I went to university with Jacob. While I got the hell out after three years with a degree in sociology under my belt, he stayed on, obtaining not only a masters in history but also a PhD in an attempt to completely maximise his unemployability come graduation.
Jacob’s the kind of man who doesn’t just read dictionaries for fun; he reads obscure 19th century dictionaries for fun. Tomes like Captain Grose’s Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit And Pickpocket Eloquence.
And that’s where he found it.
“Have you ever heard of the Wolf In The Breast?”
For a second it almost sounded like Jacob had asked me about the ‘Wolf In The Breast’.
“The Wolf in The Breast.” He repeated, handing me the second hand book. “I thought it might be right up your alley.”
WOLF IN THE BREAST: An extraordinary mode of imposition, sometimes practised in the country by strolling women, who have the knack of counterfeiting extreme pain, pretending to have a small animal called a wolf in their breasts, which is continually gnawing them.
According to this book, buxom Victorian women would take to the streets and convince passing gentleman that a small lupine creature had bored its way into their chest and was eating the woman from the inside out like some like of 19th Century xenomorph.
A little research shows that Captain Grose was, perhaps, a little hyperbolic in his definition of the swindle. Most practitioners of the ‘Wolf in the Breast’ would speak of chest pains, clutching at their bosoms until the men would give them money more out of embarrassment than mercy.
‘Do you think you’d fall for it?’
I tried to imagine myself a 19th century gentlemen, riding down a country road, coming across a hysterical woman. I ask her what’s wrong and she, trembling, takes my hand and lays it across her chest. She’d ask me if felt it, the creature within her ample bosom.
As a modern man I’m certain I would not. But pluck me from my time and send me to age of superstition and sexual repression, who knows what I’d do.
The 19th century was full of similarly colourful swindles with equally vibrant lexicon. Flipping through the pages of Grose’s, Jacob and I find dozens more such frauds.
In the ‘Fawney Rig’ the swindler would pretend to find a valuable ring in the street and sell it to nearby witness for ten times it’s real value, a scam that is still played out on the streets of Paris. In ‘Sweating’, layers off a gold can be stripped from a coin by soaking it in nitro-hydrochloric acid.
There’s even the ‘Bene Faker of Gybes’, a counterfeiter who produces fake leave passes for sailors. In Grose’s hand, a beggar is rebranded a Clapperdogeon.
It’s a trend that continued on in to the 20th century. In 1940, David Maurer wrote ‘The Big Con’ documenting the lexicon of the con artists of the time. That book was turned into The Sting and was responsible for the popularity of phrases like ‘Inside Man’, ‘Roper’ and ‘Short Cons’.
Wonderful words, sure, but nothing compared to the Wolf in the Breast.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.