Posts filed under 'Theft'

1713: Edward “Ned” Bonnet, the terror of Cambridge

Add comment March 28th, 2019 Charles Whitehead

(Thanks for the guest post to Charles Whitehead for the guest post — originally an entry in his true crime classic Lives and exploits of the most noted highwaymen, robbers and murderers, of all nations. This Bonnet biography’s mode of pithy episodic adventures cinched by a choice witticism or instructive event is highly characteristic of its genre. -ed.)

Edward Bonnet was born of respectable parents in the isle of Ely, in Cambridgeshire, received an education superior to many of his companions, and when he was only ten years old, gave the following proof of his promising genius. He was sent to the parson with the present of a sparerib of pork, wrapped up in a cloth in a basket. Ned knocked with some degree of importance at the door, which a servant answered, inquiring his business. “I want to speak with your master.” The master came. “Well, my dear, what is your business?” “Why, only my father has sent you this,” said young Ned; and gave him the basket, without moving his hat. “O fie! fie! child, have you no manners? you should pull off your hat, and say, — Sir, my father gives his service to you, and desires you to accept this small token. Come, go you out again with the basket, and knock at the door, and I ‘ll let you in, and see how prettily you can perform it.” The parson waited within until his impatience to receive and examine the contents of the basket incited him to open the door. But Ned was at a considerable distance, walking off with the present. “So ho! so ho, sirrah! where are you going?” “Home, sir,” replied Ned, in an equally loud voice. “Hey, but you must come back and do as I bade you first.” “Thank you for that, sir, I know better than that; and if you teach me manners, I ‘II teach you wit.” The father smiled at the story, and retained his sparerib.

At the age of fifteen, Bonnet was sent apprentice to a grocer, served his time with credit, was afterwards married to a young woman in the neighborhood, and continued in business until he had acquired about six hundred pounds. Unfortunately, however, he was reduced to poverty by an accidental fire. Unable to answer the pressing demands of his creditors, he left the place, and came up to London. Here he soon became acquainted with a band of highwaymen, and began with them to seek from the highway what had been lost by fire.

Nor did he long continue in the inferior walks of his new profession, but providing himself with a horse which he taught to leap over ditch, hedge, or toll-bar, and to know all the roads in the country, whether by day or by night, he quickly became the terror of Cambridgeshire.

Upon this horse, he one day met a Cantabrigian, who was possessed of more money than good sense, morality, or wit, in a calash with a dashing courtesan. Ned commanded the student to “stand and deliver.” Unwilling to show his cowardice before his companion, he refused. Without any respect for the venerable university to which he belonged, Ned by violence took from him about six pounds, and presenting a pair of pistols, constrained the hopeful pair to strip themselves, then bound them together, and giving the horse a lashing, the animal went off at full trot with them to the inn to which he belonged. But no sooner did these Adamites enter the town, than men, women, and children, came hallooing, shouting, and collecting the whole town to behold such an uncommon spectacle. The student was expelled for disgracing the university, and the courtesan was sent to the house of correction.

Humorous Ned next met with a tailor and his son, who had arrested him for five pounds. He commanded him to surrender, and received thirty-five in place of his five. “I wonder,” said the innocent son, “what these fellows think of themselves? Surely they must go to the place below for committing these notorious actions.” “God forbid,” replied the tailor, “for to have the conversation of such rogues there, would be worse than all the rest.”

Ned’s next adventure was with an anabaptist preacher, whom he commanded to deliver up his purse and scrip. The latter began by reasonings, ejaculations, and texts, to avert the impending evil. Ned instantly put himself in a great passion, and replied, “Pray, sir, keep your breath to cool your porridge, and don’t talk of religious matters to me, for I’ll have you to know, that, like all other true-bred gentlemen, I believe nothing at all of religion; therefore deliver me your money, and bestow your laborious cant upon your female auditors, who never scold with their maids without cudgelling them with broken pieces of scripture.” Whereupon, taking a watch and eight guineas, he tied his legs under his horse, and let him depart.

On another occasion, Bonnet and a few associates met a nobleman and four servants in a narrow pass, one side of which was enclosed by a craggy and shattered rock, and the other by an almost impenetrable wood, rising gradually considerably higher than the road, and accosted them in his usual style. The nobleman pretended that he supposed they were only in jest, and said, “that if they would accompany him to the next inn, he would give them a handsome treat.” He was soon informed that they preferred the present to the future. A sharp dispute ensued, but the nobleman and his men were conquered; and the lord was robbed of a purse of gold, a gold watch, a gold snuff-box, and a diamond ring.

Being conducted into the adjacent wood, and bound hand and foot, the robbers left them, saying, “that they would bring them more company presently.” Accordingly, they were as good as their word, for in less than two hours they contrived to increase the number to twelve, on which Ned cried, “There are now twelve of you, all good men and true; so bidding you farewell, you may give in your verdict against us as you please, when we are gone, though it will be none of the best; but to give us as little trouble as possible, we shall not now stay to challenge any of you. So, once more, farewell.”

Ned Bonnet and his comrades now going to the place of rendezvous, to make merry with what they had got, which was at a by sort of an inn standing somewhat out of the high-road between Stamford and Grantham, it happened at night to rain very hard, so that one Mr. Randal, a pewterer, living near Marygold alley in the Strand, before it was burnt down, was obliged to put in there for shelter. Calling for a pot of ale, on which was the innkeeper’s name, which was also Randal, the pewterer asked him, being his namesake, to sit and bear him company.

They had not been long chatting, before Ned and one of his comrades came down stairs and placed themselves at the same table; and understanding the name of the stranger, one of the rogues, fixing his eyes more intently than ordinary upon him, in a fit of seeming joy leaped over the table, and embracing the pewterer, exclaimed, “Dear Mr. Randal! who would have thought to have seen you here? it is ten years, I think, since I had the happiness to be acquainted with you.”

Whilst the pewterer was recollecting whether he could call this spark to mind or not, for it came not into his memory that he had ever seen him in his life, the highwayman again cried out, “Alas! Mr. Randal, I see now I am much altered, since you have forgotten me.” Here, being arrived at a ne plus ultra, up started Ned, and with as great apparent joy said to his companion, “Is this, Harry, the honest gentleman in London, whom you so often used to praise for his great civiIity and liberality to all people? Surely then we are very happy in meeting thus accidentally with him.”

By this discourse they would almost have persuaded Mr. Randal that they perfectly knew him; but being sensible of the contrary, he very seriously assured them that he could not remember that he had ever seen any of them in his life. “No!” said they, struck with seeming astonishment; “it is strange we should be altered so much within these few years.”

But to evade further ill-timed questions, the rogues insisted upon Mr: Randal’s supping with them, which invitation he was by no means permitted to decline.

By the time they had supped, in came four more of Ned’s comrades, who were invited also to sit down, and more provisions were called for, which were quickly brought, and as rapidly devoured.

When the fury of consuming half a dozen good fowls and other victuals was over, besides several flasks of wine, there was not less than three pounds odd money to pay. At this they stared on each other, and held a profound silence, whilst Mr. Randal was fumbling in his pocket. When they saw that he only brought forth a mouse from the mountain of money the thieves hoped to find piled in his pocket, which was only as much as his share, he that pretended to know him started up, and protested he should be excused for old acquaintance sake; but the pewterer, not willing to be beholden, as indeed they never intended he should, to such companions, lest for this civility they should expect greater obligations from him, pressed them to accept his dividend of the reckoning, saying, if they thought it equitable he would pay more.

At last one of them, tipping the wink, said, “Come, come, what needs all this ado? Let the gentleman, if he so pleases, present us with this small treat, and do you give him a larger at his taking his farewell in the morning.” Mr. Randal not liking this proposal, it was started that he and Ned should throw dice to end the controversy; and fearing he had got into ill company, to avoid mischief, Randal acquiesced to throw a main who should pay the whole shot, which was so managed that the lot fell upon Randal. By this means Randal, having the voice of the whole board against him, was deputed to pay the whole reckoning; though the dissembling villains vowed and protested they had rather it had fallen to any of them, that they might have had the honor of treating him.

Mr. Randal concealed his discontent at these shirking tricks as well as he could; and they perceiving he would not engage in gaming, but counterfeited drowsiness, and desired to be abed, the company broke up, and he was shown to his lodgings, which he barricadoed as well as he could, by putting old chairs, stools, and tables against the door. Going to bed and putting the candle out, he fell asleep; but was soon awaked by a strange walking up and down the room, and an outcry of murder and thieves.

At this surprising noise he leaped out of bed, and ran to the door, to see whether it was fast or not: and finding nothing removed, (for the highwaymen came into his chamber by a trap-door which was behind the hangings,) he wondered how the noise should be there in his apartment, unless it was enchanted; but as he was about to remove the barricade to run and raise the house, he was surrounded by a crew, who, tying and gagging him, took away all his clothes, and left him to shift for himself as well as he could.

One day having the misfortune to have his horse shot under him, Bonnet embraced the first opportunity to take a good gelding from the grounds of the man who kept the Red Lion inn. Being again equipped like a gentlemen, he rode into Cambridgeshire, and met with a gentleman, who informed him that he had well nigh been robbed, and requested him to ride along with him for protection. As a highwayman is never out of his way, he complied, and, at a convenient place, levied a contribution, as protector of the gentleman, by emptying his pockets of eighty guineas. He, however, had the generosity to give him half-a-crown to carry him to the next town.

After having, according to computation, committed three hundred robberies, another thief [Zachary Clare -ed.], being apprehended, in order to save his own life, informed against Bonnet, who was apprehended, not upon the highway, but in his own lodgings, and sent to Newgate, and at the next assizes carried down to Cambridge, sentenced and executed before the castle, on the 28th March, 1713, to the great joy of the county, which had suffered severely by his depredations.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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1940: The Sass Brothers, Weimar burglars

Add comment March 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the Sass Brothers — notorious scofflaw thieves from the Weimar Germany era — were extrajudicially executed by the Nazis at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Pioneers of the then-novel art of blowtorching their way into bank safes, die Brüder Sass — Erich and Franz — became public celebrities after their arrest in 1929, especially when the state failed to stick the case against them and the lads remained as free men, publicly flaunting their stolen wealth.

The position of being well-known unpunished crooks became a good deal less comfortable after the 1933 rise of the Nazis, so the Sasses (wisely) moved to Denmark and (less wisely) did some crimes there, too. They copped a short Danish sentence, and after its expiration in 1938 the Danes transferred Erich and Franz Sass back the Third Reich. But even the severity of 13- and 11-year sentences for bank robbery back home, according to Nikolaus Wachsmann,

did not satisfy Heinrich Himmler, who ordered the brothers’ execution. On 27 March 1940, Erich and Franz Sass were taken from penal institutions to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Here, they were murdered by SS men under the command of Rudolf Hoess, who recalled the execution after the war: ‘They [the brothers] refused resolutely to stand against the post, and I had to let them be tied up. They resisted with all their strength. I was extremely relieved when I was able to give the order to shoot.’ Their murder was promptly reported in the Nazi press. This case demonstrates clearly the difference between punishment in the Weimar and the Nazi period. In the Weimar Republic, the two brothers had walked free because there was not sufficient evidence to convict them. In Nazi Germany, they were murdered, irrespective of legal regulations.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Concentration Camps,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Shot,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1695: Highwayman Biss

1 comment March 12th, 2019 Headsman

This ballad transmits to posterity via the Pepys collection of late 17th century ephemera stashed by that famed diarist Samuel Pepys. (In these pages, we’ve already met Mr. Pepys lurking about various executions.)

The Penitent Highway-man: Or, The Last Farewel of Mr. Biss, Who was Born at Shaftsbury, in Wiltshire, and was arrain’d and found guilty, and accordingly received Sentence of Death, and was Executed at Salisbury, on the 12th of March, 1695.

To the Tune of, Russel’s Farewel, &c.

Good People all I pray attend,
and listen now to me,
A sad Relation here I send
of Biss in Shaftsbury:
A noted Highway-man he was
who on the Road did ride,
And at the length it came to pass,
he was condemn’d and dy’d.

When he was to his Tryal brought,
and at the Bar did stand,
He for no kind of favour sought,
but there held up his Hand,
Declaring to the pantient Judge,
who was to try him then,
He should not bear him any grudge,
he wan’t the worst of Men.

He said, The Scriptures I fulfill’d,
though I this Life did lead,
For when the Naked I beheld,
I clothed them with speed:
Sometimes in Cloth and Winter-frize,
sometimes in Russet-gray;
The Poor I fed, the Rich likewise
I empty sent away.

What say you now my honour’d Lord,
what harm was there in this?
Rich wealthy Misers was abhorr’d
by brave free-hearted Biss.
I never robb’d nor wrong’d the Poor,
as well it doth appear;
Be pleas’d to favour me therefore,
and be not too severe.

Upon the Road a Man I met,
was posting to a Jayl,
Because he could not pay his Debt,
nor give sufficient Bayl:
A kind and loving Friend he found,
that very day of me,
Who paid the Miser forty Pound,
and set the Prisoner free.

Tho’ he had got the Guinneys bright,
and put them in his Purse,
I follow’d him that very night,
I could not leave him thus;
Mounting my prancing Steed again,
I crost a point of land,
Meeting the Miser in a lane,
where soon I bid him stand:

You borrow’d forty Pounds, you know,
of me this very day,
I cannot trust, before you go
I must have present pay:
With that I seiz’d & search’d him round,
and rifl’d all his store,
Where straight I got my forty Pound,
with twenty Guinneys more.

The Judge he made him this reply,
Your Joaks are all in vain,
By Law you are condemn’d to Dye,
you will no Pardon gain,
Therefore, Repent, repent with speed,
for what is gone and past,
Tho’ you the Poor did clothe and feed,
you suffer must at last.

That word was like a fatal sword,
it pierc’d him to the heart;
The Lord for Mercy he implor’d,
as knowing he must part
With all his Friends and Pleasures too,
to be as I have said,
At Salsbury to Peoples view,
a sad Example made.

His melting Eyes did over-flow
with penitential Tears,
To see his dismal Overthrow,
just in his strength of Years.
O kind and loving Friends, he cry’d,
take warning now by me,
Who must the pains of Death abide,
this day in Salsbury.

In grief and sorrow now I pass
out of the World this day,
The latter minute’s in the glass,
therefore good People pray,
That as this painful Life I leave,
the Lord may pity take,
And in his arms my Soul receive,
even for his Mercies sake.

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

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1802: Robert Snooks, “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

Add comment March 11th, 2019 Headsman

James Snook(s), who is remembered as Robert Snooks — a possible corruption of “Robber Snook” — was a career robber with a record. He hanged on this date in 1802 for mugging the Tring Mail postboy, an adventure that grossed 80 quid worth of notes ransacked from correspondence he left strewn on Boxmoor.

His decision to discard a distinctive saddle with a broken strap cracked the case for authorities and a reward for his capture went abroad — a reward claimed by “William Salt, a postboy of Hungerford, in Berkshire” who “was born in the same town as the prisoner, where they were play-fellows” and so recognized him immediately on Saturday night driving his chaise through Marlborough Forest and chased down and overpowered Snook whose resistance to his old chum did not extend to use of the “two loaded pistols … in his coat pocket.” (all quotes from the London Morning Chronicle of December 9, 1801)

Tried at the Hertford assizes, he was found to have spent notes known to be in the Tring Mail and on that basis* condemned on a Tuesday … to be dispatched with dispatch that Thursday morning on Boxmoor, near the site of the robbery. “It’s no good hurrying,” he allegedly quipped to gawkers while enjoying a last drink at a nearby pub. “They can’t start the fun until I get there!”

A weathered stone erected a century later marks the supposed place of his burial, and can be visited at Hemel Hempstead. For reasons that elude my understanding, a number of sites including Wikipedia as of this writing claim that this gentleman was the last person executed in England for highway robbery. That’s not even close to accurate.

* The postboy he attacked could not identify him positively, since the crime occurred at night.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Public Executions,Theft

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1771: Edmund James and Joseph Jordan, runaway slave aides

Add comment March 1st, 2019 Headsman

From this doctoral dissertation (pdf) by Gabriele Gottlieb:

The early 1770s in Charleston also saw the largest number of executions of whites who had been convicted of crimes connected with slavery. On March 1, 1771, Edmund James and Joseph Jordan were hanged for “aiding runaway slaves.” Jones [sic], the master of the schooner Two Josephs, and Jordan, a sailor, allegedly had stolen the schooner, taking with them several slaves. Thomas Dannails, a third condemned defendant, was pardoned after he was “recommended to Mercy by the Jury.” Several slaves, likely some of those who had run away on the Two Josephs, were hanged together with Jordan and Jones.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,South Carolina,Theft,USA

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1820: John and Lavinia Fisher

Add comment February 18th, 2019 Headsman

February 18, 1820 was the execution date of South Carolina crime Hall of Famers John and Lavinia Fisher.

By legendary repute the first serial killer in America, Fisher and her husband John were said to lure travelers to their Six Mile Wayfarer House near Ashley Ferry outside Charleston where they’d be poisoned, stabbed, and robbed.

Alas, the Fishers were actually a more conventional sort of brigand.


National Advocate for the Country (New York, N.Y.), January 28, 1820.

Quite incredible legends have been embroidered for this purported Bates Motel of the early Republic: for instance, that their cover was blown by a man named John Peoples/Peeples who grew suspicious enough to avoid drinking the poisoned tea and then sat up all night like young Felix Platter until he caught wind of the imminent attack, sprang out a window, and fled to safety. If so, it was a woeful failure of the period’s journalists merely to report that he had been savagely beaten and robbed.

A few books about the Lavinia Fisher case

Instead, these two seemed to be part of a gang of bandits who occupied not only their Six Mile House but also the Five Mile House, and Lavinia wasn’t the only woman in the lot: one Jane Howard was among the half-dozen arrested when the Six Mile lair was raided by a vigilante posse in February 1819, along with William Heyward, James M’Elwray, and Seth Young, along with others uncaptured. (Names via National Advocate, March 3, 1819) Papers of the time slate them with offenses like stealing livestock and highway robbery, and it’s the latter crime — not murder — that brought the Fishers to their gallows.

Either way, Charleston tour guides will tell you that she haunts the old city jail to this day. She’s also famous for her purported last words, “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me; I’ll carry it,” which might even be a real quote.


Alexandria [Va.] Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Feb. 26, 1820

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,South Carolina,The Supernatural,Theft,USA,Women

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1945: Walraven van Hall, banker to the Resistance

Add comment February 12th, 2019 Headsman

Wally van Hall, the Dutch banker, fraudster, and national hero, was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1945.

Walraven — to use his proper given name — was born into a well-heeled family, the brother of eventual Amsterdam mayor Gijs van Hall.

The man’s expertise in the occult crafts of banking gained an unexpected heroic cast during World War II when Wally became the “banker to the Resistance,” quietly sluicing the funds needed to support anti-occupation movements.

Notably, he plundered the present-day equivalent of a half-billion Euro from the Dutch National Bank by swapping fraudulent bad bonds for good ones.

This profession was no less dangerous for being so esoteric. He was betrayed by an informer who was himself executed in revenge by the Resistance; van Hall has posthumously received his country’s Cross of Resistance as well as Israel’s recognition as Righteous Among the Nations for his aid to Dutch Jews. He’s the subject of the 2018 film The Resistance Banker.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Theft,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1768: Quamino (Dubois)

Add comment February 9th, 2019 Headsman

Entry from North Carolina’s colonial records:

Minutes of a Court of Magistrates and Freeholders in New Hanover County North Carolina.

Magistrates and Freeholders Court

February 08, 1768

At a Court of Magistrates and Freeholders held at the Court House in Wilmington on Monday February 8th 1768 on the Tryal of a Negro Man named Quamino belonging to the Estate of John DuBois Esqr Deceased, charged with robbing sundry Persons —

Present
Cornelius Harnett Esqr Justice
John Lyon Esqr Justice
Frederick Gregg Esqr Justice
John Burgwin Esqr Justice
and
William Campbell Esqr Justice

And
John Walker Freeholder and Owner of Slaves
Anthony Ward Freeholder and Owner of Slaves
John Campbell Freeholder and Owner of Slaves
William Wilkinson Freeholder and Owner of Slaves

The Court upon Examination of the Evidences relating to several Robberies committed by Quamino have found him guilty of the several Crimes charg’d against him, and Sentenced him to be hang’d by the Neck until he is dead to morrow morning between the hours of ten & twelve o’Clock and his head to be affixed up upon the Point near Wilmington —

The Court valued the said Negro Quamino at eighty Pounds proclamation money proof having been made that he had his full allowance of Corn pd agreeable to Act of Assembly

CORNs HARNETT Chn

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1723: Charles Weaver, John Levee, Richard Oakey and Matthew Flood

Add comment February 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Tyburn was graced by a quadruple hanging.

Charles Weaver hanged on the occasion for stabbing a creditor to death as they argued about money crossing the Thames; his tragedy, we find from the Ordinary’s Account, compounded since “his Wife with Child, being kill’d about a Fortnight ago, by a Dray, or Cart that ran over her, in — as she was going to her Husband in Newgate.” He left a seven-year-old orphan.

The other three at the fatal tree — John Levee, Richard Oakey and Matthew Flood — were all part of the same circle of thieves, outlaws in a secondary orbit of the legendary crime lord Jonathan Wild.

Wild has already been profiled here, and in many other places besides; in fine, his racket was as London’s preeminent thief-taker to batten on that city’s vast traffic in stolen goods by acting as a sort of legitimate fence who would use the guise of policing to pretend to “find” the loot boosted by his own affiliates and return it to its owners in exchange for a cut. A great many of the city’s thieves in effect worked for Wild, an arrangement that Wild in his law enforcement guise could enforce by arresting criminals at his convenience and pocketing a handsome reward from the public purse into the bargain; over the years, his testimony sent something like 60 criminals to the gallows.

Here in the first weeks of 1723 the nature of Wild’s empire was not yet widely known, but the executions of Levee, Oakey and Flood were a little milepost en route to its discovery.

All three crooks had been members of a 30-strong gang centered around Irish highwayman James “Valentine” Carrick, a group that Wild had profitably busted up months before. One of their number, and a partner on the same highway robbery that hanged them, was one of Wild’s longtime cronies, a thief named Joseph Blake who was known as “Blueskin”. According to Aaron Skirball’s readable history of Wild’s rise and downfall, The Thief-Taker Hangings,

As a boy, Blueskin went to school for nearly six years, but he showed little propensity for education. Nevertheless, it was at school that he met William Blewit. Through Blewit, Blake was introduced to Jonathan Wild and entered the thief-taker’s junior league.

Young Blake picked pockets on London’s streets, focusing on pedestrians around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. By age fifteen, Blake knew the interiors of the city’s array of prisons and workhouses. But he was never more than an ordinary thief. For him, it was a matter of quantity. He sto.e plenty.

Blake grew into a ma of disheveled brawn. He was never a gentleman of the road, but rather a coarse, rugged, unkempt highwayman. On one occasion, after he stopped a coach from Hampstead and met with obstinacy from a woman in the carriage, who declared that Blueskin was sure to hang for the deed, he flew off the handle.

“You double Pox’d Salivated Bitch,” he said. “Come, no dallying, deliver your Money, or else your life must be a Sacrifice to my Fury.” Then he ordered the woman, a bawdy house operator named Mother Wybourn, to strip naked.

As the years passed, Blake robbed with Richard Oakey and John Levee and drifted into the Carrick gang. He amassed a pretty penny from his multitude of robberies, but apparently lost a great deal at the gaming tables with Carrick. Through it all, Blueskin remained interlinked with Jonathan Wild. In 1723, Wi9ld arrested Blake after a fierce struggle that left Blake with a saber gash. Yet, in prison Blake received from Wild an allowance of three shillings and sixpence a week, and the thief-taker picked up the bill to have him stitched up as well.

This allowance was a small price to pay in comparison to the hundreds of quid in rewards that Wild realized for having his accomplices hanged. Blake obligingly gave the evidence at their trial that doomed them all.

It’s difficult to trace Blueskin’s exact loyalties and motivations moment by moment here, but it’s clear that Wild’s pennies had not fully sewn up the injuries done to him: perhaps the further year-plus that Blake was obliged to cool his heels in prison before arranging his release in mid-1724 hardened him against the old boss. Once Blueskin got out, he joined forces with anti-Wild celebrity burglar Jack Sheppard in a caper that would see both those men to the gallows … but also bring down Jonathan Wild into the bargain.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Public Executions,Theft

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