I recently came across an obscure little book entitled The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Companions. Written by Captain Charles Johnson. To Which are added, some of the most favourite ballads from an old book, entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (1800). The archival entry lists the author as Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), which had me puzzled. I knew Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for a writer whose real identity is now lost to us, but I never thought that he and Defoe were one and the same person.
Captain Charles Johnson wrote many of the criminal biographies I have written about on this website numerous times before. His major works are A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates, &c. (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Robin Hood features in his history of the highwaymen, and receives a bad reputation. He is of ‘a licentious and wicked inclination’, and, in true eighteenth-century style, only turns to crime because he followed not his trade (just as Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice), and associates himself with several robbers and outlaws. Much of the text is directly plagiarised from an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Captain Alexander Smith entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, published in three volumes between 1714 and 1719.
But was Johnson really Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym? Defoe’s novels do seem to have centred upon criminals; Captain Singleton (1720) is based on the life of the pirate Henry Avery, and Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of a prostitute. Yet it would be difficult to attribute Johnson’s works to Defoe. For one thing, even while Defoe lived, he acknowledged that some of the works which were attributed to him were not actually his:
And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the Style; another to this or that Expression; another to the Way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is to no purpose to oppose it.
Evidently, the literary attributions suited Defoe, as well as the hawkers, who probably thought they could make more money out of people if the name of a famous author such as Defoe was attached to the piece of low literary hack work which they were selling.
It was in 1934 that an American scholar J. R. Moore announced that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. He had no documentary evidence to make such a claim, and instead pointed to the style and subject matter. His main line of reasoning was that the frequent moralism throughout Johnson’s works is similar to the didacticism in Defoe’s novels. Thus Moore was, as Defoe himself put it ‘swearing to the style, or this or that expression’. Moore went further, and compiled a checklist of over 500 works that had been attributed to Daniel Defoe. It is a checklist that is still quite influential to this day, including works such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), The Life of Jonathan Wild (1725), and The True and Genuine Account…of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). These are works which I have used repeatedly in my own research, and in the latest edited edition of them by Richard Holmes entitled Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2002), the credit for these works is clearly given to Defoe.
It seems, however, that I need to go back to some of my old essays, my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation, and de-attribute these works from Defoe. During peer review for an article on Robin Hood in criminal biography I recently wrote, it was suggested that I take a look at P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens book Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1987). On the subject of Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, Furbank and Owens say this:
Moore announced his belief that Defoe had a considerable hand in this work, described on its title page as ‘by Captain Charles Johnson’, at an MLA meeting in 1932; and by 1939, when he published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, he was asserting that the General History was substantially Defoe’s work throughout and that it combined much authentic information with passages of historical fiction and ‘unrestrained romance’. His case was based entirely on internal evidence, and in particular ‘parallels’ with Defoe’s known works.
Furbank and Owens dismiss Moore’s belief that Johnson was in fact Defoe, and point out many differences between Johnson’s and Defoe’s works, such as the fact that the account of the life of the pirate Henry Avery is very different in style and tone to Defoe’s known history of him. Moreover, Johnson in his works displays clear Jacobite sympathies, and staunchly loyal to the Stuart monarchy. In his A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen praises Capt. James Hind ‘the loyal highwayman’, for robbing ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell’:
About this time the unfortunate Charles I suffered death for his political principles. Captain Hind conceived an inveterate enmity to all that party who had stained their hands with the sovereign’s blood, and gladly embraced every opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon them. In a short time they met with the usurper Oliver Cromwell.
In view of the fact that Defoe was a supporter of the Hanoverian regime and Robert Walpole, it seems further unlikely that Johnson, who manifests Jacobite beliefs throughout all of his works, is the same person as Daniel Defoe. For example, he wrote a vigorous defence of William III entitled The True-Born Englishman (1701), and also carried out intelligence work for the Whigs, writing numerous pamphlets attacking the Tories, who were predominantly Jacobite supporters.
Who Captain Charles Johnson was nobody knows; perhaps we never will know. One thing is certain, however, he was not Daniel Defoe. Whilst there have only been a couple of famous novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) associated with the Robin Hood legend, unfortunately, it seems that we cannot add Defoe to the list.
P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987).