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On the Dognapping Gangs that Terrorized Victorian London, and the Poet who Fought Back


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In September 1846, the famous poet Elizabeth Barrett had her beloved dog, a spaniel named Flush, stolen while walking down a street in London. The city was full of professional dognapping rings who targeted wealthy pet-owners and ransomed their animals back to them—and because of a legal loophole, were not doing anything illegal by doing so. When Flush had been stolen for the third time, just before the cloistered and sickly Elizabeth plan to run away to marry the poet Robert Browning, she decided to break her domestic imprisonment and fight back.

Read the complete story at Truly*Adventurous.

*

Elizabeth Barrett only looked away from the busy London street for a moment as she stepped up into a carriage. It was a perfect autumn morning on the first of September 1846 and Elizabeth, 40, was out running errands with her sister Arabel, 33. They had brought along Elizabeth’s small brown spaniel, Flush, who had trotted gamely beside them as they shopped. When the outing was over and the carriage pulled up on Vere Street, the ladies climbed aboard while Flush waited patiently beside the wheels.

Once she was seated, Elizabeth called, “Flush!” Flush did not spring into her lap as expected. Elizabeth and her sister frantically searched underneath the chassis and scanned the bustling streetscape for any sign of him. But he was gone. In only a moment, Elizabeth’s beloved dog had vanished without a trace.

During the tense ride back home to their house at 50 Wimpole Street, in the fashionable neighborhood of Marylebone in Central London, Arabel comforted her devastated sister. She promised they would find Flush. But Elizabeth was inconsolable, pale with shock. London was notorious for its dog-stealers, who operated as a collective to capture household pets for profit. The tragic practice was sometimes fatal for the stolen dogs. Elizabeth would later learn that she and her sister had been shadowed from the moment they left their house that morning — tracked as they went from Bond Street to Vere Street, where the thieves finally found their opportunity to grab the dog from beside the carriage’s wheel.

Elizabeth, who had suffered chronic illness since she was sixteen and was in near-constant physical pain, frequently had to pause while walking to sit down and catch her breath. Standing five feet and one inch tall, she was a petite, gaunt woman with “a very little voice.” Perhaps her stature or her gender made her seem an easy target. Contemporary reports of this operation emphasize the group’s victimization of single or vulnerable-appearing women.

But the dog-stealers did not know how much of a force Elizabeth truly was. Despite her long and debilitating illnesses, she had written her way to astounding success. Her most recent collection of verse, simply called Poems, had been released to acclaim, and she would soon become a contender for Poet Laureate. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated The Raven and Other Poems to her in 1845. Celebrated for her sonnets and her long masterpiece Aurora Leigh, she is now perhaps best remembered in popular culture for the lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Elizabeth also had a powerful reserve of inner strength. Nobody could have predicted how she would turn the robbery of her beloved dog into a triumph over oppression in her life.

*

When they arrived to the massive five-story townhouse on beautiful Wimpole Street, Arabel continued trying to calm her distraught sister, predicting that they would be contacted with a ransom note. She guessed that the price would be no more than a manageable ten pounds. The sisters briefed one of their eight siblings, 28-year-old Henry. Henry hated the restrictive confines that came with life in their household, and fantasized about joining the military. He had managed to secure greater freedom than many of his siblings — just one year earlier, he and their brother Charles John went on a sailing trip to Egypt. When Henry heard Flush had been stolen, he hurried from the house, knowing just where to go; he had to find a mysterious man named Taylor. He knew this because Flush had been stolen before. Twice.

Small spaniels had been fashionable pets in Britain among the elite since the days of King Charles II two centuries before. The Victorian era (especially the latter half) witnessed a rocketing interest in the keeping of dogs as pets, as well as in the breeding and showing of dogs — supported by a growing leisure class with interest in status markers. This expanding bourgeoisie was responsible for an entire industry of breeding, with many varieties of dog becoming expensive and harder to acquire. This phenomenon was known as “dog fancying.”

Flush first came into Elizabeth’s life as a much-needed companion. Elizabeth suffered from lung problems and a mysterious disorder that caused her constant head and spinal pain. An increasing reliance on laudanum for pain management debilitated her more, as did her largely confined life. When fellow writer Mary Russell Mitford’s dog sired puppies, she thought a pet would be a boon to Elizabeth’s spirits. Elizabeth wavered, worrying about “knowing… so little about dogs” and whether any dog could suit her melancholic and sickly existence. But Elizabeth soon relented, vowing to welcome the puppy.

Elizabeth also worried how a dog would fare being mostly closed up in a London home, and no wonder: her own experience spoke volumes. After a childhood in the countryside, Elizabeth now lived in an urban environment under the strict rules of a father who dictated narrow social opportunities and activities outside their domestic circle.

When Flush arrived, he was terrified of loud, bustling London — and of the other two dogs in the Barrett house, Catiline and Resolute, the giant hounds belonging to Charles John and Henry. But even as a little pup, Flush was not one to cower. A little tyrant, he yapped at everyone and everything in the household, determined to seem tough at all costs. He was a beautiful dog with floppy, silken ears and golden eyes, and quickly became a crucial part of Elizabeth’s life. For the first few months, he refused to leave her side. But soon he acclimated to his new life and to walks around town, which also carved out an acceptable excuse for Elizabeth to start going out into the world.

The dog, Elizabeth soon reported to Mary, grew so spoiled that he would turn up his nose at any “unbuttered bread” and developed a strong penchant for muffins. Elizabeth’s father even developed a habit of sneaking him cake. Within a month, Flush was having two baths per week, and at least one full brushing each day. In a poem she wrote about him in 1843, titled “To Flush, my Dog,” Elizabeth called him her “loving friend” and described how he would rest beside her bed while she was sick, and would hasten to comfort her if she cried. Flush provided Elizabeth with a loving relationship that was her own to foster and protect.

All the while, the phenomenon of dog stealing grew so problematic that the Metropolitan Police formed a committee to address it in 1844. The London dognapping ring capitalized on the rising classes’ expendable income and ballooning dog ownership. The Fancy, as some called it, was an efficient and tightly run network of thieves whose criminal activities were superintended by associated middlemen — a feature that protected the identities of the thieves, and protected the roles of those middlemen as likely conspirators. Most of the stolen dogs were small breeds considered “ladies’ dogs,” such as poodles, spaniels, and terriers. The dog-stealing operations had hubs in working class neighborhoods where London’s wealthy rarely entered.

A few years earlier, journalist Henry Mayhew estimated that there were as many as 141 individual dog-stealers operating in London, with 45 of them considering dognapping to be their main profession. Around the same time, one estimate put the industry’s income as 4,000 pounds, which would be approximately (US) $600,000 today. It was, in the words of Police Inspector Joseph Shackell, “a regular system of plunder,” but one very difficult to trace, leaving behind mostly circumstantial evidence.

Well-off owners such as Elizabeth who were inseparable from their pets would be shadowed through the city by the dog thieves, followed home, and stalked for an opportunity to nab their quarries. To attract dogs, thieves usually used smelly pieces of meat, often fried and treated with a sedative, such as opium. Occasionally female dogs in heat were used as bait. Once a dog was taken, the family would be contacted and given an opportunity to pay. A famous professional dognapper, Chelsea George, after bagging a dog, would make posters claiming that a dog had been found. He’d keep a flyer and sell the dog to a “dog dealer,” showing the flyer as proof that the dog was missing. Then the dealer would announce the discovery of the dog, collecting the reward from the owners.

Flush was nabbed for the first time in September 1843, seeming to vanish with a single yelp while on a walk. The Barretts plastered signs around the neighborhood, and Elizabeth’s brothers spoke to a gunmaker named William Bishop who tipped them off about a Mr. Taylor, a shoemaker, “one of the three great agents of the [dog-stealers].” Alfred, one of the Barrett siblings, was a lively young man, fourteen years younger than Elizabeth, and nicknamed “Daisy” by his siblings. He called on Taylor, who told him the Barretts had already doomed their dog.

Alfred asked why. Taylor spat: “Precisely because of your handbills. You have been so ill-advised as to make the affair known; the police are on the alert: and in all such cases, the custom of the Fancy is to send off the dogs in question instantly, either abroad or into the country. It is a fatal step, to make a loss known to the police.” A journalist for New Sporting Magazine wrote that dogs that were advertised for or reported as stolen were immediately “destroyed,” then buried or thrown into the river. Alfred begged Taylor to help. Taylor eventually agreed to inquire about Flush. “If he is still in London and in the hands of the Fancy, you shall come with me and receive him at another place.”

The Barretts had just sat down to dinner that night when Taylor came to their door. “Give me five pounds, and come in a cab with me to the place,” he instructed Alfred. Elizabeth had convinced Alfred to agree to whatever price Taylor named. Alfred went to the dining room to entreat their father for money. But “at the proposition of ‘five pounds’,” Elizabeth later wrote, her father “arose in indignation, got up from dinner to thunder thunderbolts against the agent of the Fancy, told him that he was a rascal, that he (Papa) would give not a farthing more than two sovereigns unless he gave himself (the agent) into the charge of the police; & that as to the dog, it & he might go!”

Turning to leave, Taylor smiled at everyone. “You’ll never see your dog again,” he said.

*

Read the rest of the story at Truly*Adventurous.

View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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