400th death-day congratulations go to John Selman, a brass-balled nimblefingers who was hanged on this date in 1612 for stealing … at Whitehall … on Christmas … in the presence of the king. And, Selman himself added in his scaffold confessional, “in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion.” That’s like hitting for Stuart England’s malefaction cycle.
This common thief had tried to blend among the ermine-clad set at church with a black-velvet cloak getup, but drawn enough suspicion to be nabbed with a 40-shilling purse he’d brazenly boosted from a nobleman‘s retainer.
Francis Bacon, one of Selman’s judges, affected a suitably hyperbolic indignation at the effrontery of it all: “The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in Heaven. The second was done in Paadise, being Heaven upon Earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke.” Tens of thousands of human beings in the judge’s immediate ambit — England, Europe — had been slaughtering one another to the glory of God for the past century when Bacon said that. He’d surely give Nancy Grace a run for her money.
Then as now crime moved copy, and if the realm’s lord magistrates were ready to measure this guy up against Beelzebub, one can readily imagine the woodblock tweets he sent a-flying among the hoi polloi. Selman’s audacious escapade relieved his last days’ dread with the gift of celebrity. Writers scrambled to churn out Selman-tinged copy, like these inevitable ballads.
With hands and eyes to heaven,
all did in reverence stand:
While I in mischife used mine eye,
and my accursed hand,
Now was my mischiefe ripe.
my villanyes full growne,
And now the God in secret knew it.
did make it open knowne.
Hopefully God got a cut of the action from these writers. Talk about a Christmas gift for a scribe.
No less a personage than Ben Jonson hastily wrote Selman into his Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as “the Christmas Cutpurse”: this debuted the same night the real Selman made his last peace with God and man awaiting the next day’s hanging on the road to Charing Cross. (After all this Christmas reverence, they piously held off on the hanging until the full twelve days of Christmas had elapsed.)
At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions,
‘Tis daily their practice such booty to make;
Yea under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts’ purses to take;
Nay, one without grace, at a better place,
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face.
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse,
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse?
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv’d by thy nurse,
Than live to be hang’d for cutting as purse.
–“A Caveat for Cutpurses” from Bartholomew Fair
Jonson sure got that right: under Selman’s own gallows-tree this day, “one of his quality (a picke-pocket I meane) even at his execution, grew master of a true mans purse, who being presently taken, was imprisoned, and is like the next sessions to wander the long voiage after his grand Captaine Mounsier Iohn Selman.”