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A Swell Thief Part 1

A Swell Thief Part 1

By hayburn33


The heavy wooden door, studded with metal bolts, thudded shut behind the girl, who stood transfixed in the middle of the cell. There was a rattle of keys outside in the corridor, the turn of a lock, and then the diminishing sounds of footsteps. A more distant door thudded shut and a deep silence enveloped the building.
The cell was bare except for a small stool, a pile of folded bedding in a corner and a chamber pot in another. A narrow, barred window admitted some light, but a cloudy sky ensured it was dull and grey, despite being August. The air was hot and humid, the cell stuffy and claustrophobic. It had been less than half a minute since the door closed behind her, but already she longed to get out.
Stepping to the window she wrenched it open as far as it would go, but it was restricted by the structure of the walls. Originally there had been no window, only a slit with an outside shutter. She looked wild-eyed through the narrow gap and saw nothing but a wall.
She turned away and looked at the door. So far she had kept her emotions in check, but now, suddenly, she let go and burst into tears. How did it happen? How could she get herself into such a mess?
Elizabeth Thorpe was twenty, slightly built, above middle height with large brown eyes, large nose, delicate complexion, small hands and a lively personality. Her attraction to a man in his early forties was obvious, but what did she see in James Edward Lyon? He undoubtedly had charm and an aura of success about him. Being American helped, too. He spoke with a gentle, Boston accent, so different from the harsh cockney that Eliza had heard all her life.
After her arrest, Eliza was reluctant to give any information about her background. She declared her father and mother were alive, but declined to give their names. Everything that is known points to her coming from a poor, but honest and hard working family.
Bracebridge Hemyng, writing in 1861, maintained that “a large number of milliners, dress-makers, furriers, hat-binders, silk-binders, tambour-makers, shoe-binders, slop-women, or those who work for cheap tailors, those in pastry-cooks, fancy and cigar shops, bazaars, servants to a great extent [become] tired of the drudgery, sigh for the gaiety of the dancing-saloons, freedom from restraint, and amusements that are not in their present capacity within their reach”.
He was referring at the time to prostitutes, but Eliza Thorpe could well fit the description; especially in the light of the author’s unbending views on the subject. “Literally every woman who yields to her passions and loses her virtue is a prostitute, but many draw a distinction between those who live by promiscuous intercourse, and those who confine themselves to one man.”
The one man in Eliza’s case was the dapper, well-dressed Bostonian, James Edward Lyon. He was widely travelled, wealthy and had a fund of good stories. How, it might be asked, was it possible for two such disparate people from different countries and backgrounds to meet?
One place of common ground was Caldwell’s, a dancing saloon in Dean Street, Soho, which was extremely popular. On average there were two hundred people in attendance every night. On a Boxing Night the number swelled to eight hundred.
“Who has not heard of Caldwell’s Soirees Dansantes? Are they not advertised in every paper? Are they not posted in gigantic bills in every street? In quiet country lanes, miles and miles away from town, do we not come across the coloured letters by which Mr Caldwell announces his entertainment to the world?”
Who was John Caldwell? He was an Irish publican, successful enough to pay out the princely sum of four thousand pounds to buy and furnish the dancing saloon which bore his name. The charge of admission was 8d. Caldwell also had a public-house nearby from which he supplied wine, ale and spirits.
However, according to him, only an average of thirty glasses of spirits and about forty glasses of beer were drunk in the dancing-room in the course of an evening.
“I have never had a case of drunkenness in my place for years; I am very particular; I never let a drunken man remain.”
He also stated that the patrons consisted of noblemen, respectable tradesmen and “young people from the neighbourhood”.
Despite Caldwell’s assertions, drink was much in evidence and the clientele ranged from the aristocracy to pickpockets, the two often indistinguishable. As for the women, it was said that they danced modestly there one night, but within twelve months had lost their maidenly shame. They began to go night after night and domestic life seemed too tame to contemplate.
“Do the women around us ever expect to be…..wives and mothers?” asked one commentator “Or have they, young and fair as many of them seem to be, learnt already that recklessness to the future which robs life of all its glory and incarcerates the soul in a living grave? I can see, even here, a gaiety more sad than tears."
Eliza Thorpe could very easily fit this description. Whatever the circumstances of their meeting, a seventeen-year-old girl from humble stock could hardly be anything less than impressed. It seems he told her little of himself.
“I met Mr. Lyon in London, but I do not know anything of him. During the last three years I have been travelling about the country with Mr. Lyon, partly in hotels and partly in apartments. We have also been on the continent. Mr. Lyon does nothing that I am aware of and I do not know how he gets his money. He never tells me anything and tells me not to ask questions.”
If Eliza had known the method by which her benefactor made a living would it have made any difference? Probably not. After all, she had been whisked away from the life of drudgery, hard work and almost certain poverty that was the lot of her peers, and taken to places she had never even dreamed about.
Firmly holding onto the arm of her lover, Eliza had strolled along the Promenade des Anglais enjoying the sunshine and warmth of Nice. They had visited the early morning fish market; climbed up to a park on top of a hill known as Le Chateau to obtain a magnificent view of the port and bay; stayed in a fine hotel and dined in splendour every evening beneath a ceiling of stars.
In Monte Carlo they had brushed shoulders with the rich and famous from many countries; watched the changing of the guard with fife and drums every day and visited the casino every night. But James Lyon was a cautious gambler, setting himself a limit and refusing to go above it, no matter how great the temptation.
Why would a girl from humble beginnings, like Eliza Thorpe, question the method of funding such a high life? She knew little of money matters, but had been in the company of Lyon when he went to a bank in both Monaco and Nice and received money after showing a letter. What could possibly be wrong with that?
She looked at the white-washed walls of her small cell; at the narrow, barred window; at the heavy door locked from the outside and began to cry. Why was she in this dreadful place? What was going to happen to her?
Her sobs became louder.


James Edward Lyon styled himself as Captain Lyon, a piece of self-promotion as, by his own statement, he had climbed no higher than Lieutenant. His army experience was limited to the Heavy Artillery Battalion based at Boston, Massachusetts, during the war between the States.
He was 45 years old, slightly built and weighed 10 stones. His hair was light brown, turning grey, and he had a light Crown beard and moustache. His other facial features were a high forehead, blue eyes, straight nose (with a scar on the bridge) and a light complexion. There was a figure of a ship on his right arm and the USA crest with two hearts under it. A cross on his left arm and scar on the inside left leg complete the very full description given in prison documents.
He had been arrested for theft, a charge which he vigorously denied, but as the evidence piled up there was no doubt he was a true professional. In the parlance of the day, James Lyon was a snoozer, a thief who had the style and manner to frequent hotels for the purpose of robbing the guests. He had practised his art in America, Australia, Europe, England and now Scotland. It was here he made his mistake.
"When the tourist season once begins, Oban is bustling and gay. Train and steamer and coach pour streams of eager pleasure-seekers into the town – all countries of the world, all ages and ranks being represented in its hotels and streets."
Such was the description given in the Ordinance Gazetteer for Scotland in 1894.
"The shriek of the engines, the clear tones of the steamer-bells, and the rumble of wheels is heard more frequently; the hotels hoist their flags; bands play on the promenade; graceful white-sailed yachts glide into the bay and drop anchor; tourists and canvas-shoed yachtsmen throng the streets and shops; and there is a general air of bustle and of coming and going – for Oban is a place of passage and not of rest. Tourists go to Oban for the purpose of getting to somewhere else.
In many ways that description, written over a hundred and twenty years ago, holds good today. Only now, there are even more tourists from an ever-widening range of countries; those from the USA are almost ten a penny. In 1883 Americans were a rarer breed and yet James Lyon of Boston was not remembered for his nationality, but for his ill-manner when dealing with hotel staff.
Apparently very good and skilful at his chosen profession, Lyon lacked one essential requisite for a wholly successful snoozer; where his manner with servants and hotel employees should have been easy and friendly, he seemed to make it a habit to be awkward and quarrelsome. It was because of that unfortunate trait he left behind him a trail of people who had reason to remember him and the girl who travelled with him, ostensibly as his wife.
That he had been successful thus far was beyond question for no less a person than William Allan Pinkerton, eldest son of the founder of the well-known agency, wrote: “……Jimmy Lyon [is] one of the most noted Hotel thieves in this country and a man who has practised his craft from one end of the United States to the other; and who, for the last four or five years, has been residing in Europe and is said to have been very successful and has accumulated a large sum of money……..He has been regarded for many years as one of the cleverest workmen we ever had. If you have him where he can be convicted you have a good man.”
Why, then, did he make such a cardinal error in Scotland? Why, when he should have been quiet and unobtrusive, was he loud and unpleasant in his condemnation of the service? Perhaps he was out of sorts or there was something in the Scottish psyche that rubbed him up the wrong way. Whatever the reason, when the police made enquiries, ‘Captain’ Lyon was remembered by all and sundry.
“Lyon and Eliza Thorpe came to the hotel on 30th July 1883,” stated Lindsay Grandison MacArthur, Proprietor of the Alexandra Hotel in Oban. “My attention was drawn to them particularly on the evening of his arrival owing to his having had some words with the Head Waiter which the latter reported to me. On the same evening told that there was a gentleman in the smoking room who wanted a cigar out of the case kept there. I went to the smoking room and found it was the accused, Lyon, who wanted the cigar, which I gave to him. I stared at him hard hoping he would bring up the subject of the Head Waiter, but he would not look me in the face and said nothing.”
Lyon had complained about the food and left the Alexandra the following day saying he could not put up with the Head Waiter. His sudden departure, for no great reason, aroused the suspicions of the hotel manager and his staff, for early that morning a guest had reported a robbery.

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13 Jul, 2011
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