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Fraudsters and Charlatans
A Peek at Some of History's Greatest Rogues
By Linda Stratmann
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Linda Stratmann
All rights reserved.
The Price of Omnium
At 1 a.m. on Monday 21 February 1814, John Marsh, keeper of the Packet Boat public house in Dover, was enjoying a quiet pipe with local hatter Thomas Gourley when he heard a violent and insistent knocking at the door of the Ship Inn opposite and a loud voice demand that a post-chaise and four be brought at once. The night was dark, bitterly cold and misty, yet Marsh left his warm fireside to see what was happening, calling to Gourley to follow him with candles. His curiosity was understandable, since Dover was on constant alert for news from the Continent.
This was a critical period in European history and a time of agonising public suspense. Following his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, Napoleon was in retreat but far from beaten. Rejecting attempts by Britain and her Allies to negotiate a peace in November 1813, he concentrated his forces in France. In January and February 1814 Napoleon's armies won a series of victories, which were eagerly followed in the British press. While the spectre of invasion had vanished, Napoleon – alive, free and at the head of an army – remained a potent threat. The peace of Europe depended on the fate of one man, and in Britain news of his final defeat was awaited with breathless expectation.
Outside the Ship Inn was a stranger in a grey military greatcoat and fur cap. The Ship's servants opened the door and admitted him: Marsh and Gourley followed, not wanting to miss the excitement. Soon the landlord, Mr Wright, appeared. In the candles' glimmer the stranger looked agitated, his bewhiskered and pock-marked face reddened by the cold. Under the greatcoat, which was very wet, he wore an unfamiliar-looking scarlet uniform trimmed with gold, much dirtied as if from battle, with a silver star on the breast and a medallion around his neck. He announced that he had just arrived from France, was the bearer of the most important dispatches that had been brought to the country in twenty years, and demanded that, in addition to the post-chaise for himself, an express messenger be provided at once, as he wished to send an urgent letter to Port-Admiral Foley in Deal. Everyone scattered to attend to his demands without question. A closer look might have revealed that the dirt of battle had been simulated with boot-blacking, while the observers would have been surprised to know that a few minutes earlier their visitor had been standing by the nearby millstream throwing hatfuls of water over his coat to give the impression of a dousing with sea-spray.
William St John, an agent for a London newspaper who was staying at the Ship, found the stranger pacing impatiently about the coffee room. St John approached and asked about a messenger he had been expecting, but the officer said he knew nothing about that, and dismissed him brusquely, saying that he wanted to be left alone as he was extremely ill. The agent did as requested, just as pen, ink and paper were brought.
The letter, addressed 'To the Honorable J. Foley, Port Admiral, Deal', revealed the officer to be Lieutenant-Colonel du Bourg, aide-de-camp to the distinguished military commander Lord Cathcart. Saying that he had just landed in Dover from Calais, the news he brought was explosive. The Allies, he wrote, had obtained a final victory over Napoleon, and, most importantly: 'Bonaparte was overtaken by a party of Sachen's Cossacks, who immediately slaid [sic] him, and divided his body between them. – General Plastoff saved Paris from being reduced to ashes. The Allied Sovereigns are there and the white cockade is universal; an immediate peace is certain.'
It was what everyone had been hoping for. Wright's servant William Ions drew up to the front door on a pony, was handed the letter and set off at once for Deal. But this was not the only express sent from Dover that night. Even at that late hour the news spread rapidly, and hastily prepared messages were dispatched to London. Du Bourg offered to pay Mr Wright in gold napoleons, but the landlord was unsure how much these coins were worth and was unwilling to accept them. Reluctantly, the supposed messenger from France pulled some English pound notes from his pocket, explaining that they had been there for some months. His task done, du Bourg took his seat in a post-chaise bound for Canterbury, and sped away into the frosty night.
It was 3 a.m. before William Ions arrived in Deal and delivered the letter to Admiral Foley's servant. The Admiral read the letter in bed, then rose to question Ions about its origins. His suspicions may have been aroused by the letter being addressed to 'J. Foley', since his name was Thomas. The sender must have anticipated that Foley would at once transmit the news by telegraph (a system of moving wooden shutters mounted on towers) to the Admiralty offices in London, but here the plan foundered, thanks to that great unpredictable, the English weather. Even as it grew light, the fog remained so thick that it was impossible to use the telegraph. Neither was Foley as gullible as had been hoped, since he dispatched his own messenger to Dover to check the credentials of du Bourg.
It was several hours before the galloping expresses brought the news to London, and when they did few people could have been more interested in its ramifications than the members of the Stock Exchange.
By 1814 the London Stock Exchange had acquired most of the features we would recognise in it today. The present-day building had been opened in 1802; there was an official code of rules, first printed in 1812, and an authorised price list. Dealing was a specialised profession, though not a popular one with the public. Samuel Johnson's dictionary famously described the stock-jobber as 'a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares in the funds'. One type of deal, time-bargains, was especially frowned upon – indeed they had been made illegal in 1734, but despite this remained common. Speculators would agree to buy stocks at a fixed price at some future date, but without actually paying for or taking possession of their purchases, gambling on a rise in price before payment was due, which would enable them to sell at a profit. Anyone who held, even briefly, important news unknown to other speculators could make a fortune in just a few hours. To control these bargains, the Stock Exchange Committee had established eight regular settlement days in each year, when the promised payments and deliveries had to be made.
The main stocks dealt in were government securities, a popular investment since the establishment of the national debt in the reign of William III. These funds were subject to great fluctuations in price, and their value was dependent not only on the economy but on whether the country was at peace or war. One important fund for speculators – Omnium – was an especially sensitive barometer of news. In 1802 the commentator Simeon Pope, addressing investors in Omnium, stated:
It seems ... somewhat paradoxical that while the immense funded property of the country rests on a foundation which is cemented with its greatest and dearest interests, that it should be subject to be operated on by almost every tide of vague opinion, and agitated by fluctuations of rise and fall, by the mere fleeting rumour of the day – the too common offspring of scheming manoeuvres and venal fabrication.
Since communication from abroad could be slow and uncertain, news reports causing sudden changes in the market were impossible to correct quickly, and great efforts were made by the Stock Exchange to establish a reliable system of messengers.
The business of the Stock Exchange opened each weekday morning at 10 a.m., but on Monday 21 February 1814 messengers from Dover and Northfleet had started to pour into London before that hour, each one confirming Napoleon's defeat, and dealers were seized with excitement at the prospect of substantial gains. Some may have been wary at first, but soon most were caught up in the tide of greedy expectation, and the floor of the Exchange opened in a scene of noise and confusion. There was a particular sense of urgency, since the next settlement day was the following Wednesday.
Omnium opened at 27½ (all prices were quoted in pounds sterling) but quickly rose since everyone in the know clamoured to buy; it soon soared to 29. In the midst of the flurry the Stock Exchange dispatched messengers to government offices to obtain confirmation of the rumour. Had Foley been able to send his telegraph, it would have set an official seal on the news, rapidly forcing prices still higher, but this was not to be. The poor weather did mean, however, that no further information of any kind was available.
The news flew around London and soon the City was in a state of great agitation. People ran to shops and offices, looking in and shouting out what they had heard, one man claiming to have seen a letter from the Lord Chancellor confirming the report. As the tidings passed so they received embellishments, which added to the believability of the tale:
it was boldly stated that two Messengers had, in the course of the morning, arrived at the Foreign Office, decorated with the white cockade, the favourite colour of the BOURBONS, and worn by all the military under the former government.
In one story, Napoleon had been murdered by his own troops; in another, the Cossacks had marched into Paris with the tyrant's head on a pike. Citizens who could leave their businesses and homes poured out onto the streets determined to celebrate in a spirit of universal joy. Public offices were besieged with eager enquirers, and all businesses in London seemed to come to a standstill, save one – the Stock Exchange, where the price of Omnium was still climbing, and appetite for the stock seemed insatiable. Still more profits were anticipated by the springing-up of a thriving business in side bets on Napoleon's fate.
While London remained in a state of feverish excitement, other remarkable scenes were being enacted in Dartford, where Phillip Foxall, landlord of the Rose Inn, had received a note at 7 a.m. from an acquaintance, Ralph Sandom, asking him to send over a chaise and pair to him in Northfleet and have ready four good horses to go on to London. The chaise was duly sent and it returned quickly, driving at a furious pace. The occupants were Sandom and two strangers dressed in blue coats and cocked hats with white cockades. Sandom revealed that the men were French officers and were very tired as they had been in an open boat all night and had news of the very greatest consequence. Foxall gave them a fresh chaise and they dashed away at speed. He failed to notice that the officers' coats, which were not even identical, were not of a military cut, that their hats were such as could be bought anywhere and the white cockades had been home-made by sewing ribbon on to paper.
Before Sandom and his companions entered London, which they reached in the late morning, the horses and carriage were decorated with boughs of laurel. The three men entered the heart of the city, driving over London Bridge, down Lombard Street, along Cheapside, over Blackfriars Bridge, and down the New Cut. As they went they cried out slogans such as Vive le Roi! and Vivent les Bourbons! and distributed slips of paper with similar messages. The occupants of the chaise, believing that they were the first to bring the glad tidings to the city, were surprised to be greeted by crowds in the streets who already seemed to know the news and who mobbed their vehicle so that they were frequently obliged to stop. The post-boys naturally anticipated that their important passengers would alight at some government office, but to their surprise the journey finally came to an end at the Marsh Gate hackney coach stand, where the men got out, took off their military hats, put on round ones, and calmly walked away.
During the morning, lack of confirmation of the news from Dover had caused the price of stocks to slide, but at the new sensation brought by Sandom's French officers, prices soared even higher than before, eventually reaching 33, bringing a fresh frenzy of buying. As late as 2 p.m. the London Chronicle reported that it was still believed that Napoleon was dead and the Allies in possession of Paris, although it denied the rumour that the guns of the Tower of London had been fired. Meanwhile, large crowds had gathered outside Mansion House waiting impatiently for the Lord Mayor to appear with an official announcement.
The announcement never came. There was no news. Napoleon, as messengers were able to confirm by the afternoon, was very much alive. Admiral Foley's enquiries had revealed that the pound notes supposed to have been in du Bourg's pockets for months had been endorsed in London only six days previously. Du Bourg was an impostor, and so, it appeared, were the two French officers who had ridden so triumphantly through London and carefully avoided any contact with government offices.
To this scene of joy and of greedy expectation of gain, succeeded in a few hours, that of disappointment, shame at having been gulled, the clenching of fists, the grinding of teeth, the tearing of hair, all the outward and visible signs of the inward commotions of disappointed avarice in some, consciousness of ruin in others, and in all, boiling revenge, so strongly and beautifully, or rather so horribly depicted by the matchless pencil of Hogarth.
It was not only wealthy speculators who suffered, but many humbler investors who could ill-afford a loss. Purchases had also been made that day on behalf of the official trustee who managed the assets of charities devoted to the relief of the poor.
As the crowds dispersed and the turbulent day ended, the Stock Exchange Committee quickly concluded that this was not simply a rumour that had got out of control but a conspiracy to defraud investors. The profits made that day were placed in the hands of trustees, and a subcommittee of ten men was assembled to investigate the affair. One of its first actions was to follow the trail of the mysterious Lt-Col du Bourg. This was easy enough, as he had travelled by post-chaise all the way to London, scattering the glad news and gold napoleons as he went. From the Ship Inn at Dover he had driven via the Fountain in Canterbury, the Rose, Sittingbourne, the Crown, Rochester, and the Granby at Dartford. Once in London du Bourg became suddenly less willing to draw attention to himself, and transferred to a hackney coach, in which he drove to 13 Green Street. After making some enquiries of the servant there, he was admitted, taking with him only his sword and a small leather case. His greatcoat was now buttoned firmly up to his chin, so only the dark collar and not the scarlet breast of his uniform was visible. Later enquiries revealed that 13 Green Street was the home of one of the greatest naval heroes in British history, Lord Thomas Cochrane.
Thomas Cochrane was the eldest son of the 9th Earl of Dundonald. Born in 1776, Cochrane had established a naval career of outstanding brilliance in combat and command. A distinctive, rather than handsome, man, he was well over six feet in height, with red hair and a prominent nose. Popular both with the general public and the men who served with him, he had, however, made some dangerous enemies in high places by his bluntly outspoken efforts to expose corruption in the Admiralty. On the morning of 21 February 1814 he had been engaged in two important projects, the fitting-out of his new command, the Tonnant, and work on the invention of a new naval signalling lamp, for which he intended to register a patent.
He had breakfasted at the Cumberland Street residence of his uncle, Andrew Cochrane Johnstone, a tall elegantly dressed man in his late forties with long powdered hair. Also at the table was 38-year-old Richard Gaythorne (sometimes spelt Gathorne) Butt, their stockbroker, a tall thin man in his late thirties with light hair and a florid complexion. At 10 a.m. the three men took a hackney carriage, but Thomas Cochrane alighted at Snows Hill to visit the workshop of Mr King, a lamp-maker, while the other two, as was their habit on weekdays, proceeded to the Stock Exchange. Shortly before 11 a.m., Cochrane's servant Thomas Dewman arrived at Mr King's with a barely legible note, saying that a military-looking gentleman had called on a matter of great urgency. Cochrane's brother, William, who had been serving in Spain, was dangerously ill, so bracing himself for bad news and abandoning all thought of his lamp, Cochrane hurried home. To his surprise, he was met not by a messenger from abroad but a man he was already acquainted with, Charles Random de Berenger. (In Cochrane's affidavit made three weeks later he stated that he had not expected the visit. De Berenger, on the other hand, claimed in 1816 that it was a pre-arranged visit and that Cochrane was a part of the conspiracy, but this was after he had unsuccessfully tried to extort money from Cochrane. De Berenger's account of the meeting should therefore be regarded as suspect.)
Excerpted from Fraudsters and Charlatans by Linda Stratmann. Copyright © 2012 Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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