The Old Bailey Online site — “A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court” — is one of the scaffold-chaser’s most outstanding resources and well worth perusing by anyone whose interests even remotely touch English crime and law from the Bloody Code to the eve of World War I.
Today’s post touches four such men, very distinctly non-elite fellows all sharing the same common Christian name, all hanged together at Tyburn for burglary. (Technically, John Creamer was hanged for returning from transportation, but he was transported in the first place for burglary.)
We begin as is our wont at the unhappy end. Here the Ordinary of Newgate — that “great Bishop of the Cells”, whose business was salvaging the souls of men whose flesh was forfeit — details the last hours of the doomed. Theirs is typical, even forgettable among scores of such accounts.
The condemned array themselves in various cuts of pathos, contrition, resignation. (Only Creamer somewhat objects to his sentence; this is almost beside the point.)
The clock ticks inexorably.
They’re turned off in the passive voice — who turned them? — crying out to God.
The prisoners were brought down from their cells about a quarter before seven. Their behaviour was every way becoming their unhappy situation.
The appearance of Sunderland and Jones was really moving and affecting by reason of their late illness of a bad fever, of which Sunderland was never expected to have recovered: He was so weak and low that he could scarcely support himself.
Chapman, while his irons were unloosing, said, ‘Ah! these will soon fall to the lot of some poor unhappy fellow!’ Sunderland and Jones were not fettered, the low and sickly condition they were in not requiring it.
Being now ready they went up to chapel, except Creamer, who was of the Catholic persuasion: Sunderland went up first: it was a few minutes before Jones and Chapman followed. In this short interval of time Sunderland said, ‘O how cold am I! I am now as cold as I have been lately hot and distracted with a fever, when I was so light-headed, that nothing run in my mind but a respite was come down, and wondered at their keeping me in my cells. Once upon a time little did I think of coming to this untimely end!’
When Jones came up (who had occasion to wait a little behind) he, with a very decent and christian-like behaviour, fell on his knees to ask God’s blessing.
After being severalty spoken to and prayed with, they were admitted to the Lord’s table, of which they partook, ’tis hoped, to their everlasting comfort.
They were then again recommended in prayer to the mercy of Christ; desiring them stedfastly to look to him as crucified for them, and to be sensible that their sentence was just, but that he, the innocent and immaculate Lamb of God, suffered, the Just for the unjust, and was treated with the greatest shame and ignominy, to take away their curse. They were once more reminded to look unto him, and to let nothing, that might pass on their way, divert their attention from him.
The clock striking eight, Sunderland listed up his hands and said, “We have not three hours more to live in this world.”
Service being ended, they went down from chapel to be made ready. Creamer, while the halter was fixing about him, wrung his hands and wept bitterly, and said, at going out, “God forgive them that have taken away my life for returning back to my own country!”
They arrived at the place of execution at half past ten; and when tied up, I went to perform the last office to them. They behaved with decency. And having again acknowledged that their sentence was just, except Creamer, who thought it rather hard, as he had committed no robbery since his return; but he was told to remember, that he had deserved to die before, and had received mercy: “True, says he, it is so; well, God forgive every one.”
They were once more recommended in prayer to the mercy of God, and then soon were turned off, crying out, Lord, receive our spirits.
Four burglars gone to the Tyburn tree.
In the period after the Seven Years’ War, housebreaking was a boom industry — there was a jaw-dropping eightfold increase in documented burglaries in London from 1766 to 1770. “The material civilization of the urban bourgeoisie became more refined, its belongings — ever increasing in variety and number — became arranged with a view to display and security.” (Linebaugh) Said period also corresponded to the demobilization of some 100,000 soldiers, blithely dumped from the late global war into an economy destitute of social welfare buttressing.
Each veteran “must return to some vocation which he has forgot, or which is engrossed by others in his absence,” lamented The Gentleman’s Magazine. “He must sue for hard labour, or he may starve. If human nature cannot submit to that, cannot he lie down in a ditch and die. If this disbanded brave man should vainly think he has some right to share in the wealth of his country which he defended, secured, or increased, he may seize a small portion of it by force — and to be hanged.”
For the enterprising criminal, the growing quantities of plunder available from a domestic raid exceeded by orders of magnitude the coppers one might riskily expropriate in the streets by main force or dextrous digits.
Entrepreneurial thieves accordingly developed an astonishing felicity for breaking and entering, often (as was the case with all this day’s hanged Johns) penetrating occupied domiciles where the soon-to-be-dispossessed owners dozed.
The blind magistrate and police reformer Sir John Fielding was at this time leading the uphill struggle to control the breaking-and-entering epidemic. (His testimony to Parliament is the source of those “octupling burglary rate” figures.)
Fielding’s anti-burglary agenda included strengthening the city’s embryonic policing, as well as killjoy social measures like shuttering taverns and suppressing the Beggar’s Opera; that very year of 1772, he debuted a (still-extant) magazine to circulate the descriptions of wanted fugitives. And trying to force pawnbrokers and other potential fences into monitoring their inventory sources, Fielding successfully prevailed on Parliament to expose the receivers of stolen goods to the same criminal sanctions as the thieves themselves. (See The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840)
All these would have limited effect against London’s ingenious burglars. But our four Johns were the kind of men Fielding meant to put out of business.
John Jones and John Sunderland were a team. Six weeks before their hanging, they broke into a home and bent their backs under an entire wardrobe’s worth of booty: “one silver saucepan, value 10 s. one pair of silver knee buckles, value 4 s. and one pair of silver-garter buckles, value 2 s. the property of the said Aaron Franks, Esq; one gold watch-chain, value 20 s. two seals set in gold, value 10 s. six linen stocks, value 3 s. eight pair of silk stockings, value 30 s. two silk pocket handkerchiefs, value 4 s. five other pocket handkerchiefs, value 5 s. five linen-shirts, value 40 s. one pair of pocket pistols, value 40 s. one flannel waistcoat, value 5 s. and one pair of laced ruffles, value 40 s. the property of Jacob Franks, Esq; one cloth coat, value 20 s. one cloth waistcoat, value 5 s. two other linen shirts, value 4 s. one cornelian seal set in silver, value 2 s. one pair of silk stockings, value 1 s. and one pair of thread stockings, value 6 d. the property of Joseph Grover; four other shirts, value 16 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 3 s. the property of Phineas Ghent, and one thickset frock, value 15 s. the property of Richard Varley , in the dwelling house of the said Aaron Franks, Esq.” (Grover and Ghent were servants. Everyone got cleaned out … and nobody woke up.)
The tricky and essential part of the burglary business, as Sir John Fielding recognized, was getting rid of the loot. Jones and Sunderland were shopped by a suspicious man to whom they attempted to sell some of the clothes.
John Chapman jimmied open the shuttered and barred window of a St. George in the East residence while its owner slept upstairs and emptying the place of “a silk handkerchief, and two linen handkerchiefs, value 2 s. four China bowls, value 20 s. one earthen bowl, value 6 d. one pair of gold weights and scales, value 1 s. one leather box, value 1 s. and thirty-six half-pence.” The theft was only discovered in the morning when a neighbor noticed the broken window and raised the alarm; Chapman was traced when one of the China bowls later turned up, but by that time he’d already notched another successful midnight home invasion. He drew death sentences in both cases.
His 17-year-old accomplice turned crown’s evidence, and described the method in that latter instance:
John Chapman had a chissel in his pocket, a long chissel, a rusly one; he bid me look out that no-body came by; I stood within a yard or two of him; he put his shoulder to the bolt, and pulled very hard, and broke it open; after we had broke it open, the watchman came by to call the hour, past one; we put the shutters to and went a little further down a turning, till he went to his box again. When the watchman went to his box we got in; John Chapman struck a light; we both went in, and shoved the window up; we pulled the window shutter to again, and he had a key that he pulled out of his pocket, or was in the bureau; he pulled the door open; he had a candle in his pocket, wrapped up in a bit of paper, and a tinder box and matches, and pulled the drawers open, one at a time, and took out what was in them; there was a blackish gown, and some cotton to make shirts of, some striped cotton, and a great large table cloth flowered; there were a great many more things I cannot justly mention.
we went on three or four steps the same side of the room, where there was a good deal of china; we saw the pepper castor with some pepper in it, and a silver spoon; one spoon bigger than a tea spoon; there were two bottles with liquor, one wine I believe; Chapman drank, and then said to me drink; I did; we laid the things upon the ground. I went backwards and searched where the coppers were, there I found half a dozen of tea spoons, in a cupboard where was victuals; the handles of the spoons did not turn up, they went downwards.
We looked down upon the ground, there was a great deal of copper saucepans and some shoes; I took some of the buckles of …
We tied them up in bundles, and brought them over the fields; he carried me down Old Gravel-lane, to (I believe the place is) Broad-street where Mrs. Nimmy lives; he carried them up stairs, and I lay with him all night … Chapman carried the things away in the morning; I got the cotton to make some shirts of; I brought it to Mrs. Nimmy; I knew her very well; she asked me whose they were; I said my brother bought them for me; I said I was going apprentice, and my mother would pay her, when they were made; I cannot tell where any of the other things were carried; Chapman gave me 12 s. for my share; he sold the things.
Creamer’s was the least impressive heist of the bunch, perhaps little more than a crime of opportunity. Short on cash to pay for a pot of beer late one night at his lodging-house, he went upstairs, broke into a fellow-lodger’s room while the fellow-lodger slept, and absconded with 8 3/4 guineas. He not only paid for the beer, he went right out that night carousing and spending freely in the sight of many witnesses. He was traced because one of the coins he parted with had a distinctive “white spot like silver”; the victim, who suspected Creamer to begin with, was able the next day to track down that coin where it had been spent and tie it back to the miscreant.