Diver, Jenny (1700–1740)

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Diver, Jenny (1700–1740)

British pickpocket. Name variations: Mary Jones. Born Mary Jones in Ireland in 1700; died on the gallows on March 18, 1740, at Tyburn, England; daughter of Har-riot Jones (a maid); educated in Northern Ireland.

One of the most notorious pickpockets in criminal history, Jenny Diver (whose real name was Mary Jones) was born out of wedlock and deserted by her mother at age five. After living in several foster homes, she was finally taken to Northern Ireland, where an elderly woman cared for her and saw that she had a proper education. As a teenager, Diver moved to London, hoping to make her fortune as a seamstress. The move, however, appeared to be her undoing, for no sooner had she arrived in the city than she became involved with Anne Murphy , a sort of den mother to a pack of nimble-fingered street thieves. Joining the group as an apprentice pick-pocket, Diver grew so adept that she promptly took over the operation. Her partners in crime were reportedly so impressed with her skills that they gave her the name Jenny Diver (diver being underworld parlance for pickpocket).

Diver was not only masterful with her fingers, she was a talented actress. She excelled at passing herself off as a fine lady in distress, which worked to her advantage in wealthier areas in the city. One of her favorite ploys was executed in conjunction with national holidays and royal celebrations. Stuffing her elegant gown with pillows in order to look pregnant, she would arrive by carriage at a previously designated place, attended by the gang posing as her servants. Usually able to wangle a prominent position in order to view the festivities, Diver would suddenly collapse, writhing in agony, convincing onlookers that she was in labor. While they gathered around her to offer aid, she would relieve them of their jewelry and purses, while her compatriots worked the outskirts of the crowd. With tactics such as these, she amassed a huge fortune, purchasing a large house, a fabulous wardrobe, and one of the finest carriages in London. Although Diver, who used a string of aliases to protect her identity, was occasionally caught and jailed, she was seldom proven guilty. One of her few convictions resulted in banishment to America, but her confederates managed to bribe several officials, so that instead of deportation she spent a month or so in a countryside retreat.

Eventually, Diver's advancing age, 38, affected her once nimble hands and fingers and caused her to neglect her usual elaborate preparations. In April 1738, she was caught while attempting to steal a purse, having failed to arrange for an accomplice to be nearby so she could pass off the stolen goods. Since she was using a new alias of Jane Webb at the time, authorities thought it was her first conviction and once again sentenced her to banishment in America. On June 7, 1738, she departed aboard the galley Forward, taking with her numerous trunks and boxes containing her fortune. But she was on her way back to Liverpool within a year, having used her considerable wealth to bribe a ship's captain. When she returned to London, however, her gang had dispersed, and she was forced to work alone in the less fashionable neighborhoods of the city. On January 17, 1740, she was caught attempting to steal the purse of a feisty young woman who put up a struggle. Diver was identified and convicted, not only of stealing, but of returning from banishment, an offense punishable by death. Sentenced to hang, she was said to have repented before her death on the gallows at Tyburn, on March 18, 1740.

Jenny Diver was immortalized in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1798), then later found her way into popular culture through the lyrics of "Mack the Knife," from the more modern version of Gay's work, The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht in 1928.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Diver, Jenny (1700–1740)

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