originally published May 30, 2012
Aspiring screenwriters take note – the story of Ikey Solomon is worthy of a biopic. I’m not sure who’d fit in the lead role, but if Jake Gyllenhall can pull off a British accent, let’s tap him for this. We’d just have to make his nose more put-an-eye-out pointy.
London’s East End, 1785. One of nine children, little Ikey was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Dad was a fence, that crucial cog between an item’s thief and it’s next buyer. Ikey learned the business, and set up his own pawn shop near Petticoat Lane, the London equivalent to New York’s Garment District. He met and married Ann Julian when he was 21.
Things were good for a couple years. Then on April 17, 1810, Ikey and his friend Joel Joseph were meandering through a public meeting outside Westminster Hall, looking for wallets to pilfer. Ikey should have stuck with the fence business; Thomas Dodd felt their slippery hands in his pocket, and a wacky police chase ensued. Ikey was busted, convicted, and sentenced to be shipped off to Australia.
The records are somewhat vague, but for whatever reason, Ikey never went to Australia. He spent four years on the prison hulk known as either ‘Zetland’ or ‘Zealand’ – a floating boat-prison.
Incarceration wasn’t a good fit for Ikey. Whatever was keeping him from getting shipped off, it probably wasn’t lessening his sentence at all. So Ikey found his way overboard. He fled the prison, then returned in 1816 to turn himself in. He received a pardon and returned home to Ann and his two kids.
The next decade went well for Ikey Solomon. He returned to the fence business, and became known as the go-to guy for stolen property in London. His business was almost ready to move up to criminal empire-dom, then things went south again. Really south this time. Ikey was busted for theft and receiving stolen goods in April of 1827.
With this arrest, Ikey became a celebrity. Pamphlets were boasting tall tales of his criminal activity, people were speaking in hushed tones of his mighty stature in the criminal world, and #Ikey became the most popular trending topic on 19th-century-London Twitter.
Ikey applied for release on a writ of habeas corpus (meaning he felt there wasn’t enough evidence to hold him – yeah I had to look it up, don’t judge me). It was denied, but the coach taking him back to prison was being driven by his father-in-law, Moses Julian. He took a slight detour to where a bunch of Ikey’s friends were waiting, then slowed down to allow them to overpower the guards and set Ikey free.
Without looking back, Ikey fled the country, headed for New York. Meanwhile, the London police were taking a nasty PR hit after that escape. They needed to send a message, so they raided Ikey’s home. Finding a handful of stolen goods, they arrested Ikey’s father and also his wife. Dad was released (he was almost 70 and throwing him in prison wouldn’t accomplish anything), but Ann was shipped off to Tasmania.
Ikey was getting into trouble with the law in New York, and he soon discovered that his wife and kids weren’t going to be joining him anytime soon. He fled once again, this time to Brazil, then learned precisely where Ann was to be locked up. Adopting the pseudonym ‘Ikey Slowman’, he set sail for Tasmania.
That’s right. This is a love story.
Ann’s four youngest children had been sent away with her, and the two older kids – now 19 and 20 – came along for support. When Ikey showed up, it made the news. A lot of the other folks at Hobart Town Penal Colony were Ikey’s associates from London, and it took no time for the Tasmanian officials to learn he was there.
He hadn’t broken any local laws though, so he couldn’t be locked up. The Lieutenant-Governor, Col. George Arthur, wrote to London to request a warrant for Ikey’s arrest, while Ikey stayed close to his wife and opened up a tobacco shop in Hobart.
Had Ikey gone legit? It’s possible. He petitioned the hell out of the authorities to have Ann stationed with him. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur finally relented, provided a £1000 bond was put up. Ikey had to turn to his new friends, local merchants for support. They came through – either Ikey was one hell of a schmoozer, or he’d really made a quick name for himself in the Hobart retail world. Maybe they just wanted to help out a celebrity, who knows?
The warrant Arthur had applied for finally showed up from London in November, 1829. Ikey was arrested again, but his lawyer found an error in the warrant. Another bond was put up, and Ikey was let go.
Having had enough, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur issued a warrant in his own name and had Ikey busted again, this time to be deported. Newspapers were outraged over this manipulation of the judicial system, but it was too late. Ikey was England-bound.
Ikey’s trial was the Trial of the Century. It was OJ, Phil Spector and the courthouse scenes from My Cousin Vinny rolled into one. The trial is widely believed to be the basis for Fagin’s trial in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist – in fact, the character of Fagin is accepted among literary folk as having been directly inspired by Ikey’s life.
The judge called Ikey “evil-disposed” and handed him 14 years. He was shipped back to Hobart, then ended up on the southern tip of Tasmania in the Port Arthur Convict Settlement, deliciously named after the same guy who kicked jurisprudence in the balls to ensure Ikey was locked up.
Ikey only served about four years before he was given a ticket of leave. Ann was released around the same time, but there was no romantic reunion. Things had grown tense between Ann and Ikey, possibly because Ikey’s criminal activities had completely exploded in Ann’s face and cost her a sizeable chunk of her adult life. The two elder kids had left Tasmania, and the younger ones were siding with their mother. Ikey had no one.
The two Solomons never lived together. Ann actually hooked up with another man, which led to a few violent incidents between everyone involved, including the kids. Ikey resigned himself to his solitude, and died alone in September, 1850. The value of his estate was about £70 in the end.
Alright, it’s not a happy love story. But it’s a cinematic story of crime, celebrity, and the fragility of family in the face of a doomed life-trajectory. Write in a few random explosions and maybe a wise-cracking robot, and you’ve got a hit.