The Black Book's Messenger by Robert Greene (1592) is an example of a leaflet or pamphlet on the subject of "cony-catching", the art of conning or theft through trickery. "Cony-catching" was popular slang at the time, and we can see it, for example, in some of Shakespeare's works: from The Taming of the Shrew (1594), "Come, you are so full of cony-catching!" and "Take heed, Signior Baptista, lest you be cony-catch'd in this business" and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602), "Marry, sir, I have matter in my head against you; and against your cony-catching rascals, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol", "There is no remedy; I must cony-catch; I must shift", and "Wel, afore God, I must cheat, I must conycatch" Indeed, The Merry Wives of Windsor is on the subject of cony-catching: Falstaff, who also appears in Henry IV Part I and Part II is short on money and looking for a woman to keep him in the lavish lifestyle to which he is so accustomed, targeting 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' to reach his end.
Robert Greene wrote a series of pamphlets on cony-catching:
- A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591; 'cozenage meaning fraud)
- The Second Part of Cony-Catching (1591)
- The Third and Last Part of Cony-Catching (1593)
- A Disputation Between a Hee Conny-Catcher and a Shee Conny-Catcher (1592)
- The Black Book's Messenger (1592)
In The Blacke Bookes Messenger. Laying open the Life and Death of Ned Browne, one of the most notable Cutpurses, Crosbiters, and Cony-catchers, that ever lived in England, the final of the pamphlets, Greene writes on the notorious highway man Ned Browne (Greene did write on real criminals of the time, so I assume that in this instance Ned Browne was a real man). The pamphlet is disguised as an autobiography and begins,
If you think, Gentlemen, to hear a repentant man speak, or to tell a large tale of his penitent sorrows, ye are deceived, for as I have ever lived lewdly, so I mean to end my life as resolutely, and not by a cowardly confession to attempt the hope of a pardon. Yet, in that I was famous in my life for my villainies, I will at my death profess myself as notable, by discoursing to you all merrily, the manner and method of my knaveries, which, if you hear without laughing, then, after my death, call me base knave and never have me in remembrance.
Ned then praises his parents, simply saying from the ground "brings forth flowers and thistles". He describes how he was a bad child who swiftly became a career criminal,
Cutting of purses, stealing of horses, lifting, picking of locks, and all other notable cozen ages. Why, I held them excellent qualities, and accounted him unworthy to live that could not or durst not live by such damnable practices.
Unsurprisingly he sought the company of those like him and enjoyed the company of prostitutes - "What bad woman was there about London whose champion I would not be for a few Crowns, to fight, swear and stare in her behalf, to the abuse of any that should do Justice upon her?". By doing so, he was able to ensnare men and rob them.
And from there he goes on to tell several tales:
- A pleasant Tale how Ned Browne crosbit a Maltman" (to "crosbite" was often to blackmail a man found in a compromising position with a woman)
- A merry tale how Ned Browne used a Priest
- A pleasant tale how Ned Browne kissed a Gentlewoman and cut her purse
- How Ned Browne let fall a key
- A merry Jest how Ned Browne's wife was crosbitten in her own Art
He sums up these tales by remarking,
This, Gentlemen, was my course of life, and thus I got much by villainy, and spent it amongst whores as carelessly. I seldom or never listened to the admonition of my friends, neither did the fall of other men learn me to beware, and therefore am I brought now to this end.
From London, Ned went to France somewhat repentant despite the preface's claims, but he soon fell into his old ways and was finally caught out:
I resolved to come over into France, by bearing Arms to win some credit, determining with myself to become a true man. But as men, though they change Countries, alter not their minds, so given over by God into a reprobate sense, I had no feeling of goodness, but with the dog fell to my old vomit and here most wickedly I have committed sacrilege, robbed a Church, and done other mischievous pranks, for which justly I am condemned and must suffer death.
He finishes with a warning, blaming the harlots whose company he once sought: "Beware of whores, for they be the Sirens that draw men on to destruction; their sweet words are enchantments, their eyes allure, and their beauties bewitch". Greene rounds up the pamphlet with a further warning that however much Ned Browne enjoyed his life of villainy, he was brought to a miserable end, hung not at the gallows but out a window. The Black Book's Messenger ends,
But note a wonderful judgment of God shewed upon him after his death. His body, being taken down and buried without the town, it is verified that in the nighttime there came a company of Wolves, and tore him out of his grave, and ate him up, whereas there lay many soldiers buried, and many dead carcasses, that they might have preyed on to have filled their hungry paunches. But the judgements of God as they are just, so they are inscrutable. Yet thus much we may conjecture, that as he was one that delighted in rapine and stealth in his life, so at his death the ravenous Wolves devoured him, and plucked him out of his grave, as a man not worthy to be admitted to the honor of any burial. Thus have I set down the life and death of Ned Browne, a famous Cutpurse and Cony-catcher, by whose example, if any be profited, I have the desired end of my labour.
This pamphlet makes for a strange read, but enlightening too. What I appreciated the most was a more in-depth description of the Elizabethan criminal underworld, the likes of which we see in particular in Shakespeare's character John Falstaff and his associates. The Black Book's Messenger gives another perspective with its quite possibly real account of a notorious criminal of the time and sheds an interesting light on an era I'm slowly becoming a little more familiar with.
And that was my 15th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Parson of the Parish by Anthony Trollope.