1686: Jonathan Simpson, merchant turned highwayman

Add comment September 8th, 2013 Headsman

Jonathan Simpson, hanged on this date in 1686, had a good many virtues to judge by the account of his life left by the Newgate Calendar.

He was, first, an enterprising man, who served his apprenticeship “with reputation” and then set up shop as a successful linen-draper in the city of Bristol.

This business enabled him to augment the fortune of his own business by marrying a merchant’s daughter — “but the union proved unhappy, because the young lady was before engaged in affection to a gentleman of less fortune in the neighbourhood, whom her father hindered her from having, and with whom she continued a familiarity that soon displeased her husband.”

Such a scenario has been the germ of many a denizen of this here blog, but Simpson didn’t reach the gallows doing anything as straightforward as murdering his rival or his spouse out of pique.

Instead — and the Calendar leaves the hows and whys of this translation unexplored — he channeled his jealousy into a crime spree. Maybe that’s just the writer’s projection: fella went around the bend, it must’ve been because of a woman. The Newgate Calendar, too, had a home life, and many was the Briton who dreamt of escaping the drudgery of it all for a life of adventure and romance making gentlemen stand and deliver.

At any rate, Simpson managed a career of 18 months on the road, burning through his linen-draper savings (and his highwayman “earnings”) to escape a couple of potential capital prosecutions. (At this time, criminal complaints were initiated by private prosecutions, meaning that a victim prepared to accept direct restitution could potentially be bought off pressing a case.)

This brings us to another of Simpson’s admirable qualities: his silver tongue.

One can only speculate how he wheedled his onetime victims behind closed doors to drop their suits. But the Newgate Calendar attests to the man’s wit under pressure once he was finally hauled to the fatal tree.

It turns out that Simpson did well in business because his family had done well in business before him, and dad staked him to £1,500 when the lad went into business himself. These prosperous burghers accordingly rallied to exert their own wealth and influence behind the scenes to obtain for their kin a timely commutation, delivered only “when he was at Tyburn, with the halter about his neck, and just ready to be turned off in company with several others.” Then bureaucracy happened.

When he was brought to the prison door, the turnkey refused to receive him, telling the officer that, as he was sent to be executed, they were discharged of him, and would not have anything to do with him again, unless there was a fresh warrant for his commitment; whereupon Simpson made this reflection: “What an unhappy cast-off dog am I, that both Tyburn and Newgate should in one day refuse to entertain me! Well, I’ll mend my manners for the future, and try whether I can’t merit a reception at them both the next time I am brought hither.”

That’s kind of funny, right? In a self-destructive braggadocio sort of way?

And then Simpson demonstrated a third quality that (in addition to dad’s money) helped him succeed in commerce before his midlife crisis: his phenomenal industry. Simpson, we are told, committed “above 40 robberies” in Middlesex in the six weeks after his reprieve, a healthy pace of one per day.

He robbed the powerful (our writer credits him with a successful stickup of the king’s own son); he robbed the hoi polloi (“the robberies he committed on drovers, pedlars, market-people, etc., were almost innumerable”); he robbed on ice skates;* when he was finally captured, it was by two captains of the Foot Guards whom he was also attempting to rob.

The man lived to rob. On this date in 1686, he finally died for it.

* The online text versions of the Calendar notice Simpson’s skatebourne pilfering during “the great frost of 1689, which held thirteen weeks,” obviously not chronologically correct relative to his execution date. This is an error, likely on the part of software somewhere along the line; the year in question should be 1684 (computers like to mix up fours and nines). 1684 was one of the longest and deepest winter freezes on record, leaving the iced-over Thames bustling with Londoners at the “Frost Fair”.


“[W]hat unheard of rendezvous is daily kept upon the face of [London’s] navigable river; what long and spacious streets of booths and tents are builded; what throngs of passengers, both horse and foot, do travel; what pyramids of provisions, baked, boiled, and roast; what deluges of wine, coffee, beer, ale, and brandy, for sale; what fleets of vessels sailing upon sledges; what troops of coaches, caravans, and waggons; what games and new invented sports and pastimes, bull-baiting, bear-baiting, &c.; together with shops for the vending of most sorts of manufactures and for working artificers, the account of which alone would require a volume to describe …” (Source)

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1691: Jack Collet, sacrilegious burglar

Add comment July 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1691, Jack Collet was hanged for “sacrilegious burglary.”

This little-known highwayman ditched an apprenticeship with a Cheapside upholsterer to take the road, and carved a niche as the guy what robbed while dressed up as a bishop. (Once having lost his ecclesiastical garb at dice, he re-robed by sticking up a churchman on the road and forcing his victim to dis-.)

“As if he had been determined to live by the Church,” clucks the Newgate calndar, “he was at last apprehended for sacrilege and burglary, in breaking open the vestry of Great St Bartholomew’s, in London, in company with one Christopher Ashley, alias Brown, and stealing from thence the pulpit cloth and all the communion plate.”

For this bid to render un-from God, Caesar rendered Collet unto Tyburn.

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1721: Cartouche, French bandit

7 comments November 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1721, the French outlaw Cartouche was broken on the wheel in Paris.

Your basic superstar robber during that archetype’s golden age, Louis Dominique Garthausen, aka Bourguignon, aka Cartouche was the son of a German mercenary-turned-French wineseller.

Little Cartouche — his nickname came from a Francophone corruption of his German surname — distinguished himself from childhood as the most charismatically intrepid of the local hooligans, and by adolescence was already the leader of a troupe of rascally thieves.

By his twenties, after a detour through the army, Cartouche and his merry men (the Cours des Miracles gang, after the slum they operated out of) were raiding the lucrative Versailles-Paris route, plundering the virtue of marchionesses, distributing stolen booty the poor, maintaining perfect courtesy in the society of gentlemen, and generally becoming the heroes of that species of literature that revels in bodice-busting sybaritic rakes who play by their own rules but have a heart of gold. (Sample escapade: walking a carnival parade with a cart full of police effigies — whipping them all the way, to the glee of the crowd. Thackeray celebrates more Cartouche folklore here, like the time he robbed as part of a threesome, talked one accomplice into murdering the other in order that the two survivors should have greater shares of the spoils to divide — only to round self-righteously on the killer once his pistols were safely discharged and gun him down in turn with the words “Learn, monster, not to be so greedy of gold, and perish, the victim of thy disloyalty and avarice!” That’s a pretty good one, whether it really happened or not.)

The flesh-and-blood police started to roll up this group around 1719, turning arrestees into informants and hunting ringleaders to ground. True to character, Cartouche defied with his liberty the growing price on his head, deftly giving gendarmes the slip until a confederate betrayed him into his enemies’ hands literally while his pants were down.


18th century engraving of the arrest of Cartouche.

The guy very nearly broke out of prison — tunneling out of a dungeon of the Chatelet into a neighboring basement, only to have the clank of his chains rouse the family dog into a woofing frenzy that betrayed him before he could vanish out the front door. But even back in the clink,

came a period of splendid notoriety: he held his court, he gave an easy rein to his wit, he received duchesses and princes with an air of amiable patronage … His portrait hung in every house, and his thin, hard face, his dry, small features were at last familiar to the whole of France. M. Grandval made him the hero of an Epic — “le Vice Puni.”

Cartouche was doomed to breaking on the wheel after a morning suffering the tortures of the boot in an unavailing effort to extract further incriminations from the rogue.*

Cartouche seems to have fully expected his troupe to reciprocate this heroism by rising to the dramatic occasion of a rescue from the very scaffold. But as the prisoner arrived at the Place de Greve, he perceived at last that like Christ he had been abandoned at the critical hour by the men who had sworn oaths with him. The great desperado’s final act was to retaliate upon these faithless friends (and family!) by taking aside his prosecutors and detailing his every accessory in crime, even his lovers. What the worst extremities of medieval torture could not procure from him, the compelling incentive of revenge instantly conjured.

Our hero went to his death this day but his revenant spirit stalked France for many months thereafter as dozens succumbed (pdf) to Cartouche’s scaffold indictment. One diarist recorded the following July,

Nothing but hangings and breakings on the wheel! Every day some Cartouchian executed.

* Available sources are flatly contradictory between the story that Cartouche was to die on the 27th and his confessions stalled things until the 28th, or was to die on the 28th all along, or was to die and did so on the 27th.

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1778: James “Sandy Flash” Fitzpatrick

4 comments September 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1778, Revolutionary War-era bandit James Fitzpatrick was hanged — very badly — at Chester, Pennsylvania.

Fitzpatrick was then, and still is now, a legendary character in Chester County. He’s better known as “Captain Fitz” or, with a bit more flair, “Sandy Flash”.

Born to Irish immigrants in Chester, Fitzpatrick joined up with the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out.

But after being subject to the commonplace but brutal punishment of flogging for some failure of military discipline, Fitzpatrick deserted, swimming off Long Island in the dead of night and eventually returning home. There, he was recognized as a deserter and clapped in jail until he agreed to fight again.

All this built up a terrific grudge in the young man’s heart, and he “agreed” just long enough to get out from behind bars and abscond again. After warding off yet another press gang sent to retrieve him, Fitzpatrick vengefully took to the road.

This was not necessarily out of bounds for Fitzpatrick’s milieu. As detailed by Rosemary Warden (“‘The Infamous Fitch’: The Tory Bandit, James Fitzpatrick of Chester County,” Pennsylvania History Summer 1995):

Fitzpatrick’s bold outlawry must be seen against the background of many Chester Countians’ lack ofsupport for the Revolution, ranging from passive neutrality to outright loyalism. Forty percent were Quaker, settled most heavily in the eastern township. Only a small number actively supported the Revolution or the British cause … Fitzpatrick’s two favorite targets, militia recruiters and tax collectors, often met violent opposition in Chester County during this period, and not always from loyalists …

It is not surprising that revolutionary General Anthony Wayne wrote to Council President Thomas Wharton in the spring of 1778, to suggest that he stop recruiting troops in Chester County, a wasted effort, and concentrate on raising men in Berks, Lancaster, York, or Cumberland Counties. Nor is it surprising that a loyalist bandit who particularly targeted militia officers would find clandestine support and safe hideouts in Cheser County.

Playing to the hilt the part of “Tory highwayman,” Captain Fitz targeted Chester County Whigs, and especially agents of the revolutionary government. And he did not neglect the opportunity to inflict with the flog the suffering he had once endured himself. Still,

Despite his many crimes, there was a rough chivalry in the character of the man which exhibited itself in his marked gallantry towards women, in his open, generous disposition to aid them on when ill fortune bore heavily; indeed, he was never known to rob a poor man or ill-treat a female. Many are the instances related when he bestowed upon the destitute that which he had taken from those in good circumstances, and the weak or defenseless never suffered at his hands. On one occasion an old woman, who made a meagre living by peddling from house to house odds and ends of female apparel, encountered Fitzpatrick in the neighborhood of Caln Friends’ meeting-house. She was at the time on her way to Philadelphia to buy goods, and all the money she possessed was on her person. She had never seen Capt. Fitzpatrick, and she informed, the tall, handsome stranger that she was told that the outlaw had made some demonstrations in that neighborhood a short time before, and she was afraid that she might fall in with him and be robbed of all her money. Fitzpatrick, by a few questions, drew from her the particulars of her business, and her difficulty in winning an honest livelihood. He then good naturedly told her she need be under no apprehension, Fitzpatrick never warred upon the weak or defenseless, that she was talking to that personage; and taking a purse from his pocket containing several gold pieces, he gave it to her to aid her in increasing her scanty stock of goods. Then, wishing her a safe journey, he turned into the woods and disappeared.

What a guy.

His prey among the Whig well-to-do not being constrained to treat Fitz with any similar measure of gallantry, the bandit was at length captured when, in the course of raiding a household, he briefly set down his weapons — and his hostages jumped him. (The hostages in question had an argument with each other afterwards over who should get the reward.)

“Sandy Flash” is a prominent character in Bayard Taylor‘s portrait of revolutionary Pennsylvania, The Story of Kennett, where, Turpin-like, he’s “transformed” (the author’s own words) “from a living terror into a romantic name.” Here, Bayard dramatizes an allegedly real exploit, in which Fitzpatrick boldly presents himself at a public inn* where a posse hunting him has holed up.

All eyes, turned towards the crossing of the roads, beheld, just rounding the corner-house, fifty paces distant, a short, broad-shouldered, determined figure, making directly for the tavern. His face was red and freckled, his thin lips half-parted with a grin which showed the flash of white teeth between them, and his eyes sparkled with the light of a cold, fierce courage. He had a double-barrelled musket on his shoulder, and there were four pistols in the tight leathern belt about his waist.

Barton turned deadly pale as he beheld this man. An astonished silence fell upon the group, but, the next moment, some voice exclaimed, in an undertone, which, nevertheless, every one heard,—

“By the living Lord! Sandy Flash himself!”

There was a general confused movement, of which Alfred Barton took advantage to partly cover his heavy body by one of the porch-pillars. Some of the volunteers started back, others pressed closer together. The pert youth, alone, who was to form the third party, brought his musket to his shoulder.

Quick as lightning Sandy Flash drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it at the young man’s breast.

“Ground arms!” he cried, “or you are a dead man.”

He was obeyed, although slowly and with grinding teeth.

“Stand aside!” he then commanded. “You have pluck, and I should hate to shoot you. Make way, the rest o’ ye! I’ve saved ye the trouble o’ ridin’ far to find me. Whoever puts finger to trigger, falls. Back, back, I say, and open the door for me!”

Still advancing as he spoke, and shifting his pistol so as to cover now one, now another of the group, he reached the tavern-porch. Some one opened the door of the barroom, which swung inwards. The highwayman strode directly to the bar, and there stood, facing the open door, while he cried to the trembling bar-keeper,—

“A glass o’ Rye, good and strong!”

It was set before him. Holding the musket in his arm, he took the glass, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, spinning a silver dollar into the air, said, as it rang upon the floor,—

“I stand treat to-day; let the rest o’ the gentlemen drink at my expense!”

He then walked out, and slowly retreated backwards towards the corner-house, covering his retreat with the levelled pistol, and the flash of his dauntless eye.

* Specifically, the Unicorn, a patriotic tavern. Filed under “small world”: this pub was owned by Joseph Shippen, the uncle of the woman who would marry soon-to-beturncoat Benedict Arnold.

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1846: William Westwood, aka Jackey Jackey

4 comments October 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1846, the Australian outlaw William Westwood — better known as Jackey Jackey — was hanged with 11 others for a prison riot/escape attempt that claimed several guards’ lives.

“To the old hands,” relates George Boxall in this volume of bushranger folklore, “he was always the gentleman bushranger.”

More legends have collected round the name of Jackey Jackey than round that of any other of the bushrangers, and many of them are obviously variants of the stories told of the historical highwaymen of England. For instance, Jackey Jackey is said to have bailed up the carriage of the Commissary. When he discovered that the Commissary’s wife was inside he dismounted, opened the door and, sweeping the ground with his cabbage tree hat, as he bowed low before her, he invited her to favour him with a step on the green.* He rode incredible distances in incredibly short periods of time** … [and] never did anything mean or brutal or unworthy of a gentleman bushranger, until he was almost goaded to madness by the cruel discipline of Norfolk Island.

Transported to Australia at the age of 16, Jackey Jackey made that reputation with only a scant few months in the bush. The Victorian era was already underway in our young outlaw’s mother country; the day of the highwayman had long since given way to the day of romanticizing the highwayman.

Only on the empire’s distant fringes could the profession persist; there, men like our day’s principal self-consciously took their chivalrous forebears as their templates: Jackey Jackey thrashed a confederate who did violence to a woman, and threatened to murder the man if they should meet again.

Jackey Jackey had only a few months out in the bush in 1840-41 to trace the outlines of the gentleman bandit figure he aspired to. Caught in an inn in 1841, he spent the next several years exercising that other great craft of the folklore criminal: escape.

A cycle of jailbreaks, fleeting moments of liberty, recaptures, higher-security lockups, and increasingly desperate jailbreaks eventually landed at Norfolk Island, where “the treatment of the prisoners in the island was rigorous in the extreme, and may aptly be described as savage.” (Boxall, again)

Just a few years before Jackey Jackey’s death, they had been savage enough to provoke inmates desperate for the release of death to draw lots between the privileges of being murdered by a fellow-prisoner and hanging as that murderer.

Norfolk experimented with liberalizing its regimen in the early 1840s, but it was in rollback mode when our bushranger landed there. The steady removal of the minute privileges that make incarceration bearable — the right to grow a few potatoes; access to one’s own cooking tin and utensils — eventually triggered a similar suicidal mental break … but this time, on a riot scale.

Jackey Jackey made the following speech: “Now, men, I’ve made up my mind to bear this oppression no longer ; but, remember, I’m going to the gallows. If any man funks let him stand out. Those who wish to follow me, come on.”

A policeman named Morris was standing in the archway or entrance to the yard, Jackey Jackey rushed forward, struck him a fearful blow with an enormous bludgeon, and knocked him down. A large mob of the prisoners snatched up such weapons as came to their hands and followed him.

there were about eighteen hundred prisoners on the island, and of these, sixteen hundred were among the rioters. The soldiers numbered only about three hundred, but their discipline enabled them to overawe the vastly superior force, numerically, opposed to them. Perhaps the habits of obedience and submission, so long enforced on the prisoners, may have had some influence. Perhaps, even among this herd of desperate and reckless men, the sight of the soldiers standing firmly with their guns presented ready to fire may have instilled some fear. However this may have been, there was no fight. The rebels retired slowly and unwillingly to the Lumber Yard, where they permitted the soldiers to arrest them one after the other without making any show of defence until one thousand one hundred and ten of them were placed “on the chain.” Perhaps Jackey Jackey and the more violent of his followers may have thought that they had done sufficient to ensure them that death on the gallows which was the avowed object of their rising, while the majority had been so demoralised by official brutality as to be utterly indifferent as to what might become of them.

Twelve suffered death on the Norfolk Island gallows this date for the murder of the guard, with headline-grabber Jackey Jackey exonerating four of his fellow-sufferers in his dying statement.


The remains of the gallows area at the Norfolk Island gaol, gorgeously captured by Canberra photographer Allyeska. (Image used with permission.)

The bitter letter our despairing bushranger wrote to a gaol chaplain, meanwhile, could have been posted from many a modern penitentiary.

I was, like many others, driven to despair by the oppressive and tyrannical conduct of whose whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated in this way. Yet these men are courted by society; and the British Government, deceived by the interested representations of these men, ontinues to carry on a system that has and still continues to ruin the prospects of the souls and bodies of thousands of British subjects … instead of reforming the wretched man, under the present system, led by example on the one hand, and driven by despair and tyranny on the other, goes on from bad to worse, till at length he is ruined body and soul. Experience, dear bought experience, has taught me this. In all my career, I never was cruel I always felt keenly for the miseries of my fellow-creatures, and was ever ready to do all in my power to assist them to the utmost, yet my name will be handed down to posterity branded with the most opprobrious epithet that man can bestow. … this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny … is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard worked, and cruelly flogged. … Sir, out of the bitter cup of misery I have drunk from my sixteenth year ten long years and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death; it is the friend that deceives no man; all will then be quiet no tyrant will there disturb my repose, I hope, William Westwood.†

(Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers is available from archive.org here.)

* This legend is lifted wholesale from the c.v. of English highwayman Claude Duval.

** Warp-speed horsemanship features in many English outlaw legends, including those of Dick Turpin and the lesser-known John Nevison.

† Death as an escape from injustice and misery: another timeless theme.

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1670: Claude Duval, gentleman highwayman

24 comments January 21st, 2010 Headsman

It’s been 340 years since the immortal highwayman Claude Duval (or Du Val, or Du Vall) went to the Tyburn gallows and was turned off into legend as the ne plus ultra of English gentleman thieves.

Duval, actually, was French, an import to Isles in the train of some forgotten noble migrating with the restoration of royal prerogatives.

On the English highway, this formerly impecunious retainer coruscated as a knight of the road, the very model of the chivalrous outlaw against whom the likes of Dick Turpin would be compared to disadvantage. Macaulay recorded

how Claude Duval, the French page of the Duke of Richmond, took to the road, became captain of a formidable gang, and had the honour to be named first in a royal proclamation against notorious offenders; how at the head of his troop he stopped a lady’s coach, in which there was a booty of four hundred pounds; how he took only one hundred, and suffered the fair owner to ransom the rest by dancing a coranto with him on the heath;


William Powell Frith‘s painting (1860) of Claude Duval dancing with his prey.

how his vivacious gallantry stole away the hearts of all women; how his dexterity at sword and pistol made him a terror to all men; how, at length, in the year 1670, he was seized when overcome by wine; how dames of high rank visited him in prison, and with tears interceded for his life; how the king would have granted a pardon, but for the interference of Judge Morton, the terror of highwaymen, who threatened to resign his office unless the law were carried into full effect; and how, after the execution, the corpse lay in state with all the pomp of scutcheons, wax lights, black hangings and mutes, till the same cruel judge, who had intercepted the mercy of the crown, sent officers to disturb the obsequies. In these anecdotes there is doubtless a large mixture of fable; but they are not on that account unworthy of being recorded; for it is both an authentic and an important fact, that such tales, whether false or true, were heard by our ancestors with eagerness and faith.

Gillian Spraggs justifiably observes that no matter how genuinely gallant the brigand, his profession entailed relieving others of their rightful produce by main force. But then, the same could be said of the lords of the realm.

No, although Duval’s legend invites debunking, this must be for another blog.

We take Duval here at his mythological acme: he is the patron saint of the early modern bandit, the Superman of English outlawry, succoring with the fantasy of freedom upon the road the thousands of porters and scullery maids and apprentices chained to their oars below-decks upon Britannia’s ship of state.

What matter the rest?

This day, we toast Claude Duval, the Knight of the Road, in the manner of the fetching inscription (since destroyed by fire) under which he was reportedly buried:

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both; for all
Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1708: Jack Ovet, who left no hempen widow

Add comment May 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1708, an English highwayman whose sense of chivalry crossed the line between old-fashioned and delusional was hanged at Leicester.

Love and outlaws: a match made for balladeers.

Apprenticed a shoemaker, Jack Ovet had a mind to be a gentleman and the enterprise to seek his fortune among the unguarded coaches of Stuart England’s highways. And he affected full rehearsal for his future social role with an arch mien of chivalry. When one of his victims cited him for cowardice, Ovet laid down his pistols and fought a duel with swords, slaying the burgher.

In Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England, Frank McLynn examines the odd but sometimes real rules of honor observed by this romanticized species:

… there clearly were ‘Robin Hoods’ among the highwaymen, as well as individuals of refined sensibility and exquisite courtesy … The courtesy of highwaymen was shown in various ways: politeness to women, avoidance of pointing guns directly at victims, lack of thorough searches of passengers, even the return of favourite items of sentimental value.

Ovet went so far as to become genuinely besotten with a pretty young thing whose purse he relieved, rarely a wise move for a fellow living on his guile. He made bold to seduce his victim in a pseudonymous letter, thus:

MADAM,-These few lines are to acquaint you that though I lately had the cruelty to rob you of twenty guineas, yet you committed a greater robbery at the same time in robbing me of my heart; on which you may behold yourself enthroned, and all my faculties paying their homage to your unparalleled beauty. Therefore be pleased to propose but the method how I may win your belief, and were the way to it as deep as from hence to the centre, I will search it out. For by all my hopes, by all those rites that crown a happy union, by the rosy tincture of your checks, and by your all-subduing eyes, I prize you above all the world. Oh, then, my fair Venus, can you be afraid of Love? His brow is smooth, and his face beset with banks full of delight; about his neck hangs a chain of golden smiles. Let us taste the pleasures which Cupid commands, and for that unmerited favour I shall become another man, to make you happy. So requesting the small boon of a favourable answer to be sent me to Mr Walker’s, who keeps an ale-house at the sign of the Bell in Thornbury, in Gloucestershire, give me leave to subscribe myself your most humble servant to command for ever,

JOHN BURTON.

The lady remained resolutely unsmitten — and had a significantly more accurate forecast of her suitor’s future prospects than all that golden-smiles stuff:

SIR,-Yours I received with as great dissatisfaction as when you robbed me, and admire at your impudence of offering me yourself for a husband, when I am sensible ‘twould not be long ere you made me a hempen widow. Perhaps some foolish girl or another may be so bewitched as to go in white to beg the favour of marrying you under the gallows; but indeed I should venture neither there nor in a church to marry one of your profession, whose vows are treacherous, and whose smiles, words and actions, like small rivulets through a thousand turnings of loose passions, at last arrive to the dead sea of sin. Should you therefore dissolve your eyes into tears, was every accent a sigh in your speech, had you all the spells and magic charms of love, I should seal up my ears that I might not hear your dissimulation. You have already broken your word in not sending what you villainously took from me; but not valuing that, let me tell you, for fear you should have too great a conceit of yourself, that you are the first, to my remembrance, whom I ever hated; and sealing my hatred with the hopes of quickly reading your dying speech, in case you die in London, I presume to subscribe myself yours never to command,

D. C.

(Longtime readers may remember this piece briefly published last year on this date — a small snafu of the pre-publishing art.)

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1739: Dick Turpin, outlaw legend

16 comments April 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1739, famed desperado Richard “Dick” Turpin rode through York on an open cart, saluting his admirers, then sat upon his gallows at the York raceway for half an hour, chatting with spectators and executioners, until he “with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes.”

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du-Val, the Bayard of the road — le filou sans peur et sans reproche — but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree…

Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a lustre that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse’s retreating heels.

The cloud hasn’t settled since William Harrison Ainsworth wrote those words.*

The “knight of the road”, one understands, is an artifice — a romantic construct. One name to bear its lustre to the present may be as good as another. Even so, in Dick Turpin, it has an exponent who bore very scant resemblance to the archetype … save for celebrity.

Turpin washed out of his apprenticed career as a butcher and took to the road, where he joined the “Essex Gang”. Far from dashing post-road stickups, this troupe specialized in invading domiciles where they would torture women into revealing the household stashes of valuables.


The Newgate Calendar captions this image, “Dick Turpin placing an old woman on the fire, to compel the discovry [sic] of her treasure”

Turpin’s highwayman career commenced when the gang was busted — our principal leaping out a window to evade capture — and he had a profitable couple of years plundering the traffic around Epping Forest.

Many are the colorful tales of Turpin’s career; the one of most moment for his legacy may be this chance encounter with a fellow outlaw, as related in the Newgate Calendar.

On a journey towards Cambridge, he met a man genteelly dressed, and well mounted: and expecting a good booty, he presented a pistol to the supposed gentleman, and demanded his money. The party thus stopped happened to be one King, a famous highwayman, who knew Turpin; and when the latter threatened destruction if he did not deliver his money, King burst into a fit of laughter, and said, “What, dog eat dog? — Come, come, brother Turpin; if you don’t know me, I know you, and shall be glad of your company.”

The well-mannered Tom King — “the gentleman highwayman” — seems to have had his courteous mien conjoined in legend with his much more villainous partner’s prolific career.

Nor is King the only fellow-outlaw whose exploits Turpin has absorbed.

Our anti-hero’s days pillaging the environs of London came to an end in an escapade that saw Turpin shoot his accomplice while trying to rescue him — a klutzy critical miss not usually associated with the swashbuckling rogue character kit. The dying King is supposed to have repaid this bit of friendly fire by revealing to the authorities the pair’s Epping Forest hideouts.

Escaping capture once again, Turpin changed his address, and it is said that the highwayman shed his pursuers with a marvelous 200-mile ride north to Yorkshire in 15 hours.

This feat was not Turpin’s originally, but ascribed to the 17th-century robber John “Swift Nick” Nevison, although even that might be folklore.

Ainsworth, bless his heart, fabricated (pdf) the Turpin ride in the interest of his yarn — “they were distancing Time’s swift chariot in its whirling passage o’er the earth … [Turpin] rode like one insane, and his courser partook of his frenzy. She bounded; she leaped; she tore up the ground beneath her; while Dick gave vent to his exultation in one wild prolonged halloo.” (Picturesquely, he rides his famous steed Black Bess to death on the trip.)

The story has been fixed ever since in the firmament, and licenses every pub along the route to claim Turpin’s patronage.

His end, if not heroic, was certainly attention-grabbing. Turpin settled in Yorkshire under the alias “John Palmer” and passed as a gentleman farmer … with a larcenous side business rustling stock.

His career, in a sense, had come full circle: ’twas a youthful cost-cutting practice of abducting animals that had put the kibosh on his legitimate butcher’s business.

His cover was blown most ingloriously, when he was detained as a possible horse thief and sent a pseudonymous letter to his brother in London asking for help. The brother was too cheap to pay the postage due, so the letter returned to the post office where Turpin’s schoolmaster chanced to see writing in a hand he recognized, and journeyed to York to identify the wanted man and pocket the reward.

So it was not housebreaking, highway heists, or his homicide that hung Turpin, but horse-rustling … although Turpin’s celebrity career attracted curiosity-seekers from far and wide when word of his capture got out. Whatever Ainsworth may have made of Turpin, he did not fabricate the man’s fame; Dick Turpin earned his own ballad sheets and made his own legend possible playing the man at his death.

This man lived in the most gay and thoughtless manner after conviction, regardless of all considerations of futurity, and affecting to make a jest of the dreadful fate that awaited him.

Not many days before his execution, he purchased a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps, in order to wear them at the time of his death: and, on the day before, he hired five poor men, at ten shillings each, to follow the cart as mourners: and he gave hatbands and gloves to several other persons: and he also left a ring, and some other articles, to a married woman in Lincolnshire, with whom he had been acquainted.

On the morning of his death he was put into a cart, and being followed by his mourners, as above-mentioned, he was drawn to the place of execution, in his way to which he bowed to the spectators with an air of the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity.

When he came to the fatal tree, he ascended the ladder; when his right leg trembling, he stamped it down with an air of assumed courage, as if he was ashamed of discovering any signs of fear, Having conversed with the executioner about half an hour, he threw himself off the ladder, and expired in a few minutes.

The spectators of the execution were affected at his fate, as he was distinguished by the comeliness of his appearance … The grave was dug remarkably deep, but notwithstanding the people who acted as mourners took such measures as they thought would secure the body: it was carried off about three o’clock on the following morning; the populace, however, got intimation whither it was conveyed, and found it in a garden belonging to one of the surgeons of the city.

Having got possession of it they laid it on a board, and carried it through the streets in a kind of triumphal manner, they then filled the coffin with unslacked lime, and buried it in the grave where it had been before deposited.

* LibriVox has a well-done free reading of Rookwood.

[audio:http://ia360943.us.archive.org/0/items/rookwood_pc_librivox/rookwood_26_ainsworth.mp3]

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

On this day..

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1758: William Page, forgotten highwayman

2 comments April 6th, 2009 Headsman

This date in 1758 marked the hanging of a somewhat more down-market highwayman than we have seen in these parts — the son of a farmer whose scrapes on the lam and gift for evading justice might have served for the day’s gallows-foot mongers, but left little worth posterity’s time.

We’ll bypass the folklorish purported early events of Page’s life — watery graves narrowly survived, further to the proverb that he who is born to be hanged shall never be drowned — to find him a young man bereft, like so many such, of station or direction until a short stint as a livery servant delivers him to a new career:

[Page’s] master having been robbed on his way to town, he formed a notion that highway robbery was an easy and profitable mode of living, and determined that so soon as he should have the means of starting in the profession he would become a “gentleman of the road.”

Page applied a bit of ungentlemanly industry to his apprenticed profession, which seem to have profited his longevity at the expense of his legend.

[H]e had drawn, from his own observation and for his private use, a most curious map of the roads twenty miles round London, and, driving in a phaeton and pair, was not suspected for a highwayman.

In his excursions for robbery he used to dress in a laced or embroidered frock, and wear his hair tied behind; but when at a distance from London he would turn into some unfrequented place and, having disguised himself in other clothes, with a grizzled or black wig, and saddled one of his horses, he would ride to the main road and commit a robbery. This done, he would hasten back to the carriage, resume his former dress, and drive to town again.

Meanwhile, he robbed, gambled it away, made love, was taken by his paramour, revenged himself by more robbery, and so forth.

Page’s habit of going about in disguise helped him dodge several capital charges on account of the difficulty of identifying him. But, you know — ever thus with deadbeats (at least in these pages): one finally stuck, and Page expiated his unusual career in the usual way at Maidstone.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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

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1719: Nicholas Horner, a minister’s son

3 comments April 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Nicholas Horner was hanged for his highwayman career.

Actually, he was lucky to have made it to his thirties, having dodged the noose thanks to the old man after his first condemnation.

THIS unhappy wretch was the younger son of the minister of Honiton, in Devonshire, and was a very wild untoward child even from infancy. However, his indulgent father, in order to provide for him, bestowed as much learning upon him as qualified him to be clerk to an attorney … but he soon falling into extravagant company, and addicting himself very much to drunkenness and whoredom, ran away from his master before he had served him three years, and betook himself to the highway in order to support himself in the pursuit of those vices. He had such ill luck, nevertheless, in his new profession, as to be taken in the very first robbery he attempted to commit, and accordingly … brought to trial and condemned. However, his father made such interest for him at Court that Queen Anne, who was always known to have a great veneration for the clergy, in consideration of his father’s being one of that order, was prevailed upon to grant him a pardon, upon condition of his being transported out of her Majesty’s dominions, and not settling in any part of Europe for the term of seven years, within six months after his going out of jail.

The Newgate text then indulges a picturesque excursion to the hinterlands, with Horner shipped to India and his English wife being carried off by the Hindoos, then obliged to undergo self-immolation when her Indian husband died.

We rejoin Horner having returned home to find his parents dead. He quickly blew his inheritance and “had again recourse to the highway.”

A slow-moving highway, since his stickup schtick took some time to unfold.

One day, being upon his rambles in quest of prey, and coming up with a rich farmer — “Well overtaken, friend,” said Horner; “methinks you look melancholy: pray what may be your affliction? If you are under any misfortunes by crosses and losses in the world, perhaps it may be in my power to relieve you.” The farmer very frankly replied: “Ah! dear sir, were I to say that I have had any losses in the world, I should be telling a great lie; for I have been a thriving man all my lifetime, and should want for nothing had I but content. But indeed I have crosses enough, through a damned scolding wife at home … Wherefore, could any man tell me a remedy that would cure it, I have a hundred pounds about me in gold and silver which I would freely give him with all my heart for so great a benefit as I should receive by taming this confounded shrew.”

At the mention of the agreeable name of a hundred pounds Horner pricked up both his ears and answered: “Sir, I will first tell you the ingredients which enter into the composition of a scold, and the cause of a distemper being truly known, ’twill be the more easy to complete the cure. You must understand, then, that Nature, in making an arrant scold, first took of the tongues and galls of bulls, bears, wolves, magpies, parrots, cuckoos and nightingales, each a like number; the tongues and tails of vipers, adders, snails and lizards, six apiece; aurum fulminans, aqua fortis and gunpowder, of each one pound; the clappers of seventeen bells and the pestles of thirty apothecaries’ mortars. These being all mixed together, she calcined them in Mount Strombolo, and dissolved the ashes in water taken just under London Bridge at three-quarters’ flood; she then filtrated the whole through the leaves of Calepine’s Dictionary, to render the operation more verbose, after which she distilled it a second time through a speaking trumpet, and closed up the remaining spirits in the mouth of a cannon.

“Then she opened the graves of all newly deceased pettifoggers, mountebanks, barbers, coffee-men, newsmongers and fishwives from Billingsgate, and with the skin of their tongues made a bladder, which she covered over drum-heads, and filled with storms, tempests, whirlwinds, thunder and lightning; and in the last place, to make the whole composition the more churlish, she cut a vein under the tongue of the dog-star, extracting from thence a pound of the most choleric blood, and then, sublimating the spirits, she mixed them up with the foam of a mad dog, and putting all together in the fore-mentioned bladder stitched them up therein with the nerves of Socrates’ wife.”

“A damned compound indeed this is,” rejoined the farmer. “Surely it must be impossible at this rate for any man to tame a scold.” “Not at all,” continued Horner; “for when she first begins to be in her fits, which you may perceive by the bending of her brows, then apply to her a plaster of good words; after that give her a wheedling potion, and if that will not do, take a birch rod and apply the same with a strong arm from shoulder to flank, according to art; that will infallibly complete the cure.” The farmer, being very well pleased with the prescription, not only gave Horner many thanks, but a good treat at the next inn they came to. Afterwards they rode on together again, and when they came to a convenient place, said Horner: “Will you be pleased to pay me now, sir, for the good advice I have given you?” “I thought, sir,” answered the farmer, “that the treat I gave you in return was sufficient satisfaction.” “No, sir,” quoth Horner, “you promised a hundred pounds, and, d–n me, sir,” continued he, presenting a pistol to his breast, “deliver your bag this instant, or you are a dead man.” At this rough compliment the farmer delivered it to him; but not without a hearty curse or two, and swearing withal that his wife should pay dearly for it the first time he tried the experiment of the birch rod upon her.

Evidently some kind-hearted fellow-bandit, or a target with appointments to keep, or something, helped tighten up Horner’s delivery.

Not long after this exploit Horner met with a gentleman upon Hounslow Heath, whom he saluted with the terrifying words: “Stand and deliver.”

(whew.)

Whereupon the person assaulted gave him what money he had about him, amounting to about six guineas, and said to him: “Truly, sir, you love money better than I do, to venture your neck for it.” “I only follow the general way of the world, sir,” quoth Horner, which now prefers money before either friends or honesty, yea, some before the salvation of their souls; for it is the love of gold that makes an unjust judge take a bribe; a corrupt lawyer plead a wrong cause in defiance of truth and justice; a physician kill a man whom he pretends to cure, without fear of hanging; a surgeon keep a patient long in hand, by laying on one plaster to heal, and two to draw his wound. ‘Tis gold that makes the tradesman tell every day a thousand lies behind the counter, in putting off his bad wares; ’tis that makes the butcher blow his veal, the tailor covet so much cabbage, the miller take toll twice, the baker wear a wooden cravat, and the shoemaker stretch his leather as he does his conscience. In short, ’tis that makes gentlemen of the pad, as I am, wear a Tyburn tippet, or old Storey’s cap, on some country gallows, which all of our noble profession value no more than you, sir, do the losing of this small trifle of six guineas.”

Social criticism of this sort is often put into the mouths of the Newgate Calendar’s evildoers, and in particular its gentleman robbers; note the very close parallel of this last critique to that supposedly uttered by James Withrington.

It is, in fact, essential to the highwayman archetype, and an identity real-life highwaymen intentionally played to — the gentleman thief (mirrored by contemporaries in the Golden Age of Piracy), who here opposes, and there merely parallels, the ascendant order of capitalism.

The complexity of 18th century England’s relationship to the highwayman, filtered through a blossoming mass media, has much exercised later historians: where does a pattern of speech like this fit in its milieu? Can one find in a highwayman’s travesty of bourgeois values, with Linebaugh, an expression of class resistance, or is he merely a failed satirist? Does he truly oppose — or does the futile romance of the road waste genuine opposition on escapism?*

The qualities of resistance, satire and escapism were well-known to the 18th century. That century’s smash theatrical hit, The Beggar’s Opera, staged the noble rogue’s critique to packed houses, and to the dismay of the moralistic element.

Since laws were made for every degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company,
Upon Tyburn Tree!
But gold from the law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree!

Decades later, highwaymen like Paul Lewis were still humming this tune en route to the gallows and self-consciously playing “Macheath”.

Nicholas Horner was hanged before The Beggar’s Opera debuted, but he — either the man or the character — had more sharp words for another keystone of propriety, holy wedlock. Whether this is the voice of the robber or his interlocutor, we may venture (given the shrew-taming digression above), that it’s someone whose domicile was less than blissful.

Horner overtook, beyond Maidenhead Thicket, a young man and a young woman who were going to be married at Henley-upon-Thames, with a couple of bridesmen and bridesmaids.

These he presently attacked … [and] demanded also the wedding-ring, for which the intended bridegroom entreated him yet more earnestly than for his money; but Horner being resolutely bent upon having it, they delivered it to him; whereupon he said: “You foolish young devils, do you know what you are going about? Are you voluntarily going to precipitate yourselves into inevitable ruin and destruction, by running your heads into the matrimonial noose with your eyes open? Do you know it is an apprenticeship for life, and a hard one too? You had better be ruled by me, and take one another’s words; and if you do, you’ll find in taking my counsel that it is the best day’s work you ever did since the hour of your birth.”

Ah, for the days when intercity transit entailed the omnipresent prospect of a gentlemanly robbery.

Let’s conclude on a light note — since we know the end of the story, after all — and picture whether this escaped mugging constituted news-you-can-use for broadsheet readers of a thespian bent.

Not long after this exploit a lady of distinction, being alone in the stage-coach … was informed by the coachman … that if her ladyship had any things of value about her, it would be her best way to secure them as well as she could, for he saw several suspicious fellows scouting up and down the heath … [T]he lady put her gold watch, a purse of guineas and a very fine suit of laced head-cloths under her seat. This done she dishevelled her hair in a very uncouth manner all over her head and shoulders, by which time Horner had ridden up to her, and presenting a pistol into the coach demanded her money.

Hereupon the lady … [acted] the part of a lunatic, which she did to the life, for opening the coach door and leaping out, and taking Horner by one of his legs, she shrieked out in a most piteous and lamentable shrill voice: “Ah! dear Cousin Tom, I am glad to see you. I hope you will now rescue me from this rogue of a coachman, who is carrying me, by that villain my husband’s order, to Bedlam for a madwoman.” “D— me,” replied Horner, “I am none of your cousin; I don’t know you. I believe you are mad indeed, so Bedlam is the fittest place for you.” “Ah! Cousin Tom,” said the lady again, “but I will go along with you; I won’t go to Bedlam.” She then clung close to Horner and his horse, and counterfeited lunacy with such dexterity that he really thought it natural, and asked the coachman: “Do you know this mad b—h? “Yes,” replied the coachman, “I know the lady very well she is sadly distracted, for she has torn her head-cloths all to pieces and thrown them away as we came along; and I am now going with her by her husband’s orders to London, to put her into a madhouse, where she may be cured; but not into Bedlam, as she supposes.” “E’en take her then along with you to the devil, if you will,” said Horner in a passion, “for I thought to have met with a good purchase, and I find now there is nothing to be got of this mad toad.” So he set spurs to his horse and rode away as fast as he could, for fear of being plagued any more with her, for she seemed mighty fond of her cousin, and ran a good way after him; but after he was gone out of sight she was better pleased with his absence than his company, and got safe to London.

* The issues at stake, and the literature on them, are explored at length in Andrea McKenzie’s “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly December 2006, Vol. 69, No. 4, Pages 581–605.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

On this day..

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

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