In a curious story from the 16th century, it transpires that the ‘Black Arts’ included lock-picking and other tricks of thievery. Certainly there was artfulness and talent amongst those who made their living from this crime. The tools for picking locks were highly-prized and cleverly made, some of the best being specially imported from Italy.
A certain Knight in Bolton-by-Bowland, known for his sympathy and courtesy to the tenants on his land, was approached by several of them over a matter of days, complaining that their locks were being picked in the dead of night and their valuables stolen. They came to ask the Knight for assistance and it transpired that many of them suspected a Tinker who had recently come to the town. During the day the Tinker was earning an honest living by mending pots and pans, but who knew where he went at night and what mischief he made?
Before long, the Tinker called at the Knight’s great house asking for work, and the Knight’s cook brought out some kettles to be mended. The Knight made the Tinker welcome, gave him beer and food and engaged him in friendly conversation. Thus reassured, the Tinker did not suspect anything when the Knight feigned interest in his toolbag and made to examine its contents. There, the Knight found what he was looking for – lock-picking tools – but he quietly returned them to their place and said nothing.
When the Tinker had finished his work, he told the Knight he was moving on to Lancaster. That suited the Knight’s intentions very well. He had a friend who was the Jailor at Lancaster Castle and told the Tinker that he was sure there would be work for him there. The Knight said he would ask his clerk to write a letter of recommendation and the Tinker took the letter gladly.
And so the Tinker was tricked; for the letter told the Jailor that the Tinker was a thief and a rascal and he should jail him at once. The Jailor, on reading the letter, welcomed the Tinker inside the prison gates with a smile, but once inside, the Tinker was quickly shackled and put in a cell. ‘Now’, said the Jailor, ‘see if your pick-lock will serve you now!’
And there the Tinker stayed until the next Court was held, and then he was hanged for the wrongs he had done to the Knight’s tenants, and none of his mysterious Black Arts were of any use to him then.