On this date in 1690, according to the Newgate Calendar,* the venerable gentleman rogue Thomas Sympson — better known as Old Mobb — was hanged for robbery.
Old Mobb — at least, the stylish and erudite version of the man given us in the Calendar — preyed the roads of late 17th century England for many a year, perhaps all the way back to the ill-fated reign of Charles I.
His rollicking adventures could have formed the fair corpus of a durable legend; in some alternate world Ainsworth chose Old Mobb as for Rookwood and it is he and not Dick Turpin who has the television serial and the pub nameplates.
A nobleman Sir Bartholomew Shower, whose name might also be the safeword at a leather masquerade, was apprehended by Old Mobb one day nearly penniless as to his person; taking exception at being shorted by such a wealthy grandee, Mobb forced him to write up a bill for 150 quid to draw on the goldsmith of nearby Exeter, leaving Shower trussed up under an obliging hedge “as security for the payment” while he went into town to cash the cheque.
The annals have next a widow, bound for Bath no less in tribute to the classics, and had a jolly battle of the sexes with her over her condition which of course Old Mobb won, since he had the gun. His target, you see,
wept very plentifully, in order to move him to pity; she told him she was a poor widow, who had lately lost her husband, and therefore she hoped he would have some compassion on her. “And is your losing your husband then,” says he, “an argument that I must lose my booty? I know your sex too well, madam, to suffer myself to be prevailed on by a woman’s tears. Those crocodile drops are always at your command; and no doubt but that dear cuckold of yours, whom you have lately buried, has frequently been persuaded out of his reason by their interposition in your domestic debates. Weeping is so customary to you, that everybody would be disappointed if a woman was to bury her husband and not weep for him; but you would be more disappointed if nobody was to take notice of your crying; for according to the old proverb, the end of a husband is a widow’s tears; and the end of those tears is another husband.”
The poor gentlewoman upon this ran out into an extravagant detail of her deceased husband’s virtues, solemnly protesting that she would never be married again to the best man that wore a head, for she should not expect a blessing to attend her afterwards; with a thousand other things of the same kind. Old Mobb at last interrupted her, and told her he would repeat a pleasant story in verse which he had learned by heart, so, first looking round him to see that the coast was clear on every side, he began as follows: —-
A widow prude had often swore
No bracelet should approach her more;
Had often proved that second marriage
Was ten times worse than maid’s miscarriage,
And always told them of their sin,
When widows would be wives agen:
Women who’d thus themselves abuse,
Should die, she thought, like honest Jews
Let her alone to throw the stones;
If ’twere but law, she’d make no bones.
Thus long she led a life demure;
But not with character secure:
For people said (what won’t folks say?)
That she with Edward went astray:
(This Edward was her servant-man)
The rumour through the parish ran,
She heard, she wept, she called up Ned,
Wiped her eyes dry, sighed, sobbed, and said:
‘Alas! what sland’rous times are these!
What shall we come to by degrees!
This wicked world! I quite abhor it!
The Lord give me a better for it!
On me this scandal do they fix?
On me? who, God knows, hate such tricks!
Have mercy, Heaven, upon mankind,
And grant us all a better mind!
My husband — Ah that dearest man!
Forget his love I never can;
He took such care of my good name,
And put all sland’rous tongues to shame. —
But, ah! he’s dead –‘ Here grief amain,
Came bubbling up, and stopped the strain.
Ned was no fool; he saw his cue,
And how to use good fortune knew:
Old Opportunity at hand,
He seized the lock, and bid him stand;
Urged of what use a husband was
To vindicate a woman’s cause,
Exclaimed against the sland’rous age;
And swore he could his soul engage
That madam was so free from fault
She ne’er so much as sinned in thought;
Vowing he’d lose each drop of blood
To make that just assertion good.
This logic, which well pleased the dame,
At the same time eludes her shame:
A husband, for a husband’s sake,
Was what she’d ne’er consent to take.
Yet, as the age was so censorious,
And Ned’s proposals were so glorious,
She thought ’twas best to take upon her,
A second guardian of her honour.
“This,” says Old Mobb, “is an exact picture of woman-kind, and as such I committed it to memory; you are very much obliged to me for the recital, which has taken me up more time than I usually spend in taking a purse; let us now pass from the dead to the living, for it is these that I live by. I am in a pretty good humour, and so will not deal rudely by you. Be so kind, therefore, as to search yourself, and use me as honestly as you are able; you know I can examine afterwards, if I am not satisfied with what you give me.” The gentlewoman found he was resolute, and so thought it the best way to keep him in temper, which she did by pulling out forty guineas in a silk purse, and presented them to him. It is fifty to one but Old Mobb got more by repeating the verses above than the poor poet that wrote them ever made of his copy. Such is the fate of the sons of Apollo. [dear reader, why not take this opportunity to click on an ad? -ed.]
We certainly have in these puffed-up knaves torn down for our amusement a little window into the romance of the road where by means of Stand And Deliver one attains the liberty to put put hypocrites in their place whilst usurping the abundance that is the latter’s usual wages.
Old Mobb robs a famous astrologer whose constellations fail to predict the engagement; to a doctor who upbraids him, he retorts, “I only take [my victims’] money away from them; but you frequently take away their lives: and what makes it the worse you do it safely, under a pretence of restoring them to health.”
As pieces de resistance, Old Mobb gets the better of two of Restoration England’s most infamous grandees.
The Duchess of Portsmouth, the widely hated French Catholic mistress to Charles II,** Old Mobb improbably manages to trap in her stagecoach giving him leave to excoriate her in words similar to those that real 17th century Britons must have muttered many times while in their cups. “I know you to be the greatest whore in the kingdom; and that you are maintained at the public charge. I know that all the courtiers depend on your smiles, and that even the K— himself is your slave,” Mobb says, rubbishing her sex and her nationality all at once. “That haughty French spirit will do you no good here. I am an English freebooter; and insist upon it as my native privilege to seize all foreign commodities. Your money indeed is English, and the prodigious sums that have been lavished on you will be a lasting proof of English folly; nevertheless, all you have is confiscated to me by being bestowed on such a worthless b—h. I am king here, madam, and I have a whore to keep on the public contributions as well as King Charles.”
The ruthless hanging judge Lord Jeffreys Old Mobb likewise pays in his own coin when Jeffreys threatens our marauder with potential damnation, speaking as it were through Jeffreys to the obsequious blackguards who afflict the public life of every time and place.
When justice has overtaken us both, I shall stand at least as good a chance as your Lordship; who have already written your name in indelible characters of blood, by putting to death so many hundred innocent men, for only standing up in defence of our common liberties, that you might secure the favour of your Prince. It is enough for you to preach morality upon the Bench, where nobody dares to contradict you; but your lessons can have no effect upon me at this time; for I know you too well not to see that they are only calculated to preserve money.
* The Newgate Calendar positively avers a hanging of Friday, May 30, 1690, but there are some complicating data points. There’s his purported campaign with William “the Golden Farmer” Davis, who was supposed to have left a parting note for Old Mobb upon Davis’s December 1690 execution. (However, 1690 was the year when May 30 was on a Friday, not 1691.)
The invaluable Old Bailey Online has none of this, though the date range is a period of spotty recordkeeping. It does give us a nondescript and lamely apologetic “Old Mobb” hanged on the 18th of September 1691; although this guy had done some highway robbery, he doesn’t otherwise bear an obvious resemblance to the Newgate Calendar’s colorful character. He might be the same guy, or they might just share a cant alias. “Mob” — short for mobilevulgus, the “fickle crowd” — was just establishing itself in English at this point with a usage a bit more flexible than it has for us today; our criminals’ point of contact might be simply that each lasted unusually long in the profession, and therefore each received a nickname meaning something like “Old Man”. Jonathan Swift complained bitterly of this truncated neologism in 1710, writing that “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of Mobb and Banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” (Sorry, buddy … English is a living language.)
At any rate, I don’t know whether Old Mobb is one guy or two, nor am I fully confident of the best date of execution. These are the least of our difficulties when it comes to veracity, considering that the man’s attributed exploits likely comprise 100% shameless fabrication. It’s just that kind of post.
** Careful how you speak of her: she’s an ancestor (via the late Princess Diana) of the current royal princes.
On this day..
- 1629: Thomas Schreiber, "thistles, thorns, and strife" - 2020
- 1868: Georg Ratkay, the last public hanging in Vienna - 2019
- 1916: The Zainuco Massacre - 2018
- 1942: Jacques Decour - 2017
- 1741: Cuffee and Quack, "chained to a stake, and burnt to death" - 2016
- 1806: Polly Barclay, accessory in the murder of her husband - 2015
- 1868: Joseph Brown, for arson, murder, and money - 2013
- 1416: Jerome of Prague, the first Hussite martyr - 2012
- 2010: 18 in Libya - 2011
- 1916: Robert Digby in Villeret - 2010
- 2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor - 2009
- 1431: Joan of Arc - 2008