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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Real-Life Criminal Who Inspired Charles Dickens

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was first published as a series of monthly installments from February 1837 to April 1839. Building on the success of his 1836 debut novel, The Pickwick Papers, the book soon cemented Dickens’ reputation as a writer, and remains one of his most popular works today. 

While its popularity no doubt lies in Oliver Twist's intricate, Dickensian plotline with its dramatic set pieces, the book also contains a few of the most memorable of Dickens’ 989 characters—from the pompous beadle Mr. Bumble to Jack “The Artful Dodger” Dawkins to Bill Sykes and his tragic sweetheart Nancy. 

Then there's Fagin: the leader of Oliver's gang of pickpockets. Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin, an elderly Jewish man, was hugely controversial at the time and led to him facing accusations of anti-Semitism (midway through serialization, he opted to remove practically all references to Fagin’s faith after receiving a letter of complaint from a Jewish friend). But like many of Dickens’ most colorful characters, Fagin is believed to have been based on an equally colorful real-life character named Isaac “Ikey” Solomon—whose life story is almost as dramatic as one of Dickens’ own plotlines. 

Solomon was born in the Houndsditch area of East London sometime around 1787. Not much is known about his childhood, but it’s believed that his father Henry introduced him to a life of crime at an early age. Solomon soon followed in his dad's footsteps as a “fence,” a receiver and dealer in stolen goods. By the early 1800s, Solomon was in charge of his own jewelry store near London’s Petticoat Lane, which he used as a cover for buying and selling his ill-gotten wares.

His first brush with the law came in 1810, when he and an accomplice, Joel Joseph, were arrested for stealing a man’s wallet outside the Houses of Parliament. The pair fled the scene (with Joseph reportedly stuffing £37 of bank notes down his shirt to avoid being found with evidence), and were eventually apprehended and arrested. At just 21, Solomon was found guilty of theft at London’s Old Bailey court, and sentenced to be transported to a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania). 

Solomon’s sentence, however, was never carried out in full. Instead, he was merely held on a prison ship that never left British waters, and four years later managed to escape (or, more likely, was released by mistake). By 1818, he was back in London.

Solomon continued to work as a fence until 1827, when he was found guilty of theft and receiving, with six watches, 17 shawls, 3½ yards of woolen cloth and 12 pieces of valentia (an expensive wool and silk fabric) recorded among the goods involved. He was sent to London’s notorious Newgate prison—but Solomon had one more trick up his sleeve.

After a court hearing, Solomon was bundled into the back of a hackney carriage by his prison guards. Unbeknownst to them, the coach was being driven by Solomon’s father-in-law. On its way back to Newgate, the carriage unexpectedly took a detour back towards Petticoat Lane, where the guards were attacked and the keys to Solomon’s restraints were stolen. Again, he managed to escape. 

Knowing that he couldn’t possibly stay in England, Solomon fled the country. He headed first to Denmark, before sailing to the United States and landing in New York in August 1827. Back in England though, his dramatic escape had prompted the police to turn their attention to his wife, Ann. She was arrested, charged with receiving stolen goods, and sentenced to be transported to Australia along with her four youngest children, all under the age of ten. Ann arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1828. The two eldest Solomon children, John (20) and Moses (19), with no clue to their father’s whereabouts, voluntarily joined their mother and siblings the following year.

Back in America, Solomon heard the news through the press, and resolved to join Ann and his children. Traveling under the alias “Slowman,” he sailed south from New York to Rio, then on from Brazil around the tip of South America and across the Pacific to Australia. He arrived in Hobart on October 6, 1828, where he was quickly recognized by the local Lieutenant-Governor, Sir George Arthur, and by many of his old customers and accomplices who had all since been sentenced to transportation.

Since no crime had been committed on Australian soil, however, Sir George was powerless to arrest Solomon without a separate arrest warrant from London. A request was sent, but it took another year for the warrant to arrive—during which time Solomon opened a tobacco shop on Elizabeth Street in Hobart, and paid a £1000 bond to guarantee Ann’s release from the penal colony so that she could join him at home. 

The warrant for Solomon’s arrest finally arrived in November 1829, and he was immediately brought before a court in Hobart. To Sir George’s frustration, though, both a technicality in the wording of the warrant and Solomon’s use of the habeas corpus writ meant that the court had little option but to released him on bail. By now, Sir George had had enough. At last, he drew up his own arrest warrant and sent Solomon back to London. In June 1830, he was finally put on trial at the Old Bailey

Due to Solomon’s earlier brushes with the law and his dramatic escape three years earlier, his case attracted considerable attention from the press, which is no doubt how it came to Dickens’ attention (who used reports of Solomon’s court hearing as the basis for Fagin’s trial in Oliver Twist). Facing eight counts of receiving stolen goods—as well as “feloniously and burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Richard Groncock and another”—Solomon was found guilty of two, and sentenced to 14 years transportation. In November 1831, he arrived back in Hobart. 

Solomon spent just four years of this new sentence actually in prison. In 1835, he was released on a “ticket-of-leave” basis, which insisted that he live at least 20 miles away from Hobart. After briefly reuniting with his family at their new home in nearby New Norfolk, all the years of upheaval soon took their toll and the Solomons began to drift apart. The family’s two eldest sons had by now moved away, and violent arguments between Ann and Isaac saw her briefly sent to the Female House of Correction. After her release in September 1835, she and Isaac lived apart, with most of the children reportedly siding with Ann.

Solomon was finally granted a conditional pardon in 1840, and received his official “Certificate of Freedom” in 1844. He died six years later, on September 3, 1850. The reputation he built during his lifetime was impressive (if not morally defensible) in its own right, but with Oliver Twist, his legacy has grown even larger—into one of English literature’s most memorable characters.

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12 Smart Book Ideas for Everyone in Your Life
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Books make the perfect gift: they're durable, transportable, and they promise some (hopefully) quality alone time. But what do you get the aunt who loves mystery novels if you're not familiar with the genre? Or the nephew who devours travelogues and goes backpacking around the world? Look no further—we've got them covered, plus 10 other very specific categories.

1. FOR THE VINTAGE COOKBOOK LOVER: LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THE RECIPES: THE LIFE, ART, AND COOKBOOK OF CIPE PINELES, EDITED BY SARAH RICH,‎ WENDY MACNAUGHTON, DEBBIE MILLMAN, AND MARIA POPOVA; $27

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Author Sarah Rich and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton fell in love with the work of Cipe Pineles, the first female art director at Condé Nast, after discovering her recipes at a San Francisco antiquarian book fair. Filled with vibrantly colored illustrations, Leave Me Alone With the Recipes shows the joyful spirit and homespun flair that made Pineles’s work so influential. Alongside the recipes, the book includes contributions from luminaries in the worlds of food and illustration, including artist Maira Kalman and Maria Popova of Brain Pickings renown.

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2. FOR ANYONE HAVING SURGERY THIS YEAR: THE BUTCHERING ART: JOSEPH LISTER’S QUEST TO TRANSFORM THE GRISLY WORLD OF VICTORIAN MEDICINE BY LINDSEY FITZHARRIS; $27

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Back in the bad old days of medicine, a consistently blood-soaked apron was a sign of pride. Surgeons rarely washed them—or their hands, or their operating tools. Joseph Lister, the somewhat reluctant hero of Lindsey Fitzharris's new book The Butchering Art, was the genius who convinced the medical world that germs were not only real but a major cause of mortality in their hospitals. With an eye for vivid details and the colorful characters of 19th century medicine, Fitzharris has crafted a book that will make you thank Lister for his foresight—and make you glad you weren't alive back then.

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What constitutes a "family"? In his latest book, A.J. Jacobs (famed for lifestyle experiments like trying to live an entire year in accordance with the Bible) delves into the world of genetics and genealogy to try and orchestrate the world's largest family reunion. With his trademark humor and insight, he ends up exploring the interconnectedness of all of humankind.

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4. FOR THE SOCIALLY AWARE YOUNG ADULT: THE HATE U GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS; $18

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Already caught between the conflicting worlds of the poor neighborhood where she lives and her fancy prep school, 16-year-old Starr Carter finds herself in the middle of a tragedy when her childhood best friend is shot and killed by a police officer. As his death becomes a national flashpoint, it becomes clear that she may be the only person alive who can explain what really happened that night. Angie Thomas's writing has earned praise for being gut-wrenching, searing, and deftly crafted; Publishers Weekly called the book "heartbreakingly topical."

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5. FOR FANS OF PRESIDENTIAL HISTORY THAT READS LIKE A NOVEL: THE WARS OF THE ROOSEVELTS: THE RUTHLESS RISE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST POLITICAL FAMILY BY WILLIAM J. MANN; $35

You might think you know the Roosevelts, but historian William J. Mann looks beyond the well-worn stories to expose the bitter rivalries that drove its most famous members' quest for power. Along the way, he examines the Roosevelts who were kept away from the limelight, and the secrets they hold—all told in dramatic style.

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6. FOR THE INTREPID TRAVELER: ATLAS OBSCURA: AN EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO THE WORLD'S HIDDEN WONDERS, BY JOSHIA FOER, DYLAN THURAS, AND ELLA MORTON; $35

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An amusement park in a salt mine? Check. A tree so big it has its own pub? Check. A giant hole that's been spouting flames for 40 years? Check. This guidebook is a compendium of the world's strangest and most wonderful places, and it's guaranteed to inspire some serious wanderlust, especially in more adventurous travelers. For the complete experience, you can also get an awesome wall calendar featuring destinations from the book designed as vintage travel posters; there's a page-a-day desk calendar and explorers' journal too.

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7. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES WEIRD HISTORY: THE PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW SELECTED ESSAYS; $20

The Public Domain Review is one of the premier online destination for fans of curious history. If you know someone who enjoys stories about weird medieval medicine treaties, ancient automata, deranged 18th century scientists, and other odd subjects well off the beaten historical path, look no further than this book of essays (the site's fourth).

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At the heart of every good mystery is a (usually dastardly) perpetrator, whether it's a Count Dracula or a Jimmy Valentine. With this anthology, Edgar Award winner Otto Penzler has combed through 150 years of literary history to find 72 stories featuring the most famous and entertaining antiheroes authors have ever been able to dream up.

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9. FOR PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE BORSCHT BELT IS: JEWISH COMEDY: A SERIOUS HISTORY BY JEREMY DAUBER; $28.95

Jews and humor go together like challah and Manischewitz (after all, as my bubbie says, if you don't laugh, you'll cry). In this "serious history," Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber considers the origins of Jewish humor in Biblical times through its life on Twitter today; how it's reflected—and even influenced—Jewish history; the production of major archetypes like the Jewish mother; and the prominence of Jewish comedians like Sarah Silverman and Larry David. You don't have to be Jewish to love it, but it may help you understand the in-jokes.

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10. FOR YOUR FRIEND WHO LOVES DARK SHORT STORIES: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, BY CARMEN MARIA MACHADO; $16

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A story told in the form of Law & Order episode summaries. A strange plague that makes girls go invisible, as narrated by a mall worker. A recollection of romantic encounters with the last of humanity’s survivors. In this collection, Carmen Maria Machado fuses urban legends, dystopian tropes, and heavy helpings of sexuality to create a new kind of magical realism strangely appropriate to our era. The images will haunt you long after you put the book down, if you let them.

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A meditation on sorrow and the Civil War populated by a rag-tag group of ghosts, Lincoln in the Bardo starts with the real-life death of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, Abraham's son. In the book, Willie has entered the Bardo—a Tibetan Buddhist term for a transitional limbo—where there's a fierce struggle underway for his soul.

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Can’t decide what to get, but feeling generous? Give your friend who loves to read a new hardcover book of their choice every month. Literary fans who are short on time will love having someone else do the legwork to find the best new novels; plus, there’s early access to new releases. Prices vary depending on the length of the subscription, and there’s a deal right now where you can get a month free when you give a subscription as a gift.

Find It: Book of the Month

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on this day in 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 facts about Alcott.

1. SHE HAD MANY FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller. Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. HER FIRST NOM DE PLUME WAS FLORA FAIRFIELD.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. SHE SECRETLY WROTE PULP FICTION.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. Alcott wrote about cross-dressers, spies, revenge, and hashish. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. SHE WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS A CIVIL WAR NURSE.


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In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. SHE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. SHE WROTE LITTLE WOMEN TO HELP HER FATHER.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. SHE WAS AN EARLY SUFFRAGETTE.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in a 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. SHE PRETENDED TO BE HER OWN SERVANT TO TRICK HER FANS.


Orchard House, the Alcott family home. Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand (Flickr) // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. ALCOTT NEVER HAD CHILDREN, BUT SHE CARED FOR HER NIECE.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. FANS CAN VISIT ALCOTT'S FAMILY HOME IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women. Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.

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