‘Three-fingered Jack’ was the popular name of a man who escaped Jamaican slavery some time before 1780, became a leader of a group of maroons, and was captured and killed. His story can be traced in the Jamaican Royal Gazette. It was introduced to the British public through a section of a book by Dr Benjamin Moseley, A Treatise on Sugar, published in 1799, which describes Jack’s use of ‘obi’ to maintain his power. Moseley’s account of Three-Fingered Jack inspired the very successful stage pantomime Obi, or Three Finger’d Jack, which first played at the London Haymarket Theatre in 1800. Two novels based on the story were published that same year, and the story was then told and retold through further pantomimes, theatrical productions, chap books, juvenile literature, novels and other cultural productions. Jack’s use of obeah formed a significant element in most of these retellings.
In 1980 Three-Fingered Jack’s story was staged in Jamaica in that year’s Jamaica National Pantomime production, Mansong, which retold the story with Mansong/Jack as a freedom fighter. The actor Charles Hyatt played the central role of Dada.
This page presents a few images related to Three-Fingered Jack, highlighting the range of ways in which the story was represented and entered into popular consciousness.
Three Finger’d Jack Playing Card
This playing card forms part of the collections of The New-York Historical Society Museum and Library. This card might have originally been one of a pack of cards representing different pantomime characters from 1801-1808. An auction catalogue of items from the Collection of the Late Charlotte Schreiber, including Political, Educational and Fanciful cards of Italy, England, Germany, France and Other Countries, by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge on 1 May 1896 lists a ‘Fanciful Pack. Transformation of Playing Cards, some of the illustrations represent characters from The pantomimes, &c. of 1801-8 — Mother Goose, Three Fingered Jack, &c.’ Jack is represented wearing a feathered turban, suggesting a blurring of ideas about the exotic.
‘Mr. Wood as Three Fingered Jack’
This hand-coloured etching is a portrait of ‘Mr. Wood as Three Fingered Jack.’ Mr Wood was probably the actor Joseph Wood, who was depicted in several other roles. It was produced in London and published in the mid-nineteenth century by E. Skelt. It forms part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Harry Beard Collection. The Museum of London owns a similar image, dated to 1850-1872. ‘Juvenile theatres’ were small theatres for young people – popular during nineteenth century Britain, which could be cut out from sheets of paper – Skelt was one of the main producers of these theatres sheets and so this etching may be related somehow to a cut-out juvenile theatre. One of the common Juvenile theatres was a version of the popular pantomime Three-Fingered Jack.
Robert Louis Stevenson reflected on his childhood love of juvenile theatre by recalling Skelt and also ‘Three Fingered Jack’. In his 1884 ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ published in his 1895 Memories and Portraits, he reflected:
‘These words will be familiar to all students of Skelt’s Juvenile Drama. … I have, at different times, possessed Aladdin, The Red Rover, The Blind Boy, The Old Oak Chest, The Wood Daemon, Jack Sheppard, The Miller and his Men, … and Three – Fingered Jack, the Terror of Jamaica.’
Jamaica National Heritage Trust Roadside Marker
In 1978 the Jamaica National Trust Commission, later replaced by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, placed a heritage sign at the side of the road that leads east from Kingston to the parish of St. Thomas. Near the village of Bull Bay, the sign is easy to miss, but remains present today, accompanied by a sign advertising a restaurant and beer garden, ‘Jack’s Place’. The sign was placed during a period when Jamaica was establishing a series of National Heroes. Although Jack was not considered as a candidate to be a National Hero, he was considered sufficiently important to warrant this sign, which explains that he ‘fought, often singlehandedly, a war of terror against the English soldiers and planters who held the slave colony.’
Books and Articles
Catalogue of Old Playing Cards from the Collection of the Late Lady
Charlotte Schreiber, Including Political, Educational and Fanciful Cards
of Italy, England, Germany, France and Other Countries. London: J. Davy and sons, 1896, http://archive.org/details/catalogueoldpla00elvegoog, site accessed 6 January 2013.
Rahn, Suzanne. ‘Rediscovering the Toy Theatre—with a Review of George
Speaight’s the History of the English Toy Theatre.’The Lion and the Unicorn. 11.2 (1987): 111-127.
Stevenson, Robert L. Memories and Portraits. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895. Digitised edition at http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/essays site accessed 18 January 2013.
Early Pantomine, Victoria & Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/e/early-pantomime/ site accessed 18 January 2013.
Paton, Diana. Histories of Three Fingered Jack: A Bibliography.