Tuesday, November 1, 2011
The Mohocks terrorize Georgian London by Dark of Night
by Tim Queeney
As one of the largest cities in the world in 1751, it is no surprise that London had its share of crime, street violence and general thuggery. Life in the great city was a wonder for the privileged few and and an ordeal for the struggling many, but for all walks of life, London could become brooding and sinister with the fall of night. As Christopher Hibbert writes in London, The Biography of a City, "...a reading of contemporary newspapers confirms the belief that London...was one of the most lawless cities in Europe." And a notorious nighttime danger in 18th century London was a shadowy and violent band dubbed the "Mohocks."
Crime of every sort could be found in the capital: thievery, pocket picking, burglary, swindling, pilfering, housebreaking, highway robbery, assault and murder. In the latter half of the century, one authority stated that no less than "115,000 persons in London were regularly engaged in criminal pursuits..." Indeed, Hibbert notes, "A country visitor to London in 1744 thought the metropolis had become 'really dangerous.' Pickpockets, he told a friend, formerly content with mere filching now made 'no scruple to knock people down with their bludgeons on Fleet Street and the Strand and that at no later hour than eight o'clock at night.'" Residents of the city needed to keep their wits about them. The famous wordsmith Dr. Johnson, wending his way home at night after a meeting of his club at the Turk's Head tavern, "carried a big stick which he could wield to good purpose."
And though ordinary criminals in search of coin were an ever present danger, there was also a band of night stalkers whose no other purpose was "doing all possible to hurt to their fellow creatures." These were the Mohocks, "a society whose name was derived from the supposedly most ferocious" of Native American tribes in the colonies.
The playwright John Gay wrote of them:
"Who has not trembled at the Mohocks' name?
"Was there a watchman took his hourly rounds
"Safe from their blows or newly invented wounds?"
The Mohocks were young men of the nobility or gentry who went about town "scowering," attacking passersby, including members of the watch out patrolling the streets. They bludgeoned and beat their victims, but were also well known to draw blood, often by cutting the face or famously slitting a victim's nostril. Mohock attackers were known to thrust their swords into the side of sedan chairs, risking the skewering and murder of those within.
Hibbert writes, "John Bouch, a watchman, was attacked on Essex Street on 11 March by around twenty men with swords and sticks, 'they intending ... to nail him up in his watch house, and roll him about the street.'"
John Fielding warned those newly arrived to London of the danger of going about at night: "he will sometimes be liable to the more dangerous attacks of intemperate rakes in hot blood; who... scower the streets to shew their manhood, not their humanity; put the watch to flight; and now and then have murdered some harmless and inoffensive person."
Few Mohocks were ever apprehended and fewer still were called to account for their crimes. These were young men with money and family connections, such as Lord Hinchingbroke and the baronet Sir Mark Cole, who could buy their way out of any legal action.
In my novel George in London, young George Washington and his friend Darius Attucks, who calls George by the nickname '"Geo," are aware of the Mohock danger in London's night streets, yet still find themselves ensnared by them:
"When we emerged from the tavern, Geo and I again found ourselves in the night city. We traversed dark streets and bumped down inky alleys as we struggled to find Julian Square. The dark was challenge enough. We were further hampered, however, by our evening’s companion: John Barleycorn. He made us to stumble and he slurred our minds.
"On several occasions I looked behind and was nearly certain I saw a shade pacing us. But I shook it off, attributing it to the effects of drink.
"Thus,’twas a rude shock when another shade suddenly appeared to block our path. He wore no coat, only a black waistcoat over a charcoal blouse. His black breeches were tucked into black boots. His eyes were covered by a black mask — such as is worn in Venice at carnival. At his side hung a black-sheathed sword. While he wore black, he was no African like myself. He was as white as Geo and just as tall.
“'Greetings, sirs,' the black-clad man said in seeming good humor.
“'What d’he say, ‘Green tea is served?’' Geo slurred, 'What does that mean?'
"I heard a noise behind us and turned to see another black-clad man. Any thought of Geo and I attempting to overpower one blackened knave fled when the second fiend showed himself.
“'Please follow us,' the first man said, with a black-gloved hand on his sword hilt.
"Since Geo was in no condition to overcome even so much as a kitten, I assured our dark interlocutor we would follow him, and that there was no need for violence.
"He led us through narrow passages, hidden alleys and winding stairs. We moved through nighttime London as shades in a brick underworld, never taking a main street. Instead we passed unseen as if traveling via the deepest caverns of the earth. After some time we arrived at a sunken graveyard. We stumbled over a crumbling wall and our feet sunk into the soft soil of fresh graves.
"In a corner I heard the scraping of a shovel. The weak light of a stub candle suggested bent figures hauling a coffin from the soil. The grave robbers took little heed of our passing but continued their devilish work.
"Ahead was a small chapel, its stones stained by ages of coal smoke. From within, a flame flickered. The chapel’s windows threw tombstones of light on the dead man’s ground. Our dark guide brought us to the door of the chapel and a voice from within bade us enter.
"Geo led me past the half-opened door. Arranged inside was a rough gang of men, well-armed and of a sinister aspect equal to our two guides: they also were swathed in black and masked. The fairest one, a man with light brown eyes and brown hair, held position in the center of the group and seemed the leader. He spoke.
“'We grant you safe passage this night.'
“'And what — ’scuse me — who, are you to grant us such?' Geo stammered.
“'We are the rulers of the night,' the handsome one replied.
"It was then I supposed who these men were. We had been granted an audience with none other than the Mohocks. These were the fearful ones who were whispered to perpetrate odious deeds in the dark."
Little did George and Darius know what this meeting with the dark society would lead to in the years hence.
George in London is an ebook available for Kindle and Nook.
Hibbert, Christopher; London, The Biography of a City, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1969.
Shoemaker, Robert B.; The London Mob, Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England, Hambledon and London, New York, 2004
Bayne-Powell, Rosamond; Eighteenth-Century London Life, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1938
Rude, George; Hanoverian London 1714-1808, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971