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The crime, a hanging offense, came to light with the arrest of identical twin brothers, Robert and Daniel Perreau, after the former was detained trying to negotiate a forged bond. At their arraignment they both accused Daniel's mistress, Margaret Caroline Rudd, of being responsible for the crime. The brothers' trials coincided with the first reports of bloodshed in the American colonies at Lexington and Concord and successfully competed for space in the newspapers. From March until the following January, people could talk of little other than the fate of the Perreaus and the impending trial of Mrs. Rudd. The participants told wildly different tales and offered strikingly different portraits of themselves. The press was filled with letters from concerned or angry correspondents. The public, deeply divided over who was guilty, was troubled by evidence that suggested not only that fair might be foul, but that it might not be possible to decide which was which.
While the decade of the 1770s has most frequently been studied in relation to imperial concerns and their impact upon the political institutions of the day, this book draws a different portrait of the period, making a cause célèbre its point of entry. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly presented, it offers both a vivid panorama of London and a gauge for tracking the shifting social currents of the period.
THOMAS DEKKER, If This Be Not a Good Play, the Devil's in It
London newspaper readers were startled in March 1775 to see the first reports of an extensive forgery. This crime always attracted attention in eighteenth-century Britain, if for no other reason than that a conviction almost certainly carried the offender to the gallows. The English financial system at that time was held up to a great extent by faith in the individual's word. If that faith was broken–as it was each time forgery was committed–the authorities felt compelled to punish the transgressor severely.
From the first, this was an unusual case. Two respectable men–identical twins, in fact–and an elegant woman stood accused of the offense. No doubt the social status of the suspects, and the revelations of various sordid details of the conspiracy, would have excited gossip and drawn the attention of the news-hungry press at any time. Still, the sensation created by this episode was without parallel. At each turn events followed an unexpected path. Daniel and Robert Perreau sought to fix sole responsibility for the crime on the woman, Mrs. Rudd, while she insistently proclaimed her innocence and accused them of perpetrating the scheme. Even as the bewildered authorities sought to get to the bottom of the affair, the public debated the guilt or innocence of the accused. Through the brothers' trials in June, and then in the months before Rudd's trial in December, the controversy filled the papers. The case of the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd, one correspondent wrote to a newspaper in June, "is lately become the topic of general conversation, from the high department of state down to the microscopic atmospheres of every petty coffee and porter-house politician." Discussed in pamphlets, debated in letters to the press, with illustrations of the participants in the major magazines, the celebrated affair was impossible to avoid.
The Perreau-Rudd case preoccupied the public between March 1775 and February 1776. At first glance this attention is puzzling. Britain had, after all, entered a period of imperial crisis, one of the century's defining moments. The nation was slipping into a civil war with its American colonies. The trials of the brothers in June coincided with the first reports of bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. Yet the public was at least as much taken up with the tangled stories of the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd as it was with the fate of empire. "So very extraordinary an affair," one pamphlet declared, "as has lately been discovered, is not to be parallelled in the history of any time or any country." Such hyperbole was typical of these self-serving publications, yet it must have come close to the truth for contemporaries reading competing newspaper accounts day after day. To more reflective commentators the attention accorded to this squalid business appeared dangerously excessive. The space given to reports of Mrs. Rudd's antics suggested that a spirit of whimsy had gripped the nation or, more darkly, that some fatal corruption had overturned notions of decency and common sense. These protests failed; the appeal of the case was irresistible, in part due to the peculiar personalities of the individuals involved, especially the inimitable Mrs. Rudd. There was also the perplexing question of where the truth lay in this murky affair. Glamour and a good mystery usually make an extraordinary trial the compelling topic of conversation. The obsessive quality of public interest in this case, however, suggests that it was more than a harmless diversion from the anxieties of the moment. Not merely an innocent preoccupation, its confusions and complexities served to compound the growing sense of a crisis of confidence brought on by difficulties at home and in the colonies.
This book attempts to explain the fascination that the affair of Mrs. Rudd and the Perreaus exerted over the country. It also offers a glimpse into neglected corners and hidden relationships within that society. The decade of the 1770s has most frequently been studied in relation to imperial concerns and their impact upon the political institutions of the day. We intend to draw a different portrait of the period, making the cause célèbre our point of entry. Familiar figures such as John Wilkes and George III, Lord Mansfield and Sir John Fielding people our book, but so do those less well known, speculators and courtesans, as well as judges and politicians. The neat categories of "respectable" and "unrespectable" do not capture the complexity of this society. When the public read about the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd, they saw them not as aberrant types but as neighbors and acquaintances, people who embodied striking features of the age.
What was it that people recognized as they read with mingled curiosity and uneasiness the details of the case? Forgery cases often involved tales of individuals who aimed high and fell hard when they were detected. Frequently some clerk or merchant turned to crime after living a life of dissipation and extravagance. In the present instance both motives, luxury and ambition, appeared to operate. The principals, like so many Londoners, came from various corners of the British Isles. They had been drawn to the metropolis by the prospect of connection, opportunity, and advancement. London was the capital of a great empire; it was the vibrant center of trade and finance, the residence of the court, and the seat of Parliament. Coming from relatively obscure backgrounds, the Perreaus and Mrs. Rudd, in their various ways, sought to vault to the upper rungs of London's finely graded social ladder. Their biographies carry us back and forth across the city. They aspired to the glamorous world represented by the fashionable West End. Here, among the squares where the nobility and upper reaches of the professions shared addresses, the scene was composed of opulent display, polite conversation, and polished manners. To gain access to this enchanted realm required wealth. The brothers looked to the City, where stock speculation seemed to promise a shortcut to riches. Between the City and the West End lay the Covent Garden area, a world of courtesans, actresses, and prostitutes. Here was a more ambiguous neighborhood of illicit but tolerated pleasures, where beauty and wit provided another avenue to success–or, more often, a road to misery. In its midst was Bow Street, where a magistrate's court attempted to maintain order in this unruly district. Bow Street belonged both to Covent Garden and to the legal structure of the metropolis. The magistrates sent those accused of serious crimes to Newgate, the most important house of detention in the metropolis. From there delinquents were carried to trial at the Old Bailey, where eight times a year judges and juries handed down verdicts of acquittal or guilt, life or death. The condemned traveled west to Tyburn Hill, once on the edge of town but now increasingly surrounded by prosperous new streets and shopping districts. London was still intimate enough that much of what the papers offered appeared to be shared gossip rather than hard news. The Perreau-Rudd case was a metropolitan story, not only in the sense that its participants lived and operated within the town but also because its themes and emotions spoke of the quality of life there.
If the story offers a panorama of London, it also provides a gauge for tracking the shifting currents of the period. For the case captured the mood and feel of the 1770s–a mixture of folly, silliness, and excess, yet also of challenge and decision. Having gained possession of its first great empire by the conclusion of the Seven Years' War, Britain almost immediately faced intractable political and economic problems in managing these outposts. By the mid-1770s, in both its American and Indian dominions, crises of administration and finance had erupted that raised doubts about the viability or very survival of this empire. Furthermore, at home, Britain's own political system was being tested and the claims of established institutions questioned. For many contemporaries these divisive issues found expression in savage satires on the conduct of powerful personalities. The public turned to discussions of the character and even the physiognomy of individuals as a way of understanding contemporary events. In the most obvious sense, the Perreau-Rudd case fit this pattern; it presented a morality tale, expressing the disquiet felt about current social trends. Here were ambitious people, seduced by the lures and charms of the fashionable life of London, who had resorted to unscrupulous means in a desperate effort to get ahead. The catastrophe that overwhelmed the Perreau family, whatever its origins, provided a sobering lesson in the midst of a drift into war.
Seen in this light, the tale echoed themes found in a much longer tradition, often expressed in literature but especially on the stage, of dismay or outrage at the consequences of new forms of wealth. The epigraph to our book comes from a line in a 1611 play by Thomas Dekker. A familiar attack upon trade, it decried the influence of London in spawning a particular kind of character and conduct. The play's villain, in recommending a "case of faces" for anyone who wished to grow very rich, yet remain secure, advised them to acquire a box of masks, alternate personae that could be changed at will. Success required ruthlessness, safety duplicity. Seemingness, shifting identities and loyalties, were thus recognized and feared as the sine qua non of the ambitious Londoner. This anxiety is the leitmotif that runs through our case. The three principals, to different degrees and with varying success, acted different roles. As the case unfolded, evidence was offered that revealed that these handsome, well-spoken people were not as they seemed. Each week exposed some new instance of Mrs. Rudd's art. But hints of misconduct swirled around the brothers as well. The case, however, would not have been so unsettling had it amounted to no more than this, the disclosure of unpleasant truths that lay behind seemingly pleasing appearances. It was not merely another instance of duplicity exposed. What made the public especially uneasy was that while much was revealed, much else remained hidden or obscure. Even what was in plain view was susceptible to different interpretations. There seemed no way to make sense of the affair, to know, finally, who was responsible for the crime that had been committed. This was, after all, not a play; it was a legal case, one that promised a fateful outcome. The Perreau-Rudd trial was a "case of faces," both a revelation that fair might well be foul, but even worse, that it might not be possible to determine which was which. Doubt and a grim fatality haunted its progress, even as contemporaries surrendered to its spell.
Copyright © 2001 by the Regents of the University of California.
Not to be reproduced without written permission of the publisher.