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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1780: Elizabeth Butchill, Trinity College Cambridge bedding-girl

2 comments March 17th, 2019 Headsman

A Cambridge University servant was hanged on this date in 1780 for infanticide.

Elizabeth Butchill made her way turning down the beds for the boys attending Trinity College, work she had secured via her aunt who held the same position. She somehow got pregnant, an event which does not appear to have inordinately exercised her eventual judges perhaps by virtue of its very obviousness; as Frank McLynn wryly observes, “It does not need the imagination of a novelist to reconstruct the events that led her to the gallows.”

She was surely desperate to avoid social opprobrium and unemployment, so we find from the Newgate Calendar that “she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning [January 6, 1780], about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house.”

“Modest, patient, and penitent” during her confinement awaiting the noose, Butchill died

firm, resigned, and exemplary. She joined with the minister in prayer, and sung the lamentation of a sinner with marks of a sincere penitent, declaring she had made her peace with God, and was reconciled to her fate. Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

Whether the nameless infant’s nameless father shared those tears is a matter for the novelist’s imagination.

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1557: Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius, already in their coffins

Add comment February 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1557,* the long-dead bones of the Protestant theologians Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius (Fagius) were sent to the stake during the Tudor era’s brief Catholic recrudescence under Mary I.


18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.

Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.

Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.

Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:

If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …

[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.

Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.

* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.

** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

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1812: Daniel Dawson, for the integrity of sport

Add comment August 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1812, Daniel Dawson “suffered the awful sentence of the law, at the top of Cambridge Castle, amidst a surrounding assemblage of at least twelve thousand spectators, it being market-day.”

The crowd was an appropriate ornament to the condign punishment of the most famous horse-poisoner in English history — and perhaps the most severely-punished sports cheat in all of modernity.

A tout scrabbling his living about the storied Newmarket tracks of Cambridge, Dawson killed the favorite for a high-profile race (and three other horses besides) by poisoning their trough, intending only to hamper the beasts enough to make good a variety of bookies’ bets against the fair Pirouette.

Although acquitted for that crime, Dawson was promptly returned to the dock for a previous, and previously unsolved, horse-poisoning, and convicted under a “black act” statute to punish livestock-killing.

According to the inevitable trial pamphlet, freely available from Google Books,

DAWSON behaved with a sullen and impudent levity during the trial, and he frequently abused the witnesses whilst giving their testimony, loud enough to be heard throughout the court … with horrid imprecations, ill becoming his unhappy situation, and at other times he was nodding at and saluting with his hand different persons in court. The verdict of GUILTY had not the slightest effect on him, and his general conduct was altogether depraved. On his return to the castle, his conduct, at times, bordered on insanity, and he appears too illiterate to feel a consciousness of wrong, although he has confessed his guilt to the full extent.

(Katherine Watson adds that although Pirouette’s owner sought a reprieve for the poisoner, Dawson “spoke bitterly of the hypocrisy of the Jockey Club, few of the members of which were above cheating.”)

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