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1769: John Martin Andrew, John Fielding prey

On this date in 1769, a prolific Swedish burglar named John Martin Andrew went to Tyburn for burgling a Foster Lane jeweler to the tune of

  • seven pair of snam-garnet gold buttons, value 6 l. 6 s.
  • six pair of garnet ear-rings, set in gold, value 3 l.
  • one other pair ditto, value 8 s.
  • one pair of Moco buttons, set in gold, value 1 l. 15 s.
  • two pair of ditto, value 2 l.
  • two pair of clutter ditto, with garnets, value 3 l.
  • one pair of crystal ditto, value 18 s.
  • two pair of small ditto, value 1 l. 8 s.
  • one three stone topaz gold ring, with a diamond, value 1 l. 14 s.
  • one ditto amethyst with diamonds, value 1 l. 13 s.
  • one ditto, value 1 l. 3 s.
  • one ditto, value 1 l. 4 s.
  • one ditto, garnet with diamonds, value 1 l. 5 s.
  • one ditto, value 1 l. 3 s.
  • one stone ditto with garnets and diamonds, value 6 l.
  • one single garnet stone ditto, value 1 l.
  • one single crystal stone ditto, value 17 s.
  • one sapphire ditto, value 1 l.
  • one Moco ditto, value 18 s.
  • four Moco ditto, set round with garnets, value 4 l. 4 s.
  • one cluster garnet with hair in it, value 1 l. 3 s.
  • one case for rings, value 2 s.
  • one pair of three drop cluster garnet ear-rings, set in gold, value 8 l.
  • a pair of single drop ear-rings, with knots in silver, value 1 l. 1 s.
  • six pair of fancy ear-rings, and cases in silver, value 5 l.
  • a girdle buckle in silver, value 10 s.
  • a pair of crystal buckles, set in silver, value 15 s.
  • a pair of topazes ditto, set in silver, value 2 l. 12 s. 6 d.
  • a pair of children’s stone buckles, in silver, value 10 s.
  • a pair of knee stone ditto, in silver, value 8 s.
  • a stone shoe buckle, in silver, value 12 s.
  • one child’s silver buckle, value 2 s.
  • a pair of garnet shoe buckles, in silver, gilt, value 2 l.
  • a pair of crystal ditto, in silver, value 18 s.
  • a pair of cluster garnet buttons, in gold, value 1 l. 15 s.
  • six pair of buttons and wires
  • three silver and twelve gold ear-rings, value 1 l. 1 s.
  • thirteen stone buttons, set in silver, value 18 s. 6 d.
  • one pair of cluster studs, value 2 s.
  • three gold diamond rings, value 6 l.
  • one ditto false stone, value 5 s.
  • three pair of stone buttons, set in silver, value 1 l. 2 s.
  • one pair of garnet buttons, set in gold, value 18 s.
  • one pair of cluster Moco, set in gold, value 1 l. 10 s.
  • one pair of crystal ear-rings, set in silver, value 6 s.
  • one pair of cluster paste, set in silver, value 7 s.
  • one heart trinket, set in gold, value 7 s.
  • one gold seal, value 1 l. 3 s.
  • one pair of stone knee buckles, set in silver, value 8 s.
  • a purple paste hoop-ring, set in gold, value 12 s.
  • two paste crosses in silver, value 12 s.
  • one pair of large garnet buttons, set in gold, value 3 l.
  • four pair of Moco ditto, set in gold, value 4 l.
  • four pair of garnet ditto, set in gold, value 4 l.
  • three pair of Moco studs, set in gold, value 2 l. 5 s.
  • one pair of garnet ditto, set in gold, 1 l.
  • six pair of single drop ear-rings, set in gold, value 3 l. 12 s.
  • two pair of three drop ear-rings, set in ditto, value 3 l. 3 s.
  • five pair of garnet and topazes, set in ditto, value 1 l. 17 s. 6 d.
  • one pair of night ear-rings, value 11 s.
  • thirty hoop rings in gold, some paste, some garnets, value 14 l. 16 s. 6 d.
  • five gold seals, value 8 l. 8 s.
  • four diamond rings, value 8 l. 8 s.
  • about thirty rings, value 12 l. 13 s.
  • nine garnet buckles, set in gold, value 5 l.
  • about fourteen gold lockets, some sapphires, some garnets, value 2 l. 10 s.
  • two pair of sham garnet buckles, set in gold, value 1 l. 16 s.
  • five stock buckles, value 2 l. 10 s.
  • five shirt buckles, set in silver, 2 l. 5 s.
  • about three pair of fancy ear-rings, value 2 l. 12 s. 6 d.
  • about twenty-four pair of stone shoe buckles, value 19 l. 4 s.
  • about twenty-eight stone knee buckles, value 11 l. 10 s.
  • a large garnet unset, value 3 l.
  • a mettle watch-case, value 12 s.
  • about six pair of gold wires, and one gold ring, value 1 l. 1 s.
  • one cluster locket, value 1 l.
  • about twelve pair of silver shoe buckles, value 7 l.
  • two heart trinkers, value 14 s.
  • one garnet cross, set in silver, value 4 s.
  • twelve large waistcoat buttons, silver, value 12 s.
  • four breast buckles, value 1 l. 8 s.
  • three girdle buckles, value 1 l. 4 s.
  • one solitair, value 1 l. 4 s.
  • one king William and queen Mary’s half-crown
  • one pocket piece, larger
  • and sundry pieces of small money, in a chip box, value 10 s. 6 d.

As the charge sheet’s thorough inventory suggests the jeweler knew his business — or rather, it was known by his wife Mary Knight, who with the man of the house laid up with illness very coolly delivered the court the testimony that would hang their thief. It seems the Knights had the diligence to inscribe a business sigil on most of their pieces, and even on their business papers. It was this that enabled their property’s recovery.

Mary Knight also knew precisely where to turn to make that recovery, and when the sun came up on her burgled home she “immediately had warnings dispersed about, from Goldsmiths hall, and went to Sir John Fielding.”

The “Blind Beak of Bow Street” — “beak” was just slang for someone in charge — John Fielding had followed his half-brother Henry as London’s chief magistrate. Together the Fieldings fathered policing in England, Henry as the pioneer before his sudden death in 1754, and the energetic and innovative John for the quarter-century following.

Incredibly from the standpoint of posterity, London at around 700,000 souls mid-century had no professional police; indeed the populace was bitterly suspicious at the idea as tending to despotism. Despite favorably describing autocratic France’s far more developed marechaussee, the English observer William Mildmay remarked that “such an establishment is not to be imitated in our land of liberty, where the injured and oppressed are to seek for no other protection than that which the law ought only to afford, without flying to the aid of a military power” as the latter would be “either dangerous to our liberties or unconstitutional to our form of government.” The French critic Le Blanc, abroad in England in the 1730s, was perplexed by his hosts’ preference for the taxation of highwaymen to that of any state organ that might secure the roads.

Those institutions of public security that existed in the Great Wen* were a wormeaten quiltwork of minutely local and almost determinedly ineffective entities, and “there was a rivalry and jealousy rather than co-operation and mutual help between the Watch, King’s Messengers, Press Messengers, city marshals and sheriffs, and the other ad hoc bodies.” (Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England) Meanwhile, the responsibility to investigate and prosecute crimes after the fact fell to victims themselves, and these prospective vendettas were so prohibitive that neighbors were known to form “prosecution associations” to insure one another against the expense. The acme of the perversity had been attained in the 1710s-1720s business empire of Jonathan Wild, the “thief-taker” who was simultaneously the criminal kingpin, ingeniously skimming the margins on the city’s entire economy of robbing, fencing, and private rewards.

This was the world that the Fieldings set themselves to remake.

When he attained the magistracy in 1748, Henry set up his home in Bow Street as the headquarters of a protozoan police force. Six constables of his recruit would be the founding coterie of what was soon known as the Bow Street Runners.

His kinsman and assistant John would inherit leadership of this enterprise in 1754 and make it his life’s work. With a state stipend that grew over the years with his successes, John Fielding made the long-dubious racket of thief-taking into a respectable office, his tireless pen relentlessly advertising (exaggerating, McLynn claims) the honesty and effectiveness of his enterprise and forever “dragg[ing] the unwilling authorities in the direction of the creation of a national police force.” (McLynn again) Fielding kept his offices open for long and reliable hours; in the case we have at hand, the first search warrant for John Andrew Martin’s lodgings was granted not by he but by a subaltern while Fielding was out at dinner. He also widened his constables’ investigative scope beyond the narrow parishes to which they had historically been attached, and counseled Parliament on policy. He was particularly busy here in the 1760s, as a crime wave following the post-Seven Years’ War demobilization was engulfing London.

Cataloguing and disseminating information about criminals was a particular interest and the Blind Beak had a reputation for being able to recognize thousands of rogues by the sound of their voice alone. So it was in our case, for “when the prisoner was taken before Sir John Fielding, Sir John knew him very well; and asked him how long he had been come back from transportation?” There were, the Old Bailey transcript dryly notes, “fourteen other indictments against him for burglaries.”

At Tyburn, Martin’s “behaviour was manly and decent … He was about five feet ten inches high, forty years of age, genteely dressed, with his own hair tyed behind.”

* The term “Great Wen” as a slur for London wasn’t coined until the 1820s, by radical journalist William Cobbett, a great advocate of rural England.

1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.