On this date in 1708, an English highwayman whose sense of chivalry crossed the line between old-fashioned and delusional was hanged at Leicester.
Apprenticed a shoemaker, Jack Ovet had a mind to be a gentleman and the enterprise to seek his fortune among the unguarded coaches of Stuart England’s highways. And he affected full rehearsal for his future social role with an arch mien of chivalry. When one of his victims cited him for cowardice, Ovet laid down his pistols and fought a duel with swords, slaying the burgher.
In Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England, Frank McLynn examines the odd but sometimes real rules of honor observed by this romanticized species:
… there clearly were ‘Robin Hoods’ among the highwaymen, as well as individuals of refined sensibility and exquisite courtesy … The courtesy of highwaymen was shown in various ways: politeness to women, avoidance of pointing guns directly at victims, lack of thorough searches of passengers, even the return of favourite items of sentimental value.
Ovet went so far as to become genuinely besotten with a pretty young thing whose purse he relieved, rarely a wise move for a fellow living on his guile. He made bold to seduce his victim in a pseudonymous letter, thus:
MADAM,-These few lines are to acquaint you that though I lately had the cruelty to rob you of twenty guineas, yet you committed a greater robbery at the same time in robbing me of my heart; on which you may behold yourself enthroned, and all my faculties paying their homage to your unparalleled beauty. Therefore be pleased to propose but the method how I may win your belief, and were the way to it as deep as from hence to the centre, I will search it out. For by all my hopes, by all those rites that crown a happy union, by the rosy tincture of your checks, and by your all-subduing eyes, I prize you above all the world. Oh, then, my fair Venus, can you be afraid of Love? His brow is smooth, and his face beset with banks full of delight; about his neck hangs a chain of golden smiles. Let us taste the pleasures which Cupid commands, and for that unmerited favour I shall become another man, to make you happy. So requesting the small boon of a favourable answer to be sent me to Mr Walker’s, who keeps an ale-house at the sign of the Bell in Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, give me leave to subscribe myself your most humble servant to command for ever,
The lady remained resolutely unsmitten — and had a significantly more accurate forecast of her suitor’s future prospects than all that golden-smiles stuff:
SIR,-Yours I received with as great dissatisfaction as when you robbed me, and admire at your impudence of offering me yourself for a husband, when I am sensible ‘twould not be long ere you made me a hempen widow. Perhaps some foolish girl or another may be so bewitched as to go in white to beg the favour of marrying you under the gallows; but indeed I should venture neither there nor in a church to marry one of your profession, whose vows are treacherous, and whose smiles, words and actions, like small rivulets through a thousand turnings of loose passions, at last arrive to the dead sea of sin. Should you therefore dissolve your eyes into tears, was every accent a sigh in your speech, had you all the spells and magic charms of love, I should seal up my ears that I might not hear your dissimulation. You have already broken your word in not sending what you villainously took from me; but not valuing that, let me tell you, for fear you should have too great a conceit of yourself, that you are the first, to my remembrance, whom I ever hated; and sealing my hatred with the hopes of quickly reading your dying speech, in case you die in London, I presume to subscribe myself yours never to command,
(Longtime readers may remember this piece briefly published last year on this date — a small snafu of the pre-publishing art.)