The story of the Perreau brothers has all the ingredients of a classic film noir: blackmail, intimidation, seduction, betrayal, mysterious encounters, shady financial transactions, courtroom intrigues, confession, retraction and, above all, an irresistible femme fatale, Mrs Margaret Caroline Rudd. Perhaps an innocent and wronged victim, but more likely a cunning manipulator of everybody around her (particularly men), she alone walks away from a disaster, seemingly of her own making, that leaves everyone else confused, injured or dead. ‘All who know you,’ one extra in the drama told her, ‘are infatuated by your spells and love you; and all who love you, you bring to destruction as fast as possible.’ Callous or sentimental, artless or conniving, the protean Mrs Rudd, with her conspicuous and limitless wardrobe, cut a figure worthy of being played by Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. (Or, judging from the picture on the cover of Sarah Bakewell’s book, Veronica Lake. Except that it isn’t of Mrs Rudd – a publishing imposture to follow on the heels of so many other impostures in this story.)
The supporting characters include a tight-fisted, thin-skinned and ill-tempered admiral (with dubious claims to actual experience of command at sea), whose obsession with the female lead is offset only by his boundless greed; a blind judge, the famous Sir John Fielding, who is widely believed to have been deceived by the enchanting villainess, despite his legendary reputation for discerning innocence or guilt in the voices of defendants; a rich and gullible Jewish sugar-daddy who attracts hints of anti-semitism; a rough-spoken servant who (depending on your point of view) either plots to destroy her former mistress or is coaxed by her into conspiracy and perjury; a lawyer over-reaching his job description, whose attempt to intimidate the servant is thwarted by a violent husband; and a mysteriously vanishing foreign countess – or is she Mrs Rudd herself in disguise? Then there are, most important, Mrs Rudd’s accomplices (or dupes): the Perreau twins, indistinguishable in appearance but of quite different temperaments – one cautious and respectable, the other flashy and reckless.
On 11 March 1775, Robert, the respectable half of the Perreau twins, a well-connected London apothecary, stormed into the Bow Street magistrate’s office to report a forgery. Not, as you might expect, a forgery of which he was the victim, but one of which he was the alleged perpetrator, and from the imputation of which he wanted to clear his name. He must have regretted this moment many times over, since it started the chain of events that was to lead to the trial of his brother Daniel and himself for the crime of knowingly ‘uttering’ – that is, passing – a forged note. (The act of forgery itself, usually committed in private, was much harder to prove.) Since 1729 this had been a capital offence.
As the ‘facts’ of the case began to emerge, nothing seemed to add up. The note in question was handed by Robert to two reputable bankers as collateral for a loan. It was signed by William Adair, a wealthy Army agent whom Robert claimed as a close acquaintance. The bankers were willing to swear that Robert had acted throughout as if he were innocent. When they confronted him with their suspicions of foul play and took the matter up with Adair, Robert remained unperturbed. He seemed dumbstruck when Adair denied knowledge of the note and the friendship. But if Robert was innocent, as his behaviour indicated, why did he lie about his familiarity with Adair, a lie that was readily exposed when Adair greeted him as a stranger? If, on the other hand, Robert was guilty, why did he voluntarily put himself in the magistrate’s hands, rather than flee to France (he had already packed)? And if he was an innocent dupe, who was to blame?
For a while, this last question seemed to have been answered. Mrs Rudd, the woman living as the wife of Robert’s twin brother Daniel (a shadowy character, prone to extravagance and often in debt), admitted to the forgery and even demonstrated her skill by repeating it. It wasn’t long, however, before she retracted her confession, on the grounds that she’d made it in order to save her brother-in-law. Finally, it emerged that the brothers were entangled in a bizarre pyramid scheme of financial forgeries. Each forged note was used to cover previous fraudulently obtained loans and keep the scheme going. Given the high stakes and ease of detection, this behaviour seemed not merely irrational, but suicidal.
The brothers offered an easy explanation: they had no idea that they were doing anything wrong – they had been continually goaded and misled by Mrs Rudd. The Perreaus told how she had made them offers they couldn’t refuse: she claimed to be acting for powerful and mysterious relations who were shortly going to advance the brothers to dizzying social heights – set them up as bankers, buy them a country estate, even send Daniel to Parliament. The brothers pleaded guilty only to gross gullibility with extenuating circumstances, all of which had to do with Rudd’s track record of deception and imposture. Rudd had, they claimed, conjured up a fake genealogy, connecting her to Scottish royalty, to substantiate her stories. Indeed, was she not already ‘the most artful of impostors’ (Robert’s words) in leading everyone to believe she was living with Daniel Perreau – with whom she had three children – as his wife, when in fact she was still married to Mr Rudd, whom she had driven to penury before moving on to bigger and better things? Surely this was sufficient to make people believe she was capable of anything? Faced with the elaborate charges that were fast piling up against her, Rudd was quick to turn King’s evidence against the Perreaus in the hope of avoiding prosecution.
If this twist was predictable, the next one was not. In an unprecedented and controversial step, the judges in the brothers’ trial decided to strip Rudd of her protection as a Crown witness and commit her to separate judicial proceedings. A scandal was thereby transformed into a major controversy concerning the ability of secret influence to subvert the course of justice. Was the judges’ decision evidence of the power wielded by the Perreaus’ supporters? Or was it a justified rebuke to the magistrates of Bow Street for having yielded so easily to Rudd’s explanations? Either way, for Rudd the prospects looked bleak.
Eventually, however, the brothers – against most expectations, especially given Robert’s persuasive and honourable defence of himself – were convicted and sentenced to death. They swung from the gallows hand in hand. Rudd – again, against most expectations, and the judge’s instructions to the jury – was acquitted of all charges. Ironically, she was saved in part by entrenched ideas of how women behave, ideas that she had spent her life rejecting: about what women could do (could she really have forged a note in a masculine hand?); about what they could know (could she really have had enough knowledge of finance and credit to mastermind these forgeries?); and about what they could achieve in opposition to the men in their lives (could she really have acted independently of her quasi-husband, rather than under his influence?). So Rudd walked – momentarily – into James Boswell’s arms, and then into a life of poverty and relative obscurity.
Donna Andrew and Randall McGowen’s The Perreaus and Mrs Rudd and Sarah Bakewell’s The Smart both tell the same story, but approach it in very different ways. Bakewell’s eloquent version reads rather like an 18th-century romance. Andrew and McGowen, on the other hand, situate the story in its wider contemporary setting. Indeed, it is only against the backdrop of the peculiarities of metropolitan society in the second half of the 18th century that we can begin to understand how and why this story captured people’s imaginations and attention to the extent it did.
The first factor to be reckoned with is the role of the press, the power of which increased rapidly in 18th-century Britain. The main protagonists – above all Rudd herself – broke new ground by setting their case in front of the tribunal of public opinion. They persisted in resorting to the press – often shamelessly and manipulatively – to try to influence judges, juries and ultimately the King, who alone had the power to pardon the condemned. (He remained unmoved.) Indeed, these press campaigns – conducted by means of pamphlets, newspapers and hundreds of letters to editors – provoked a debate, familiar now but not then, on how publicity before and during judicial proceedings can taint or even subvert the course of justice. In the process, many salacious details from the protagonists’ past came to light: Robert and Daniel were once secret speculators and gamblers on the Stock Exchange; Rudd had been a high-class (and sometimes not so high-class) courtesan; she had also supposedly taken on various other identities to ensnare unsuspecting men. In the court of public opinion there was no counsel to rule out evidence on grounds of irrelevance or hearsay.
But this still doesn’t quite explain why the case caused such a sensation. The reason for that lies in the impact on 18th-century London of an emergent commercialism. The case involved the two types of criminal who embodied the particular anxieties and possibilities of the new commercial order: the forger and the impostor.
Eighteenth-century commerce was predicated to an alarming degree on paper instruments. As Andrew and McGowen show, an acute shortage of coins and an underdeveloped banking system meant that credit most often took the form of a bewildering variety of personal paper notes. These depended on handwritten signatures for their authenticity, and on the reputation of their signatories for their credibility. The relatively simple act of forgery, therefore, threatened the trust on which the whole system was built. Small wonder, then, that forgery was not only a capital offence, but that it was – unluckily for the Perreaus – the least likely of serious offences to be pardoned.
The figure of the impostor – in a sense, a forger writ large – exposed even more clearly the fault lines of the commercial metropolis. Impostors ranged from George Psalmanazar, the counterfeit Formosan, to the ‘social monster’ Charles Price, ‘otherwise Bolingbroke, otherwise Johnson, otherwise Parks, otherwise Wigmore, otherwise Brank, otherwise Wilmott, otherwise Williams, otherwise Schutz, otherwise Polton, otherwise Taylor, otherwise Powel, &c &c &c’. It was a commonplace throughout the 18th century that the comfort of trusting people according to how they looked and dressed had given way to a suspicion regarding mere appearances. In a city as ‘large and populous’ as London, Bernard Mandeville observed, ‘where obscure Men may hourly meet with fifty Strangers to one Acquaintance’, people were encouraged to present themselves ‘not as what they are, but what they appear to be’. The city provided the opportunities to pass oneself off as what one was not. The consumer revolution provided the means, by making all markers of distinction available to anybody for a price (this was a world, Johnson wrote in London, ‘where looks are merchandise’). The pursuit of luxury and social emulation, leading to a general corruption of morals, provided the alleged motive. The theory, finally, was provided by the prevalent philosophical-psychological wisdom: the belief running from Locke to Hartley that people were entirely dependent on external information transmitted by the senses confirmed man’s vulnerability to deception and false appearances. Everyone in 18th-century London was a potential impostor and those who realised this potential became sources of endless fascination and concern. As Fanny Burney’s Evelina, the ingénue coming to London, was forewarned: ‘this is not an age in which we may trust to appearances.’
The only story to challenge the Rudd-Perreau case as far as press coverage was concerned was the American Revolution. ‘I find,’ one newspaper correspondent wrote in rueful exaggeration, ‘that the important Affair of the two Perreaus has, at length, driven the American Business out of all Conversation.’ Both of these books present the case and the events in America as two parallel, competing, yet largely unconnected stories. Perhaps there was a connection, however. The American War itself contributed to concern about the unreliability of appearances. For example, readers of the Morning Post – the paper that gave the Rudd-Perreau case more space than any other – were warned three times within a month in the winter of 1775 against the ‘very numerous gang of impostors, disguised under the denomination of patriots’, as well as against ‘the villainy of such impostors’ on the royalist side who fortunately don ‘too thin a disguise to impose upon the most undiscerning’. Readers were warned not ‘to be deceived by false appearances’. ‘Beware of counterfeits,’ the correspondent concluded, ‘for such are abroad.’ Notions of imposture and disguise were, I would argue, fundamental to the English experience of the American crisis, a crisis that from this side of the ocean appeared all too often like a civil war. How was it possible to distinguish the enemy from the British? The final piece in the puzzle of the hold this forgery-cum-imposture case had over the public may therefore be its coinciding with the crucial months of the American crisis: a time when, like the Perreau twins, England and America were so different in character yet vexingly difficult to tell apart.