On March 23, 1761, British highwayman Isaac Darkin — “Dumas” by a dashing alias — hanged at Oxford for robbery.
It might be Darkin’s misfortune to have been born just too late for the mythmaking golden age of highwaymen; a generation or two earlier he might have forged a reputation alongside a Dick Turpin. He was one of the last road agents whose career and genteel pretensions might have suited him for the firmament.
The suave outlaw, noted for his natty attire and correct address, first passed under the shadow of the noose in 1758 around age 18, when a death sentence earned for his first legal brush was respited in favor of conscription into the Seven Years’ War.
Darkin took the deal, but not the troop transport to Antigua: instead he devised a route to early retirement from the infantry by bribing the captain of a merchantman anchored nearby in the Thames to stow him away.
And then, quoth this history of highwaymen, our man “rioted all through the West of England, robbing wealthy travellers and gaily spending his takings on what he loved best: fine clothes and fine ladies. He was so attentive to business that he speedily made a name for himself, the name of a daring votary of the high toby.”
Arrested in Salisbury in 1760 for the famous robbery of a Lord Percival, Darkin beat that charge — but not before becoming a favorite of the city’s ladies who were reported to crowd his cell with callers and coo over him at fashionable tea-times. When “Dumas” escaped the noose on a technicality, some Salisbury women dedicated their enchanting Duval a come-hither ode.
Joy to thee, lovely Thief! that thou
Hast ‘scaped the fatal string,
Let Gallows groan with ugly Rogues,
Dumas mut never swing.
Does thou seek Money? — To thy Wants
Our Purses we’ll resign;
Could we our Hearts to guineas coin
Those guineas all were thine.
To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded Pockets carry;
Thou ne’er again shall tempt the Road,
Sweet youth! if you wilt marry.
No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee — We’ll ensure them:
To us thou shalt consign thy Balls
And Pistol; we’ll secure ’em.
Yet think not, when the Chains are off,
Which now thy Legs bedeck,
To fly: in Fetters softer far
We’ll chain thee by the Neck.
Alas for its swooning authors, the handsome bandit had no interest in the bonds of matrimony, and just as well — for he would have left his mate a hempen widow.
A mere six weeks after this merry escape, he was snapped up again in Oxford, having returned inevitably to his career and calling.
This time there was no hope of escape and no technicality to hang his hat on.
There was nothing for it but to die “game” — that is, fearless of death — an underworld virtue Darkin carried almost to a fault. He spent his last days “with reading the Beggars’s Opera” and “said it was always his Determination, whenever he should have the ill Fortune to be taken, ‘to suffer without discovering the least Dread of Death; never to betray his Connections, but to die like a Hero.'”*
So indeed he did, as attested by a letter from Oxford published in the London Evening Post (March 21-24 1761) — hurling himself off the gallows without the hand of the executioner.
His Behaviour was extremely undaunted; for when he came out of the Gaol to the Ladder, he ascended it with the greatest Resolution; and the Cord being tied up by his own Desire over the Gallows before he came, he instantly went up four Steps higher than that on which he stepped off to hang himself, put the Cord round his own Neck and placed it, then descending the four Steps down, pulled out a white Handkerchief, tied it round his Eyes and Face, and went off without saying one Word.
His Body was ordered to be brought back into the Castle, to be conveyed to the Museum for Desection [sic]; but he declaring that he valued not Death, but only the Thoughts of being anatomized, a large Gang of Bargemen arose, took him a Way in Triumph, carried him to the next Parish Church; and while some rung the Bells for Joy, others opened his Belly, filled it full of unslick’d Lime, and then buried the Body.
* From Andrea McKenzie’s “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying Game in Augustan England” in the Journal of British Studies, April 2003. For more on the subject, also see the same author’s book-length treatment, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775.