On this date in 1691, highwayman Jack Withrington hanged at Tyburn.
THIS fellow was the youngest of five brothers, who were all born at Blandford, in Dorsetshire. The other four were all hanged in the country, but Jack had the good fortune to be reserved for Tyburn, and by that means to have his name transmitted to posterity. He was bound to a tanner in Shaftesbury, a town in his native county, with whom he served about three years. Then he entered into the Earl of Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, in which, when Monmouth‘s rebellion was suppressed in the West of England, he came up to London, where he soon met with opportunities of discovering his valour to the world. These occasions were two quarrels in which he was engaged: the first with a man famous for fighting, against whom he behaved with so much bravery and skill that it won him a vast reputation; the second with a person of great estate, but a noted coward, when he showed himself a gentleman by his adherence to the point of honour and good breeding. By these duels he won abundance of applause, so as thereby to contract a familiarity with all the greatest fighting men of the time, especially those in his own regiment. Withrington however carried his manhood so far as to get himself turned out of the regiment within a year after, for challenging his captain. He then became a perfect bully and gamester; and, being fortunate, in a little time by these means saw himself master of a considerable sum of money. Notwithstanding all this good luck at first, he found himself afterwards subject to the fate of gamesters —- viz. to be frequently without money in spite of his large winnings. This brought him at last to consider the uncertainty of Fortune and endeavour to make himself master of her, by supplying with fraud what he might want in plain open skill. But this also did not continue long; for everyone began to be aware of him as a common sharper, and none who knew him would venture to play with him.
In the common scale of knavery the next step above a sharper is a downright thief. Withrington made bold to ascend this degree, and was resolved to take the most honourable station thereon, that of a highwayman. He had money enough to buy him a good horse and accoutrements, so that the resolution and the real attempt were not long asunder. His first adventure was with a farmer, from whom he took forty pounds, giving him in return only an impudent harangue, occasioned by the countryman’s reproaching him with the robbery.
The next that fell in Withrington’s way was Mr Edward Clark, gentleman usher to the Duchess of Mazarin. They met in Devonshire, on the road between Chudleigh and Ashburton. Mr Clark made some resistance, so that in the scuffle Withrington’s mask fell off and discovered his face, which Mr Clark knowing, he called him by his name, and said he hoped he would not rob an old acquaintance. “Indeed I shall, sir,” quoth Withrington, “for you get your money much easier than I do, who am forced to venture my life for a maintenance; you have so much a year for eating, drinking and entertaining your lady with scandal and nonsense. What I shall take from you will do you little harm; it is only putting a higher price upon half-a-score reputations, which you know how to do as well as any coxcomb in England. Ladies never let such faithful servants go unrewarded, nor will yours suffer your loss to fall on yourself.” He got about eight guineas out of this gentleman’s pocket, and for old acquaintance sake bade him “Good-b’w’ye” very heartily.
Withrington’s robberies in less than a year and a half were talked of almost all over the kingdom. But alas! he met with a diversion, common to mankind, that draws even the most stupid into the rank of polite persons. The poor man was in love; and with whom but a rich widow inn-keeper in Bristol! Farewell to the highway: Withrington has another scent to pursue. No more robberies to be thought of from a man who was himself robbed of his heart! He employed an old bawd in the affair, who was intimately acquainted with our hostess, and by this flesh-broker’s mediation things had like to have come to an issue, and Jack to have been master of the Swan Inn. In short, there was nothing prevented it but the accidental coming of a certain gentleman, who knew our highwayman, and informed his mistress what he was. The effects of this discovery were Jack’s being kicked out of doors by the ostler and chamberlain, and the commitment of madam the negotiatress to Bridewell, in order to mill Dolly.
After his return to the highway he and one of his companions met with Mr Thompson, a noted tailor, in a part of Hertfordshire that was convenient for robbing. They took from him about thirty pounds in silver, and then, dismounting him, they ordered him to stay where he was till they brought him more company. As soon as they were gone from him he remounted his horse and attempted to ride off as fast as he could; but our highwaymen perceiving what he was at, and having the best horses, they fetched him back, and mistrusting he had more money, by his being in so much haste, they searched him afresh, he protesting all the while that he had not so much as a farthing left if it were to save his soul. In a literal sense he might be right; but they made a shift to find forty guineas, which they thought better than farthings. Withrington upon this exclaimed that it was a sad thing that one Christian could not believe another! They then shot his horse, to put a stop to his speed, and so rode away and left him.
These, we pause to digress, are not the only stock and store among the (surely half-legendary) c.v. of this colorful bandit. The verbosely entitled Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes reports that Withrington delivered himself of an even wordier critique of the nascent economic order of the day.
[T]ravelling the road, he met a rich farmer, from whom he took £40. Quoth he, Is not this a downright robbery? Roberry? replied Withrington; So let it be; who is there now-a-days does not rob? The tailor steals before his customer’s face; the weaver steals by eking out the length of a piece of cloth with the remainder of broken ends; the surgeon steals by prolonging a cure; the apothecary steals with a quid pro quo, using one drug for another for cheapness, without any regard to the age and constitution of the patient; the merchant steals by putting his money into the Bank of England; the scrivener steals by selling the soul of a poor man for the money that he can take of a forfeit; the grocer steals by using false weights; the vintner steals by adulterating his wine; the butcher steals by blowing up his meat; the victualler steals by drawing in short measures; the cook steals by roasting his meat twice over; the baker steals by raising his bread when there’s no occasion; and the shoe-maker steals by stretching his leather as much as he does his conscience. Thus, as there is cheating and cozening in all trades but mine, you cannot blame me for borrowing this small trifle; which I shall honestly pay you when we meet again; so till then, farewell.
And a bit of, er, gallantry.
Another time Jack Withrington meeting a gentleman and his wife on the road betwixt St. Albans and Dunstable, he very submissively craved their benevolence; but they not instantly granting his request, he shot the horse on which they both rode, and swore that as he denied him his money, he would take his wife. So forcing her into an adjacent copse, and acting a man’s part by her, he restored her to her husband again, from whom taking eleven or twelve guineas he said, This is no more than my due for I am not obliged to do your drudgery for nothing.
Rape and repartee! Dreamy.
But we know where this is heading.
The last robbery Withrington committed was alone. He stopped a nobleman on Hounslow Heath attended by two footmen. There was a short dispute, but Withrington having the best of it, he took a portmanteau in which were two hundred and eighty guineas, sixty pounds in silver, and a parcel of fine linen. A hue and cry was soon issued out after him, and he was apprehended by means of it at Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, from whence he was removed to London, where he was condemned for this fact.
The sentence of death seemed to have no effect on his temper, for he was as gay and humorous under that circumstance as ever he had been before. When he was riding up Holborn Hill he ordered the cart to stop, and calling up the Sheriff’s deputy, “Sir,” said he, “I owe a small matter at the Three Cups, a little farther on, for which I am afraid of being arrested as I go by the door; therefore I shall be much obliged to you if you will be pleased to carry me down Shoe Lane and bring me up Drury Lane again into the road by which I am to travel this devilish long journey.” The deputy informed him that if such a mischance should happen he should come to no damage. “For,” says he, “I’ll be bail for you myself, rather than you shall go back to prison again.” “Thank you heartily, sir,” quoth Jack; “I protest I could not have thought that I had a friend in the world who would have stood by me so in such a time of need.” After this he rode very contentedly to the place of execution, where he was tucked up with as little ceremony as usual. This fatal day was Wednesday, the 1st of April, in the year 1691.
Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.