I thoroughly enjoy reading historical newspapers, especially those of the nineteenth century in Britain, their eclecticism and taste for the bizarre providing endless entertainment as well as insights into how differently people lived – and journalists wrote – back then.
The following report appeared in the Aberystwyth Observer on Saturday, 13 October 1860, in a section on page 3 titled “Miscellaneous general news, home, foreign and colonial”. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this apocryphal sounding tale, but the story and the manner of its telling amused me a great deal. If you’re interested, you can access the whole edition here; this and many, many more 19th and early 20th century newspapers can be browsed or searched through the National Library of Wales’s excellent Welsh Newspapers Online resource.
A COOL PICKPOCKET. — The pickpockets of London and Paris have long enjoyed the reputation of being the most adroit in Europe; but, if we may believe the statement of a M. Charles W—-, Stuttgardt can fully rival those cities. That gentleman was walking in the Koenigstrasse, looking at the shops, when he was accosted by an obsequious little man, who offered his services to show him the lions of the capital, but the other refused the offer. The officious personage, however, was not offended, but politely asked him what o’clock it was. The other answered that he did not know, as his watch had stopped, and continued his walk towards the Museum of Natural History, which he entered. He had not been there many minutes before the same person came up to him with the air of an old acquaintance, and offered him a pinch of snuff. This M. W—- declined, saying he was no snuff-taker, and walked away; but some minutes after, having a presentiment of something being wrong, he felt for his snuff-box, but instead of it found a scrap of paper in his pocket, on which was written,
“As you are no snuff-taker, you do not require a box.”
He thought the logic of his unknown acquaintance rather impertinent, and resolved to bear his loss like a philosopher; but what was his amazement when, a moment after, he discovered that his watch had also disappeared, and in his other pocket was another note, in the following words:
“As your watch does not tell the hour, it would be better at the watchmaker’s than in your pocket.”
It is hardly necessary to say that he never heard any further tidings of the two articles.
What I especially like is the stark contrast between the earthy, yet measured and certainly creepy “voice” of the pickpocket contrasting with the quite pompous, condescending and almost trite tone of the rest of the report: the latter is clearly not the sole preserve of today’s Daily Mail!
I’d love to know the provenance of this story and how widely it was known and published elsewhere. A quick Google search yields the same story in the Fayetteville Observer (North Carolina, 1860 – link opens PDF of the relevant edition) and the Hawke’s Bay Herald (New Zealand, 1861), so that suggests quite a geographical spread. Within Wales, it also appeared in the Monmouthshire Merlin in 1862 (edition of 4 October), so it seems to have been doing the rounds for a couple of years at least.