The Real-Life Criminal Who Inspired Charles Dickens

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was first published as a series of monthly installments from February 1837 to April 1839. Building on the success of his 1836 debut novel, The Pickwick Papers, the book soon cemented Dickens’ reputation as a writer, and remains one of his most popular works today. 

While its popularity no doubt lies in Oliver Twist's intricate, Dickensian plotline with its dramatic set pieces, the book also contains a few of the most memorable of Dickens’ 989 characters—from the pompous beadle Mr. Bumble to Jack “The Artful Dodger” Dawkins to Bill Sykes and his tragic sweetheart Nancy. 

Then there's Fagin: the leader of Oliver's gang of pickpockets. Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin, an elderly Jewish man, was hugely controversial at the time and led to him facing accusations of anti-Semitism (midway through serialization, he opted to remove practically all references to Fagin’s faith after receiving a letter of complaint from a Jewish friend). But like many of Dickens’ most colorful characters, Fagin is believed to have been based on an equally colorful real-life character named Isaac “Ikey” Solomon—whose life story is almost as dramatic as one of Dickens’ own plotlines. 

Solomon was born in the Houndsditch area of East London sometime around 1787. Not much is known about his childhood, but it’s believed that his father Henry introduced him to a life of crime at an early age. Solomon soon followed in his dad's footsteps as a “fence,” a receiver and dealer in stolen goods. By the early 1800s, Solomon was in charge of his own jewelry store near London’s Petticoat Lane, which he used as a cover for buying and selling his ill-gotten wares.

His first brush with the law came in 1810, when he and an accomplice, Joel Joseph, were arrested for stealing a man’s wallet outside the Houses of Parliament. The pair fled the scene (with Joseph reportedly stuffing £37 of bank notes down his shirt to avoid being found with evidence), and were eventually apprehended and arrested. At just 21, Solomon was found guilty of theft at London’s Old Bailey court, and sentenced to be transported to a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania). 

Solomon’s sentence, however, was never carried out in full. Instead, he was merely held on a prison ship that never left British waters, and four years later managed to escape (or, more likely, was released by mistake). By 1818, he was back in London.

Solomon continued to work as a fence until 1827, when he was found guilty of theft and receiving, with six watches, 17 shawls, 3½ yards of woolen cloth and 12 pieces of valentia (an expensive wool and silk fabric) recorded among the goods involved. He was sent to London’s notorious Newgate prison—but Solomon had one more trick up his sleeve.

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After a court hearing, Solomon was bundled into the back of a hackney carriage by his prison guards. Unbeknownst to them, the coach was being driven by Solomon’s father-in-law. On its way back to Newgate, the carriage unexpectedly took a detour back towards Petticoat Lane, where the guards were attacked and the keys to Solomon’s restraints were stolen. Again, he managed to escape.

Knowing that he couldn’t possibly stay in England, Solomon fled the country. He headed first to Denmark, before sailing to the United States and landing in New York in August 1827. Back in England though, his dramatic escape had prompted the police to turn their attention to his wife, Ann. She was arrested, charged with receiving stolen goods, and sentenced to be transported to Australia along with her four youngest children, all under the age of ten. Ann arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1828. The two eldest Solomon children, John (20) and Moses (19), with no clue to their father’s whereabouts, voluntarily joined their mother and siblings the following year.

Back in America, Solomon heard the news through the press, and resolved to join Ann and his children. Traveling under the alias “Slowman,” he sailed south from New York to Rio, then on from Brazil around the tip of South America and across the Pacific to Australia. He arrived in Hobart on October 6, 1828, where he was quickly recognized by the local Lieutenant-Governor, Sir George Arthur, and by many of his old customers and accomplices who had all since been sentenced to transportation.

Since no crime had been committed on Australian soil, however, Sir George was powerless to arrest Solomon without a separate arrest warrant from London. A request was sent, but it took another year for the warrant to arrive—during which time Solomon opened a tobacco shop on Elizabeth Street in Hobart, and paid a £1000 bond to guarantee Ann’s release from the penal colony so that she could join him at home. 

The warrant for Solomon’s arrest finally arrived in November 1829, and he was immediately brought before a court in Hobart. To Sir George’s frustration, though, both a technicality in the wording of the warrant and Solomon’s use of the habeas corpus writ meant that the court had little option but to released him on bail. By now, Sir George had had enough. At last, he drew up his own arrest warrant and sent Solomon back to London. In June 1830, he was finally put on trial at the Old Bailey

Due to Solomon’s earlier brushes with the law and his dramatic escape three years earlier, his case attracted considerable attention from the press, which is no doubt how it came to Dickens’ attention (who used reports of Solomon’s court hearing as the basis for Fagin’s trial in Oliver Twist). Facing eight counts of receiving stolen goods—as well as “feloniously and burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Richard Groncock and another”—Solomon was found guilty of two, and sentenced to 14 years transportation. In November 1831, he arrived back in Hobart. 

Solomon spent just four years of this new sentence actually in prison. In 1835, he was released on a “ticket-of-leave” basis, which insisted that he live at least 20 miles away from Hobart. After briefly reuniting with his family at their new home in nearby New Norfolk, all the years of upheaval soon took their toll and the Solomons began to drift apart. The family’s two eldest sons had by now moved away, and violent arguments between Ann and Isaac saw her briefly sent to the Female House of Correction. After her release in September 1835, she and Isaac lived apart, with most of the children reportedly siding with Ann.

Solomon was finally granted a conditional pardon in 1840, and received his official “Certificate of Freedom” in 1844. He died six years later, on September 3, 1850. The reputation he built during his lifetime was impressive (if not morally defensible) in its own right, but with Oliver Twist, his legacy has grown even larger—into one of English literature’s most memorable characters.