1761: Isaac Darkin, dying game

Add comment March 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On March 23, 1761, British highwayman Isaac Darkin — “Dumas” by a dashing alias — hanged at Oxford for robbery.

It might be Darkin’s misfortune to have been born just too late for the mythmaking golden age of highwaymen; a generation or two earlier he might have forged a reputation alongside a Dick Turpin. He was one of the last road agents whose career and genteel pretensions might have suited him for the firmament.

The suave outlaw, noted for his natty attire and correct address, first passed under the shadow of the noose in 1758 around age 18, when a death sentence earned for his first legal brush was respited in favor of conscription into the Seven Years’ War.

Darkin took the deal, but not the troop transport to Antigua: instead he devised a route to early retirement from the infantry by bribing the captain of a merchantman anchored nearby in the Thames to stow him away.

And then, quoth this history of highwaymen, our man “rioted all through the West of England, robbing wealthy travellers and gaily spending his takings on what he loved best: fine clothes and fine ladies. He was so attentive to business that he speedily made a name for himself, the name of a daring votary of the high toby.”

Arrested in Salisbury in 1760 for the famous robbery of a Lord Percival, Darkin beat that charge — but not before becoming a favorite of the city’s ladies who were reported to crowd his cell with callers and coo over him at fashionable tea-times. When “Dumas” escaped the noose on a technicality, some Salisbury women dedicated their enchanting Duval a come-hither ode.

Joy to thee, lovely Thief! that thou
Hast ‘scaped the fatal string,
Let Gallows groan with ugly Rogues,
Dumas mut never swing.

Does thou seek Money? — To thy Wants
Our Purses we’ll resign;
Could we our Hearts to guineas coin
Those guineas all were thine.

To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded Pockets carry;
Thou ne’er again shall tempt the Road,
Sweet youth! if you wilt marry.

No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee — We’ll ensure them:
To us thou shalt consign thy Balls
And Pistol; we’ll secure ’em.

Yet think not, when the Chains are off,
Which now thy Legs bedeck,
To fly: in Fetters softer far
We’ll chain thee by the Neck.

Alas for its swooning authors, the handsome bandit had no interest in the bonds of matrimony, and just as well — for he would have left his mate a hempen widow.

A mere six weeks after this merry escape, he was snapped up again in Oxford, having returned inevitably to his career and calling.

This time there was no hope of escape and no technicality to hang his hat on.

There was nothing for it but to die “game” — that is, fearless of death — an underworld virtue Darkin carried almost to a fault. He spent his last days “with reading the Beggars’s Opera” and “said it was always his Determination, whenever he should have the ill Fortune to be taken, ‘to suffer without discovering the least Dread of Death; never to betray his Connections, but to die like a Hero.'”*

So indeed he did, as attested by a letter from Oxford published in the London Evening Post (March 21-24 1761) — hurling himself off the gallows without the hand of the executioner.

His Behaviour was extremely undaunted; for when he came out of the Gaol to the Ladder, he ascended it with the greatest Resolution; and the Cord being tied up by his own Desire over the Gallows before he came, he instantly went up four Steps higher than that on which he stepped off to hang himself, put the Cord round his own Neck and placed it, then descending the four Steps down, pulled out a white Handkerchief, tied it round his Eyes and Face, and went off without saying one Word.

His Body was ordered to be brought back into the Castle, to be conveyed to the Museum for Desection [sic]; but he declaring that he valued not Death, but only the Thoughts of being anatomized, a large Gang of Bargemen arose, took him a Way in Triumph, carried him to the next Parish Church; and while some rung the Bells for Joy, others opened his Belly, filled it full of unslick’d Lime, and then buried the Body.

* From Andrea McKenzie’s “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying Game in Augustan England” in the Journal of British Studies, April 2003. For more on the subject, also see the same author’s book-length treatment, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775.

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1763: Hannah Dagoe, violently

4 comments May 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1763, Hannah Dagoe did it her way in “an extraordinary and unprecedented scene” at Tyburn.

A “strong, lusty”* Irish woman, her crime of theft does not much enthrall us, but her behavior on the way to the gallows would have done many a condemned wretch proud:

On the road to Tyburn she showed little concern at her miserable state, and paid no attention to the exhortations of the Romish priest who attended her. When the cart, in which she was bound, was drawn under the gallows, she got her hands and arms loose, seized the executioner, struggled with him, and gave him so violent a blow on the breast that she nearly knocked him down. She dared him to hang her; and in order to revenge herself upon him, and cheat him of his dues,** she took off her hat, cloak and other parts of her dress, and disposed of them among the crowd. After much resistance he got the rope about her neck, which she had no sooner found accomplished than, pulling out a hand kerchief, she bound it round her head and over her face, and threw herself out of the cart, before the signal was given, with such violence that she broke her neck and died instantly.

(Updated with a fortuitous connection not noted in first passing.)

Somewhere amid that ample throng cheering on the unexpected fisticuffs under the scaffold was notable scribbler James Boswell, he of The Life of Johnson.

Boswell had come along to the spectacle to see another, less pugilistic victim of the hanging party, Paul Lewis, a respectable clergyman’s son and former Navy officer taken to highway robbery. (The third member of the doomed party was stockbroker and forger John Rice.) Boswell’s diary records the happenstance encounter with Lewis and Hannah “Deigo” that led him to Tyburn’s shadow.

TUESDAY 3 MAY.

I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr. Wilkes† come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see prisoners of one kind or other, so went to Newgate. I stepped into a sort of court before the cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in, but stood in the court, where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. Mr. Rice the broker was confined in another part of the house. In the cells were Paul Lewis for robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to chapel. The woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul, who had been in the sea-service and was called Captain, was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was dressed in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver, with his hair neatly queued and a silver-laced hat, smartly cocked. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said, “Very well”; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I really took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the chapel.

Erskine and I dined at the renowned Donaldson’s, where we were heartily entertained. All this afternoon I felt myself still more melancholy, Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud. Poor Lewis was always coming across me. I felt myself dreary at night, and made my barber try to read me asleep with Hume’s History, of which he made very sad work. I lay in sad concern.

WEDNESDAY 4 MAY.

My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsome fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me, and he and I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that we could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.

The Macheath imagery, if not the melancholy, evidently stuck with the dutiful scribe, who found himself still minded of the Beggar’s Opera hero two weeks later while out on the pull.

I then sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire. I met two very pretty little girls who asked me to take them with me. “My dear girls,” said I, “I am a poor fellow. I can give you no money. But if you choose to have a glass of wine and my company and let us be gay and obliging to each other without money, I am your man.” They agreed with great good humour. … We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of sherry before us in a minute. I surveyed my seraglio and found them both good subjects for amorous play. I toyed with them and drank about and sung “Youth’s the Season” and thought myself Captain Macheath; and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is: thought I was in a London tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head, enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter. I parted with my ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.

* London Evening Post, May 3-5 1763.

** The executioner was entitled to claim his clients’ clothing.

† Distantly related to namesake and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin lyric?

11 comments March 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1741,* at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

What the Newgate Calendar reads as ingratitude, the modern reader might more sympathetically see as the allure of a burgeoning city for a teenager full of dreams.

Dreams may nurture the spirit, but flesh must have bread. Like countless others through time — indeed, like countless other clients of Tyburn — Jenny found metropolis less than convivial to aspirations of honest labor.

Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle bursts with almost doting memoirs of her agile fingers, like this one:

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

Not neglecting also to celebrate the gang’s more Sting-like ruses, like this hilarious turn of the tables on a credulous cuckolder:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town.

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Alas to say, they all can’t come off like clockwork. Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies.

Finding little to recommend colonial Virginia, she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, however: one is saddened to find her in her last adventure nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act: perhaps those nimble hands, now pushing 40, had finally slowed down.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 (unrelated) victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.


Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

About That Name

We also have a modern context** for the name “Jenny Diver” as one of several women mentioned in the song “Mack the Knife”:

This song is an English riff on a German tune from The Threepenny Opera, concerning its principal male character, the highwayman Macheath. (Possibly inspired by the recently-executed Jack Sheppard.)

The Threepenny Opera updated the 18th-century Beggar’s Opera, a satiric (and extraordinarily popular) production setting operatic tropes among society’s whores, criminals and castoffs.

The sequence of female names Bobby Darin rattles off in this version of “Mack the Knife” all draw from these operas: Suky (sometimes Sukey or Sukie) Tawdry and Jenny Diver are underworld women in The Beggar’s Opera who set Macheath up for arrest; Lucy Brown is The Threepenny Opera‘s version of the original character Lucy Lockit, who under either name is the daughter of a law enforcement officer in love with Macheath who helps him escape.†

One might suppose such a fortuitous connection of Jenny Divers was a calculated one, but it seems both the character’s name and the thief’s were independently and coevally drawn from the rich vein of English thieves’ cant.

Strictly coincidental.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years, according to Philip Rawlings, so it was a natural sobriquet for an expert thief … and for an author (whose script is chock full of suggestively-named characters — Wat Dreary, Molly Brazen, Jemmy Twitcher) conjuring such a character. There’s no direct evidence indicating that either the cutpurse or the dramatist knowingly cribbed from the other.

A pity it was for the real Jenny that art and life couldn’t imitate one another more strongly.

PLAYER. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.

BEGGAR. Most certainly, Sir.—-To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice—-Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all hang’d or transported.

PLAYER. Why then Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.

BEGGAR. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—-So—-you Rabble there—-run and cry, A Reprieve!—-let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

* 1740, according to the original documentation; 1741 by modern reckoning, since the new year’s onset was at the time not recognized on January 1.

** There’s still another Jenny Diver reference in the literate comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

† The fourth name of the sequence originally was Polly Peachum, Lucy’s rival for Macheath’s affections — but when Louis Armstrong made the first popular recording of Mack the Knife, he ad-libbed the line “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” referring the actress who played Polly Jenny in both the original German production and the then-current Broadway importation, and who also happened to be present at Armstrong’s recording. Darin’s subsequent (and eventually canonical) version followed that lead and replaced the original name outright.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Mass Executions,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn,Women

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