Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.

Dan Bell
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.


All images by Dan Bell

Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.


By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.


Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.


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