Thimble Rigger!


Thimble Rigger!

SOUTHAMPTON 9 Sept 1841:

On Friday before P. Breton Esq, 5 thimble-riggers were placed at the bar charged with conspiracy to defraud a gentleman named Edwards, residing at Millbrook, of certain sums of money and his gold watch – to wit, a sovereign, a £50 note, 70 sovereigns, making £171 and a gold watch which had cost £60. Thomas Edwards esq., deposed that he resided at Millbrook; was of no profession. On Tuesday last he went to the racecourse on the Common, about one o’clock. Saw several persons standing in a ring. Was induced to go there. In that ring was a table and three thimbles, the three prisoners, Benjamin Parrott, John Purcell and Francis Verrier, standing round the table, a person shifting the thimbles and offering to bet for a sovereign and upwards. Saw several sovereigns won and lost. Someone turned to him and said, “Try your luck, Sir”. Took out his purse and placed the only sovereign he had in it on the table. It was won by his betting the pea not being under it. To the best of his belief Parrott then said, “Try your luck again, Sir”. I said “No, I have nothing but a £50 note and I will not change it.” The parties round the table were playing but he could not swear the prisoners did, for sometimes £10, £20 and £30. A man who was standing behind the man playing the thimbles, whenever the thimbles were turned over, took up the thimble that had the pea under and said, “Now’s the time, Sir, you are sure to win”, while the man who had the thimble said ”I’ll bet £50; 50 sovereigns are staked, will anyone bet?” The prosecutor walked away, followed by Parrott who expressed his sorrow at his ill luck, imputing it to nervousness. Was persuaded to go back and look on. The parties appeared respectable and he had no doubt of their meaning being friendly, and he was induced to accept loans of sovereigns at two or three times from Verrier, to the amount of 70 sovereigns, as he was told by them, Verrier putting the money towards him and then on the board. He lost the whole in two or three stakes.

Having walked away with Parrott, was followed by Verrier and at his earnest request, wrote in a memorandum book he produced and acknowledgement that he owed him £70. (The memorandum was afterwards destroyed). They soon ran against the table again and at their persuasion he staked 20 sovereigns, and again 30 sovereigns, lent him by Purcell, and lost all. He handed his gold watch as a security for £20 to Purcell. He then gave a bill for the £50 – Purcell forced the money upon him. Parrott described Purcell as a gentleman able to buy half of Southampton. He wished to get his watch back and agreed to meet the parties at the Nelson that evening to settle; but thinking afterwards better of it, he sent a note of excuse and appointed next morning. Having consulted Messrs. Dearon and Long, they accompanied him there, met the prisoners, who insisted on their claims, and the police, by arrangement, came in and took the prisoners into custody. The watch and securities were found upon the prisoners, but the principal, supposed to have the money, did not appear, having walked away. The course of examination pursued by the prisoners was to show that the transaction was in the nature of a debt. Inspector Enright had searched the prisoners’ lodgings at the Nags Head Tap and found a large quantity of wearing apparel (disguises). Verrier had one shilling and seven pence upon him (modern = 8p), Parrott £13 18s.8d (modern: £13.94p) and watch, etc; and Carran £1 2s 10d (modern = £1.14p) and a watch. The prisoners were remanded till Wednesday next.

What is Thimble Rigging?

The game requires three thimbles, and a small, soft round ball, about the size of a pea, and often referred to as such. It can be played on almost any flat surface, but on the streets it is often seen played on a mat lying on the ground, or on a cardboard box. The person perpetrating the swindle begins the game by placing the pea under one of the shells, then quickly shuffles the shells around. Once done shuffling, the operator takes bets from his audience on the location of the pea. The audience is told that if a player bets and guesses correctly, the player will win back double his bet (that is, he will double his money); otherwise he loses his money. However, in the hands of a skilled operator, it is not possible for the game to be won, unless the operator wants the player to win or if the player is allowed to touch the shells, in which case the player has a chance. The player must turn over any two shells saying that the pea is under neither of these. Since the pea is usually palmed, it is not under any of the shells and the operator has no choice but to pay up. This can only be done once. When an individual not familiar with the shell game encounters a game on the streets, it appears that bets are being placed by numerous players, when in reality, the people around the game are all part of the confidence trick. The apparent players actually serve various roles in the swindle: they act as lookouts for the police; they also serve as “muscle” to intimidate victims who become unruly and some are “Shills”, whose job is to pretend to play the game, and entice the mark into betting. Once a victim enters the circle of apparent players and faces the operator, the gang surrounds him to discourage an easy exit and to keep other pedestrians from entering and disrupting the confidence trick gang’s action on the main mark.

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