Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn

VII. Beggars, Tramps, and Thieves

331. Languages and Signs.—The vagabonds included in the above designations occasionally formed themselves into associations which were not strictly secret, but held together by secret languages and signs, adopted for one common object, as is now the case with the Jesuits, and as was done by the Garduna, the bands of Schinderhannes at the end of the last and beginning of the present century, and is done by the more modern brigands and thieves. In the Middle Ages France was infested with a band of itinerant beggars, usually known as Truands, whence our word truant. They had their king, a fixed code of laws, and a language peculiar to themselves, constructed probably by some of the debauched youths who, abandoning their scholastic studies, associated with the vagabonds. This language in course of time came to be called argot, which may be derived from the Greek [word for] an idler, lazy fellow, and the truands were then known as argotiers. Cartouche (born 1693, broken on the wheel in 1721), the famous robber, also formed his band into an association, having a language and laws of their own. In England, beggars' and thieves' slang is known as cant or pedlars' French; tinkers have a language peculiar to themselves, but extensively understood and spoken by most of the confirmed tramps and vagabonds. It is known as "shelta," is pure Celtic, but quite separate from other tongues. In French slang is known as argot, in German as rothwalsch, in Italian as gergo, in Spanish as Germania, in Bohemian as Hantyrka, in Portuguese as calao. Circassian thieves and robbers make use of a secret language known as schakopse and forschipse. Among the Asiatics there is a cant language known as balaibalan, formed chiefly of corrupted Arabic, Persian, and Turkish words.

The vagabonds who hang about the Hottentots use a jargon which is called Cuze-cat. The vulgar dialect of the Levant is known as Lingua franca, or bastard Italian, mixed with modern Greek, German, Spanish, Turkish, and French. European cant consists largely of Hebrew and gipsy slang, together with terms borrowed—and generally distorted and perverted from their true meaning—from the languages of the countries to which the speakers belong. Cant words usually turn on metaphor and fanciful allusions, and frequently display great ingenuity, wit, nay, sometimes poetical fancy, as when French thieves call the iron bars in their cell windows a "harp." Certain forms of superstition are common to the vagabonds of the most distant countries, and many of these superstitious beliefs are as curious as they are revolting. Thieves and beggars recognise one another by certain signs, such as placing the fingers so as to form the letter C of the deaf and dumb alphabet, shutting one eye and squinting with the other when looking at a supposed colleague. Tramps on begging expeditions inform their brethren of the results of visits paid to houses or villages by signs chalked on walls or doorposts, or cut in trees, or traced on the snow. The begging fraternity have their patron saint, St. Martin, born about 316, who was at first a soldier, but afterwards became a priest. When a soldier, he passed a beggar standing, with scarcely any clothing on, at the gate of Amiens Cathedral. He immediately drew his sword, and cutting his mantle asunder in the middle, gave one half to the beggar; hence his becoming their patron saint. But such beggars as are, or pass themselves off for, cripples acknowledge St. Giles as their patron.

The fraternity of thieves individually are not fraternal in their intercourse; they prefer working alone, or, at most, in couples. But they have their secret language and signs, of course varying in every country, though foreign terms are occasionally introduced; thus argot, the French for slang, is a term by which London thieves designate their own secret language. Some of their expressions are curious: "cat and kitten stealing" is stealing quart and pint pots; "chariot buzzing," picking pockets in an omnibus; a "diver" is a pickpocket. Why do they call the treadmill "cockchafer"? Whence comes "flummuxed"—sure of a month in prison?

332. Italian and German Robbers.—Among associated bands of robbers, the brigands of Italy are best known. The band led by Schinderhannes, mentioned above, existed at the end of the last and beginning of this century on both banks of the Upper Ehine; it was broken up by the execution of their leader and eighteen of his companions in November 1803. A very large band of robbers about the same date infested the neighbourhood of Aix-la-Chapelle, and were known as the band of Mersen, a small village near Eupen, which they made their headquarters. But they were universally spoken of by the nickname of the goat-riders, because the superstition of the time supposed them to ride on goats—devils in disguise—when engaged in some robbing expedition. Their secret chief was one Kirchhof, surgeon and steward of the monastery of Herzogenrode (?), who about the year 1804 was arrested, tried in the monastery, and died under torture. Of the band, about the same time, fourteen were hanged in Germany and Holland, eighteen died by the guillotine in France; the rest escaped and joined other bands, or were separately captured afterwards. Kirchhof bound his followers by a formal contract to keep their secret firmly, and rather to take it into the grave with them than reveal it from cowardice or treachery. Whoso did so was to be killed with all imaginable tortures. And this was no idle threat. Christopher Pfister, for instance, was, for such alleged betrayal, attacked by his comrade Hannickel, who smashed all his bones, cut off his nose and upper lip, and poured dung- water over him to increase his sufferings. Many similar and even more cruel acts of vengeance might be mentioned. But what else could be expected from such outcasts of society, when educated judges vied with one another in inflicting the most hideous tortures on their prisoners. In 1719 a sacrilegious Jewish band of robbers were, as the criminal Judge Schulin reports, comfortably tortured by each man being tied down on a bench adjoining a stove kept red-hot, compelled to eat excessively salt fish, so as to suffer the greatest torments of thirst, and if he fell asleep, he was to be prodded with pointed iron rods. "This is a good way of getting at the truth", says the judge complacently.