Isaac Newton, undercover agent (Part 2)

Isaac Newton, giant of math and physics, undercover agent for the Royal Mint, faced off against William Chaloner, the notorious forger, tongue-padder, and dildo-merchant. [2 of 2]

Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton. Line engraving by G. Vertue, 1726, after J. Vanderbank, 1725. / CC BY

I didn’t originally plan to do a two-parter about Isaac Newton, but then I came across the story of William Chaloner I knew that it needed some more space.

William Chaloner got his start in Birmingham, at the time a centre of the flourishing fake coin trade. His early work apparently involved making dildos and smuggling them inside watches – either very small dildos or very large watches, I don’t know which – but then he moved up into what contemporary accounts describe as “tongue-pudding.” He was a tongue-pad, which is like a footpad but instead of robbing pedestrians you rob people through the power of your tongue… a conman, in other words. (I had to look that word up in my dictionaries of British underworld slang.)

Chaloner’s early cons included stealing stuff and then returning it for the reward money, and phoney fortune telling. But he soon became an integral part of a large forging gang, doing things like clipping the edges of coins, pressing fake ones, coating them in the stolen metal, and then putting them back into circulation.

Chaloner’s forging enterprise grew until he was a rich man, but it also brought him into numerous scrapes with the law. There his ability to talk his way out of trouble came to the fore. He forged bank notes and, when caught, turned in his accomplices to buy his own freedom. He forged coins and once again walked free after testifying against his partners in crime. He convinced Jacobites to engage in subversive activities against the state and then turned them in for the reward money. He even attempted to blackmail the Secretary of State!

This perennial conman positioned himself as an expert in preventing forgery and tried to get appointed to the Royal Mint… a plan which came undone when various criminals identified him as one of the chief forgers of the realm. Chaloner fell back on his old tricks and bought his freedom by turning in other forgers, including accomplices within the mint itself: they had lent out the template stamps from the great 1696 recoinage to forgers. Of course, Chaloner didn’t tell the authorities that he himself had been the one receiving said stamps…

And that’s where he ran into Isaac Newton. Newton, at the time Warden of the Royal Mint, and soon to be appointed the Master of the Royal Mint, was on the warpath against forgers. Chaloner was printing fake lottery tickets at the time and one of his confederates had exposed this most recent scam to the Secretary of State, who was still a bit sore about the whole attempted blackmail. Chaloner was arrested and put on trial.

Because this scam artist had been arrested and released so many times, and because Chaloner had friends in high places, Newton knew that the case against him had to be absolutely airtight. He scoured Chaloner’s past for witnesses, and thanks to the criminal’s inclination to double-cross people Newton found a lot of vengeful ex-colleagues willing to take to the stand. The trial was short, even with Chaloner feigning madness, claiming that the whole affair was outside of the court’s jurisdiction, accusing the many witnesses of lying, and finally appealing to Newton to forgive him in a rather desperate letter:

I shall be murdered the worst of all murders that is in the face of justice unless I am rescued by your mercifull hands

Nothing worked; Chaloner was found guilty and executed in 1699.

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