1690: John Bennet, the original Golden Farmer

Add comment December 22nd, 2015 Headsman

As we have seen in the past two posts, the character exalted in the Newgate Calendar as William Davis, the Golden Farmer bears scant resemblance to the real-life man named William Davis who went to the Tyburn tree.

But there was a robber with the nickname “Golden Farmer” — it just wasn’t William Davis.

John Bennet, alias John Freeman, was hanged one year and one day after Davis, on December 22, 1690, part of a huge batch consisting of no less than 14 men and women.

John Bennet, far from the winning outlaw of the Newgate Calendar, led a gang responsible for numerous violent home invasion robberies, sometimes working with another criminal famous enough for his own nickname (and his own fabricated adventures), Old Mobb. One victim of the “Golden Farmer” described how he harvested his crop:

the Prisoner, with others, to the number of nine came on the 16th of October 1689 to her House at Grays in Essex, and entring forcibly, pretended, with horrid Oaths and Excerations, That they had the King’s Broad Seal to seize all the Mony, &c. having Vizard Marks on and Pistols in their Hands, and that they drove her Husband and Servants into the Celler, and there set a Guard over them, threathing Death to those that Stirred; and then forc’d this Deponent, with many Threats of Death, and often clapping Pistols to her Breast, to go with them from Room to Room to shew them where the Plate; Money, and Goods of value were; and perceiving a Soldier belonging to the Block-house coming by whilst they were rifling, they fetched him in, under pretence of drinking with some good Fellows, and put him into the Gutter; and so carryed off to the value of 5 or 600 l. in Money, Plate and Jewels.

Though his identity was known, his habit of constantly relocating his residence made him difficult to track. At last, one victim had his wife and sister stake out Bennet’s own wife until they could get a bead on him. At that point, they raised a hue and cry for the watch. Bennet killed a gendarme named Charles Taylor in his flight (this is the crime he hanged for, though many of his thefts would have secured the sentence just as well); with a furious mob now in pursuit, Bennet was finally subdued by a hail of brickbats, but only after shooting someone else, too.

To judge by the length of his entry, the Newgate Ordinary harrowed Bennet ceaselessly, and though the robber “shed many Tears” and “did acknowledg this Crime” he refused to make any more than a generic breast of his outlawry — perhaps to protect those of his confederates who were still at large. Despite the standard threats of hellfire “I could not prevail with him to give any Testimony of his syncere turning to the Lord, to whose all-discerning Eye and determination of his Soul’s State I must leave him,” concluded the exasperated Ordinary.

Bennet was hanged at “Salisbury-court end in Fleetstreet, near the Place where he had committed the Murther” and hanged “without making any Speech or Exhortation.” The other 13 doomed souls were then taken to Tyburn for a more conventional mass execution.

It appears that Bennet’s nickname became carelessly attached to William Davis through a 1714 bestseller with the voluminous title The History of the Lives of the most noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Housebreakers, Shoplifts and Cheats of both Sexes in and about London and other places of Great Britain, for above 50 years last past; wherein their most secret and barbarous Murders and unparalleled Robberies, notorious Thefts and unheard of Cheats are exposed to the Public, by Captain Alexander Smith. Smith, writes Lincoln Faller in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England, probably had to have known that Davis was not the Golden Farmer but “cared not at all for historical accuracy and sought (when he felt the need of it) only after its appearance. Happening to have a name and a date at hand, he attached it to some appropriate adventures.” Then, “later writers follow Smith’s version of the Golden Farmer’s life even more slavishly, repeating the same errors, telling (with occasional embroideries) the same fanciful anecdotes about him.” Hence, our Newgate Calendar figure — the distant echo of a real criminal distorted by a succession of fabulists.

* Dick Turpin had a similar criminal profile that ended up being subsumed by his knight-of-the-road reputation to posterity.

Part of the Themed Set: The Creation of a Newgate Calendar legend.

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1690: Old Mobb, witty highwayman

Add comment May 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, according to the Newgate Calendar,* the venerable gentleman rogue Thomas Sympson — better known as Old Mobb — was hanged for robbery.

Old Mobb — at least, the stylish and erudite version of the man given us in the Calendar — preyed the roads of late 17th century England for many a year, perhaps all the way back to the ill-fated reign of Charles I.

His rollicking adventures could have formed the fair corpus of a durable legend; in some alternate world Ainsworth chose Old Mobb as for Rookwood and it is he and not Dick Turpin who has the television serial and the pub nameplates.

A nobleman Sir Bartholomew Shower, whose name might also be the safeword at a leather masquerade, was apprehended by Old Mobb one day nearly penniless as to his person; taking exception at being shorted by such a wealthy grandee, Mobb forced him to write up a bill for 150 quid to draw on the goldsmith of nearby Exeter, leaving Shower trussed up under an obliging hedge “as security for the payment” while he went into town to cash the cheque.

The annals have next a widow, bound for Bath no less in tribute to the classics, and had a jolly battle of the sexes with her over her condition which of course Old Mobb won, since he had the gun. His target, you see,

wept very plentifully, in order to move him to pity; she told him she was a poor widow, who had lately lost her husband, and therefore she hoped he would have some compassion on her. “And is your losing your husband then,” says he, “an argument that I must lose my booty? I know your sex too well, madam, to suffer myself to be prevailed on by a woman’s tears. Those crocodile drops are always at your command; and no doubt but that dear cuckold of yours, whom you have lately buried, has frequently been persuaded out of his reason by their interposition in your domestic debates. Weeping is so customary to you, that everybody would be disappointed if a woman was to bury her husband and not weep for him; but you would be more disappointed if nobody was to take notice of your crying; for according to the old proverb, the end of a husband is a widow’s tears; and the end of those tears is another husband.”

The poor gentlewoman upon this ran out into an extravagant detail of her deceased husband’s virtues, solemnly protesting that she would never be married again to the best man that wore a head, for she should not expect a blessing to attend her afterwards; with a thousand other things of the same kind. Old Mobb at last interrupted her, and told her he would repeat a pleasant story in verse which he had learned by heart, so, first looking round him to see that the coast was clear on every side, he began as follows: —-

A widow prude had often swore
No bracelet should approach her more;
Had often proved that second marriage
Was ten times worse than maid’s miscarriage,
And always told them of their sin,
When widows would be wives agen:
Women who’d thus themselves abuse,
Should die, she thought, like honest Jews
Let her alone to throw the stones;
If ’twere but law, she’d make no bones.

Thus long she led a life demure;
But not with character secure:
For people said (what won’t folks say?)
That she with Edward went astray:
(This Edward was her servant-man)
The rumour through the parish ran,
She heard, she wept, she called up Ned,
Wiped her eyes dry, sighed, sobbed, and said:

‘Alas! what sland’rous times are these!
What shall we come to by degrees!
This wicked world! I quite abhor it!
The Lord give me a better for it!
On me this scandal do they fix?
On me? who, God knows, hate such tricks!
Have mercy, Heaven, upon mankind,
And grant us all a better mind!
My husband — Ah that dearest man!
Forget his love I never can;
He took such care of my good name,
And put all sland’rous tongues to shame. —
But, ah! he’s dead –‘ Here grief amain,
Came bubbling up, and stopped the strain.

Ned was no fool; he saw his cue,
And how to use good fortune knew:
Old Opportunity at hand,
He seized the lock, and bid him stand;
Urged of what use a husband was
To vindicate a woman’s cause,
Exclaimed against the sland’rous age;
And swore he could his soul engage
That madam was so free from fault
She ne’er so much as sinned in thought;
Vowing he’d lose each drop of blood
To make that just assertion good.

This logic, which well pleased the dame,
At the same time eludes her shame:
A husband, for a husband’s sake,
Was what she’d ne’er consent to take.
Yet, as the age was so censorious,
And Ned’s proposals were so glorious,
She thought ’twas best to take upon her,
A second guardian of her honour.

“This,” says Old Mobb, “is an exact picture of woman-kind, and as such I committed it to memory; you are very much obliged to me for the recital, which has taken me up more time than I usually spend in taking a purse; let us now pass from the dead to the living, for it is these that I live by. I am in a pretty good humour, and so will not deal rudely by you. Be so kind, therefore, as to search yourself, and use me as honestly as you are able; you know I can examine afterwards, if I am not satisfied with what you give me.” The gentlewoman found he was resolute, and so thought it the best way to keep him in temper, which she did by pulling out forty guineas in a silk purse, and presented them to him. It is fifty to one but Old Mobb got more by repeating the verses above than the poor poet that wrote them ever made of his copy. Such is the fate of the sons of Apollo. [dear reader, why not take this opportunity to click on an ad? -ed.]

We certainly have in these puffed-up knaves torn down for our amusement a little window into the romance of the road where by means of Stand And Deliver one attains the liberty to put put hypocrites in their place whilst usurping the abundance that is the latter’s usual wages.

Old Mobb robs a famous astrologer whose constellations fail to predict the engagement; to a doctor who upbraids him, he retorts, “I only take [my victims’] money away from them; but you frequently take away their lives: and what makes it the worse you do it safely, under a pretence of restoring them to health.”

As pieces de resistance, Old Mobb gets the better of two of Restoration England’s most infamous grandees.

The Duchess of Portsmouth, the widely hated French Catholic mistress to Charles II,** Old Mobb improbably manages to trap in her stagecoach giving him leave to excoriate her in words similar to those that real 17th century Britons must have muttered many times while in their cups. “I know you to be the greatest whore in the kingdom; and that you are maintained at the public charge. I know that all the courtiers depend on your smiles, and that even the K— himself is your slave,” Mobb says, rubbishing her sex and her nationality all at once. “That haughty French spirit will do you no good here. I am an English freebooter; and insist upon it as my native privilege to seize all foreign commodities. Your money indeed is English, and the prodigious sums that have been lavished on you will be a lasting proof of English folly; nevertheless, all you have is confiscated to me by being bestowed on such a worthless b—h. I am king here, madam, and I have a whore to keep on the public contributions as well as King Charles.”

The ruthless hanging judge Lord Jeffreys Old Mobb likewise pays in his own coin when Jeffreys threatens our marauder with potential damnation, speaking as it were through Jeffreys to the obsequious blackguards who afflict the public life of every time and place.

When justice has overtaken us both, I shall stand at least as good a chance as your Lordship; who have already written your name in indelible characters of blood, by putting to death so many hundred innocent men, for only standing up in defence of our common liberties, that you might secure the favour of your Prince. It is enough for you to preach morality upon the Bench, where nobody dares to contradict you; but your lessons can have no effect upon me at this time; for I know you too well not to see that they are only calculated to preserve money.

* The Newgate Calendar positively avers a hanging of Friday, May 30, 1690, but there are some complicating data points. There’s his purported campaign with William “the Golden Farmer” Davis, who was supposed to have left a parting note for Old Mobb upon Davis’s December 1690 execution. (However, 1690 was the year when May 30 was on a Friday, not 1691.)

The invaluable Old Bailey Online has none of this, though the date range is a period of spotty recordkeeping. It does give us a nondescript and lamely apologetic “Old Mobb” hanged on the 18th of September 1691; although this guy had done some highway robbery, he doesn’t otherwise bear an obvious resemblance to the Newgate Calendar’s colorful character. He might be the same guy, or they might just share a cant alias. “Mob” — short for mobilevulgus, the “fickle crowd” — was just establishing itself in English at this point with a usage a bit more flexible than it has for us today; our criminals’ point of contact might be simply that each lasted unusually long in the profession, and therefore each received a nickname meaning something like “Old Man”. Jonathan Swift complained bitterly of this truncated neologism in 1710, writing that “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of Mobb and Banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” (Sorry, buddy … English is a living language.)

At any rate, I don’t know whether Old Mobb is one guy or two, nor am I fully confident of the best date of execution. These are the least of our difficulties when it comes to veracity, considering that the man’s attributed exploits likely comprise 100% shameless fabrication. It’s just that kind of post.

** Careful how you speak of her: she’s an ancestor (via the late Princess Diana) of the current royal princes.

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1690: Jack Bird, pugilist

Add comment March 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the somewhat comic thieving career of Jack Bird came to an end at Tyburn.

Bird ran away from an apprenticeship to serve as a foot-guard under the Duke of Monmouth in the Low Countries, and “here,” says the Newgate Calendar, “he was reduced to such necessities as are common to men who engage themselves to kill one another for a groat or fivepence a day.”

Jack fled his enlistment and commenced a life of larceny.

His first experience wasn’t so good.

After stealing a bit of silk from an Amsterdam merchant, he was put to twelve months’ hard labor, and upon fainting away at the initial brutal work was punished by being chained to the floor of a flooding cistern for an hour where he was “obliged to pump for his life … [for] if the water had prevailed he must inevitably have been drowned, without relief or pity.”

Released back to Old Blighty, Bird’s want of fortune or employment prospects — and possibly England’s want of the flooding cistern punishment — led him to the road, where he robbed with mixed results.

On the one hand, the Newgate Calendar credits him with one of the more humiliating failures in the annals of crime, when he held up a former seaman who had lost both his hands. As Bird was obliged to frisk his fingerless mark to obtain his valuables, he brought himself close enough that the victim, a “boisterous old tar,” “suddenly clapped his arms about his neck, and spurring his own horse pulled our adventurer from his; then falling directly upon him, and being a very strong man, he kept him under, and mauled him with his stirrups.” Bird ended up in Maidstone jail, where he was lucky to have a hanging sentence commuted.

On the other hand, he’s credited with a folklorish encounter with “the mad Earl of P–“.* Ordered to deliver his purse, the Earl counteroffered: “I will box you fairly for all the money I have, against nothing.” Jack thought this a merry lark and accepted straight away. The Earl’s chaplain insisted on doing the honors in his master’s stead and Bird — clearly toughened up from his younger self — duly pummeled the divine. Honor-bound to a fault, the Earl paid up.

Our pugilist’s downfall was the gentler sex. Somewhat gentler, anyway. One night when out with a bawd, Jack and his date chanced across a passerby between Dutchy Lane and the Great Savoy Gate in the Strand whom they fell upon and robbed. The opportunistic footpads fled into the dark, but the woman was caught. Jack went to visit her at Newgate and maybe buy off her victim/prosecutor, but instead found himself arrested on suspicion of being her absconded male accomplice.

In a last act of gallantry, the 42-year-old outlaw made a guilty plea and successfully took all the blame on himself.

* From a sift through Wikipedia’s list of English Earldoms, I think this must refer to the notoriously violent Earl of Pembroke, who himself only avoided being hanged for murder by dint of availing the privilege of the Peerage. Whether the alleged boxing round has any basis in fact …

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1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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1690: An infanticide, a coiner, and a highwayman

Add comment October 24th, 2013 Headsman

Hanging day — and burning day, and drawing-and-quartering day — at Tyburn this date in 1690 saw a dozen souls condemned to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Nine of these were reprieved, mostly various shoplifters and thieves. (One, Constance Wainwright, was just 16 years old: she stole a silver teapot and a petticoat.)

Mercy Harvey — named only M– H– in her Old Bailey indictment — was a domestic servant and “a very Ignorant Silly Girle” who bore a son out of wedlock. A young woman in such a predicament in 1690 London could be liable to lose her position, and in a city swelling up daily with new arrivals there could be very far to fall indeed.

The Ordinary of Newgate devotes the most space in his account to her, suggesting that she was the most amenable of the condemned to his ministry. Mercy Harvey described to him a timeless predicament.

I discoursed with her, and ask’d, Whether she had any Promise of Marriage with him who begat it? She answered no. Or whether he did promise any Maintenance for herself? She replyed no: but by often soliciting her she yielded to his Desires. She said that when she proved with Child, she dispaired how to provide for it, and so Satan tempted her to expose the Child to Death.

The young woman confessed her crime on hanging-day, but in a state of near collapse, and she was “very sick, and unfit for Discourse.”

What added torture Harvey must have experienced with the rough hemp rope around her neck as the Ordinary with “unwearied industry” dilated to volley “all manner of Godly Exhortations” at her two male counterparts.

Thomas Castle and Thomas Rowland both refused to play their part, clinging by their obdurance to a last remnant of dignity or to fleeting extra moments of life.

Castle had suffered the added indignity of being dragged to the fatal tree on a sledge. Condemned a traitor under England’s bloody code for coining 50 counterfeit shillings (coin-clipping materials were found stashed up his chimney in an iron box), Castle was fortunate enough to have the disemboweling-and-quartering part of his sentence remitted.

The last character of the bunch was one of those stock characters of a passing age, the highwayman. Thomas Rowland had skipped out two decades prior on an apprenticeship in the exciting field of bricklaying and taken to the roads, where according to a colorful Newgate Calendar record he “always robbed in women’s apparel, which disguise was the means of his reigning so long in his villainy.” (But he made his getaways, we are assured, riding astride his mounts — not sidesaddle.)

We don’t know if Rowland caught any flak in Newgate for this abrogation of masculinity, but Rowland “was so abominably wicked that the very morning on which he died, lying in the Press Yard, for he wanted for no money whilst under confinement, a common woman coming to visit him, he had the unparalleled audaciousness to act carnally with her, and gloried in the sin as he was going to execution.”

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