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Feather's Miscellany: Kings Of Con

...Patrick O’Connell and myself, James Augustus Delaney, (aka Jack ‘the Fingers’ Smith) regarded ourselves as top-notch professionals among those who followed our way of making a living. (We never thought of ourselves as ‘criminals’) We were gentlemen of the first order: myself a burglar and he a bigamist; indeed, you might say he was a quadramist, for he married four wives bigamously and cleaned them all out...

Master story-teller John Waddington-Feather introduces us to two lovable rogues.

To read more of John’s stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/feathers_miscellany/

During my long years living in lodgings provided by Her Majesty’s Prison Service, I met many colourful characters who were first-class confidence tricksters; yet all were failures (like myself) for successful criminals never finish up in prison. They end up living in luxury villas in Spain – or sitting on their backsides in Parliament.

One of the most successful con men I shared a cell with at Shrewton Gaol was a bigamist called Patrick O’Connell, a king amongst cons, a real professional. Now professional criminals are a world away from your brainless amateurs: your petty thieves nicking goods from stores, your hooded thugs and smash and grab hoodlums. Real professionals take a pride in their work. Take myself for instance, a professional burglar in my time I specialised in antique silver and when I pulled a job, I always felt that my crimes were successful if they were discovered only weeks afterwards. I never forced doors, never smashed windows, made no mess. I just took what I wanted from a house and left quietly. It was even more true of fraudsters like bent bank managers and stockbrokers. Their crimes remained uncovered for years; sometimes for ever.

Patrick O’Connell and myself, James Augustus Delaney, (aka Jack ‘the Fingers’ Smith) regarded ourselves as top-notch professionals among those who followed our way of making a living. (We never thought of ourselves as ‘criminals’) We were gentlemen of the first order: myself a burglar and he a bigamist; indeed, you might say he was a quadramist, for he married four wives bigamously and cleaned them all out. But he was always a gentleman and the final wife he married legally and lived happily off her millions the rest of his life.

But first, I’d like to tell you a little about myself, especially the little vendetta I had with Judge Percy Graves. He was a tall, gaunt man with a face like a sad spaniel under his wig, and I’ve never seen anyone look more sourly than he did when he sentenced me in court. He detested me. At one of my trials he called me ‘a menace to society,’ and that really upset me, being the gentleman I was. I was deeply offended, so much so that I burned with revenge throughout the five-year stretch he handed down to me and I vowed I’d get even with him when I got out.

From an early age I liked all things historical. It was the scholar in me, I suppose, and as I grew older I became hooked on antiques, especially silverware; so much so it became an obsession. I just had to get my hands on any piece which was beautiful and valuable. Some people are hooked on drugs. I was a silver addict. So when I found out that Judge Percy Graves was the owner of a priceless eighteenth century Turin silver coffee pot and set, I knew how I could satisfy my burning revenge. I’d steal them.

I cased his home for weeks, noting all who went in and out and what the security system was. Making discreet enquiries from his cleaner, I found out where he kept his silver and how I might break into the house, then one night, when the coffee set was in use, I struck. It was far easier to lift it when it was out of its showcase than in it. Then, the alarm system would be off.

The night I stole the judge’s cherished silver, he was throwing a dinner party for some fellow judges and their wives. That made my burglary doubly attractive. I guessed the party wouldn’t end till late so I didn’t drive out to his place till the early hours of the morning when the house was in darkness and the judge and his wife were well dined and wined and in bed.

I parked my car some distance away then strolled to the judge’s house. It was a simple job neutralising the alarm system and entering through the French windows from the lawn. There was no doubt that Judge Graves was a connoisseur of silver, for once I was inside a feast met my eyes. Standing in pride of place on a costly Regency rosewood breakfast table was the Turin coffee pot and silver accessories: tea-spoons, sugar bowl, cream jug and cake basket and by them was a solid silver, rectangular serving tray, worth five grand if a penny – a rich haul indeed! I smiled to myself as I loaded them into my bag, calling to mind the judge’s sour words at my trial – “you are a menace to society”. What would he call me when he discovered his priceless silver coffee set had gone?

But it proved my undoing. The police guessed at once who’d done the job. It had my style all over it and the next day they visited my house. I hadn’t had time to get rid of the silver which I’d hidden in the cellar, and once they’d found it, that was that. I was nicked and remanded for trial.

Because he was directly involved in the case, I didn’t face Judge Graves; nevertheless, I was sent down for another five years and told in no uncertain terms by the judge (one of the guests the night I nicked the silver) how serious my crime was, entering and breaking into a judge’s house and jeopardising the judge’s personal safety. To tell the truth, I was only too pleased not to be before Judge Graves. I’d have got a ten-year stretch from him.

He complimented the police on their efficiency at catching me so quickly and rubbed it in again about my being a menace to society and welcomed my being put behind bars. He really did detest me. But I had my revenge some years later, as you’ll hear.

After that last sentence, I’d had enough of prison and decided to go straight; after all, I’d a son just leaving prep school and about to enter his public school and I didn’t want him to go through school under my shadow, so I changed my name from Jack Smith to John Augustus Delaney and invested the loan the bank gave me where I knew my skills and know-how would pay off: I opened an exclusive antique shop in Brighton. With my lifetime’s experience and the contacts I’d made fencing my loot up and down the country and sometimes abroad over the years, I did rather well and lived life as a gentleman should, at peace with himself and the society about him.

I quickly built up an international reputation and customers came to buy from miles around; some of them from the States, for occasionally I made trips to New York in the way of trade. So well known did my business become that I was kept very busy attending sales all over the place and joined a ‘ring’ of antique dealers. We never bid against each other, so keeping down the price of goods being auctioned.

Judge Graves died not long after I left prison and some years later his widow also died. They’d no family and their house and its contents were put up for sale. I was there in a flash, my heart set on their collection of silverware, especially that Turin coffee pot and its accessories which had slipped through my fingers years before. When I bid for ‘em, I got ’em!

Now I have the deepest satisfaction of drinking from that pot most evenings as I’m no longer ‘a menace to society.’ And I do believe as time goes by, and I lovingly polish that pot and its accessories, that I think rather less harshly of old Judge Graves. I hope wherever he is he’s mellowed, too, and thinks less harshly of me. After all, I’ve kept his silver collection intact and I look well after it.

But I was going to tell you about Patrick O’Connell, the professional bigamist I once shared a cell with. He was one of the smoothest operators I’ve ever met. Even in prison he worked his charm, especially on the chaplain, for within days of starting his sentence he was made chapel orderly – one of the cushiest jobs in nick. It gave him access to the tea-maker and biscuits in the chaplain’s office, and a telephone when the need arose.

In his time, O’Connell had been a soldier, sailor and a minister in the Church. In all these professions he’d married bigamously, having wed legally when he was young, but he soon spent that wife’s money and he left her to join the army. There he married bigamously the middle-aged, single daughter of a colonel, who came from a landed family in the West Country. When he’d fleeced her of her money, he left the army – and her – to take up with the daughter of the captain of the ship he’d signed on with. She, too, was an elderly, wealthy spinster, whom he quickly stripped of her assets. His third bigamous wife was the widow of a Dean, and she was the daughter of a wealthy Birmingham diamond merchant. He scooped the kitty clean there, too, before leaving her.

It was easy to see how he did it. He was tall and good-looking, with a tongue as smooth as butter. He could pull any woman given time, and he was given quite a length of time for pulling them.

When I asked him how he did it, he had quite a simple explanation. In his opinion – though I disagreed with him on this point – he said all women wanted to be married; indeed, they craved marriage. Nature had made them that way. He said it didn’t matter how young or how old they were, how plain or how beautiful, they still craved marriage – especially with someone like himself: a manly man with good looks and a flattering tongue.

“Even if I’d been ugly or small, I’d have found any number of women who wanted me. I could have married a hundred times, y’know,” he said vainly, “and I’m surprised at my moderation, but then you have only one life to live.”

Patrick O’Donnell was not a modest man, but he was good company and the time flew by while we shared the same cell in Shrewton Prison.

“You see, Jack,” he went on, “It’s because I’ve a very logical mind like yourself that I’m successful. You work out in great detail how you’re going to pull a job and so do I.”

“What you mean?” I asked.

“Well, take a woman who’s never been married. To her I pass myself off as a widower. A spinster who’s getting on likes a man who knows a thing or two; someone who can coach her in the delights of marriage. But with the widow I married, I said I was a bachelor, for a widow’s wary of any man who’s been married before, and that cramps my style.”

“And you made a packet out of all of them,” I said, laughing.

“Naturally, dear Jack. A man’s got to live, but I gave them all good value, gave them something they all wanted.”

“What?” I asked.

“Romance,” he answered. “I transformed their lives from a long, drab walk through life, plucked them from the emptiness of despair to a life of never-ending romance – that is, till the money ran out. We travelled the world finding romance everywhere – America, Europe, Africa Asia, - every blessed continent under the sun.”

“But in the process you fleeced ‘em. Left ‘em with nothing,” I said accusingly.

O’Connell flashed me a look of disdain, before saying, “You’re a regular wet-blanket you are, Jack. Yes, I fleeced ‘em, if you want to use that term, but they enjoyed every minute of it. They’d have paid double if they’d had it and considered themselves lucky, for I left them all wiser and more fulfilled women than when I met them.”

I couldn’t agree with his philosophy of life no more than he did mine, I suspect. After all, every man in his own way is moral to a greater or lesser degree and his moral outlook with women wasn’t mine. I had lines I didn’t cross; so had he, but in the end we both made out and, oddly enough, finished up living close to each other: he at Hove and myself at Brighton, where I ran the flourishing “Delaney Antiques Gallery” and from time to time travelled up to London to dinners at the Silversmiths’ Guild House.

Patrick O’Connell finally married legally, the widow of a multi-millionaire stock merchant, whose sole interest was making money. He’d given his wife all she wanted during their marriage, except romance, but he left her with enough money for O’Connell to supply her with that the rest of their lives.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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