being there; he saw Jacobs, Hardwick, Haydon, and Philips, in the house previous to the accident: he opened the door when Isdwell and Day came, and some time after he heard the report of a blunderbuss; after which he surrendered himself to the people, who came into the house in consequence of the alarm.

Many other witnesses corroborated this evidence and also identified the persons of the remaining prisoners.

The prisoners brought many respectable people, who gave them very good characters.

When the judge had summed up the evidence the jury, after having retired for a short time, brought in their verdict, Jonathan Jones, William Tilley, and John Delany--Not guilty; George Hardwick, James Haydon, John Henley, William Heanlon, Simon Jacobs, John Solomon, John Philips, and Charles Croswell--Guilty.
What's left unanswered is what the henchmen were promised for their part in the scheme. Were they merely part of Isdwell's gang more generally, and were simply breaking out their comrade? Or were his forgeries successful enough that he could promise future payment substantial enough to justify the risk?

Either way, the execution of the plan seems to have left a bit to be desired. If the aunt had set out props to indicate her ill state, why didn't the men take advantage of that, letting the turnkey into the room, then surprising him?

Alas, as Parker's experiences have taught us: quality henchmen can be hard to come by. Yet another reason to avoid a life of crime.


  1. Isdwell Isdwell! what a great dickensian name!

  2. Isn't it, though?

    And what about that other Isdwell in the register who is hanged for what seem to be very similar crimes? What's more likely, that another man of that name was in the same racket, and was caught and convicted at the same time, or that there was some shoddy reporting/record keeping, and either Isdwell didn't die of his wounds and ended up hanged, or the other guy had a different name entirely? Both seem plausible.