The Life of BARBARA SPENCER, Coiner, etc.

James Tadd Adcox

Before we proceed to mention the particulars that have come to our hands concerning this unhappy criminal, it may not be amiss to take notice of the rigour with which all civilised nations have treated offenders in this kind, by considering the crime itself as a species of treason. Early travelers tell us that the Bushmen conceived counterfeiters to be immortal, and as impalpable as a shadow, and that they were much afraid of the return of deceased forgers to haunt them. The reason of which arises thus. As money is the universal standard or measure of the value of any commodity, so the value of money is always regulated, in respect of its weight, fineness, etc., by the public authority of the State; high officials of which were accustomed to pray to departed criminals not to molest them, but to stay away in quiet. They also employed exorcisers to lay these ill omened ghosts.

Counterfeiters themselves would seem to hold a confused medley of notions as to another life. In different persons among them were found, in regard to this subject, superstitious terror, blank indifference, positive unbelief.

To counterfeit is in some degree to assume the supreme authority, inasmuch as it is giving a currency to another less valuable piece of metal than that made current by the State. Meiners relates of some counterfeiters indigenous to the Guinea coast that their fear of ghosts and their childish credulity reached such a pitch that they threw their dead into the ocean, in the expectation of thus drowning soul and body together. Superstitions as gross and lawless still have full sway. The old laws were very severe on this head, and carried their care of preventing coining so far as to damage the public in other respects, as by forbidding the importation of bullion, and punishing with death attempts made to discover the Philosopher's Stone. Every stray suggestion of the mind was interpreted, with unquestioning credence, as a visit from the dead, a whisper from a departed soul. If a man awoke with pains in his bones or muscles, it was because his spirit had wandered abroad in the night and been exchanged for some other spirit. On certain occasions the whole community would start up at midnight, with clubs, torches, and hideous yells, to drive the evil spirits out of the village. For as the trade of the nation increased, frauds in the coin became of worse consequence and not only so, but were more practised.

Clipping and coining grew so notorious and had so great and fatal influences on the public trade of the nation, that Parliament found it necessary to enter upon that great work of a recoinage and in order to prevent all future inconveniences of a like nature, they at the same time enacted that not only counterfeiting, chipping, scaling, lightening, or otherwise debasing the current specie of this realm, should be deemed and punished as high treason, but they included also under the same charge and punishment the having any press, engine, tool, or implement proper for coining, the mending, buying, selling, etc., of them. Many executions and many more trials happened on these laws being first made. They bury with the deceased clothing, ornaments, utensils.

The strict proceedings (in the days of King William, especially) against all, without distinction, who offended in that way, so effectually crushed them that a coiner nowadays is looked upon as an extraordinary criminal, though the Law still continues to take its course, whenever they are convicted, the Crown being seldom or never induced to grant a pardon.

Regarding this poor woman, Barbara Spencer: “I was the daughter of mean parents and was left very young to the care of my mother, who lived in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. This old creature, as is common enough with ordinary people, indulged me so much in all my humours, and suffered me to take so uncontrolled a liberty that all my life-time after, I was incapable of bearing restraint, but, on every slight contradiction flew out into the wildest excesses of passion and fury. When but a child, on a very slight difference at home, I must needs go out ‘prentice, and was accordingly put to a mantua-maker, who having known me throughout my infancy, fatally treated me with the same indulgence and tenderness. I continued with her about two years, and then, on a few warm words happening, went away from so good a mistress, and came home again to my mother, who by that time had set up a brandy shop.

“On my return, a maid had to be taken, for I thought myself much too good to do the work of the house. The servant had not been there long before we quarrelled, my mother taking the wench's part. Away I went, but matters being made up and my old mother keeping an alehouse in Cripplegate parish, I once more went to live with her. This reconciliation lasted longer, but was more fatal to myself than our late falling out.

“One day I took into my head to go and see the prisoners die at Tyburn, but my mother meeting me at the door, told me that there was too much business for me to do at home, and that I should not go. Harsh words ensuing on this, my mother at last struck me, and said I should be her death. However, I went, and the man who attended me to Tyburn, brought me afterwards to a house by St. Giles's Pound where after relating the difference between myself and my mother, I vowed I would never return any more home. In this resolution I was encouraged, and soon after was acquainted with the secrets of the house, and appointed to go out with their false money, in order to vend, or utter it; which trade, as it freed me from all restraint, I was at first mightily pleased with. But being soon discovered I was committed to Newgate, convicted and fined.

“About this time I first became acquainted with Mrs. Miles, who afterwards betrayed me; though upon this occasion she was so kind as to advance some money for me. On the affair for which I was sentenced to die, the evidence could have hardly done without Miles's assistance, which so enraged me that even to the seeming instant of death, I could hardly prevail with myself to forgive her, and never spoke of her without a kind of heat, very improper and unbecoming in a person in my distressful state.

“The punishment ordained by our laws for treasons committed by women, whether high or petty, is burning alive. This, though pronounced upon me by the judge, I could never be brought to believe would be executed. While I lay under sentence, I endeavoured to put off the thoughts of the fatal day as much as I could, always asserting that I thought my crime no sin. It seems my mother died at Tyburn before midsummer, and I would often say that I little thought I should so soon follow her, when I attended her to death, averring also that my mother suffered unjustly. As for myself, my temper was exceedingly unhappy, and as it had made me uneasy and miserable all my life, so near my death it occasioned me to be impatient, and to behave inconsistently. For which, sometimes, I would apologise, by saying that though it was not in my power to put on grave looks, yet my heart was as truly affected as theirs who gave greater outward signs of contrition; a manner of speaking usually taken up by those who would be thought to think seriously in the midst of outward gaiety. He only can judge who is acquainted with the secrets of all hearts and who, as He is not to be deceived, so His penetration is utterly unknown to us, who are confined to appearances and the exterior marks of things.

“I lost all my boldness at the near approach of death and was excessively surprised and concerned at the apprehension of the flames. When I went out to die, I owned my crime more fully than I had ever done. I confessed I had learnt to coin of a man and woman who had now left off and lived very honestly, wherefore I said I would not discover them. At the very slake I complained how hard I found it to forgive Miles, who had been my accomplice and then betrayed me; though I saw faggots and brushes ready to be lighted and to consume me, yet I would not receive life at the expense of another’s blood. There were great numbers of London who followed the same trade of coining; I earnestly wished they might take warning by my death. At the instant of suffering, I found that I reassumed all my resolution, for which I had, indeed, sufficient occasion, when to the lamentable pain of burning was added the usual noise and clamour of the mob, who also threw stones and dirt, which beat me down and wounded me. However, my heart filled with a sort of forgiveness, and love; and in that moment a figure appeared, and pulled me from the flames. As we ran I looked back, and saw my body—what appeared to be my body—consigned to fire; but the gentle hand of my rescuer turned my face once more forward, and told me that we had no time, now, to worry over what must be left behind.”

James Tadd Adcox is the editor-in-chief of Artifice Magazine. He has work published or forthcoming in Barrelhouse, PANK, Requited, and Quick Fiction, among other places. He lives in Chicago