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Convict Voyages: Jenny Diver, Henry Justice, and the Influence of Money

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

When dealing with bureaucratic institutions in the eighteenth century, money artfully placed in the right hands could often buy special privileges, and convict transportation was no exception. The sale of convicts once they arrived in America helped convict merchants and captains recover the costs of transporting them (and to realize a profit). However, convicts who could pay up front what they would normally command at auction in the colonies were free to pursue their own interests once they landed. What did the merchants or captains care how they received compensation for transporting them?

Convicts with desirable skills, such as carpentry, would command higher prices in America and ironically would face a greater challenge in purchasing their freedom before arrival. The great majority of convicts who were transported, though, were in no position to pay for their voyage, since financial destitution was usually what put them in such a position in the first place. The few who could pay were the exceptions.

Mary Young, alias Jenny Diver

Mary Young, alias Mary Webb, alias Jane Webb, alias Jenny Diver serves as one example of a transported convict whose wealth purchased special favors during her trip to America. She was born in Ireland and came to London with the help of a suitor, who stole a great deal of money and a gold watch from his master to fund their trip. Unfortunately for him, the two were caught shortly after arriving in Liverpool. He did not reveal Young’s role in the affair while in custody, so she was allowed to continue on to London. He, however, was returned to Ireland and sentenced to death for his crime, but was later reprieved for transportation to America.

Young failed to earn a living performing needlework in London, so her lodger introduced her to a gang of thieves and suggested she join them. Young was a quick learner, and she proved so dexterous and proficient in the art of picking pockets that she earned the nickname “Jenny Diver,” after the character in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

Young rose quickly in the gang and became their leader in coming up with clever ways to empty the purses and pockets of unsuspecting victims. One of her more elaborate schemes was to show up at church donning a fake set of arms folded piously over a similarly fictitious pregnant belly. Her hands, which were hidden away in the recesses of her disguise, were then free to steal money and watches from those who sat down next to her, unaware that this seemingly devout woman was emptying their pockets. Young was not the first to employ this method of theft, but her reputation solidified her association with it.

Young was caught shoplifting in 1728 and was sentenced to transportation under the name of Mary Webb. During her four-month stay in Newgate Prison waiting for her sentence to be carried out, she became a Fence, i.e., a receiver of stolen goods, building upon the money her gang put aside from each theft to help members who might be caught purchase privileges in prison. By the time she was put on board the convict ship, she had acquired a wagon-load of goods. These circumstances bought her special treatment aboard the ship, where she enjoyed freedom and ease throughout the voyage.

Young was dropped off at the first port they came to in Virginia along with her goods, which she sold for a great profit. She lived for a short time in America in high style, but soon realized that the opportunities for plying her trade were fewer than in England. She ingratiated herself to a young gentleman who secured passage for both of them back to London. When the ship arrived at Gravesend, Young robbed the young man of everything she could get her hands on and executed a swift getaway.

Henry Justice

One blatant case of purchased privilege relating to convict transportation was reported in both The Gentleman’s Magazine in England and The Virginia Gazette in America in 1736. Henry Justice, “a Gentleman of Fortune, and a Barrister at Law”–what other profession could he have had with such a name?–was accused of stealing a large number of books from the Trinity College Library in Cambridge and other university libraries in London and Middlesex. He then sold the books both in England and overseas.

Justice pleaded not guilty, arguing that he was a student at the university and was entitled to the use of the books, but this claim proved false. The Librarian of the Trinity College Library confirmed that the books belonged to the university, and he showed that small tracts found in Justice’s apartment were cut out of larger volumes that remained back in the library. Justice was found guilty, and the Deputy Recorder sentenced him to transportation, saying that his offence “was greatly aggravated by his Education, his Fortune, and the Profession he was of, and his Guilt much greater than it would have been, if he had been an ignorant or an indigent Person.”

Several days after Justice received sentencing, one hundred convicts were paraded early in the morning from Newgate Prison to Blackfriars to board the Patapsco Merchant, a convict ship, but Henry Justice and several other convicts found guilty of robbery were not among them. William Wreathock, an attorney; James Ruffet, alias Ruf-head, a butcher; George Bird, a bailiff; and George Vaughan, otherwise known as Lord Vaughan instead rode in two hackney coaches down to the shore to board the boat. Henry Justice traveled in a separate hackney coach and enjoyed the company of none other than Jonathan Forward, the official Contractor for Transports to the Government and owner of the Patapsco Merchant.

Whereas the common felons were confined in the hold of the Patapsco Merchant throughout the voyage and sold as soon as they reached shore, these five men paid for the privilege of enjoying the captain’s cabin and were presumably given their freedom as soon as they landed. The Virginia Gazette commented, “Thus, by the wholesome Laws of this Country, a Criminal who has Money (which Circumstance, in all other Countries, would aggravate his Guilt, and enhance the Severity of his Punishment,) may blunt the Edge of Justice, and make That his Happiness which the Law designs as his Punishment.”


After her return from transportation, Mary Young was transported once more in June, 1738, this time under the name of Jane Webb. On December 30, 1738, the Newcastle Courant reported that Jane Webb, alias Jenny Diver, William Wreathock, George Bird, and George Vaughan had all returned from transportation, well before their sentences had run out. Both Bird and Vaughan were soon caught and found guilty of returning early from transportation. Bird was sentenced to transportation for life, and Vaughan was sentenced to transportation for 14 years. Wreathock never appeared again at the Old Bailey, so he may have remained at large for the duration of his life.

Young went undetected for more than two years until she was caught once again and convicted of robbery. This time, she was sentenced to death and was executed on Wednesday, March 18, 1741.

Resources for this article:

  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1992.
  • —. The King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 1997.
  • “From The ‘Political State,’ For the Month of June.” The Virginia Gazette (Parks), Friday, November 19 to Friday, November 26, 1736, pp. 1-3.
  • The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1736, p. 290.
  • Guthrie, James. The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words, of the Malefactors, Who Were Executed at Tyburn on Wednesday the 18th of March, 1740. London: John Applebee, 1740.
  • “Mary Young, alias Jenny Diver, and Elizabeth Davis, alias Catherine Huggins, for a Robbery, Jan. 17, 1741.” Select Trials for Murders, Robberies, Rapes, Sodomy, Coining, Frauds, and Other Offenses. 2nd ed. Vol. IV. London, 1742.
  • Morgan, Gwenda and Peter Rushton. “Print Culture, Crime and Transportation in the Criminal Atlantic.” Continuity and Change 22.1 (2007): 49-71.
  • “Particular Account of the Extraordinary Exploits of Mary Young, alias Jenny Diver, Who Was Executed for Privately Stealing.” The Malefactor’s Register. Vol. II. London, 1779.
  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.
  • The Trials of William Wreathock, Peter Chamberlain, James Ruffet, alias Ruf-Head, George Bird, the Younger, and Gilbert Campbell, for a Robbery.” The Tyburn Chronicle. Vol. III. London, 1768.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

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Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

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