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The Real-Life Criminal Who Inspired Charles Dickens

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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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Warner Bros.
This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”


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