I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]
The Last Man (1826)
Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.
The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.
Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.
Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:
There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]
Thus Lionel tells us that,
I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]
Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:
It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]
While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]
Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:
I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]
However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.
Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.
This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.
(The images used in this blog post are taken from the Giuliano Project which, as far as I can ascertain, are out of copyright. If the copyright belongs to you and you wish me to take them down then please contact me).
Since the unification of Italy in 1861, the island of Sicily, as well as the southern half of the mainland, has always had an ambivalent relationship with the Italian state. Fiercely independent, they have often resented central government interference in their affairs. Moreover, the island of Sicily has always had a reputation for criminality. It is, after all, the island in which mafia gangs first emerged. This is what happened after the German and Allied invasions of Italy in 1943: the German puppet state called the Italian Social Republic controlled the northern half of the country, while the southern half continued as the legitimate Kingdom of Italy. But with all of the turmoil, government infrastructure and law and order began to break down. It is at this point in time that Salvatore Giuliano (1922-1950), the ‘last people’s bandit’, flourished in Sicily.
Giuliano was born in Montelepre, Sicily to a peasant family on 16 November 1922. He received a rudimentary education by attending the local school, but he was forced to leave the school in 1935 to help his father on the farm when his older brother joined the army. He soon grew tired of farm life, however, and decided to set up his own business in trading olive oil. When World War Two broke out, he supplemented his income by working as a labourer building roads, although he left this job after a dispute with his employer.
During the war, Giuliano often traded on the black market. Indeed, the existence of the black market was vital for many of the peasants so that they could obtain cheap food, and up to seventy per cent of food was supplied to Sicily through the black market. After the Allied Invasion of Sicily, however, the authorities were determined to stamp this out using both of Italy’s police forces, the Carabinieri and the Polizia. On 2 September 1943, Giuliano was stopped at a Carabinieri vehicle check point. His baggage was searched and he was found with two sacks of grain. Giuliano offered to just give up the grain to the authorities in return for his release, but the officer was having none of it. Giuliano therefore drew his pistol and shot the officer dead. Afterwards, he took the mountains and hid out there for a while.
Deprived of both his legitimate and illegitimate incomes, Giuliano became an outlaw, and soon gathered about him twenty men in similar circumstances. He genuinely only ever stole from rich travellers, although this was for practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones. The rich had more money that could be plundered, whereas it was pointless taking from the poor peasants as they had very little. He then redistributed this stolen money to the poor, like a true Robin Hood, which earned him allies among the local populace. The rich were just a convenient cash cow, however, and his main enemies were members of the Carabinieri, and throughout his career he and his men killed over eighty seven of these law enforcement officers.
He became something of an international star, and held numerous interviews with journalists. The noted U.S. journalist Mike Stern published many of his pictures of Giuliano in the American press. In addition, poems and songs were sung about him. For this reason, Eric Hobsbawm says that Giuliano was the last true Robin Hood type of outlaw.
After the war, prominent Sicilian politicians began agitating for Sicilian independence: in their eyes the island had always been treated badly, it had a different culture, and it had been neglected under fascism. Union with Italy had not benefitted it either socially or economically. Demands for autonomy were denied by all three of the main political parties in central Italy: the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Consequently, instead of being a small scale highwayman, eking out a living by plundering, in 1945 he got political and publicly declared his support for the Sicilian Independence Movement. As we noted earlier, Sicilians’ relationship with the central Italian government has always been fraught with tension. His main enemy was still the Carabinieri, and now his attacks upon them were justified because they were the representatives of the central Italian state.
The Carabinieri responded to these attacks by often imprisoning and interrogating members of his family. Indeed, his home town of Montelepre was placed under siege and occupied by the law. But still they could not catch him; neither the family nor the villagers would betray him. The only way to apprehend him was to do what law enforcement officers have always had to do when they need to arrest bandits: they convinced one of Giuliano’s gang, Aspanu Pisciotta, who had been Giuliano’s closes friend, to betray him.
Consequently, on 5 July 1950, Pisciotta shot Giuliano while he was sleeping, although the police lied and told the public that Giuliano died in a gun fight with a fellow gang member. Hardly anyone believed the official account, however. The Carabinieri commanded that the funeral be held in private, so as not to heroise the young outlaw in the public eye any further than he was already.
Pisciotta was never granted immunity by the authorities. And he was killed by poison in his cell on 10 February 1954 by a member of the mafia. The last member of Giuliano’s faithful band of men was released in 1980.
Giuliano, as the last ‘good outlaw’ the world has ever seen, was quickly mythologised in popular culture: the film Salvatore Giuliano was released in 1961; Mario Puzo, the author of the Godfather, has written a novel entitled The Sicilian (1984), which was made into a film a few years later in 1987, starring Christopher Lambert as Giuliano, while the opera Salvatore Giuliano opened at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 1985.
Billy Jaynes Chandler, King of the Mountain (Northern Illinois University Press, 1988)
Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London, 1969)
Gavin Maxwell, God Protect Me from My Friends (London, 1956)
George Waldron, alias Barrington, was born into a poor family at Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland. Although destitute, his mother and father made sure to learn that he could read and write. Because of his rudimentary education, he attracted the attention of the local doctor, who privately tutored him in mathematics, geography, and grammar. The young George Barrington made great progress, and the local bishop paid for him to go to the grammar school at Dublin.[i]
But from a young age, it seems, Barrington, always had a propensity to commit acts of violence. While at school, he stabbed one of his schoolmates with a pen-knife. The wound was not fatal, luckily for the other boy, and Barrington was flogged for the assault. He resented the punishment, and in May 1771, he stole a few pieces of gold from the school and absconded.
He set off on the Great North Road from Dublin until he came to Drogheda, where he stopped at inn. After having eaten a meal and gotten some rest at the inn, he got talking to a man named John Price, ‘an abandoned character’, according to Barrington’s biographer. Price was the manager of a company of travelling street performers. He invited Barrington to tour with them.
He turned out to be a pretty good actor, and apparently distinguished himself in the lead role of a play entitled Venice Preserved. But the successes were not to last, and soon the entire company of players fell on hard times. Having noted his acting skills, Price asked Barrington if he would use his talents to become a gentleman pickpocket, ‘by affecting the airs and importance of a gentleman of fashion’.
It seems, however, that he was not a very good pickpocket. He first attempted an aristocrat at the races in Carlow, but he was caught. However, the good-natured nobleman said that if he returned his property nothing more would be said about the matter. Barrington wisely agreed.
Meantime, his former master, Mr. Price, had been arrested for forgery and was hanged. So Barrington decided it was best if he moved to England and tried his game there. He first travelled to Brighton where, in 1775, he ingratiated himself into polite society. During this time he robbed several of his high-born friends.
He then travelled to London where he became acquainted with a Mister Lowe, another pickpocket, and the two men became quite daring in their enterprises.
Barrington went to Court where the Queen’s birthday celebrations were being held. Dressed as a clergyman, and again ingratiating himself with all the nobility, managed to rob several pounds from various people, as well as a diamond. He then retired from the party without suspicion and sold his stolen goods to a Jewish fence.
Barrington next visited a Drury Lane theatre, and proceeded to play a game of cards with Count Orlow, the Russian ambassador. He robbed the Russian of a gold snuff box set with diamonds. But one of the count’s servants saw him and seized him. Hauled before the Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding, Barrington confessed all, whereupon he was sentenced. The Count declined to prosecute, however, and so the matter went away.
He soon returned to his old ‘profession’, however, and in the Spring of 1777, he was arrested and sent to the prison hulks for three years. Due to his good behaviour, he was released after only twelve months, and went straight back to thieving.
Only a few days after his release, he attended a sermon at St. Sepulchre’s Church, and attempted to rob a lady’s purse. But he was seen by Constable William Payne, and again taken before the magistrate. He was found guilty and probably would have been hanged had he not pleaded for mercy before the judge. The account of Barrington’s life in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09) records this purported speech, in which he blames his criminality on his poverty. Although given the many fictional confessions at the time, there is no way of knowing if Barrington ever actually said these words.
The magistrate took his lengthy speech into consideration, and sentenced him to seven years’ transportation to Botany Bay (see my other post on transportee Charles Kinnaister). While there, he conducted himself in an admirable manner, but in the latter part of his life suffered from various mental health problems, and he died in 1804.
Barrington went on to enjoy a limited literary afterlife as the hero of a long-running serial in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar. There are various stories of him robbing corrupt officials and decadent aristocrats. As all true outlaws should, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He is named in these serials as ‘The Prince of the Pickpockets’.
Like all eighteenth-century criminals who enjoyed a brief resurgence in Victorian literature, however, he soon fades from cultural memory. It seems that no historical thief can compete with Robin Hood.
[i] Information for this article taken from the following books: The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: T. Hurst & D. Symonds, 1804-09), 1: 38-46; Camden Pelham, Esq. The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (London: T. Miles, 1887), pp. 363-369.
[The following is the text of a talk given at Lancaster University’s ‘Class and the Past Conference’ on 16 March 2017].
George William MacArthur Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1846, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. In recent years Reynolds’ life and work have received renewed critical attention from literary scholars, who have explored, as Stephen Carver does, Reynolds’ representation of the underworld.[i] The term ‘underworld’ is one that is often used by scholars, but usually without a full consideration of its meaning. For example, while many scholars speak of an underworld of organised crime, rarely do researchers account for the fact that an ‘upperworld’ must exist also, and that the criminal members of both worlds, or classes, collude together in order to cause harm to ‘the industrious classes’. Given that Reynolds sees society as being divided into three distinct classes: the aristocracy, the industrious classes, and the criminal classes, Reynolds’ depiction of organised crime challenged emerging Victorian stereotypes of a ‘criminal class’. Crime in The Mysteries of London is not merely a story of ‘the wrongs and crimes of the poor’; it is also a story of the wrongs and crimes of those in the ‘upperworld’, which of course suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments.
Reynolds’ Conception of Society
As stated above, Reynolds does not hold to the typical Victorian conception of society as being divided into upper class, middle class(es), and working classes. As we can see, there are several gradations in society: at the top, there is the monarchy and the aristocracy, an institution and a class of people for which Reynolds certainly had no high degree of admiration, and often complained about ‘the sickening specimens of grovelling and self-abasement’ some people displayed towards the monarchy.[ii] A flavour of his attitude towards the aristocracy is evident in his comments about the Duke of Newcastle, who according to Reynolds had ‘a mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic’.[iii] The Duke of Cumberland’s obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper said that he was ‘a monster in human shape, a veritable fiend without a single redeeming quality’ whose life amounted to a progression of ‘perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder’.[iv]
Towards the clergy and the Christian religion in general Reynolds likewise had no great regard. One of his earliest written works was a short pamphlet entitled The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed (1832). In this work he writes of how he became a deist, having concluded that ‘we find the Old and New Testament to be false’.[v] Of the nineteenth-century clergy he scathingly asks:
Who are more addicted to the luxuries and sensualities of life than the ministers of God?[vi]
The people who matter in society, according to Reynolds, are the middle classes and ‘the industrious classes’. The hero of The Mysteries of London, Richard Markham, is a member of the middle classes, as was Reynolds himself, in spite of his repeated bankruptcies. Reynolds deplored the condition of the working classes, whose problems he attributes to the upper classes:
The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery. In England men and women die of starvation in the streets. In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine. In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol. In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse.[vii]
The condition of the working poor is set in contrast with the gluttony of the aristocracy who enjoy a life of plenty.[viii] But this is not to say that Reynolds views the poor as saints. In his opening chapter, he states that ‘crime is abundant in this great city’.[ix] And in the ensuing novel, he makes clear that many members of the poorer classes are indeed criminal. Nevertheless, Reynolds was popular with working people, especially Chartists.[x] And he certainly had nothing to gain by vehemently expressing his radical and republican sentiments in the press except the opprobrium of contemporaries such as Dickens, who wrote in 1849 that Reynolds’ name was ‘a name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.[xi] While some might argue that Reynolds simply supported radical causes to curry favour with the working classes, as will be illustrated below, Reynolds was not writing solely for that class. Instead, Reynolds perhaps saw himself as the Republican activist in The Mysteries of London sees himself; he is a man who is
Represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people […] And yet, O God! […] I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and the aristocracy!”[xii]
It will be noted that he never attacks the middle classes here; he merely speaks of the ‘industrious millions’ as occupying a place beneath the feet ‘of majesty and the aristocracy’. Hence Reynolds’ merging of the middle classes and working classes looks back to earlier forms of nineteenth-century radicalism in which both classes formed an alliance to effect parliamentary reform before the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1832.[xiii] Among the many readings of Reynolds’ radicalism, it is Gertrude Himmelfarb whose assessment seems most appropriate:
[Reynolds’] radicalism was of an entirely different order and because his idea of poverty was nihilistic rather than compassionate or heroic […] violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[xiv]
In essence, Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst the poorer classes is a literary representation of the fact that society gets the criminals that it deserves.
Collaboration between Upperworld and Underworld
The principal underworld villains in the novel are the Resurrection Man, the Buffer, Dick Flairer and Bill Bolter. They are a tight-knit criminal gang who also have links to a wider network of criminals known as the Forty Thieves.[xv] Yet organised crime groups usually carry out their activities with the often tacit approval of those in the upperworld.[xvi] There is an instance in the novel which neatly illustrates the collusion between people from the two worlds: the Cracksman’s undertaking of a highway robbery.
Reynolds’ novel is essentially the story of two brothers, the virtuous Richard Markham and his not-so-virtuous brother, Eugene. Although Richard experiences some misfortunes throughout his life, he rises in society through his own virtue, and eventually marries into the family of an Italian nobleman. Eugene, on the other hand, also advances in society through means of corruption, fraud and embezzlement. He eventually becomes the MP for a place called Rottenborough, the naming of which is an allusion to pre-Reform Act constituencies such as Old Sarum. Eugene, who goes under the assumed name of Montague Greenwood, plots to defraud the good Count Alteroni of his fortune. However, he must first acquire a vital document from him. For this, Eugene must employ the services of the Cracksman and his fellows:
“What’s the natur’ of the service?” demanded the Cracksman, darting a keen and penetrating glance at Greenwood.
“A highway robbery,” coolly answered [Eugene …]
“All right!” cried the Cracksman. “Now what’s the robbery, and what’s the reward?”
“I will now explain to you what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet, with a tiger, only twelve years old, behind. The cab is light blue – the wheels streaked with white. This is peculiar, and cannot be mistaken. The horse is a tall bay, with silver- mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain – everything, mind – must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours, and I will add fifty guineas to the amount: – but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be handed over to me.”[xvii]
Note the precision with which the robbery is to be carried out: clear and concise instructions are given; crime in the urban, industrial society is cold and calculated; it is organised crime. This is not the romantic highway robbery of the type carried out by William Harrison Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin in Rookwood (1834). Before the Cracksman commits the crime, he receives an ‘advance’ of twenty guineas, at which the Cracksman exclaims: ‘that’s business!’[xviii] The robbery is carried out, and at Eugene and the Cracksman’s second meeting the villains are paid in full for their work. The meeting is concluded with the Cracksman hoping ‘that he should have his custom in future’ (italics in original).[xix] To the villains of The Mysteries of London crime is a business carried out with the sole purpose of financial gain. Surgeons are their customers, or they make themselves available as henchmen-for-hire willing to do the dirty work of those in from supposedly more respectable stations in life as long as the price is right.
The Wrongs and Crimes of the Upperworld
Although the above serves as an example of collaboration between members of the upper world and the underworld, Reynolds shows that members from the supposedly respectable classes were capable of committing crime independently of their counterparts from criminal class. Eugene Markham, for instance, along with several MPs, a Lord, and the Sheriff of London are seen conspiring together to establish a fraudulent railway company at a dinner party held by Eugene for his fellow conspirators:
Algiers, Oran, and Morocco Great Desert Railway.
“(Provisionally Registered Pursuant to Act.)
“Capital £1,200,000, in 80,000 shares, of £20 each.
“Deposit £2 2s. per Share.
Committee of Direction: The Most Honourable Marquis of Holmesford, G. C. B. Chairman. – George Montague Greenwood, Esq. M.P. Deputy Chairman.[xx]
The conspirators require capital, but as Eugene assures those assembled at his dinner party, no such railway scheme exists, and it has only been devised solely for defrauding investors:
And now, my lord and gentlemen, we perfectly understand each other. Each takes as many shares as he pleases. When they reach a high premium, each may sell as he thinks fit. Then, when we have realized our profits, we will inform the shareholders that insuperable difficulties prevent the carrying out of the project,- that Abd-el-Kadir, for instance, has violated his agreement and declared against the scheme,- that the Committee of Direction will, therefore, retain a sum sufficient to defray the expenses already incurred, and that the remaining capital paid up shall be returned to the shareholders.[xxi]
This is an example of what might now be termed ‘white collar crime’ and reflects the ‘Railway Mania’ of 1846-47, occurring at precisely the time when Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London. The enthusiasm for investing in speculative railway schemes was felt among both the upper and middle classes, and it was the first time that companies relied heavily on investors’ capital rather than on government bonds.[xxii] As George Robb notes, the mania for investing in railway companies was perfect for fraudsters wishing to embezzle funds from their investors: bills for the establishment of new railway companies could be obtained from parliament relatively easily, and investors had little access to sound financial advice and accurate financial data.[xxiii]
The Victorians were under no illusions about the opportunities for fraud and embezzlement that were available to unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen in the nineteenth-century financial world.[xxiv] There are many characters in Victorian literature who exemplify the crooked businessman. Clive Emsley points to Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50), a snakelike, devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White (1859-60), who plots to claim Laura Fairlie’s fortune by faking her death.[xxv] Shore similarly points to some contemporary press reports which expose she what calls ‘a hidden financial criminal underworld, straddling a line between the criminal class and the respectable class’.[xxvi] For the most part, however, members of the supposedly respectable upper and middle classes who turned to crime were just viewed by contemporaries as ‘bad apples’ that had been led astray or placed in tempting situations.[xxvii]
Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst members of respectable society is more nuanced than Dickens or Collins: according to Reynolds there is a criminal upper class, and a criminal lower class; the underworld mirrors the upper world. Sometimes members from both spheres collaborate to cause harm to members of ‘the industrious classes’. The M.P., Eugene Markham, is not merely a ‘bad apple’ who has been led astray. Instead, he actively pursues a ‘white collar’ criminal course of life. Portraying the upper world of crime, of course, suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments: as we have seen, he detested the political establishment and ensured that in The Mysteries of London its members were implicated in criminal acts, even if their complicity is limited to merely purchasing smuggled goods.[xxviii] If a majority of the poor are indeed criminal, it is because their upper-class counterparts facilitate or indeed, as we saw with the exchange between Eugene and the Cracksman, take a leading role in directing such crime.
[i] Stephen J. Carver, ‘The Wrongs and Crimes of the Poor: The Urban Underworld of The Mysteries of London in Context’ in G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society: Politics, Fiction and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (London: Ashgate, 2008), pp.185-212
[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in Anne Humpherys & Louis James (eds.) G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp.91-99 (p.91).
[ix] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.2.
[x] ’Jessica Hindes, ‘Revealing Bodies: Knowledge, Power and Mass Market Fictions in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012), p.12n: ‘Reynolds was elected to the National Chartist Association’s National Executive in 1848 with more votes than any of his fellow committee members; 1,805 to Feargus O’Connor’s 1,314’. Further discussions of Reynolds’ role in working-class and radical causes are to be found in the following works: Ian Haywood, ‘George W. M. Reynolds and “The Trafalgar Square Revolution”: Radicalism, the Carnivalesque and Popular Culture in Mid-Victorian England’ Journal of Victorian Culture 7: 1 (2002), pp.23–59
[xi] Charles Dickens, Letter to W.C. Macready, August 30, 1849, cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: Or the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Victorian Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), p.191.
[xii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.70.
[xiii] On working-class and middle-class radicalism, the alliances between the two classes, and the Reform Act of 1832 more generally, see the following works: Paul Adelman, Victorian Radicalism: The Middle-class Experience, 1830-1914 (London: Longman, 1984); Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780-c.1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Nancy D. LoPatin, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999); Eric J. Evans, Britain Before the Reform Act: Politics and Society 1815-1832 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).
[xiv] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), p.451.
[xv] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 2 (London: G. Vickers, 1846), p.187.
[xvi] Kelly Hignett, ‘Organised Crime in East Central Europe: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland’ Global Crime 6: 1 (2004), pp.70-83 (p.71).
[xvii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.149.
While England has given the world the archetypal image of the noble robber in the form of Robin Hood, one of the things that I have been doing recently is to look at other Robin Hood figures from across the world. Oleksa Dovbush (1700-1745) is one such Robin Hood type of figure who flourished in eighteenth-century Ukraine.
A large part of what is now Ukraine during the eighteenth century was a part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a power to be reckoned with during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but by the period that Dovbush flourished the State was beset by a weak economy. It was also, relatively speaking, a little backward: while states such as the Kingdom of Great Britain had embraced mercantile capitalism and had not been feudal for a long time, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth still was.[i]
It is in such primitive societies (I use the word ‘primitive’ here in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense to describe a state that has not developed beyond the feudal stage of society), that banditry flourishes. If one looks at the history of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe during the early modern period, it will readily be recognised that there were a great many bandits. Haiduks, Robin Hood type outlaws who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, flourished in the Balkans. Like England’s famous medieval outlaw, the haiduk’s deeds were told in the form of ballads that circulated among the peasantry.[ii] The most famous Eastern European bandit, Janosik (1688-1713), who was more of a Rob Roy than a Robin Hood, flourished in Eastern Europe around the same time as Dovbush.[iii]
As with most historical bandits and other marginal figures, little is known of his early life. He was born in 1700 in Pechenizhyn to a very poor family (the family’s property amounted to owning just several sheep, and they had to rent their humble dwelling, known as a komorah, from a local lord). We do not know what drove Dovbush to become an outlaw, or a part of the opryshky, as the records do not tell us. Although the corresponding term to opryshky in English is ‘outlaw’, it signified much more than simply ‘thief’ or ‘robber’: these men were perceived as freedom fighters who challenged the existence of the Polish feudal state. In concert with his brother, Ivan, Dovbush and his men raided Polish noblemen and their retinues along on the narrow ridge off Mount Chornohora.[iv] His weapon of choice was an axe. Like Robin Hood, in all of their exploits he and his men stole from the rich to give to the poor.
As is often the case in feudal societies, the Lords held all the power. While there were undoubtedly a great many good lords, there were, unfortunately, many who abused their powers. Eric Hobsbawm points out one instance where Dovbush and his men attacked the house of a local Polish nobleman named Konstantin Zlotnicky:
He held his hands in the fire and let them burn, poured glowing coals on his skin and refused any ransom. “I have not come for your ransom but for your soul, for you have tortured the people long enough”.[v]
The monks who recorded this episode noted that this particular nobleman was notorious for his cruelty. As a result of his fight against the Polish nobles, the state sent the army into the region that he was known to flourish in. Yet they could not catch him. There are a number of accounts as to how he was finally caught: some sources say that a woman betrayed him, others say that his brother, Ivan, betrayed him. More likely it is that it was a bounty hunter hired by the nobles who tracked him down and killed him. Apparently, when the bounty hunter found him a fierce fight ensued. This was to be his last fight – Dovbush was killed and his body was cut up into twelve pieces and hung in several places so as to warn off any peasants who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps.[vi]
His memory lives on in Ukraine in much the same way that Robin Hood is still known to people in the Western World today. He has become a folk hero. Ballads about him are still sung by the poorer classes, and the Dovbush rocks in the Carpathian mountains, where he and his gang were said to live, are visited by many tourists each year.
[i] The history of the region has recently been covered in excellent detail by Paul R. Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples 2nd Edn. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
[ii] Bodgan Vlad Vatavu, ‘The World of the Haiduks: Bandit Subcultures in the 19th-Century Romania and their Ballads’ Revista de Etnografie Si Folclor / Journal of Ethnography and Folklore Nos. 1-2 (2016), pp.139-164.
[iii] There is little scholarly literature in English for Janosik, so it is best to either read Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969) or visit the following website: The Polish Robin Hood [Internet <http://www.krykiet.com/janosik_robin_hood.htm> Accessed 19 February 2017].
[iv] Larisa Failkova, ‘Oleksa Dovbush: An Alternative Biography of the Ukrainian Hero Based on Jewish Sources’ Fabula 52: 1-2 (2011), pp.92-108
[v] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p.50.
Robin Hood was not the only famous law breaker in medieval times. Alongside Robin Hood were figures such as Adam Bell and the subject of this blog post, the medieval pirate Thomas Dun.
When the word ‘pirate’ is mentioned, many people will have in mind the image of an eighteenth-century pirate: an eye-patch wearing, sabre rattling, and rum-sodden dissolute character. This is an image that was first given to pirates in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). It is an image that has gained further traction recently in Disney’s series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011) as well as the television show Black Sails (2014 onwards).
But piracy in the medieval period was different from the eighteenth century. Often pirates were merchants who had been permitted, as part of their employment, to plunder foreign ships. The right to plunder foreign ships was granted by the King, providing that the Crown received a portion of the booty. Thus we should think of these pirates more as ‘privateers’ under contract with the monarch, rather than the semi-organised criminal networks that existed in the eighteenth century.[i]
Regarding Thomas Dun, little is known of his life and exploits, but modern-day historians place him during the time of Edward II and the Scottish Wars. Apparently he fought on the side of Robert the Bruce, whose forces were engaged in repelling the English occupation of Scotland.[ii] To place the events of Thomas Dun’s life in terms of people’s understanding of popular culture, then, this man lived shortly after the events of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart (1995). The campaign against the English forces occurred in both England and Ireland, and as the Scottish King had no navy to speak of, he employed Dun to ferry Scottish soldiers across the Irish Sea.[iii] There also is another story about him purportedly having raided the port of Holyhead, Wales in 1315.[iv] And that is, in all honestly, the extent of what we know of the man’s life.
Lincoln B. Faller divides the representation of criminals during the eighteenth century: heroes, in which category belong figures such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and James Mclean (1724-1750); there are also ‘buffoons’, and the type of thieves that belong in this category are men such as John Wheeler, a housebreaker who burgles a house and inadvertently ends up having sex with the mistress of the house. Finally, there is the brute, and into this category belongs killers such as Sawney Beanne and Dun.[v]
Smith and Johnson are at pains to present Dun as the worst type of criminal imaginable. Johnson says that
A man who is not forced from necessity, or a desire of pleasure, to become dishonest, but follows his natural dispositions in robbing and maltreating others, will, generally, be found to be destitute of every humane and generous principle. So will it be found with this character – a person of mean extraction.[vi]
Criminal biographers were never interested in historical facts, evident by the inclusion in their compendiums of the life of that noted robber, Sir John Falstaff. Thus, instead of depicting Dun as a Scottish pirate who flourished during the fourteenth century, he becomes an English highwayman who lived in the reign of Henry I, operating in the latter part of his reign. In fact, Scotland is not mentioned once in these criminal annals. Dun’s haunt is now depicted as being in Bedfordshire where,
He continued to commit many petty thefts and assaults, but judging it safer to associate himself with others, he repaired to a gang of thieves, who infested the country leading from St. Alban’s to Towcester, and they became such a terror.[vii]
Having spent half of his criminal career robbing and plundering in Bedfordshire, he then moved to Yorkshire (so say the criminal biographers), and proceeded to ‘commit many notorious robberies along the river Ouse’.[viii] After this he returned to Bedford and was eventually caught and suffered a gruesome death, according to Smith:
At length, seeing he could not escape and that he must die, he yielded, and then the executioners chopping off each hand at the wrists, his arms were cut off at the elbows, and all above that again within an inch of his shoulders; next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off five inches below the trunk, which after severing his head from was burnt to ashes.[ix]
There is not a more graphic account of execution than this in most of the criminal biographies I have seen. Smith and Johnson’s accounts then both end with saying that the town of Dunstable takes its name from the robber, due to the fact that Henry I built a garrison there. This, however, is pure fiction, and academics have provided more plausible accounts of the town’s etymology:
The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun, means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary. Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill. Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.[x]
While his story continued to appear in some versions of The Newgate Calendar, Thomas Dun appears to have been forgotten about for a while, and his story did not make it into either Charles MacFarlane’s The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) or Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits Of English Highwaymen, Pirates And Robbers (1834). Curiously, the next literary representation of Dun’s life appears in a comic entitled Crime Must Pay the Penalty (1948).
As we can see, this is just one instance of how a criminal’s life has been remoulded and readapted throughout the centuries, and how the original historical details, such as Dun being a Scottish pirate, becomes unrecognisable when the details are placed in the hands of various authors who care not for historical facts.
William Hawke was born at Uxbridge, Middlesex around the middle of the eighteenth century. He moved to London after the death of his father. Once in the capital, he gained employment in a public house in St. Giles. This area of London was known for its high levels of criminality, and it is during his time as a bar tender that he first became acquainted with some shady characters from the Georgian criminal underworld.
The men that he fell in with encouraged him to try a few turns as a highwayman, running with a partner named James Field.
Both Hawke and Field were apprehended by the authorities in January 1771 for stealing a leather notebook and £20 from a gentleman named John Gordon.[i] Although the theft of a sizeable sum of £20 would have warranted the death penalty in the eighteenth century, it seems the evidence against them was inconclusive. Both men produced witnesses who testified to their good character, and Field claimed that the £20 was his own money:
I have had many a twenty pound note of my own property.
I was going to the play with my wife’s sister and Mr. Field. Roades came up and walked with us; I did not know him at first; he saw me pull my watch out; and wanted to buy it; he got from me; he was to give me two guineas and a half for it; he gave me a guinea; Mr. Field gave him his watch; he gave him nothing. We were several times after him about the money.[ii]
This is probably why Field and Hawkes got off with the comparatively lighter sentence of Transportation to the Americas for a total of 14 years (this is the time, it will be remembered, that Britain still “owns” the Thirteen American Colonies, later to become the USA).
Somehow, and the details here are sketchy, the pair managed to escape from the Americas, and by 1772 were back in London practising their former trade. The Newgate Calendar records that Hawkes,
Upon his return to England he committed a surprising number of most daring robberies; and several months elapsed before the thief takers knew him to be the man by whom the roads about London were so dangerously infested.[iii]
Hawkes proved to be quite a hard man to catch indeed. The ingenious Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding (brother of the novelist-turned-magistrate, Henry Fielding), directed London’s rudimentary police force, the Bow Street Runners, to watch Hawkes’ wife (the Metropolitan Police would not be established until the 19th century).
The Runners kept watch over the wife, and one night, as Hawkes lay sleeping in her arms in a rented apartment, Constables Bond and Lee went up the stairs and,
Entered the front room, and there discovering Hawke slumbering in bed, threw himself across the highwayman, who, twisting the sheet around Bond’s head, reached at a pistol that was under the pillow, at which instant Smith entered, and caught hold of his hand. With much difficulty Hawke was secured.[iv]
In court the next morning, on 18 May 1774, two gentleman named Captain Cunningham and Charles Hart appeared to give evidence against him:
Hart. A gentleman: I live in May’s Buildings. On the 28th of last March, between the hours of nine and ten in the evening, Capt. Cunningham and myself were stopped in a coach near the Half-way-house leading from Knights-bridge to Walham Green , by one man on horseback; he said to the coachman, God d – n your blood stop, or I’ll blow your brains out! uponwhich I let the glass down which was then up, and he put a pistol to my breast, and demanded my money; I had one shilling and sixpence and some halfpence loose in my waistcoat pocket; I gave him that; I had half a guinea in my fob, which I preserved; he said to me, God d – n you, do you give me nothing but halfpence! I told him it was all I had, and desired him to take the pistol from my breast. In the interim Capt. Cunningham was moving a pocket book from his right hand waistcoat pocket into his left hand breeches pocket, in which were bank notes to the amount of between four and five hundred pounds; he had twenty-six or twenty-seven, guineas in his breeches pocket, but being in liquor he refused being robbed, and said he would not be robbed; the prisoner saw the pocket book, and took the pistol from my breast, and said, God d – n you, give me the pocket book![v]
Hawkes maintained his innocence throughout the whole trial, simply saying:
I am innocent of this affair: I leave myself entirely to the mercy of this honourable Court. I have been guilty of affairs of the kind, but am innocent of this. I am a jeweller by trade: I am twenty-three years old: I have a wife and two small children.[vi]
Despite the protestations of his innocence, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
By the account recorded in The Newgate Calendar, he was quite stoic about the whole affair.
When he was taken to Tyburn on 1 July 1774 (the site of public executions until 1783), he gave a good show to the assembled mob. He dressed in his smartest coat, with a flower affixed to the breast pocket, gallantly saying ‘how do you do’ to spectators as he passed by in the cart.
The noose was placed around his neck at the foot of Tyburn tree, and as he felt the cart about the move away he leaped up into the air. This ensured that his neck was instantly dislocated and that he never suffered in pain.
ALL IMAGES TAKEN FROM BOOKS IN MY PERSONAL COLLECTION
[i] James Field, William Hawke, Theft > pocketpicking, Theft > receiving, 16th January 1771 (t17710116-39) Old Bailey Online [Internet <www.oldbaileyonline.org> Accessed 16 January 2017].
A famous man is Robin Hood,
The English ballad-singer’s joy!
And Scotland has a thief as good,
An outlaw of as daring mood;
She has her brave ROB ROY!
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave,
And let us chant a passing stave,
In honour of that Hero brave!
The Life of Rob Roy
Each country of what now comprises the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has its famous outlaw-cum-folk hero: England has Robin Hood (sup. fl. 12th-13th centuries), the legendary noble robber who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; Wales boasts of Twm Sion Cati (fl. c. 1550); Ireland has the famous ‘rapparee’ Éamonn an Chnoic (sup. fl. 1670-1724). The subject of today’s blog post is the celebrated Scottish outlaw, Robert Roy MacGregor.[i]
The MacGregors were part of an ancient Scottish family, but although they were minor gentry, they began to experience financial hardship in the late seventeenth century. This was not helped by the fact that the family joined in the Jacobite Rebellion against the government in 1689, after which the family was disgraced. In order to offset some of their money troubles, during the 1690s members of the family began to extort protection money from farmers. It is for their somewhat dubious activities that criminal biographers in the eighteenth century endeavoured to present the family’s history as nothing but a history of crime and depravity:
They were not more Antient, than Infamous, for from time immemorial, they have been shun’d and detested for the Outrages they daily committed. They liv’d by Rapine, and made Murder their Diversion; and, in a Word, they seem’d emulous to monopolize all that was Wicked.[ii]
During the late 1690s and into the eighteenth century, Rob appears to have ceased his illegal activities and, under the assumed name of Campbell, bought some land and ‘thrived modestly’ trading in livestock, according to his biographer.
However, the early eighteenth century was a time of Jacobite intrigue: in 1688 the Stuart King, James II was ousted from the thrones of England and Scotland because of his Catholic faith and he was replaced with the Dutch King William and his wife Mary, James’ daughter. In effect, this was a coup d’état, and there was significant opposition, especially in Scotland, to this new foreign King, in spite of the fact that Mary was related to James. At his time, Rob took to smuggling arms which alarmed the authorities because his loyalty to the new regime had never been rock solid. Yet there was nothing to link him directly, at this early period, to the Jacobite cause (Jacobite is the name given to those in the 17th and 18th centuries who actively fought for the restoration of the Stuarts).
It was also during the early eighteenth century when Rob’s business hit a slump, and in 1708 he was forced to take out loans from a number of local tradesmen. But a few months later when repayment was due, Rob had not got enough cash to meet the demands of his creditors. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the Marquess of Montrose and his lands were seized. Rob, in order to escape his creditors (a debtors’ prison would likely have been Rob’s punishment), he along with some of his men retreated to the remote areas of the highlands. Although later stories attempt to attribute his downfall to one of Rob’s men absconding with his fortune:
Rob Roy’s fall was a matter of business failure, and the later tradition that it was due to a drover absconding with his money is implausible in view of the evidence that he knew months in advance that he was in trouble, and that he never himself used this as an explanation. His flight to the remote highlands, Montrose’s determination to bring him to justice, and Rob’s passionate belief that he had been wronged, however, converted an everyday bankruptcy into an epic story.[iii]
In 1713 he sought the protection of the Duke of Atholl (one of Montrose’s rivals) who granted him protection and even allowed him to continue trading on a limited scale in order to earn back some of the money he had lost through bad investments.
When George I acceded to the throne of the newly-forged Kingdom of Great Britain (previously, England and Scotland had been separate states), Rob, a nominal Jacobite, saw this as a chance to strike back against Montrose, who was a supporter of the Hanoverians. Although the Jacobites never officially welcomed Rob with open arms into their cause, but they did allow him to carry out raids on the lands of Hanoverian supporters, and no doubt he welcomed the chance to carry out raids on Montrose’s lands in revenge for his bankruptcy.
In 1715, the Jacobites began seriously plotting the downfall of the Hanoverian regime. James II had fled to France after 1688 and raised his youngest sons there. The Jacobites in France, having been in contact with their supporters in Scotland, plotted the invasion of Stuart forces. Once landed, it was hoped that the Scottish and English people would rise up in support of the Stuarts, oust the Hanoverians, and place James Stuart (James II’s son) on the throne.
But a restoration of the Stuarts was not to be: Rob himself witnessed the crushing defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1715 at the Battle of Glen Shiel, for he had been co-opted to serve in the Jacobite forces.
As we have seen, Rob was never a loyal Jacobite, and only joined the cause as a means of getting revenge on his former antagonist, Montrose. After the battle he returned to his life of banditry, although the authorities did not concern themselves with even trying to arrest him. Rob’s lands had been forfeited to the government because he had, by allying with the Jacobites, committed treason. Montrose had, through the government’s seizure, been repaid and so no longer dedicated any effort to capture Rob.
He was pardoned in 1725 after writing a letter swearing allegiance to the House of Hanover. He then became a farmer and died peacefully in his sleep in 1734.
The Legend of Rob Roy
The incidents recorded in the life of the historic Rob Roy are pretty mundane. The details of his life are neither more nor less interesting than the various lives of contemporary criminals which circulated in print during the period that he lived. One such biography, which has been cited above, is The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (1723) published while Rob was still at large.
The celebrated poet, William Wordsworth, was inspired to author a poem about Rob after he visited a grave which he presumed to have been the famous outlaw’s:
However, perhaps the most famous reincarnation of Rob Roy was Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy (1818). Here the highland outlaw is a heavily romanticised outlaw: noble, brave, chivalrous, strong. The novel was phenomenally popular, with a ship leaving Leith for London containing nothing but boxes of Scott’s novel:
It is an event unprecedented in the annals either of literature or of the custom-house that the entire cargo of a packet, or smack, bound from Leith to London, should be the impression of a novel.[v]
Rob Roy was also the main protagonist in a number of Victorian and Edwardian penny dreadfuls. Modern audiences will likely be familiar with Rob Roy though the eponymous film starring Liam Neeson in 1995. Although it is not based upon Scott’s novel, the movie is, like Scott’s portrayal, a heavily romanticised account of Rob’s life: he falls victim to the scheming of an English aristocrat, his lands are confiscated, his wife is raped, and he is outlawed. Eventually, however, he kills his antagonist in a fight to the death at the end of the film.
Like so many criminals-turned-folk heroes, it is his ‘literary afterlife’ which has ensured that his story lives on, more than anything he ever actually did while he was alive.
[i] For a full biography see: David Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. May 2006) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17524> Accessed 13 Jan 2017]
[ii]The Highland Rogue: or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-Gregor, Commonly called Rob Roy (London: J. Billingsley, 1723), p.x.
[iii] Stevenson, ‘MacGregor , Robert [Rob Roy] (bap. 1671, d. 1734)’
Throughout human history it appears that, as long as an ‘upperworld’ has existed – mainstream society with laws and systems of government – there has also existed an ‘underworld’ – those who have transgressed the law and set themselves in opposition to society. The ancient world is full of examples of bandits. The book of Judges in the Old Testament refers to robber bandits:
The leaders of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills, who robbed everyone who travelled by on the road (Judges 9: 25, New English Translation).
Indeed, Jesus used the example of bandits to provide the illustration to his parable of the Good Samaritan:
After careful consideration, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of bandits. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead (Luke 10: 30, New International Version).
This post aims to introduce readers to a man who can justifiably be called ‘The Roman Robin Hood’: Bulla Felix, who flourished as a bandit in Brundisium, Southern Italy between 205 and 207 AD.
Interfectus a latronibus (“Killed by Bandits”)
The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits: Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile populations but also to protect travellers from robbers; similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.
Yet in spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs.
Indeed, there was a sense that bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified.
The Life of a Latrones
What type of person, then, became a bandit in the Roman Empire?
Shaw notes that it was mostly army veterans and deserters who took to this course of life. Their training in a state-sanctioned violent profession gave them the tools and experience in combat that they needed to turn to a life of banditry. Indeed, for some soldiers this way of life was their only recourse: the bonuses and earnings of a demobilised soldier were very frugal, and they needed to find some way to support themselves.
Another type of profession that was closely associated with banditry was that of a shepherd. The people who followed this profession were usually poor, yet a shepherd in the mountains would have known the local terrain, and often operated in areas where the state enforcement of the law was weak. Moreover, the shepherd could move about these places relatively quickly.
It is one thing to rob travellers on the highway, but it is another thing to dispose of the stolen goods. Most Roman bandits, as thieves in all ages, required the services of a receptator (a fence) to sell their stolen articles to. Often, as is the case with shepherds, the fences were usually local worthies who turned a blind eye and asked no awkward questions as to how certain items magically appeared in a bandit’s possession. The fences, if caught, were liable to the same punishments as bandits themselves – the amphitheatre, burning, or crucifixion.
Bulla Felix – the Roman Robin Hood
The main details of Felix’s life come from the writings of Cassius Dio, a Roman historian. One cannot help but be struck by the number of similarities between him and the much more famous English bandit, Robin Hood.
Like Robin Hood is said to have done, Felix headed a substantial army of around 600 men. Yet despite the attempts of the emperor to capture him,
[Felix] was never seen when seen, never found when found, and never caught when caught.
It was not simply an army of 600 brutish fighting men that he had built up but a sophisticated intelligence network: the information he received from those loyal to him allowed him to stay one step ahead of the law.
Another similarity to Robin Hood is that Felix only stole from the rich, and what is more, he gave a lot of these proceeds to the poor. This is another reason why he was always able to evade the authorities: the locals were loyal to him and his men. If the writings about him are to be believed, Felix was an early example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘a social bandit’: someone whom the lord and the state regard as criminal, but who remain within peasant societies and are looked up to as champions, freedom fighters, righters of wrongs.
Felix, like his medieval successor Robin Hood, was also a master of disguise, and there is one particular incident in particular which is reminiscent of a scene from early Robin Hood literature:
While in disguise he approached the Roman military officer who had been tasked with “exterminating” his gang. Bulla told the officer that he knew where Bulla could be found (not a lie) and said that he would betray Bulla if only the centurion would follow him to the bandit’s hideout. The gullible officer swallowed the bait and advanced into a wooded thicket where Bulla’s men promptly took him prisoner. Back in Bulla’s camp there ensued a piece of serio-comic drama in which Bulla reversed the normal lines of authority. He donned the official robes of a Roman magistrate, climbed onto a tribunal and summoned the centurion, with his head shaven, before his “court”. Bulla then delivered his sentence: “Carry this message back to your masters: let them feed their slaves so that they might not be compelled to turn to a life of banditry” (Shaw, 1984, p.47).
This is like a scene in the fifteenth-century ballad Robin Hood and the Potter, in which Robin, disguised as a potter, is invited to dine with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin informs the Sheriff that he can take him to meet Robin Hood and capture him. The Sheriff agrees, but when he and Robin are in the forest, Robin blows his horn at which all his outlaws come running, and Robin reveals his true identity. Robin allows the Sheriff to leave on the condition that he vows never to molest him and the outlaws again. The Sheriff, humiliated, agrees and is permitted to leave. Neither story is probably true.
In the end, it was a woman who proved to be Felix’s downfall: the authorities found out about a certain woman that he was intimately involved with. She was convinced to betray him for a fee. Felix was later arrested while sleeping in his cave. He was sentenced to be thrown into the wild beast pit and he was torn limb from limb.
In addition to my PhD thesis entitled ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700-c.1900’ and my forthcoming book, The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler (2018), I have also been contracted to author another book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers which is due to be published by Pen & Sword Books in September 2018.
It is envisaged as a cultural history of crime, being a readable and scholarly compendium of short biographies of the most notorious thieves, reprobates, rogues, and murderers throughout history. I will discuss whether Robin Hood was a real person, and I will introduce readers to Sawney Beane, the seventeenth-century Scottish cannibal whose story inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
The book will also contain several appendices such as a Dictionary of Thieves’ Cant, as well as several poems on highwaymen from historical works, such as the following one from William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834):
Of every rascal of every kind,
The most notorious to my mind,
Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind
Which Nobody Can Deny
But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,
For lute, oranto and madrigal,
Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall
Which Nobody Can Deny […]
Nor could any so handily break a lock,
As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,
And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock
Which Nobody Can Deny
Nor did the highwayman ever possess,
For ease, for security, danger, distress,
Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!
Which Nobody Can Deny.
Having over the years also built up a collection of penny dreadfuls and criminal biographies, the book will also be profusely illustrated throughout with images taken from these rare items.
Below is a copy of the blurb which will appear on the back of the book:
“For as long as human societies have existed there have always been people who have always transgressed the laws of their respective societies. It seems that whenever new laws are made, certain people find ways to break them.
“This book will introduce you to some of the most notorious figures, from all parts of the world, who have committed heinous crimes such as highway robbery, murder, and forgery.
“Beginning with Bulla Felix, the Roman highwayman, this book traces the careers of medieval outlaws such as Robin Hood. Early modern murderers make an appearance such as Sawney Beane, whose story inspired the horror movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977). There is Jack Sheppard, an eighteenth-century criminal who escaped from prison on several occasions, and the ruffian Dick Turpin. There is the Scottish freedom fighter Robert Roy MacGregor, who was immortalised in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), as well as the Eastern European outlaw Janosik. Australian bushrangers such as Ned Kelly and the American Jesse James also make an appearance, along with many others whose names have become synonymous with crime and roguery.
“This book also includes an appendix of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thieves’ canting language, as well as several historical poems, songs, and ballads relating to the subjects discussed, and the work is prefaced with an essay highlighting the significance of crime literature throughout history.”