Jenny Diver (Mary Young)

Unlike the majority of cases featured in these pages, our subject was a street thief and pickpocket rather than a murderer. In Georgian, England such street criminals were seen by the middle and ruling classes as little better than vermin so their crimes attracted the death sentence, although in around 73% of cases at the time this was reduced to transportation to the Colonies.

Jenny Diver's real name was Mary Young but she was re-christened by her gang as she was such an expert "diver," as pick pockets were known at the time. For simplicity, I have called her Jenny Diver from hereon in. She was a professional criminal who became something of a celebrity, ending her career swinging from London's Tyburn Tree on Wednesday, the 18th of March 1741. It is thought that she was about 40 years old at the time of her death, although there is no precise record of her date of birth.

Jenny was born around 1700 in the north of Ireland, the illegitimate child of Harriet Jones, a lady's maid. Harriet was forced to leave her job, as was normal at the time, and found lodgings in a brothel where she gave birth. She soon deserted Jenny who lived in several foster homes before, at about the age 10 years, she was taken in by an elderly gentlewoman. She was even sent to school, where she learned to read and write and mastered needlework. Her quick fingered dexterity fitted her well for her future life of crime. Her sewing was excellent and she was able to earn a reasonable sum from it. So much so that she decided to go to London and become a professional seamstress. There was a small problem, however, how to raise the money for the ferry boat fare. She solved this by persuading one of her admirers that she would marry him if he found the money and went with her to England. He booked a passage on a ship bound for Liverpool. A short time before the vessel was to sail, the young man robbed his master of a gold watch and 80 guineas and then joined Jenny, who was already on board the ship. The crossing of the Irish Sea took two days and Jenny was very seasick. She and her young man took lodgings in Liverpool and lived together for a short while as man and wife. When Jenny had recovered sufficiently, they booked the journey to London by road. The day before they were due to leave Liverpool, her companion was arrested for the thefts in Ireland. Jenny sent him his clothes and some money before she departed, and he was returned to Ireland to stand trial. He was sentenced to death but this was commuted to transportation, as it was his first offence.

Once in London, Jenny met up with another Irish girl, called Anne Murphy, who offered her a lodging in Long Acre. Anne was in fact the leader of a bunch of pickpockets and introduced Jenny to the trade. As an apprentice pickpocket, she was given 10 guineas on which to live until she could start producing income herself. She was taken by members of the gang to suitable venues to observe their techniques and to practice lifting purses and jewellery. Jenny learned very quickly and was clearly going to be an asset to the gang. In fact she was so successful at crime, that she was soon making a fortune and took over from Anne as head of the gang who renamed her Jenny Diver. Anne and some of the other members often acted as servants to her in her various scams.

Jenny's typical method of operation is described in the Newgate Calendar as follows:
"Jenny, accompanied by one of her female accomplices, joined the crowd at the entrance of a place of worship in the Old Jewry, where a popular divine was to preach.  Observing a young gentleman with a diamond ring on his finger, she held out her hand which he kindly received in order to assist her.  At this juncture, she contrived to get possession of the ring without the knowledge of the owner, after which she slipped behind her companion and heard the gentleman say that as there was no probability of gaining admittance he would return. Upon his leaving the meeting he missed his ring, and mentioned his loss to the persons who were near him, adding that he suspected it to be stolen by a woman whom he had endeavoured to assist in the crowd; but as the thief was unknown she escaped".

Not only was Jenny nimble fingered but she was also extremely inventive. She was an educated, attractive and smartly dressed young woman who could mix easily in wealthy middle class circles, without being suspected of being a thief. The story is told of how she went to a church service wearing two false arms which appeared to remain in her lap. Dressed in good clothes and sitting among the wealthier lady worshippers, she would wait her chance to seize their watches and jewellery, passing them to one of her assistants in the pew behind. Apparently to her victims, her hands had never moved throughout the prayers.

Another successful ruse was to fake sudden illness when in the midst of a crowd. This she did in St. James' Park on a day when the King was going to the House of Lords. As she lay on the ground apparently in great pain, surrounded by people offering her assistance, she was systematically robbing them and passing the items backs to other members of her gang who were masquerading as her footman and maid.

Jenny also went on expeditions with her boyfriend of the day, who was presumably one of the gang members. In one of these adventures, she used the sudden illness ploy again but this time to gain access to a house in Wapping. While the owners went upstairs for smelling salts, etc., Jenny rifled through the drawers and helped herself to a considerable sum in cash. Her boyfriend was doing the same in the kitchen, helping himself to the best silver cutlery.

Jenny and her gang rapidly achieved notoriety and inevitably she was caught, for picking the pocket of a gentleman in early 1733. She was committed to Newgate and came to trial at the next Sessions of the Old Bailey charged with privately stealing, under the name of Mary Young, her real name, although she used many aliases. As this was her first recorded offence as Mary Young, her death sentence was reduced to transportation to Virginia on America's east coast. She spent four months in Newgate, awaiting a prison ship.  When the day finally came, she had a huge quantity of goods put aboard the ship with her, to enable her to fund a good life style in Virginia.
No doubt she used some of her wealth to bribe the captain to allow her to take all this and again the governor of the penal colony, when she arrived there to let her live well and not have labour in the plantations.

It would seem that she missed both the excitement of crime and the easy wealth she made from it because it was not long before she returned to Britain. Only 5% of those sentenced to transportation for periods of less than life did return and to do so before completing one's sentence, was a capital crime. However, Jenny was able to use her looks and money to persuade a returning captain to take her back to London.

She returned to her various forms of thieving, but she was getting older now and her fingers were stiffening with arthritis. Life expectancies were far lower in the 1730's than now and people aged more quickly due to the hard life of the time. On April the 4th of 1738, Jenny, by now aged 38, was caught red-handed with two male accomplices trying to take the purse of a woman named Mrs. Rowley in Canon Alley, near London's Paternoster Row. This time she gave the name of Jane Webb and under this name, once more got off with a pardon on condition of transportation.
Remember there were no photographic or fingerprint records at this time so the authorities had to accept the name she gave and seemed unable to unearth her previous conviction and sentence. Had they been, she would have almost certainly been hanged. It would seem that journalists of the day had no such problem making the connection between Jane Webb and Jenny Diver and her true identity was reported by London Evening Post. Members of her gang made every effort to save her from transportation, but on
the 7th of June 1738 she was once more put aboard a prison ship, the "Forward" again bound for America. Jenny did not learn from this and within a year, using her usual method of bribery, she landed back at Liverpool.  She made her way to London but her old gang had dispersed - retired, transported or hanged. Jenny was finding it much harder now to make the good living she had been used to in her younger days.

The crime for which she was to hang.
Nemesis finally overtook Jenny on Saturday, the 10th of January 1741 when she was caught trying to rob a purse containing 13 shillings and a halfpenny (a fraction over 65p) from a younger woman, Judith Gardner, in Sherbourne Lane. Jenny had set up a scam with Elizabeth Davies and an unidentified male member of her gang, whereby he would offer to help ladies cross some wooden boards laid over a patch of wet ground. As he held Judith's arm out, Jenny put her hand into the woman's pocket. Judith realised this and grabbed Jenny's wrist still within her pocket. Jenny hit her round the head but she maintained a firm grip on Jenny's cloak until passers by managed to arrest her and Elizabeth. A constable was summoned and they were taken to the compter (a local lock up jail). Their male accomplice managed to escape.

Committal proceedings and trial.
She was examined the next day by the magistrates, who committed her to Newgate to await trial. This time she was identified by the authorities and appeared before the next Sessions for the City of London and County of Middlesex at the Old Bailey, a week later on Saturday, the 17th of January 1741. The judges for this Session were the Lord Mayor, the Right Honourable Humphry Parsons, the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Probyn, Mr. Justice Wright, Mr. Justice Fortescue, Sir John Strange, the Recorder of the City of London and finally Mr. Sergeant Urlin, the Deputy-Recorder.
She was charged, together with Elizabeth Davies, with highway robbery in the form of "privately stealing" (picking pockets to the value of more than one shilling - 5p in our money) and in Jenny's case for returning from transportation. She had been caught red-handed so had no real defence to the first charge and equally little to the second. Her trial, before an all male jury, would have typically occupied no more than two hours. The principal prosecution witness was the victim, Mrs. Gardner, who described the attack on her to the court and was cross examined on her testimony by Jenny herself. Mrs. Gardner told the court how she had been put in fear by the attack and how she had struggled with Jenny. Several other witness gave evidence of the crime and subsequent arrest of the two women. There was no counsel for the defence in those days but Jenny did her best to defend herself and brought forward character witnesses for both herself and Elizabeth Davies, not that these convinced the jury of 12 men who brought her and Elizabeth in guilty, to use the parlance of the time. At the end of the Session, the Recorder sentenced them both to be publicly hanged at Tyburn. In all, 13 prisoners were sentenced to death.  From this Sessions, seven men and six women. Both Jenny and Elizabeth immediately "pleaded their belly," i.e. claimed that they were pregnant but the panel of matrons charged with examining them found this not to be the case.
Elizabeth had her sentence commuted to transportation, but in view of Jenny's past record, there could be no hope of a reprieve. She was thus returned to Newgate and lodged in the Condemned Hold to await her fate. At the end of the Sessions, the Recorder prepared his report to the King and Privy Council recommending who should be reprieved and who should hang.  Predictably, Jenny’s name was not on the reprieve list. 
It seems that the enormity of her situation and the lack of any hope of reprieve finally hit Jenny and she turned to religion. Religion and repentance were very important at this time and even criminals like Jenny would have become very concerned about the afterlife and the fate of her soul. She would have been repeatedly told that if she confessed and repented her sins, then she could avoid going to "eternal damnation in the fires of Hell," or some similarly emotive phrase. As will be seen, she clearly took this message to heart. On her last Sunday, she and her fellow condemned prisoners were taken to the chapel and seated in the Condemned Pews where they were made to endure a church service with a coffin centrally placed on the table in their midst.
On the eve of an execution, the bellman of the Parish of St. Sepulchre's would ring his bell outside of the cells of the condemned and recite the following prayer:

All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die,
Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.

Executions at Tyburn.
At this time, there were potentially eight hanging days a year at Tyburn to correspond with the eight Assize Sessions at the Old Bailey.  In this year, there were in fact only five hanging days, December 1740 and January 1741, prisoners being held over until March 1741.  Anything up to 200,000 people would turn out to watch the procession to Tyburn and/or the actual hangings. The gallows at Tyburn consisted of 3 tall uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form under which three carts could be backed at a time, containing up to 24 prisoners, eight under each beam.

Executions were seen as tourist attraction as this extract from "The Foreigner's Guide to London" of 1740 shows: "The rope being put about his neck, he is fastened to the fatal tree when a proper time being allowed for prayer and singing a hymn, the cart is withdrawn and the penitent criminal is turned with a cap over his eyes and left hanging half an hour". The Guide warned: "These executions are always well attended with so great mobbing and impertinences that you ought to be on your guard when curiosity leads you there."

Wednesday, the 18th of March was to see one of the largest multiple hangings at Tyburn for many years, it was not until the 1780’ this many persons were hanged in London at one time. The prisoners had been convicted at the December 1740, January 1741 and February 1741 Sessions and had not been recommended for clemency to the King and Privy Council in the Recorder's Report at the end of the Sessions. Typically most of those executed would either be second time offenders or guilty of several offences. First time offenders were often reprieved for the sort of crimes listed below. In all 16 men and four women were to suffer that day. These being :

Prisoner's name


Prisoner's name


Convicted at the December 1740 Sessions.

Joseph Hoddle

highway robbery.

Richard Quail

highway robbery

Thomas Nash


Robert Legros


Convicted at the January 1741 Sessions.

John Sheriff

horse stealing

George Stacey

robbery in dwelling house

Elizabeth Fox

Robbing a brothel

John Cat

returning from transportation

Priscilla Mahon

Robbing a brothel

Jenny (Mary Young)

highway robbery

John Elver

Robbing a brothel



Convicted at the February 1741 Sessions.

Richard Brabant


John Davis

highway robbery

Philip Lipscombe


Thomas Birch

highway robbery

John Cassody

highway robbery

James Timms

highway robbery

Robert Hunt

highway robbery

Dorothy Middleton


Robert Parsonson

robbery in dwelling house



It should be noted that highway robbery was the official designation for crimes such as pick-pocketing and mugging on the public highway as well as for the crimes that we would normally associate with highwaymen.

Jenny's hanging.
On the morning of her execution, Jenny, being wealthy, dressed in a long black dress with a black bonnet and veil. Many of the women hanged at this time would wear a cheap linen shift as it was all they could afford and in any case, their clothes would become the property of the hangman afterwards. A few prisoners of both sexes would elect to wear their best clothes. Jenny was led from her cell to the Press Yard in Newgate, accompanied by the tolling of the bell of St. Sepulchre's Church just across the road. The Yeoman of the Halter tied her wrists in front of her and put a cord around her body and elbows. He put the noose around her neck and wound the free rope around her body. At this point, her nerve failed her for a few moments but she soon recovered her composure. Jenny was allowed to go to Tyburn in a Mourning Coach, attended by the Ordinary (prison chaplain) of Newgate, the Reverend Boughton, to whom it was reported that she confessed her sins and declared her religious beliefs. A Mourning Coach was the 18th century equivalent of a modern funeral car. It was a black horse drawn enclosed coach and the horses too would have been decked out in black cloth. Wealthy and famous criminals like Jenny were permitted to hire a Mourning Coach for the journey to Tyburn to protect them from the crowds and also probably to enhance their image in the minds of the public. Attitudes towards execution were very different then, they were seen more as a gruesome entertainment than as the final act of justice by most ordinary people, unless the criminal was a notorious murderer.
The other 19 criminals to hang that day were similarly treated and then led to the eight execution carts and seated on their coffins. T
he first cart conveyed Quail, Legrose, and Huddle; the second, Nash, Sheriff, and Elver; in the third were Middleton, Mahon, and Fox; in the fourth, Hunt, Birch, and Davis; in the fifth, Tims and Lipscomb; in the sixth, Parsonson and Cassody; in the seventh Brabant, Catt, and Stracey; with Jenny’s Mourning Coach bringing up the rear. The procession was guarded by a file of Musketeers with their bayonets fixed to their firelocks, and two of the Light Horse with their swords drawn. After the Coach came eight more of the Light Horse, and about forty armed foot soldiers.

Like anybody else about to suffer an imminent and painful death, Jenny was no doubt inwardly terrified of what was about to happen to her, but she had to maintain her image and put on a "good show" for the crowd. Then as now "celebrities" have always captured the public's imagination and she would have expected to justify her celebrity status!

The journey to Tyburn, some two miles, could often take three hours or more to complete so it was usually around noon or later by the time the prisoners arrived. The procession comprised marshalmen, javelin men on horseback and constables armed with staves, all led by the City Marshal and Under Sheriff on their horses. The route led west out of the City of London, along Holborn, St Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street) to the gallows at what is now Marble Arch at the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park. Extraordinarily as it seems to us now, the procession could make at least two refreshment stops where the prisoners were allowed to have food and alcohol, before reaching Tyburn. The first was at the Bowl Inn in St Giles, the second at the Mason's Arms in Seymour Place.

Once at Tyburn, Jenny was helped down from the coach by the Rev. Boughton and took her place in one of the carts. It is probable that the four women would have been placed in the same cart and the 16 men divided up between the other two carts. The hangman, John Thrift, uncoiled the free rope from around her and threw the end up to one of his young assistants lying on top of one of the three cross beams, who secured it leaving very little slack. This process had to be repeated for each prisoner, so took some while to complete. She may well have slipped John Thrift a small bribe to ensure he did his job well and positioned the knot under her left ear instead of at the back of her neck. At this time, the prisoner's legs were not pinioned. When all the "sufferers," as they were known at the time, were secured to the beams and had finished their prayers, night-caps were drawn over their faces and the signal given by the Under Sheriff for the carts to be whipped away by their drivers. Jenny did not require a night cap, instead preferring her veil. As the cart moved from under her, she dropped just a few inches and was brought up with a jerk, causing the noose to tighten around her neck. Swinging back and forth under the beam, she would have made choking and gurgling sounds, her feet paddling in thin air and her body writhing in the agonies of strangulation. Jenny was fortunate, however, and only struggled for a few moments before going limp and passing into unconsciousness, according to contemporary reports. It is not known whether Jenny's friends pulled on her legs to shorten her suffering, although this was a common practice. It is reported that some of the spectators offered up prayers for her soul as she dangled there.
She had arranged for her friends to claim her body when she was cut down to prevent it falling into the hands of the dissectionists and was buried, at her specific request, in St. Pancras Churchyard.

182 women were hanged at Tyburn in the 18th century (the male total was around 3,000), so female executions were comparatively rare. Jenny's execution would have been reported in the press - there were several titles by 1740 - and there were no doubt execution broadsides published detailing her crimes, confession and execution, even though the latter had yet to take place. Jenny's execution drew a huge crowd of people of all classes. Wealthy people paid substantial sums for a seat in the grandstands around the gallows. These were known as Mother Proctor's Pews, after their owner, who no doubt made a fortune from them. In the crowd would have also been various people selling snacks and broadsides and quite possibly there would have been pickpockets operating, irrespective of the fact that it was one of their number who was the star attraction that day!

Was it simple greed or the love of London and the excitement of crime and the easy living she made from it that led Jenny to continue down the path that she knew would inevitably lead to the gallows? She was an intelligent woman who would have been fully aware of the likely punishment for her crimes and yet, it seems, she could not resist the excitement and glamour of being London's most successful pickpocket.

The original proceedings of Jenny's trials can be read at the Old Bailey on-line website at - search under Jane Webb in 1738 and Mary Young in January 1741.

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