Libi Astaire Interviews General Well’ngone from The Moon Taker: A Jewish Regency Mystery
When a crime wave swept through London’s Jewish community during the early 1800s, a young member of that community, Miss Rebecca Lyon, began to record their efforts to catch the culprits and restore calm to their lives. While Miss Lyon is a perfectly respectable young lady, during the writing of her tales she was forced to introduce to her genteel readers certain members of the Jewish community who are not respectable at all, but who did play important supporting roles in catching said culprits.
To her shock and dismay, two of these persons—General Well’ngone and the Earl of Gravel Lane, leaders of a gang of young Jewish thieves—were so warmly received by the reading public that it became necessary to publish a full account of one of their exploits, The Moon Taker. Since then, General Well’ngone has achieved a certain amount of notoriety among some circles of London society, which explains his presence here today. But Miss Lyon begs to remind the public that the General still plies his trade as a pickpocket, so keep an eye on your reticules and coat pockets, if you please!
LA: Tell us, General Well’ngone, where and when you were born.
GW: I was born in London, near Houndsditch. People at the Great Synagogue say I was born around the time the old century was giving a yawn and shutting down, so maybe it was 1798 or ’99. I’m an orphan, so I don’t really know. But I do know that I became what’s called a Bar Mitzvah a few years ago. That means I can be counted in a prayer quorum, which needs 10 Jewish men over the age of 13. That’s a peculiar thing about the Jewish religion. You can put nine perfect saints in a room and they can’t say all the prayers. But add a tenth person, even someone like me, and we can all pray and praise God as much as we like. I suppose that just goes to show you that God, at least, isn’t a snob.
LA: What has influenced the choices you’ve made in your life?
GW: People don’t pay much attention to all the orphans roaming about the streets—at least not until they notice their watch fob or handkerchief is missing. Then they do tend to shout and bluster about the gallows and transporting all of us to Australia. They don’t see that for boys like me, our one choice is to steal or starve. Since I rather like being alive, I chose the former.
LA: When you walk into a room, what do you notice first? Second?
GW: First, the silver. Second, the linen.
LA: It must be hard living in the streets, as you do. Is there anything that moves you or touches your soul?
GW: I wouldn’t want this to reach certain ears in Gravel Lane—finer sentiments are appreciated there about as much as a leaky roof on a rainy day—but I don’t like to hear babies cry. Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s not their fault they’re hungry and have nothing to eat. When they’re already five or six you can tell them to stop bawling and start earning their daily bread. But you can’t do that with a baby. When you try to explain to them things about the world, they just look at you for a second or two and then go back to their crying. So I think those do-gooders who like to leave pamphlets on doorsteps about the dangers of drinking gin would do a lot more good if they’d leave a tankard of fresh milk on our doorsteps instead.
LA: What are you most afraid?
GW: The gallows, I suppose. Although sometimes I think it would be even worse to grow old and become someone like Conky Churchstreet, who is so wobbly in the head from drinking so much gin that even the rag pickers look down on him. But I don’t like to think too much about the future.
LA: What is the most important thing in your life? What do you value the most?
GW: My friends, the boys in our gang. I’m the second in command of the Earl of Gravel Lane’s gang, and we pride ourselves on taking care of our boys. We like to think we’ve made a proper home in Gravel Lane—although you might not think so if you’re sensitive to dirt and smells and the like. Some people who come to call, people from the other side of Houndsditch, do wrinkle their noses and wave about their perfumed handkerchiefs. But the boys and I don’t mind it, and it’s certainly better than setting up camp in an alleyway or hiding out in someone’s cellar. When there’s a cheerful fire burning in the hearth and we’re eating our supper, we almost forget about the dirt and damp. Friends can make you forget about most ills in the world.
LA: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
GW: I think too much about food. I’m sure the Earl of Gravel Lane is hungry most of the time, too, but he is able to overcome it and think about higher things than supper.
LA: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
GW: We live in wicked times. I think the gentry should act like gentry and not lie and cheat and steal, as if they were just like us. There’s already enough competition.
LA: What is your most treasured possession?
GW: My bicorne hat and greatcoat, which has two capes hanging at the back. The Earl spotted them at the Rag Fair. He gave them to me when he made me his second in command and in charge of operations in the field, so I would have a uniform. They’re still a bit too big for me, but I don’t mind. In the winter, especially, it’s a fine thing to have a coat and hat.
LA: How would you like to die?
GW: Not like Mr. Hamburg—you can read about him in The Moon Taker. We found him all cold and alone in an alleyway just off Gravel Lane. I’d much prefer to die in my bed, with a thick blanket covering me and a fire blazing away in the hearth and all my friends standing about me, shaking my hand and telling me goodbye, like I hear people do in some of those novels that are popular today. But I’m not planning on dying anytime soon. So if you’re ever in London, you’re invited to call on the Earl and me in Gravel Lane. We can’t offer you tea—that’s much too dear for people like us—but you’re welcome to join us for a nice cup of gin.
Libi Astaire is the author of the Jewish Regency Mystery Series, a historical mystery series spiced with a liberal dash of humor and a Jewish twist. When she isn’t researching or writing her next mystery novel, she writes about Jewish history for The Jewish Press and Mishpacha Magazine. She is a recipient of a Sydney Taylor Notable Book Award, an award presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel. Contact Libi at her website, or follow her on BookBub.