A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.

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