1849: Elisha Reese, suitor 1681: Leticia Wigington, apprentice-flogger

1686: Jonathan Simpson, merchant turned highwayman

September 8th, 2013 Headsman

Jonathan Simpson, hanged on this date in 1686, had a good many virtues to judge by the account of his life left by the Newgate Calendar.

He was, first, an enterprising man, who served his apprenticeship “with reputation” and then set up shop as a successful linen-draper in the city of Bristol.

This business enabled him to augment the fortune of his own business by marrying a merchant’s daughter — “but the union proved unhappy, because the young lady was before engaged in affection to a gentleman of less fortune in the neighbourhood, whom her father hindered her from having, and with whom she continued a familiarity that soon displeased her husband.”

Such a scenario has been the germ of many a denizen of this here blog, but Simpson didn’t reach the gallows doing anything as straightforward as murdering his rival or his spouse out of pique.

Instead — and the Calendar leaves the hows and whys of this translation unexplored — he channeled his jealousy into a crime spree. Maybe that’s just the writer’s projection: fella went around the bend, it must’ve been because of a woman. The Newgate Calendar, too, had a home life, and many was the Briton who dreamt of escaping the drudgery of it all for a life of adventure and romance making gentlemen stand and deliver.

At any rate, Simpson managed a career of 18 months on the road, burning through his linen-draper savings (and his highwayman “earnings”) to escape a couple of potential capital prosecutions. (At this time, criminal complaints were initiated by private prosecutions, meaning that a victim prepared to accept direct restitution could potentially be bought off pressing a case.)

This brings us to another of Simpson’s admirable qualities: his silver tongue.

One can only speculate how he wheedled his onetime victims behind closed doors to drop their suits. But the Newgate Calendar attests to the man’s wit under pressure once he was finally hauled to the fatal tree.

It turns out that Simpson did well in business because his family had done well in business before him, and dad staked him to £1,500 when the lad went into business himself. These prosperous burghers accordingly rallied to exert their own wealth and influence behind the scenes to obtain for their kin a timely commutation, delivered only “when he was at Tyburn, with the halter about his neck, and just ready to be turned off in company with several others.” Then bureaucracy happened.

When he was brought to the prison door, the turnkey refused to receive him, telling the officer that, as he was sent to be executed, they were discharged of him, and would not have anything to do with him again, unless there was a fresh warrant for his commitment; whereupon Simpson made this reflection: “What an unhappy cast-off dog am I, that both Tyburn and Newgate should in one day refuse to entertain me! Well, I’ll mend my manners for the future, and try whether I can’t merit a reception at them both the next time I am brought hither.”

That’s kind of funny, right? In a self-destructive braggadocio sort of way?

And then Simpson demonstrated a third quality that (in addition to dad’s money) helped him succeed in commerce before his midlife crisis: his phenomenal industry. Simpson, we are told, committed “above 40 robberies” in Middlesex in the six weeks after his reprieve, a healthy pace of one per day.

He robbed the powerful (our writer credits him with a successful stickup of the king’s own son); he robbed the hoi polloi (“the robberies he committed on drovers, pedlars, market-people, etc., were almost innumerable”); he robbed on ice skates;* when he was finally captured, it was by two captains of the Foot Guards whom he was also attempting to rob.

The man lived to rob. On this date in 1686, he finally died for it.

* The online text versions of the Calendar notice Simpson’s skatebourne pilfering during “the great frost of 1689, which held thirteen weeks,” obviously not chronologically correct relative to his execution date. This is an error, likely on the part of software somewhere along the line; the year in question should be 1684 (computers like to mix up fours and nines). 1684 was one of the longest and deepest winter freezes on record, leaving the iced-over Thames bustling with Londoners at the “Frost Fair”.


“[W]hat unheard of rendezvous is daily kept upon the face of [London's] navigable river; what long and spacious streets of booths and tents are builded; what throngs of passengers, both horse and foot, do travel; what pyramids of provisions, baked, boiled, and roast; what deluges of wine, coffee, beer, ale, and brandy, for sale; what fleets of vessels sailing upon sledges; what troops of coaches, caravans, and waggons; what games and new invented sports and pastimes, bull-baiting, bear-baiting, &c.; together with shops for the vending of most sorts of manufactures and for working artificers, the account of which alone would require a volume to describe …” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Theft

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