Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)

The eighteenth century was a period which witnessed a great deal of interest in crime. With a rising crime rate, and an inefficient system of law enforcement that consisted of corrupt thief takers and part time constables, people sought to understand the workings of the criminal mind. For this they turned to the numerous pieces of crime literature that were available in the eighteenth century. Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) was the forerunner to Captain Charles Johnson’s more famous Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). With its combination of excessive moralism and sensational reporting, Smith’s work deserves discussion because it set the tone for successive portrayals of criminal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature.

Golden Farmer
An 18th-Century Illustration of the Golden Farmer

The details of who Smith was are now lost to us, and the name is most certainly a pseudonym – a guise that Smith’s successor Johnson would also adopt. The first volume of Smith’s compendium of criminals’ life stories appeared in 1714 in a small 12mo volume (5.5 inches by 7.5 inches). This first volume contained accounts of criminals that had appeared in the fifty years before Smith’s lifetime, including James Hind (1616-1652), James Whitney (d. 1694), and William Davies alias ‘The Golden Farmer’ (1627-1690). Smith’s had to at least pretend that his books were going to serve a moral purpose to make them acceptable to polite readers:

Since preceding generations have made it their grand care and labour not only to communicate to posterity the lives of good and honest men, that thereby men might fall in love with the smooth and beautiful face of virtue, but have also taken pains to recount the actions of criminals and wicked persons, that by the dreadful aspects of vice they may be deterred from embracing her illusions, we here present the public with ‘An History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen’. [1]

highwayman
Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

Despite this benign moral intention behind his work, all that Smith really wants to do is to provide sensational and violent entertainment. Despite the fact that he condemns all of the criminals in his account as ‘wicked’ or ‘licentious’, and stressing how his work was ‘not published to encourage wickedness’, [2] he takes great delight in going into great detail about every violent act the criminals commit. Take the case of a burglary committed on the house of Mr. Bean by Sawney Cunningham, a highwayman and murderer who lived during the reign of Charles I:

He went one day to pay a visit to one Mr. William Bean, his uncle by his mother’s side, and a man of unblameable conversation; who, asking his wicked nephew how he did, and several other questions relating to his welfare, he for answer stabbed him with his dagger to his heart. [3]

Smith recounts with great delight some scenes of rape, or ‘ravishing’ as he calls it. This is the case with a criminal named Patrick O’Bryan, who with his gang break into a house, tie up the five servants, and attempt to rape the lady of the house’s daughter:

Next they went into the daughter’s room, who was also in bed; but O’Bryan being captivated by her extraordinary beauty, quoth he, Before we tie and gag this pretty creature, I must make bold to rob her of her maidenhead. So whilst the villain was eagerly coming to the bedside, protesting that he loved her as he did his soul and designed her no more harm than he did himself, the modest virgin had wrapped herself up in the bedclothes as well as time would permit. And as he took her in one arm, and endeavoured to get his other hand between herself and the sheet, she made a very vigorous defence to save her honour, for though she could not hinder him from often kissing, not only her face, but several other parts of her body, as by struggling they came to be bare; yet by her nimbleness in shifting her posture, and employing his hands so well as her own, they could never attain to the liberty they chiefly strove for. [4]

Often criminal accounts were used as a source of erotica for eighteenth-century readers which indicates that little attention was paid by readers to the moral message behind such texts. [5]

Smith’s work was an instant success, and an enlarged version of his work appeared in two volumes in early 1719, with another expanded three volume edition appearing later the same year. By the time that volume three was published, some of Smith’s accounts begin to verge upon the ridiculous. In volume three the reader is treated to accounts of Sir John Falstaff and Robin Hood (who Smith tries to portray as wicked as all of his other criminals).

sb1
18th-century illustration of Murderer and Highwaymen, Sawney Beane.

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ 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 Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

Edward Bonnet was born of very good and reputable parents in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, who bestowing some small education upon him, as reading, writing, and casting accounts, about the fifteenth year of his age, he was put an apprentice to a grocer living at Potton, in Bedfordshire, whom he served honestly. [6]

After an account of the offender’s good upbringing, Smith tells the tale of how the criminall falls 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. This usually follows as the result of keeping unwholesome company, as is the case of Tom Gerrard, a house-breaker:

Having some small education bestowed on him he was, when about sixteen years of age, put apprentice to a poulterer in Clare Market, where he served part of his time. But he addicted himself to ill company, so that wholly leading a loose and idle life, it drew him into many straits and inconveniences. To repair these, he took to the trade of thieving. [7]

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. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. 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. [9]

Towards some of his highwaymen Smith even has a grudging admiration. This was especially the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind. Smith was evidently an ardent royalist, and praised Hind for having once robbed:

That infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as [he was] coming from Huntingdon to London. [10]

At the end of the tale readers 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, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

At length, being brought to trial, he was convicted not only for wilful murder, but also for five robberies on the highway. After sentence of death was passed upon him he was very careless of preparing himself for another world, whilst under condemnation […] When he came to the place of execution at St. Michael’s Hill, he was turned off without showing any signs of repentance, on Friday the 4th of September 1713. Thus died this incorrigible offender. [11]

However much readers 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. [12]

What we witness when reading criminal biography, furthermore, is nothing less than the birth of the novel: criminal biography freely mixed fact and fiction and, dwelling as it did upon those of low social status (whereas the ‘romance’ – the dominant form of fiction – had usually dwelt upon aristocrats), it primed readers ready for larger factitious accounts of those from low social status. Indeed, Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) cann be regarded as a criminal biography writ large.

Mollflanders
Moll Flanders (1722)

True crime writing – the type of books that are sold in Railway station bookshops for a few pounds today – have continued Smith’s style of writing: lurid, sensational, and giving readers a glimpse into the criminal psyche. Even television shows such as Law and Order and Criminal Minds arguably do the same. The Georgians’ love of crime writing shows how, even though manners and social customs can change over time, people have always had a taste for the lurid and violent. And like people today, although the Georgians enjoyed crime as entertainment, they enjoyed seeing criminals get their just desserts also.


References

[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] 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.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] 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 (p.701)

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10 thoughts on “Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)

  1. […] In conclusion, there is no doubt that ‘rogues’, or people who engaged in ‘rogueish activities’ (cheating, swindling, embezzling, etc.) existed before the 1560s. But it was only in the Elizabethan period that the idea of the rogue was articulated in popular culture. These men were not outlaws and did not live in the forest as Robin Hood and his men. Rather they lived among normal people. While they did rob people, their modus operandi was more subtle: they cheated you out of money; played tricks on you. They were the product of an emerging capitalist society which praised the personal gain of the individual over the good of society. Ultimately rogue literature would give birth to the criminal biography of the eighteenth century: th… […]

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  2. […] criminals could come from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (… usually highlighted the fact that most criminals such as the highwayman Ned Bonnet were ‘born of […]

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