Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). [1] Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).[2]

Johnson title page
Title Page: Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 edition)

Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world.[3] As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.

For his History of the Highwaymen, Johnson appears to have taken inspiration from, and in some cases virtually plagiarised an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Alexander Smith (another pseudonymous author) entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes, for Above Fifty Years Past (1714). In turn Smith’s accounts were widely plagiarised from chapbooks and other earlier pamphlets dealing with the lives of criminals.

highwayman

In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:

Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.[4]

The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:

The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.[5]

From then on, Johnson tells the tale of how the criminal fell into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. Not even Robin Hood, a noble thief by our standards today, is spared this treatment. Johnson tells us that:

At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.[6]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.[7]

One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:

He usually robbed alone.[8]

In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:

Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.[9]

This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination.[10] The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.

Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

Indeed, Johnson portrays many of his highwaymen as being very generous fellows, as is the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind:

Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.[12]

The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns.

Golden Farmer
Engraving of a highwayman from Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 Edition)

At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:

Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.[13]

However much an audience may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.[14]

Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff,[15] and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.

There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:

The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.[16]

At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:

The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.[17]

Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:

It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.[19]

Although largely forgotten about today, criminal biographies did do one important thing: they paved the way for the emergence of the novel. Instead of relating the lives of aristocrats and Kings, criminal biography attempted to show people ‘real life’. This is why many early novels deal with crime: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) are merely two examples of this. Thus criminal biography, although it died out relatively quickly, has left its mark on a genre of fiction that we still read today.


Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.


 

References

[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.

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12 thoughts on “Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

  1. […] Temptation could come from bad associations also, which is an echo of the Bible’s command at 1 Corinthians 15: 33 which says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. And it was usually through a prostitute that unsuspecting good youths could be led astray down a bad path. This was the case with Jack Sheppard, who was enticed by Edgworth Bess into a life of crime. Speaking of Sheppard, Charles Johnson says in Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) that: […]

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  2. […] In 1977 the famous horror movie director, Wes Craven, released the movie The Hills Have Eyes, which enjoyed moderate success at the box office, and has since become something of a cult classic. This movie, however, was based loosely upon a Scottish tale of a sixteenth-century criminal, who was immortalised in eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), and Charles Johnson’s The Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, and Stree…. […]

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  3. […] The book aims to resurrect the format of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as those by Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson, who authored books such as A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1714) and Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) respectively. […]

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