gambling houses, gamblers and the murder by John Thurtell

john thurtell drawing

The murder by John Thurtell and accomplices – signed by Robert-Cruikshank

Around 1800 the British are under the spell of crime. Many books with crime stories come out and the British enjoy it. There is not much real crime, at least no murders. Around 10 million people live in England and Wales around that time. And, for example in 1810, only 15 people were convicted of murder1.

A murder

In 1823, however, the population is startled by a murder. John Thurtell kills William Weare on October 24 of that year for a gambling debt. Or because of the humiliation with which Thurtell loses the money during a game, in which, according to him, Weare is clearly cheating.

Thurtell and two accomplices are quickly arrested. For a long time, the stories surrounding the murder and the upcoming trial are the news of the day. Everything is recorded in detail, almost from minute to minute. Even the conviction and suspension of 29-year-old John Thurtell on January 9, 1824.

Gamblers

John Thurtell (1794-1824)

John Thurtell (1794-1824)

William Weare turns out to be a notorious gambler. He is known as someone who is always up for a bet or bet, especially if he recognizes a weak opponent. "Card games, sports games, it didn't matter," writes a sports journalist, "Weare took part in everything. No spider jumped more eagerly on a poor fly than how Weare jumped on an unwary player. "

John Thurtell emerges as a rich louse son. He wants social status. John is looking for it as a manager in the boxing world, which at that time is still illegal. He is also a frequent visitor to gambling houses. Like many guys from the country who come to the big city, Thurtell thinks he's smart. However, he lacks the wisdom of the street and is often robbed2.

Popular, writers and books

Every Briton follows the murder case with great enthusiasm. And many sympathize with the murderer, whose wax statue can be seen for 150 years at Madame Tussauds. Dozens of respected writers use the murder, shortly thereafter in their books, such as George Borrow, Sir Walter Scott, William Thackeray and Charles Dickens. Some describe the entire murder story, others use it as a starting point for a novel, with or without other names for the main character.

The writer Thomas de Quincey, himself an avid gambler and drug user, has long dreamed about murders in general about the murder case. He writes the essay ‘On Murder as One of the Fine Arts’. Regarding crime before and after 1824, he says: "It is undoubtedly pleasant to read about someone's sweetheart in a teapot, but it is unpleasant to actually find her in the teapot." Murder must above all remain an abstract fact in fabricated stories.

Immediately in 1824, numerous "journalistic" books about the murder case also appeared. Thick books in which most writers record, line by line, what was said during the interrogations and the trial.

Gambling and gambling houses

However, the murder also brings something else to public attention. Namely the gambling houses in London. Of course, many are aware of this and know about the existence of the many gambling houses. But it is ignored or tolerated. After the murder, however, one cannot look in another direction.

Immediately during the months until the conviction, gambling is discussed outside the courtroom. Supporters and opponents bring up all sorts of topics that we still hear today. It is about gambling addiction, gambling behavior, religion, legislation and the like.

Fatal consequences

Most journalistic books that appear in 1824 have titles that refer to the murder. A striking title in between is "Fatal Effects of Gambling exemplified in the Murder or Mr. Weare" (the fatal consequences of gambling, illustrated by the murder of Mr. Weare). The first part of the book, the description of the lawsuit, differs little from the other books.

It is more extensive than most other books and also discusses, for example, phrenology, the now abandoned doctrine in which it was thought that talent and character were determined by the growth of certain parts of the brain. Thurtell's brains were also used for research.

In addition, this book contains a second book with the title "a Gambler’s Scourge" (the scourge of the gambler). The subtitle is, "an exposure of the whole system of gambling, as practiced in the most notorious London Hells"3 (an explanation of the entire gambling system, as practiced in the most notorious London gambling houses).

The second book

At Online Casino Ground we find such a murder case quite interesting … for a while. But of course we are mainly interested in the information from the second book. It is clear that the writer (s) is not positive about gambling. He tells his story with an emphasis on its destructive consequences.

But in his story he gives a good picture of the London gambling world around 1800. He delves into history and tells how French immigrants started gambling in London. The gambling laws from that time are explained, he gives an outline of the different thoughts that live about gambling and he describes the players, the different gambling houses and the manners in such a gambling house.

And he explains how the various gambling games are played in the context of the London gambling world of the early 19th century.

Interior of one of the London gambling houses

Interior of a modern 1800's London gambling house

The games

The nice thing is that the second book provides insight into the names used at the time and the popularity of the gambling games. His detailed description shows how gradually the more familiar games have now emerged. That is certainly interesting for history lovers among our online players.

Hazard, a game with two dice, for example, is still very popular in England at the time. It is only played at night in the "hells"3 from London. We now know that Hazard was replaced by Craps not much later, by simplifying the rules of the game.

Rouge-et-Noire (Tente-et-Quarante) is also discussed. The game was introduced to London about 30 years before, around 1800. Before that people knew Faro, but that was no longer played for several years. Rouge-et-Noire is played throughout the day in all kinds of gambling halls around St James Palace.

Roulette is of course also a fun one. In England it is called Roly-Poly and it is played at a round table. Here too, the writer wonders "how can the government ignore this?" The answer, which he does not give, appears from other sources, the prosecutor and the minister also regularly take a gamble.

Nuts

  1. Crime grew rapidly. In 1849 there were more than 20,000 dead in England and Wales under unclear or suspicious circumstances, of which at least 415 had found poison.
  2. There were classes in London and they lived strictly separated. However, people from the lowest and highest environments came together in gambling halls. Between 1780 and 1830 many notables and nobility lost shocking powers to "streetwise hustlers", cheaters, business rollers etc. or by their own thoughtless behavior
  3. That one speaks of "hells" (which refers to hell), is probably due to a room in the St. James palace in London. Hazard (a game with two dice) was played there. It was a remarkably dark room with little light, which was therefore called "hell." Later, the illegal and often obscure gambling facilities were given the same description.

Sources:

  • Fatal effects of gambling exemplified in the murder or mr. Weare – unknown – 1824 – read on Google Books; the second book starts after page 345
  • Newgate Calendar of Notorious Characters vol.4 – Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin – 1824 – Newgate is a prison in London
  • The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – 2011
  • Murder by Candlelight – Michael Knox Beran – 2015

Example from book

Below is one of the descriptions of the gambling houses from the second book in "Fatal effects of gambling exemplified in the murder of Mr. Weare":

These caves have the appearance of private homes, with the exception that the front door is left ajar during playing hours. Like with the staircages, to catch the passing pigeons. It is to prevent the delay in entering, which is caused by the first knock. A delay that could expose customers to an unsuspecting creditor, a trusted father or a starving woman.

It is clear to everyone that a stranger must be "introduced" before he is admitted or allowed to lose his money. And that is of course also to avoid the danger of being surprised by the law officers. But it is, unfortunately, too easy to break that introduction rule. Every gentleman, for whom the porter has sufficient reason to think that he is not an agent, finds the ways of this labyrinth at his feet.

After passing through the outside door, the visitor is obstructed by another door in the middle of the hall. A small peephole has been built in, behind which the fixed gaze of a villainous eye examines the person. If the visitor is an honest pigeon or an old crow, he is immediately absorbed by this cycle and, after a polite bow, directed upwards to the floor where another gate still has to be opened.

When opening this last barrier, a massive iron door, a scene of blinding surprise presents itself to the visitor to the house.

The followers of the game sit on each side around an elongated table, covered with green cloth. While in the center the priests of the ceremony are sitting. One to share the cards and decide on events, the other to help him collect the looting after these events.

Behind them are two or three of the owners who, with eagle eyes, watch the progress of their winnings: ruthless, greedy and happy. And without the worries that make the faces of their victims contract and distort, "they smile and laugh and kill with a smile." Their attention is always focused on the Punters (or players). They talk and share their snuff with them, not forgetting to explain the fairness of the game and the big losses they have suffered.

While the stranger's eyes shine and his greed is stimulated by an abundance of money flying over the table and piled up in the middle, his senses come into harmony with his desire and hope. Partly due to the influence of strong wines, liqueurs and the like, with which he is constantly plowed by the helpful waiters. Convinced that his Midas touch must turn everything into gold, our stranger goes boldly on an adventure.

In nine out of ten cases, he is successful during his first nightly game. And in the light of his imaginary happiness, he loses sight of the value that he was used to giving to good money. He becomes abundant in his expenses, believing that playing "Rouge et Noir" for half an hour will make up for everything. And he blesses the inventor of the game that assures him with all prospects of unlimited fortune.

After a few days, or at most weeks, he is convinced of his chimeric-like castles, when poverty, contempt, and destruction attack him with all their horrors. It is not uncommon for men who once, independently and looking down on them, to stand next to the owners of these tables, be obliged the next day to ask them for financial help and to receive the humiliation of a refusal.

More history articles

More about the history of everything that has to do with gambling? You will probably find our articles about the
Blackjack history and probability calculation also interesting. Have you ever wondered how slot machines ever started, or where playing cards actually come from? Discover it in our history articles!

Another permanently interesting topic for every casino enthusiast: Las Vegas. In this article you can read all about the origins of this gambling capital.

Books and films

Want to read more about gamblers, gambling addiction and casinos? View this article with reading tips! We have collected the best books for you as a casino enthusiast, both English and Dutch. A number of these books have also been filmed, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon!

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