1752: Nicholas Mooney, penitent thief 1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

1827: Blue Jimmy

April 25th, 2018 Florence Dugdale

(Thanks to Florence Dugdale-Hardy, wife of gallows aficionado and literary titan Thomas Hardy, for the guest post on horse thief “Blue Jimmy”, whom Thomas Hardy also referenced by name in a poem. We dug up the piece here. -ed.)

Blue Jimmy: The Horse Stealer

(written by Florence Dugdale-Hardy with Thomas Hardy)

Blue Jimmy stole full many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.

The name of “Blue Jimmy” — a passing allusion to whose career is quoted above from Mr Thomas Hardy’s ballad “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy” — is now nearly forgotten even in the West of England. Yet he and his daring exploits were on the tongues of old rustics in that district down to twenty or thirty years ago, and there are still men and women living who can recall their fathers’ reminiscences of him.

To revive the adventures of any notorious horse-thief may not at first sight seem edifying; but in the present case, if stories may be believed, the career of the delinquent discloses that curious feature we notice in the traditions of only some few of the craft — a mechanical persistence in a series of actions as if by no will or necessity of the actor, but as if under some external or internal compulsion against which reason and a foresight of sure disaster were powerless to argue.

Jimmy is said to have been, in one account of him, “worth thousands,” in another a “well-to-do” farmer, and in all a man who found or would have found no difficulty in making an honest income. Yet this could not hinder him from indulging year after year in his hazardous pursuit, or recreation, as it would seem to have been, till he had reft more than a hundred horses from their owners, and planted them profitably on innocent purchasers.

This was in full view of the fact that in those days the sentence for horse-stealing was, as readers will hardly need to be reminded, death without hope of mitigation. It is usually assumed that the merciless judicial sentence, however lacking in Christian loving-kindness towards the criminal, had at least the virtue always of being in the highest degree deterrent; yet at that date, when death was the penalty for many of what we should now consider minor crimes, their frequency was extraordinary. This particular offence figures almost continually in the calendar at each assize, and usually there were several instances at each town on a circuit. Jimmy must have known this well enough; but the imminent risk of his neck for a few pounds in each case did not deter him.

He stood nineteen times before my lord judge ere the final sentence came — no verdict being previously returned against him for the full offence through lack of sufficient evidence.

Of this long string of trials we may pass over the details till we reach the eighteenth — a ticklish one for Jimmy — in which he escaped, by a hair’s breadth only, the doom that overtook him on the nineteenth for good and all. What had happened was as follows: —

On a December day in 1822 a certain John Wheller, living near Chard, in Somerset, was standing at his door when Jimmy — whose real name was James Clace — blithely rode by on a valuable mare.

They “passed the time of day” to each other, and then, without much preface:

“A fine morning,” says Jimmy cheerfully.

“‘Tis so,” says Mr Wheller.

“We shall have a dry Christmas,” Jimmy continues.

“I think we shall so,” answers Wheller.

Jimmy pulled rein. “Now do you happen to want a good mare that I bought last week at Stratton Fair?” And he turned his eye on the flank of the animal.

“I don’t know that I do.”

“The fact is a friend of mine bought one for me at the same time without my knowledge and, as I don’t want two, I must get rid of this one at any sacrifice. You shall have her for fourteen pounds.”

Wheller shook his head, but negotiation proceeded. Another man, one named Wilkins, a nephew of Wheller, happening to pass just then, assured Wheller that he knew the seller well, and that he was a farmer worth thousands who lived at Tiverton. Eventually the mare was exchanged for a cart-horse of Wheller’s and three pounds in money.

Curiously enough Wheller did not suspect that anything was wrong till he found the next day that the animal was what he called “startish” — and, having begun to reflect upon the transaction, he went to his nephew Wilkins, who also lived at Chard, half a mile from Wheller, and asked him how he knew that the vendor of the mare was a farmer at Tiverton? The reply was vague and unsatisfying — in short the strange assurance of Wilkins, Wheller’s own nephew, was never explained — and Wheller wished he had had nothing to do with the “man worth thousands.” He went in search of him, and eventually found him at that ancient hostel “The Golden Heart” at Coombe St. Nicholas, placidly smoking a long clay pipe in the parlour over a tankard of ale.

“I have been looking for you,” said Mr Wheller with severe suddenness.

“To get another such bargain, no doubt,” says Jimmy with the bitter air of a man who has been a too generous fool in his dealings.

“Not at all. I suspect that you did not come honestly by that mare, and request to have back my money and cart-horse, when I’ll return her.”

“Good news for me!” says Jimmy, “for that I’m quite willing to do. Here, landlady! A pipe and ale for this gentleman. I’ve sent my man out to bring round my gig; and you can go back to my farm with me, and have your horse this very afternoon, on your promising to bring mine to-morrow. Whilst you are drinking I’ll see if my man is getting ready.”

Blue Jimmy went out at the back, and Wheller saw him go up the stable-yard, half-regretting that he had suspected such a cheerful and open man of business. He smoked and drank and waited, but his friend did not come back; and then it occurred to him to ask the landlady where her customer, the farmer, lived.

“What farmer?” said the landlady.

“He who has gone out to the stables — I forget his name — to get his horse put-to.”

“I don’t know that he’s a farmer. He’s got no horse in our stables — he’s quite a stranger here.”

“But he keeps the market here every week?”

“I never saw him before in my life. And I’ll trouble you to pay for your ale, and his likewise, as he didn’t.”

When Wheller reached the yard the “farmer” had vanished, and no trace of him was discoverable in the town.

This looked suspicious, yet after all it might have meant only that the man who sold him the mare did not wish to reopen the transaction. So Wheller went home to Chard, resolving to say nothing, but to dispose of the mare on the first opportunity. This he incontinently did to Mr Loveridge, a neighbour, at a somewhat low price, rubbed his hands, and devoutly hoped that no more would be heard of the matter. And nothing was for some while. We now take up the experience of Mr Loveridge with the animal. He had possessed her for some year or two when it was rumoured in Chard that a Mr Thomas Sheppard, of Stratton, in Cornwall, had been making inquiries about the mare.

Mr Loveridge felt uneasy, and spoke to Wheller, of whom he had bought her, who seemed innocence itself, and who certainly had not stolen her; and by and by another neighbour who had just heard of the matter came in with the information that handbills were in circulation in Cornwall when he was last there, offering a reward for a particular mare like Mr Loveridge’s, which disappeared at Stratton Fair.

Loveridge felt more and more uncomfortable, and began to be troubled by bad dreams. He grew more and more sure, although he had no actual proof, that the horse in his possession was the missing one, until, valuable to him as his property was for hauling and riding, his conscience compelled him to write a letter to the said Mr Sheppard, the owner of the lost animal. In a few days W. Yeo, an emissary of Mr Sheppard, appeared at Mr Loveridge’s door. “What is the lost mare like?” said Mr Loveridge cautiously.

“She has four black streaks down her right fore-foot, and her tail is stringed’ so” — here he described the shades, gave the particular manner in which the tail had been prepared for the fair, and, adding other descriptive details, was certain it was the same mare that had been brought to Chard. He had broken it in for Mr Sheppard, and never before had known a mare so peculiarly marked.

The end of the colloquy was that Mr Loveridge gave up the animal, and found himself the loser of the money he had paid for it. For being richer than his worthy neighbour Wheller who had sold it to him, he magnanimously made up their temporary quarrel on the declaration of Wheller that he did not know of the theft, and had honestly bought the horse. Together then they vowed vengeance against the thief, and with the assistance of Mr Sheppard he was ultimately found at Dorchester. He was committed for the crime, and proving to be no less a personage than the already notorious Blue Jimmy, tried at the Taunton Assizes on March 28, 1825, before Mr Justice Park.

During the trial all the crowd in court thought that this was to be the end of famous Blue Jimmy; but an odd feature in the evidence against him was that the prosecutor, Mr Sheppard, when cross-examined on the marks described by his assistant Yeo, declared that he could not swear positively to any of them.

The learned judge, in summing up, directed the jury to consider whether the identity of the mare had been so indubitably proved as to warrant them in pronouncing the prisoner guilty, and suggested that the marks described by the witness Yeo might be found upon many horses. “It was remarkable,” his Lordship observed, “that Wilkins, who was present when Wheller bought the horse, although the nephew of the latter, and living within half a mile of him, had not been brought into court to give evidence, though witnesses from so considerable a distance as Cornwall had been examined.”

In spite of this summing-up people in court were all expecting that Blue Jimmy would swing for his offences this time; yet the verdict was “Not Guilty,” and we may well imagine the expression of integrity on Blue Jimmy’s countenance as he walked out of the dock, although, as later discoveries proved, he had, as a matter of fact, stolen the mare.

But the final scene for Blue Jimmy was not long in maturing itself. Almost exactly two years later he stood at the bar in the same assize court at Taunton, indicted for a similar offence. This time the loser was one Mr Holcombe, of Fitzhead, and the interest in the trial was keener even than in the previous one.

Jimmy’s first question had been, “Who is the judge?” and the answer came that it was Mr Justice Park, who had tried him before.

“Then I’m a dead man!” said Jimmy, and closed his lips, and appeared to consider his defence no longer.

It was also a mare on this occasion, a bay one, and the evidence was opened by the prosecutor, Mr Holcombe, who stated that the last time he saw his mare in the field from which he had lost her was on the 8th of the preceding October; on the 10th he missed her; he did not see her again till the 21st, when she was in a stall of Mr Oliver’s, at the King’s Arms, Dorchester.

Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy: The field from which the mare was stolen was adjoining the public road; he had never known the mare to escape; it was not possible for her to leave the field unless she was taken out.

Elizabeth Mills examined. Her husband kept the Crown and Anchor at Mosterton, Somerset; the prisoner came to her house about four o’clock on October 9. He had two horses with him. He asked for some person to put them in the stable; another man was in his company, and eventually the other man put them in the stable himself. The prisoner was riding the mare on his arrival; it was a bay one. Her husband returned about nine at night. (Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) Prisoner bargained with her husband for the horses; Pierce, the constable, was there while prisoner and her husband were talking; prisoner left next morning.

Robert Mills, husband of the last witness, examined. He reached home about nine o’clock on October 9. He went with Pierce the constable into the stable and saw a blood Mare; also a pony mare. Constable and witness took two bridles and a saddle belonging to the horses into the house, having a mistrust that the animals were not honestly acquired. Prisoner called for his horses next morning, and asked what he had to pay. Witness, who now began to recognise him, said: “Jimmy, I don’t think you came by these horses straight.” He replied, “I don’t know why you address me by the familiar name of Jimmy, since it is not mine. I chopped the mare at Alphington Fair for a black cart-horse.” Prisoner spoke of the pedigree of the mare, and asked twenty-five guineas for it, and twelve for the pony. Witness offered twelve for the mare. Prisoner refused, paid his reckoning and ordered his horses. While the saddle was being put on, witness cut two marks in the hair under the mane. Prisoner then left the house. The other man had gone away before witness returned the night before. The pony was left. Witness saw the mare afterwards, on the 22nd, in Mr Holcombe’s possession. He examined the mare and found the private marks he had made on her under the mane. He had never seen the prisoner between the time the latter put up at his house and when he saw him in Tiverton Prison.

(Cross-examined by Mr Jeremy.) The morning after prisoner brought the horses to his house he asked for some beer, though he was accustomed to wine, he remarked, and said that he was going to Bridport Fair to spend a score of bank-notes or so by way of killing time.

A witness named Gillard, as he was walking to church on the morning of the 8th (the morning before the robbery was committed) saw the prisoner in a lane three miles from Fitzhead, sitting on the ground between two camps of gipsies.

The prisoner said nothing in his defence, merely shaking his head with a grim smile. The verdict was Guilty.

“A Trampwoman’s Tragedy”
by Thomas Hardy
(Stanza X)

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

His Lordship, in passing sentence of death, entreated the prisoner to make the best use of the short time he would have to live in this world. The prisoner had been two years since brought before him and in 1823 he had been convicted by his learned Brother Hullock for a similar offence. The full weight of the punishment awarded to his crime must now fall upon him, without the least hope of mitigation.

Such was horse-stealing in the ‘twenties of the last century, and such its punishment.

How Jimmy acquired his repute for blueness — whether the appellative was suggested to some luminous mind by his clothes, or by his complexion, or by his morals, has never been explained, and never will be now by any historian.

About a month later, in the same old County Chronicle, one finds a tepid and unemotional account of the end of him at Ilchester, Somerset, where then stood the county gaol — till lately remembered, though now removed — on the edge of a wide expanse of meadowland, spread at that season of the year with a carpet of butter-cups and daisies. The account appears under the laconic heading, “Execution, Wednesday, April 25, 1827: James Clace, better known by the name of Blue Jimmy, suffered the extreme sentence of the law upon the new drop at Ilchester … Clace appears to have been a very notorious character” (this is a cautious statement of the reporter’s, quite unlike the exuberant reporting of the present day: the culprit was notorious indubitably). “He is said to have confessed to having stolen an enormous number of horses, and he had been brought to the bar nineteen times for that class of offence…. In early life he lived as a postboy at Salisbury; afterwards he joined himself to some gipsies for the humour of the thing, and at length began those practices which brought him to an untimely end; aged 52.”

A tradition was till lately current as to his hanging. When on the gallows he stated blandly that he had followed the strict rule of never stealing horses from people who were more honest than himself, but only from skinflints, taskmasters, lawyers, and parsons. Otherwise he might have stolen a dozen where he had only stolen one.

The same newspaper paragraph briefly alludes to a young man who was hanged side by side with Blue Jimmy, upon the “new drop”: —

“William Hazlett — aged 25 — for having stolen some sheep and some lambs. The miserable man, after being condemned, seemed to imagine that his was a very hard case.”

The County Chronicle prints the last few words in italics, appearing to hold up its hands in horror at the ingratitude of the aforesaid William Hazlett. For was not he provided with a “new drop,” and had he not for his fellow voyager into futurity that renowned Wessex horse-thief, Blue Jimmy, who doubtless “flung his last fling” more boldly than many of his betters?

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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