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9 Tips for Avoiding London Pickpockets from a 19th Century Guide

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London streets in the early 19th century could be dangerous places. In The London Guide and Stranger’s Safeguard Against the Cheats, Swindlers, and Pickpockets that Abound within the Bills of Mortality, Forming a Picture of London as Regards Active Life, published in 1819, “a gentleman who has made the police of the metropolis an object of enquiry twenty-two years” attempted to help strangers to the city avoid falling victim to all manners of crime—including diving, otherwise known as pickpocketing. “This way of obtaining the property of others, is certainly the most genteel, profitable, and alluring of any,” the author notes, “because it requires some degree of ingenuity to exercise it properly, and a great deal of address and firmness to get off without detection. Professors of the art are admired for their dexterity, by every one but the immediate losers.” Here were some of the author’s tips that would help newcomers to the city keep their wallets—some of which we should heed even today.

1. Don’t act like a tourist.

Fitting in was the name of the game in London. Newcomers, according to the author, were

easily recognized by their provincial gait, dialect, and cut of the cloth ; by the interest they take in the commonest occurrences imaginable, and the broad stare of wonder at every thing they see. … It would be surprising indeed, if the knavish part of the community did not endeavour to profit by the want of knowledge apparent in Johnny Newcome, or Johnny Raw, as such men are aptly called. He is followed for miles, sometimes for an entire day or more, by a string of pickpockets or highwaymen, until they can find an opportunity to do him.

The solution, then, was to “appear like a thorough bred cockney in your gait and manner, by placing the hat a little awry, and with an unconcerned stare, penetrating the wily countenances of the rogues; you attain one more chance, at least, of escaping the snares that are always laid to entrap the countryman or new comer.”

2. Walk the right way.

According to the author, walking in London wasn’t a simple thing; in fact, it was a system, with “every one taking the right hand of another, whereby confusion is avoided ; thus, if you walk from St. Paul's towards the Royal Exchange, you will be entitled to the wall of those you meet all the way ; whereas, if you cross over, you must walk upon the kirb stone.”

Walking in a “contrary mode” was sure to attract the attention of pickpockets, who would “hustle such an one against his accomplice in the day time ; the stranger will be irritated no doubt, and express his indignation, which will be the better for the rogues : in a half-minute's altercation, they get the best of the jaw, because the loudest and most impudent; —a spar or two ensues, in which he who pretends to support the stranger to the ways of town, draws him of his pocket-book, or his watch, if he has either, a fact they take care to ascertain beforehand.”

To avoid this unfortunate fate, the author stresses the “necessity of cautiously, yet energetically, pursuing his way, without dread or doubt ; since it is better to walk a little out of the right path, than run the risk of being directed wrong."

3. Avoid crowds.

Hanging out in places where many people were gathered increased a person’s chances of losing his wallet—especially if there’s some kind of kerfuffle. “If a horse tumbles, or a woman faints, away [pickpockets] run to encrease the crowd, and the confusion ; they create a bustle, and try over the pockets of unsuspecting persons,” the author says. He advises "steer[ing] clear of assemblages in the streets, by going round them." If that's unavoidable, "pressing rather rudely through them" is the key: "You become the assailant, if I may be allowed the term, and add one more chance of steering clear of danger.”

4. Don’t ask for directions in the street.

Pickpockets would target “silly persons” who “stand gaping at the names of streets, as if in doubt which road to take,” and asked people on the street which way they should go. The thieves would hustle the hick to an alleyway or some other ideal area to either “neatly” pick his pockets or beat him up and take his money. The author advises “that no one should ask his way in the street, but in decent shops."

If a man couldn't find a decent shop, he was advised to ask someone carrying a small parcel; this showed that "they are shopmen or porters," the writer says, and thus could be trusted. "Thieves do not go about encumbered in that manner, at least not hitherto ; but they might possibly adopt it hereafter, from this hint.” Oops.

5. Be on the lookout for shabby clothing.

Though “thieves frequently go well-dressed, especially pickpockets,” a close observer “may always discover in the dress of the genteel pickpocket, some want of unity, or shabby article, as a rusty hat, or the boot-tops in bad order, or a dirty shirt and cravat.”

6. Men: Avoid ladies out at night...

“Women who walk the streets at night, are invariably pickpockets,” the author advises. “I see no reason to set down those who by day entice the men into their dens, any thing better. Such as stand at the corners of lanes and courts, inviting men to stop, are clumsy hands, but contrive to pick up a good harvest occasionally : they rob indiscriminately every article of dress, knocking off the silly (perhaps drunken) man's hat in the street, with which the accomplice runs away ; at other times they will take off his cravat, while bestowing upon him their salacious caresses. A broach, or shirt-pin, is constantly made good prize of, but should the deluded man enter one of pestiferous abodes, which are so numerous in this metropolis, the loss of all he has is inevitable.”

7. ... And Beware of women asking silly questions.

Just in case that first tip wasn't enough, the author really wanted to drive home the point that ladies could be pickpockets, too, so the best course of action was just to breeze by them. “It is recommended over again not to be stopped in the streets, even by a handsome woman." It was for a man's own good. Lady pickpockets possessed, according to the author,

great nimbleness of fingers, and convey away your property while talking you into a silly passion for their persons. Although it seems brutish to rebuke a woman who should press against you in a crowd, in a church, at an auction, or in the streets, yet this should be done. … Such women amuse you with asking silly questions ; perhaps complain to you of some man who is pressing her, while one of her accomplices rifles your pockets in the mean time, from behind another accomplice, who keeps his arms up so as to prevent yours from defending your property.

A woman might even grab a man's arm, "as if for protection," but what she was really doing was keeping him from using it. Goodbye, wallet!

8. Ladies, don't window shop.

Or if they did, they should at least have the good sense to not get so close to the windows that a thief could get under their skirts. “Ladies who press to the windows of drapers shops are fine game,” the author says. “When they wore pockets with hoops, scarcely any operation in all the light finger trade was easier than the dive, or putting in one's hand ; afterwards, on the disuse of the hoop, the thing was performed by a short fellow, or boy, getting between the legs of the accomplice (a tall one) and spreading the petticoats, cut off the pockets, with a knife attached to the hand.”

9. And If you do get your pockets picked, don’t go after the thief.

“Should a pickpocket take to his heels, and be easily distinguished from his followers, it is not always advisable to stop him,” the author cautions. After all, “some are armed with knives, which they would not hesitate to use in a scuffle.”

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On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]


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