Stupid Question ™
March 7, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: I’m reading a mystery novel set in Victorian London, and a character is described as a “smasher” and “screwsman.” What does this mean?
—Holly, Columbus, Ohio
A: It means he’s at least two sorts of criminal, in the language of the Victorian underworld.
The terms are among the hundreds of colorful and sometimes deliberately confusing bits of slang that arose in cant, the lingo of the criminal underground. It mixed Cockney rhyming slang, Romany (or “Gypsy”), neologisms and other influences to create a kind of code language.
In cant, a screwsman was a particular sort of burglar—one who uses lockpicks or (usually stolen) keys. That’s as opposed to a cracksman, who just busts things open with a hammer or what have you. According to Kellow Chesney in “The Anti-Society,” a great overview of Victorian crime, “cracksman” was the preferred generic term for any sort of burglar.
“Screwsman” comes from “screw,” a slang term for a skeleton key or similar device used to pick a lock. The exact origin of “screw” in this sense is unclear, but can be guessed—especially if one is willing to be vulgar.
A smasher is someone who passes counterfeit coinage, which was a widespread crime in the Victorian era. “Coiners” or “bit-fakers” were specialists who actually made fake coins. In something akin to modern drug-dealing set-ups, these gurus then passed the product along to bulk distributors.
Smashers were the bottom rung of this criminal ladder, the ones who actually put the coins into circulation—typically by buying them from bulk dealers and then buying things illegally with them.
In the high Victorian era, fake coins were known as “snide,” and the distribution the smashers engaged in was called “snide-pitching.” However, it was also sometimes known as “smashing.”
That in turn came from “smash,” meaning a counterfeit coin. The term is unknown, but possibly is related to the main technique at the time—stamping coins out of sheet metal. Of course, it could also derive from some complicated Cockney rhyme.
In any case, from that we get the natural “smasher.”
Whatever their place in the hierarchy, counterfeiters were collectively known as “shofulmen.” That’s from shoful, a straight-from-Yiddish term roughly meaning “worthless garbage.”
Chesney says snide-pitching wasn’t big business and typically was done as a side venture by people into other forms of crime. So it is entirely believable for someone to have been both a smasher and a screwsman.