Highway robbery is predominantly thought of as a male-gendered crime, and it is true that the vast majority of those found in the dock at the Old Bailey in eighteenth-century England were men. But were there any women who got in on the act too? After all, why should men have all the fun?
From a researcher’s point of view, however, it is notoriously difficult to find out if any women became highway robbers, in the sense that we might think of today, riding a horse and shouting “Stand and Deliver!” Firstly, whilst some people were charged specifically with highway robbery, many people who robbed upon the highway were also charged with robbery with violence. Then there were footpads, who often were charged with highway robbery or robbery with violence, but often carried on their misdemeanours in urban areas and, as their nickname implies, did not rob people on horseback but upon foot. Thus it would be difficult to search the archives through gender and offence alone.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660). According to legend, after the Cromwellian government deprived her of the income from her estates, she turned to highway robbery to increase her dwindling income. If the legend is true, she would have been among the ranks of many Royalist supporters who turned to highway robbery during this time, such as James Hind (1616-1652), who, according to Capt. Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), allegedly once robbed ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell as he was travelling from Huntingdon to London’. The details of Ferrers’ death are unknown, however, though it is speculated that she died of a gunshot wound during a robbery-gone-bad. As with most legends, however, one has to take the account of Lady Ferrers with a pinch of salt.
The exploits of female highwaymen were also celebrated in fiction such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). In the story, Latroon, a highway robber and all-round rogue, is held up by a handsomely-dressed ‘gentleman robber’. Meriton and the robber fight, and the robber is overpowered. When Latroon frisks the robber, intending to rob him, he discovers that the robber is woman. The woman tells Latroon all about her life, and then she is soon joined by two other female robbers, and, it is hinted, Latroon and the three women then have a sex-fuelled night. It is difficult to know if Head was recounting a true story; it is certain that he plagiarised material from many sources, such as criminal biographies, and whilst many criminal biographies survive, many have also been lost.
Another highly sensationalised source is the broadside ballad The Female Frollick: or, An Account of a young Gentlewoman, who went upon the Road to rob in Man’s Cloaths, well mounted on a Mare, etc. To an excellent new Tune called The Rant(c.1690). Most of her victims are members of unpopular social groups such as a Quaker, a miller, and an excise man, and according to Gillian Spraggs, the ballad is actually satirising these types of people; they are men who have been robbed by a woman. They are, effectively, impotent against this woman, and in the seventeenth century, if you allowed yourself to become a slave (in any way, shape, or form) to a woman, you were seen as unmanly. Still, the female hero is not allowed to have too much freedom, for when the sheattempts to rob a highwayman, unfortunately for her, when her sex is discovered, the highwayman rapes her, and the ballad makes a light-hearted joke about this:
The High-way-man stood all amazed;
But she had no cause to complain.
Tho’ with her he did what he pleased,
He gave her the Money again.
The ballad itself is probably a somewhat loose adaptation of Head’s earlier account of a meeting between a highwayman and a woman and their ensuing sexual intercourse, though the ballad makes for unpleasant reading due to the fact that, instead of consensual sex, she is raped.
In the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), he gives the reader the story of Mary Frith alias Moll Cutpurse, born in the year 1589. From the beginning of the narrative, Smith effectively robs her of any feminine qualities, and, she is a man in all but name, only fitted to ‘manly’ employments:
She would fight with boys and courageously beat them; run, jump, leap, or hop, with any of the contrary sex […] she lived too much in common to be inclos’d in the limits of a private, domestic life; a quarter-staff was fitter for her than a distaff; stave and tail instead of spinning and reeling.
Perhaps worst of all, she is shown to be entirely devoid of maternal feeling:
She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.
Her wicked inclinations eventually lead her to begin a short career of highway robbery, but after a near-miss at being apprehended by General Fairfax, she decides to become a receiver of stolen goods. Throughout the narrative Smith strongly disapproves of Moll’s course of life; the smallest vices she has are made to appear as signs of her inner depravity. Smith even blames her for enticing the entire female sex into the harmful habit of smoking:
In her time tobacco being grown a great mode, she was mightily taken with the pastime of smoking, because of its singularity and that no woman ever smoked before her, though a great many of the sex have since followed her example.
The passage about tobacco is literally inserted into the narrative between the accounts of two robberies she committed, and, as we have seen, are merely a sign of her sinfulness. Of course, we should also take Smith’s Highwaymen with at least a pinch of salt; as a specimen of his commitment to historical authenticity, it should be noted that he includes in his compendia the life of Sir John Falstaff…John Falstaff is a Shakespearean character, appearing in Henry IV: Part One, Henry IV: Part Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Smith and other criminal biographers in the eighteenth century were rarely concerned with reporting facts.
In reality, however, it was rare indeed to come across a female highwayman, according to J. M. Beattie’s study of crime in the eighteenth century. And Beattie actually only cites one case in his study of a female highwayman which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine on 24 November 1735, and here it appears as though she was acting in concert with a man:
A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.
Many women often acted as decoys for their partners who would rob people. The woman would usually entice an unsuspecting male down a dark alleyway with the prospect of sex, and then the man would come up behind the victim, knock him out, and rob him. This type of criminal partnership was known as the ‘buttock-and-file’. It was such a partnership that the notorious ‘Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, engaged in with Mary Milliner, a prostitute, during the early years of his criminal career.
Accounts of female highway robbers, scarce as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, almost disappear by the nineteenth century. In fact, the crime of highway robbery itself disappeared in the 1800s, with the last mounted robbery having taken place in 1831. One of the latest accounts of a female highwayman appeared in the 1890s. Sabine Baring-Gould, an antiquary and Anglican priest, collected a number of folk songs from the common people of West Country and published them in Songs and Ballads of the West, published in four parts between 1889 and 1891. Amongst the songs he transcribed was a ballad entitled The Female Highwayman. It’s a rather more pleasant story than the seventeenth-century ballad The Female Frolick. The woman dresses herself in man’s clothes and goes out and robs someone. She sees a man and robs him of a diamond ring and a watch. The next day, the man sees the woman (this time dressed as a woman) with the watch hanging out of her pocket. He enquires where the woman got the watch and she confesses that it was her who robbed him. He then scolds her for involving herself in a dangerous pastime, but is also a bit smitten with her, and the pair fall in love and are married. It is highly doubtful, again, that this was based upon a real story, and is most likely just an entertaining song.
In conclusion, when highwaywomen are represented in fiction and in folk ballads (written usually by male writers), they are figures which have to be contained; Latroon, although initially overcome by the female robber, he re-establishes his male authority by having sex with three female robbers; in The Female Frolick, the man again establishes control over the highwaywoman in a very unpleasant manner by raping her; In Smith’s Highwayman, Moll Cutpurse is, essentially, stripped of any feminine attributes; in the late nineteenth-century folk ballad The Female Highwayman we again see that, whilst it is a pleasanter story than The Female Frolick, the woman is again ‘contained’ so to speak for she ends up marrying her victim. It is evident then that writers in the past were uncomfortable with the prospect of women taking to the roads and robbing people upon the highway. Women were supposed to be relatively confined to the domestic sphere – that Moll Cutpurse has no liking for home life is another stick with which Smith beats her – and their appropriation of what was essentially a ‘manly’ thing to do would have been seen as subverting gender norms. Hence to male writers the female highway robber was a threatening figure, and one which had to be contained. As it happens, actual female highwaymen were rare, and this probably made any accounts of them all the more sensational (and profitable, if you were a writer or a ballad publisher), and most real-life highwaywomen usually committed their robberies in collaboration with male partners.
Gillian Spraggs, Outlaws and Highwaymen (London: Pimlico, 2001).
Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Harper, 1987).
Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 1987).
Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (eds.) The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs (London: Penguin, 2012).
Disclaimer: I’m not a medieval historian – I study the later Robin Hood texts from the 18th and 19th centuries; this post is rather just a few things that have sprung to mind when reading the earlier tales of Robin Hood.
The medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of RobynHodewas composed after c.1450, although it was not printed until the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century. It is the most well-known of all the early Robin Hood ballads, and one of the longest at 1,824 lines. It is also most likely a compilation of various Robin Hood tales that were in circulation prior to its composition. In the poem, Robin is described as ‘a good yeman [yeoman]’. His fellow outlaws Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son are similarly described as ‘good’. In the tale Robin lends money to a poor knight, robs corrupt churchmen, kills the Sheriff, meets with the King, and is finally killed by the Prioress of Kirklees. The poem ends with a blessing upon Robin Hood who ‘dyd pore men moch god.’ Although the poem is as close to any early biography of Robin Hood (in its tone, at least) we will perhaps ever have, it is doubtful that it is actually a biography of the deeds which the legendary outlaw undertook during the 13th and 14th centuries.
The poem has been interpreted in various ways, beginning with the debates between Rodney Hilton and James C. Holt in the journal Past and Present in the 1950s & 1960s. Taking a Marxist approach, Hilton argued that Robin Hood was an expression of peasant discontent during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. As a more conservative historian, for Holt Robin Hood was representative of knightly or aristocratic interests. Maurice Keen assessed the arguments of both historians in another article for Past and Present but concluded that the early Robin Hood tales were written for the socially oppressed – not limited to a particular class of people but to all who felt that, for whatever reason, they could not obtain justice in the medieval world. To this day the debates still rage as to who the audience was for Robin Hood ballads in the late medieval period, with authors such as Stephen Knight rejecting a historicist interpretation altogether and arguing that the Geste cannot, indeed should not, be related to any real life event.
Perhaps we are missing one dimension here. For all of the debates I have read and come across, relatively few seem to consider the ballads in the context of being a reaction to crime in the fifteenth century. My background is in 18th-century criminal biography, and, having been influenced by Lincoln B. Faller’s work Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987), I wondered if we might apply one of his theories to our readings of the Geste, which is that people consume stories about crime to palliate their fears and anxieties towards crime, in particular violent crime.
Whilst we should be aware of the pitfalls of applying theories relating to the 18th century to medieval England, I believe that in the case of the Geste it can be done. After all, both periods had their ‘crime waves’ to use an anachronistic expression. The research of Henry Summerson points to the existence of highly organised and mobile bands of thieves who infested the forests, along with high rates of urban crime, and child exploitation. Similarly in the 18th century writers such as Henry Fielding in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) prophesied that unless something were done about the problem of violent crime, the streets of London would soon be impassable without the utmost hazard. And both time periods seem to have shared a – sometimes ambiguous – admiration for highway robbers; James Hind, Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, and James Maclaine were all at one point just as popular during the 18th century as Robin Hood was in medieval ‘popular’ culture. So perhaps you will agree that it is not altogether injudicious to make an analogy between two periods.
So what does Faller say regarding the ways in which the popular culture of crime was interpreted by readers in past ages? Why did such popular culture seemingly glamorise and idealise robbers in particular? Faller says that:
The fictions that so lightly informed their lives – fictions nowhere so completely present as in the utterly fictional, utterly idealised MacHeath [the gallant highwayman of The Beggar’s Opera (1728)] were entertaining largely because the actualities these fictions displaced were hardly to be entertained.
That is to say that people warmed to highwaymen in popular culture because their real brutality was masked under an air of gallantry and politeness, which made them appear to many people as someone on ‘the right side of danger’ so to speak. My question is: could/would we find the same thing happening in the medieval period? The violence of certain medieval outlaws is well documented even in ballads. Even Robin Hood in the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (15th century, probably before 1475) brutally cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks Guy’s head upon his bow’s end. In Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450), one of the merry men, Much, brutally kills a young boy. Whilst in the ballads Robin is often said not to do any harm to any company that a woman was in, a study of 13th-century homicide showed that 37 per cent of the victims of outlaw robberies were woman, and Barbara Hanawalt concludes by saying ‘bandits had no social conscience than the ordinary thieves who stole primarily from fellow villagers.’ The Geste is much less violent in tone in than The Monk and Guy of Gisborne. And Robin Hood is on numerous occasions in the Geste said to full of ‘courtyse’. To me, and I may be wrong, this sounds suspiciously like the ‘politeness’ that 18th-century highwaymen were said to affect when robbing their victims, and of course any politeness, or in Robin Hood’s case, ‘courtesye,’ whilst committing robbery was most likely pure fiction.
That the Geste may have palliated readers’ fears of violent crime in the same way that 18th-century criminal biography did is not a concept that is outside the bounds of possibility, although, as I have stated above, I am not a medieval historian, and this idea is free to be developed/trashed accordingly by anyone who reads it. Neither is it an idea that is supposed to be profound and overturn everything that has gone before it. Indeed, Robin Hood, if the Geste did assuage contemporary listeners’/readers’ fears of violent crime, it can still be representative of the ‘aspirational’ classes or the need for justice in an unjust world. As Lucy Moore says of 18th-century criminal narratives, crime holds about it an air, however illusory, of glamour and liberty. And Gillian Spraggs says how in the 18th-century ‘many a lad’ idolised highwaymen because it seemed as if they rose, almost instantaneously, into a life of riches, glamour, and gaming. Indeed, why in this day and age do we glamorise the lives of mobsters in movies and TV shows? They show us a life of glamour and easy money, though the reality of organised crime is probably a long way away from how it is represented on TV, and I expect that any ‘courtesye’ of Robin’s is similarly pure fiction. In short, what I want to say here is that people needed good outlaws like Robin and his men because the reality was that the real outlaws who preyed upon people in the woods were brutal, callous killers.
 R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.) Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), p.xxix.
 Anon. Here begynneth a lytell geste of Robyn hode, and his meyne and of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510?) Cambridge, University Library Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689.
 Rodney Hilton ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 14 (1958), pp.30-44.
 James C. Holt ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 18 (1960), pp.89-110.
 Maurice Keen ‘Robin Hood – Peasant or Gentleman?’ Past & Present No. 19 (1961), pp.7-15.
 Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
 Henry Summerson ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’ The Journal of Legal History 17: 3 (1996), pp.197-224.
 Henry Fielding An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
 Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) p.124.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.123.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd End. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), pp.113-122.
 Barbara Hanawalt ‘Ballads and Bandits: Fourteenth-Century Outlaws and Robin Hood Poems’ ed. by Stephen Knight Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), p.277.
 Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode…
 Lucy Moore Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), p.iii.
 Gillian Spraggs Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001).
‘The morning dawned…the clock had just struck eight, when the voice of a man in the street fell upon his ear. He heard the following announcement:- Here is a full account of the horrible assassination committed by the miscreant William Bolter upon the person of his wife…only one penny! The fullest and most perfect account – only one penny!’ 
The above passage depicts the street-sale of a broadside after a crime has been committed. Broadsides were single sheets of paper which were sold cheaply to consumers. The broadside trade dates back to the 1500s, and they covered a range of topics including politics, religion, and crime. By the eighteenth century they became almost exclusively focused upon news of crime. At public executions broadsides were sold which purported to carry the ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals condemned to the gallows. This chapter analyses a selection of broadsides between the 1790s and 1830s. It will be argued that these documents were complex pieces of literature which reflected contemporaries’ changing views of sin, crime, and punishment.
Henry Mayhew remarked that a ‘very extensive…portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by the “Sorrowful Lamentations” and “Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution” of criminals’. Until recent years historians have arrived at the same conclusions as Mayhew regarding the readership of this literature. In fact, broadsides were formerly dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many…falling below the dignified historian’s line’. Gatrell takes the view that broadsides were produced for and read mainly by the poorer classes due to their inexpensive price. However, other scholars argue that these publications were aimed at a wider audience. ‘On a literary level’, says Chassaigne, broadsides ‘belong to the broader genre of criminal biography’. Criminal biographies emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, along with publications such as The Old Bailey Sessions Papers (published between 1674 and 1913), and The Newgate Calendar (published in various editions in 1774, 1824, and 1826). These publications were commercial ventures, and mirrored the eighteenth-century reading public’s interest in crime as they feared that the country, particularly London, was in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) writing in 1751, for instance, predicted that within a few years ‘the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it [will be]…impassable without the utmost hazard’. Consequently, in public discourse there was a ‘century-long debate over how to respond to the apparently ever-rising tide of criminality’. In the absence of a professional police force, one response by eighteenth-century law makers to the perceived rise in crime was the gradual introduction of a Bloody law Code. During the eighteenth century over two hundred offences became capital felonies, many of them relating to property theft. Criminal biographies attempted to warn readers against leading a life of sin and vice, because following such a course would end at the gallows. The readership for this material in the eighteenth century was ‘men and women of small property’. The broadsides of the nineteenth century similarly addressed readers from all classes evident in phrases such as: ‘Good people all a warning take’ (emphasis added). Moreover, broadsides were produced for sale primarily at public executions, and people from all classes attended these events. Broadsides were ‘popular’ in so far as they were not socially exclusive, and therefore both the working and middle classes must have read these publications.
The general appearance of broadsides did not change greatly over time. The early broadsides examined here carried a woodcut of the gallows, depicting the moment that the condemned was ‘launched into eternity’. Hangings were a common occurrence in Britain. In London, in addition to Newgate (whence the Tyburn executions were removed in 1783), hangings occurred at Execution Dock, Wapping until 1830, and Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Southwark until 1878. A Londoner born in the 1780s could have witnessed approximately four hundred executions at Newgate alone by the 1840s. The early woodcuts rarely depicted the actual felon represented in the text. Instead they were stock images, re-used by printers on several occasions. Gatrell explains that these items were ‘totemic artefacts…symbolic substitutes for the experiences watched…mementoes of events whose psychic significance was somehow worth reifying’. Precisely what people felt about seeing these macabre images may never be known, given that a distance of nigh-on two hundred years has passed since executions were a part of everyday life. However, Gatrell does have this to say about the ‘artistic representation of death’:
[It] express[ed] a displaced anxiety about death, and a desire for health as well. It express[ed] ‘something that is so dangerous to the health of the psyche that it must be repressed and yet so strong in its desire for articulation that it can’t be’. In a ‘gesture of compromise’ the artist deals with the danger by presenting death in ‘the body of another person and at another site’.
Perhaps the images allayed purchasers’ fears regarding their own mortality, and inwardly they were happy that it was not themselves upon the scaffold.
By the 1820s, however, images of the crime being perpetrated were included by publishers, sometimes appearing instead of the gallows. The contrast in the images represented a shift in the way that condemned people were viewed by the public. The gallows demarcated the condemned as someone to be pitied, whereas an image of the crime in progress marked out the perpetrator as a definite criminal. Sympathy could be extended to a man about to die, but not to a man who was represented as carrying out a heinous act upon another person. The consensus between law makers and the scaffold crowd dictated that villainy, especially against other people’s bodies, must be punished. Take the case of James Cook, pictured below. He is not a sympathetic figure. Instead he is represented as a cruel man, barbarously striking a blow against an older, weaker man.
The representation of violent acts in print culture is connected to a growing demand for violent entertainment during the nineteenth century:
Woodcuts [by c.1820] were extremely detailed, usually capturing the actual moment of violence or presenting to viewers the most heinous aspect of the crime. Theses graphic images shocked and horrified purchasers…at the same time, woodcuts titillated spectators.
The early nineteenth century was the period in which the concept of ‘violence’ was invented. Wood states that although violence ‘had been a widely accepted part of social relations, community self-policing and recreational life in the eighteenth century, [it] gained a new cultural prominence as a ‘“social problem”’. The images on broadsides became a form of entertainment through which contemporaries could vent their longing for increasingly outlawed violent entertainments, such as cock fighting, bull and bear baiting. People access violent entertainment for various reasons; some people ‘seek excitement, others companionship or social acceptance through shared experience, and still others wish to see justice enacted’. Watching a hanging, and seeing the crime being committed in print, fulfilled people’s appetites for violent entertainment, offering a shared community experience whilst seeing justice done. Hence images from the 1820s marked broadsides out as consumer commodities, signalling that people had by this period moved from being producers of violent entertainment, to being consumers of it.
Moreover, as seen above, there is a ‘Correct Likeness of James Cook’. By the 1820s some broadsides carried pictures of the felon which may be linked to the growth of phrenology since c.1811. Phrenologists explored how ‘the lineaments of a person’s character are determined by the shape of the bumps on the head’, and ‘on the basis of their understanding… phrenologists could explain every form of criminal behaviour.’ The image from The Popular Educator in 1854 illustrates the perceptions of how morality and criminality were displayed in the countenance. There is a resemblance between James Cook in the broadside, and image number seven in the phrenology illustration. Both characters share a long nose going out to a point, as well as a chin which sits into the collar. The image illustrates the way in which vice supposedly degraded a man’s facial features. He started as ‘the child,’ and through bad associations descended through the ‘the street,’ to ‘drunkenness,’ ‘vice and misery,’ and ‘beggary’. Cook himself testified at his trial that before he fell into bad company ‘he was a perfectly good character’. In an era before the police photographed known criminals, it is interesting to see how broadsides were beginning to reflect a ‘scientific’ awareness of the causes of crime in their ‘likenesses’ of criminals.
The headline usually followed the same formula of words and phrases. The earliest broadside studied here is entitled ‘The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand, who was Execute [sic] at Perth, on Friday 31st May 1793, for Highway Robbery’. In Leicestershire, England, four years later, a broadside was published entitled: ‘The Last Dying Speech, and Confession, of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham, on Wednesday 31st March 1802’. Some broadsides would claim to be a copy of a letter or verses written by the condemned and found in their cell, such as ‘A Copy of Verses which was found in the Condemned Cells of Barnicoat and Thompson, Who were Executed at Launceston, on Monday, April 2nd, 1821’. It is doubtful that the verses were ever written by the criminals themselves, and Mayhew sarcastically said that ‘[the prisoner’s] being unable to read or write [seems]…no obstacle to the composition’.
Broadsides recounted what their respective titles advertised; a life, dying speech and execution. The felon’s early life was recounted, for example: ‘James Dormand was a native of Scotland, and born in the north of Ireland, only aged 19 years, of honest and respectable parents’. Many criminals in the earlier part of the period studied appear to have come from honest and respectable families, and after a short account of their birth and parentage usually came the fall from grace. Thomas Hopkinson, born of ‘respectable’ parentage, ended at the gallows because he followed a sinful course:
He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end…his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of its depravity; and thus in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till he ‘was driven away with his wickedness.
There is continuity here with the way that eighteenth-century authors represented the lives of criminals in the literature of the period, evident in the biography of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), a notorious house-breaker, highwayman and gaol-breaker, published in 1724:
This John Sheppard, a youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin…received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter…But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess [a prostitute]…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!
Throughout the eighteenth century it was assumed that people, regardless of social status, were capable of committing crime as men were inherently sinful, and therefore anyone might become a criminal. Small vices would lead to greater vices and crime, for ‘sin [in the eighteenth century] was both addictive and progressive…contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of “farthings and marbles” grew great oaks of iniquity’. Perhaps this is why property offenders throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were sometimes treated sympathetically by both the scaffold crowd and in the broadside text; they were sinners like other men. At worst, figures such as highwaymen were people ‘with a tragic fatal flaw’.
Yet by the 1820s, the content of broadsides changed, mentioning the victim as well as the criminal. This was the case in the ‘Account of the Interesting Trial of John Stewart and Catherine Wright, for the Murder and Robbery of Robert Lamont’. The criminal and the victim also began to share almost equal prominence within the text, and in some cases the focus of the text was the victim. For example, in 1834 a broadside depicting a highway robbery and murder in Epsom focused solely on the victim of the crime, a Mister John Richardson (Fig. 4). In this broadside, the criminals are not named at all. It simply says that a highway robbery was ‘committed…by two ruffians, on Mr. John Richardson, Farmer’. Gone is the lengthy account of the criminal’s birth, life, and descent into sin. All that is said of the offender is that Mr. Richardson was robbed by a man ‘who is known to be a desperate fellow’. This shift from readers’ identification with the villain to the victim coincides with the emergence of respectability during this period, which was characterised by sobriety, religion, and deference to the law. This being the case, it is no wonder that by the 1820s readers no longer wished to identify or sympathise with robbers.
Another change in the body of the text was the inclusion of the trial. Later broadsides, instead of being entitled as ‘Last Dying Speech, Confession…etc.,’ carried titles such as ‘Trial and Sentence,’ or, as in the case of the burglar William Harley in 1836; ‘The Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley, for the Chipstead Burglary’ (Fig. 5).The depiction of the trial in the main body of the text left readers in no doubt as to the felon’s guilt. Mitchell and Sharp in 1825 were definitely guilty because ‘after a few minutes’ absence, [the jury] returned a viva voce verdict, finding the pannels [sic] guilty’. Mitchell and Sharp committed a heinous crime, had been found guilty by a jury of their peers, and sentenced to death. Justice had been served. The inclusion of the trial served an important function when many people’s exposure to the workings of the judicial process would have been rare. It included people into the judicial sphere, and with the gradual focus upon the victim in the text, allowed ‘the whole community to unite against the criminal’. Perhaps the inclusion of the trial stimulated debate about the judicial process amongst members of the middle classes, who at this time were clamouring for legal and parliamentary reform. Reform in these areas was led by the Whigs, the party of ‘the social middle’, who implemented the ideas of middle-class reformers in the area of the criminal law. Measures included the downgrading of many capital offences to custodial sentences or transportation. Some middle-class commentators by the 1840s openly disapproved of the death sentence. On 13th November 1849 Charles Dickens attended a public execution at Horse-Monger Lane Gaol. He listed various reasons as to why public executions should be abolished. It was ‘the horrible spectacle,’ together with the behaviour of the crowd, which ‘made [his] blood run cold’. In the letter he further suggested making capital punishment ‘a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large)’. In the nineteenth century justice was not accomplished through a violent spectacle but through a sober legal process:
In punishment-as-spectacle a confused horror spread from the scaffold; it enveloped both executioner and condemned…[when] the publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence; the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.
Whilst in the eighteenth century broadsides functioned as a forum in which anxieties about crime and sin could be expressed and negotiated, by the nineteenth century broadsides were propagating a respectable middle-class view of crime and justice. The shift of focus in broadside narratives from the execution to the trial mirrored the growing middle-class disapproval of state-sanctioned violence. Thus the execution of a prisoner by the 1830s was, it seems, a last resort only after the felon had been found guilty by a jury of his peers.
The final part of the story was the moment that criminals met ‘their awful fate’. A more common euphemism was ‘launched into eternity’, as is the case with Thomas Wilcox. Being ‘launched into eternity’ through hanging was a painful, degrading experience:
The dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck…sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them…Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections (priapism) after hanging due to the pooling of blood in the legs and lower body once the heart stops…Men may also ejaculate on the rope.
Euphemisms sanitised the state-sanctioned violence of the death sentence. It seems that ‘it [was] ugly to be punishable, but there [was] no glory in punishing’. The representation of the hanging in the broadsides cannot be divorced from the act of the execution. There are several ways of ‘reading’ a public execution. An execution ‘restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous, and paid the debt he owed to society’. Hay sees the event as an instrument of class terror explaining that there was ‘an astute ruling class who manipulated [the law] to their advantage [over] a [common] people schooled in the lessons of Justice, Terror and Mercy’. Laqueur stresses the ‘carnivalesque’ element of the public execution, in which spectators could defy authority by identifying with the condemned. The notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ will be returned to later. The above explanations, however, are too reductionist for the event was a two-way process. The meaning of the execution was a reaffirmation of the social contract. The hanging allowed people to subvert authority by identifying with the condemned if they wished, but at the same time the crowd were powerless to prevent the law taking its course. The scaffold ‘[signified] death, justice, power and retribution’. Broadsides, therefore, inculcated both a respect for the law to their audience, yet also provide them with a (momentary) opportunity to defy authority.
As a final point, it might be worth stating something about the significance of broadsides to the families of the condemned. It might be supposed that these broadsides were possibly sometimes the only artefact they had left of their loved ones who had suffered at the gallows. There is a work of fiction in the 1830s which reveals that broadsides were kept by families perhaps as mementoes. In 1839 William Harrison Ainsworth wrote the novel Jack Sheppard. The novel is an embellished story of the afore-mentioned Jack Sheppard, who was hanged in 1724. The novel commences in the ‘sorry lodging’ of Jack’s mother, Mrs. Sheppard. Her husband, Tom, has just been hanged, but the reader observes in her dwelling place that:
Over the chimney-piece was pasted a handbill, purporting to be ‘The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Tom Sheppard, the Notorious House-breaker, who suffered at Tyburn on the 25th February 1703’. This placard was adorned with a rude wood-cut, representing the unhappy malefactor at the place of execution.
Novels are the cultural mouthpieces for contemporary practices and attitudes of people in bygone eras, and perhaps Ainsworth had previously seen broadsides used by families in such a way? After all, until 1809 the bodies of malefactors, in particular murderers, were given over to the surgeons in London for dissection. This practice was instituted by the Murder Act of 1752 which prevented giving felons a Christian burial. If a family was denied access to their loved one’s body after death, it is reasonable to suppose that a handbill containing their ‘Last Dying Speech’ may have provided them with some comfort. This may particularly have been the case if the families were destitute, for maybe it would have been the only memento that they had of the deceased. However, it would be virtually impossible for any such testimony of the condemned criminals’ loved ones detailing such a practice to be uncovered.
In conclusion, the appeal of broadsides between the 1790s and 1830s was in their provision of news and entertainment to the reading public. Gatrell says ‘read half a dozen and you have read them all’. Indeed, the images and the texts of the broadsides did appear to follow a similar pattern throughout their history. However, ‘there has hitherto been a tendency to overlook the changing nature of broadsides’. Whilst their general format and appearance changed little over the course of this period, there were subtle differences that can be discerned from studying them over time. The earliest broadsides represented continuity with an eighteenth-century view of criminality which stated that all people were capable of committing crime because of original sin. Broadsides from the 1820s and 1830s, however, told a different story. Respectability is evident in the latter examples because sympathy was not intended for the offender but for the victim. Broadsides also changed from being didactic texts to sources of titillating entertainment, whereby readers could ‘respectably’ indulge their tastes for violent entertainments. The inclusion of the trial in the broadsides further represented increasing approval from the public towards the law. However, readers still avidly consumed tales of historic thieves such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, even if they disapproved of contemporary robbers.
1. Reynolds, G.W.M. (1845:1890). The Mysteries of London. London: Published for the Booksellers, p.42
2. Mayhew, H. (1861:2010) London Labour and the London Poor, p.93
3. MacKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775. London: Continuum Books, p.32
4. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.157
5.Chassaigne, P. (1999). ‘Popular Representations of Crime: the crime broadside – a subculture of violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies 8(2) p.24
6.Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. Dublin: G. Faulkner, p.1
7.Shoemaker, R. (2008). ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’. Journal of British Studies 47(3), p.580
8.Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.157
9.‘Last Farewell to the World of John Cashman, for Burglary’ (1817). London: Pigott, Old Street
10.MacKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.217
11. MacKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.257
12. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.32
13. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.175
14. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.243
16. Hall, R. (2009). Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture. Charlottesville: UVP, p.37
17. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.175
18. Crone, R. (2012) Violent Victorians, p.107
19. Carter Wood, J. (2004). ‘A Useful Savagery: The Invention of Violence in Nineteenth-Century England’. Journal of Victorian Culture 9(1), p.23
20. Goldstein, J. (1999). ‘The Attractions of Violent Entertainment’. Media Psychology 1, p.272
21. Wilson, B. (2007). Decency & Disorder, 1789-1837, p.443
22. Hilton, B. (2006). A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.451
23. Raffer, N. (2005). ‘The murderous Dutch fiddler: Criminology, history and the problem of phrenology’. Theoretical Criminology 9(1), p.66
24. ‘Confession and Sentence of James Cook for the Murder and Robbery of Mr. Paas at Leicester’ (1832). Pitts, Seven Dials
25. Mayhew, H. (1861:2010). London Labour and the London Poor, p.94
26. ‘The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand’. (1793). National Library of Scotland. Shelfmark: 6.314(31)
27. ‘The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson’ (1819). Derby: G. Wilkins, Printer
29. Defoe, D. (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of Jack Sheppard’. Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper Perennial, pp.5-6
30. Faller, L.B. (1987) Turned to Account, p.54
31. MacKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.59
32. Brewer, J. (2013). The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge, p.351
33.‘Account of the Interesting Trial of John Stewart and Catherine Wright for the Murder and Robbery of Robert Lamont’ (1829). Glasgow: W. Carse, Printer
34. ‘Latest Particulars: The Epson Murder and Highway Robbery’ (1834).
36. Wilson, B. (2007). Decency & Disorder, 1789-1837, p.417
37. Shoemaker, R. (2006). ‘The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800’. Cultural & Social History 3(4), pp.403-404
38. ‘Trial and Sentence: A Full and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of James Mitchell and John Sharp’ (1825). F.3.A.13(99)
39. ‘Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley, for the Chipstead Burglary at Horsemonger Lane Gaol’ (1836). 3 Old Montague Street, Whitechapel: Carpue, Printer
40 ‘Trial and Sentence…James Mitchell and John Sharpe’ op cit.
41 Chassaigne, P. (1999). ‘Popular Representations of Crime: the crime broadside – a subculture of violence in Victorian Britain?’ p.40
42. McCormack, M. (2005). The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.194
43. Woodward, L. (1962). The Age of Reform, 1815-1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.469
44. Dickens, C. (1849). ‘To the Editor of the Times’. The Times, Wednesday Nov. 14th, p.4
46. Foucault, M. (1975:1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System, p.9
47. Faller, L.B. (1987). Turned to Account, p.32
48. ‘The Trial and Execution of Thos. Boggington, Sen., Thomas Francis, Thomas Norman, William Hasledon, alias Samuel Moss, for Burglaries’ (1813). London: Jennings, Fleet Street, Printer
49. ‘Account of the Life, Character and Behaviour of T. Wilcox, Who was Executed this Day, March 29th, 1820, on Nottingham Gallows for Highway Robbery’ (1820). Leicester: Martin
50. Capital Punishment UK (2014). ‘Hanged by the neck until dead! The processes and physiology of judicial hanging’ [Internet] http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/hanging2.html#pain [Accessed 12/08/2014].
51. Crone, R. (2012). Violent Victorians, p.103
52. Foucault, M. (1975:1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System. Translated by Sheridan, A. London: Penguin, p.10
53. Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination, p.329
54. Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority and the Criminal Law’. In Hay et al Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Verso, p.63
55. See Laqueur, T. (1989). ‘Crowds, Carnivals and the English State in Executions, 1604-1868’. In idem Beier, A.L. et al eds. The First Modern Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
56. Linebaugh, P. (1994). The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin, p.xx
57. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.97
59. Ainsworth, W.H. (1839:1850). Jack Sheppard: A Romance. London: Chapman & Hall, p.9
60. Tosh, J. (2006). The Pursuit of History. Harlow: Pearson, p.67
61. Linebaugh, P. (1975). ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’. In Hay et al. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Verso, pp.76-77
62. MacKenzie, A. (2007) Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.32
63. Gatrell, V.A.C. (1994). The Hanging Tree, p.175
64. Linebaugh, P. (1994). The London Hanged, p.89
I return once again to my favourite author, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and discuss his novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote (1742). The title is usually shortened to just Joseph Andrews…(they loved long titles in the 18th century).
Joseph Andrews tells the story of its eponymous title character, Joseph. He is the lowly-born footman in the household of Lady Booby. He is a good-looking, kind-natured, and polite young man. Pious and virtuous. He learns music in his spare time and is always endeavouring to improve himself. Although he does not possess a title to the effect, he is de facto a gentleman.
But his virtue and innocence are in danger, for Lady Booby desires Joseph Andrews, and tries to seduce him. He is such a virtuous young man, however, that nothing can tempt him away from the path of virtue. Enraged, embarrassed, Lady Booby dismisses him from service.
After his dismissal from service, Joseph decides to make his way back home in the country to be reunited with his sweetheart, Fanny. On the way many misfortunes befall him. First he gets what little money he has stolen from him by highwaymen (one of my favourite scenes, obviously). He is then stript naked and left for dead. A stagecoach passing by then rescues Joseph and takes him to an inn and Joseph gets better (but not without the doctor mistakenly pronouncing him dead to begin with). While he is recovering, Betty, a chambermaid at the inn takes a fancy to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Again he resists, because he is such a virtuous young man.
Arriving at the inn in the meantime is Joseph’s old friend, Parson Abraham Adams. He was on his way to sell copies of his Sermons in London but, his wife forgot to pack them. He and Joseph have a catch up and decide to travel back to Adams’ parish together because that is where Fanny is from. Further down the line many more slapstick adventures befall Adams and Joseph, and a few more people try to corrupt Joseph’s innocence but he resists temptation. When finally Joseph meets Fanny again, someone comes and ruins their marriage prospects by saying that Joseph and Fanny may actually be brother and sister, but thankfully this turns out not to be correct. The tale then ends happily with the marriage of Fanny and Joseph.
This is a comedy. But Fielding still has a point to make: out of all of the supposedly “high-born” members of the middle classes and the aristocracy, it is only Joseph, Fanny, and Parson Adams – of no particularly high status in society – who are virtuous people. It is the aristocracy who are corrupt and degenerate; it is the way that Joseph conducts himself in daily life which marks him out as a true nobleman:
He an Air, which to those who have not seen many Noblemen, would give an idea of Nobility.
Moreover, in contrast to the aristocracy, Joseph’s ‘morals remained entirely uncorrupted…he was at the same time smarter and genteeler than any of the beaus in Town’. This is in keeping with Fielding’s own patrician country upbringing, an outlook which stressed the virtues of the country against the moral corruption of those who lived in the town.
There is also some funny and interesting intertextuality at play in Fielding’s novel. Joseph has a sister called Pamela (a virtuous young lady) who is married to Mr. Booby, the brother of Lady Booby. Fielding was quite disparaging of another author, Samuel Richardson. I have previously written of my dislike for Richardson’s works. (Perhaps its Fielding’s influence on me which made me dislike it). Richardson’s novels are unnecessarily long, whereas Fielding’s is light and short in comparison. So in a direct attack on Richardson (whose characters Fielding stole), Fielding assures us that there will be no long, drawn out sequel. Fielding had dedicated an entire work to the piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela the year before when he wrote An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. So like me he wasn’t Richardson’s biggest fan as you can gather.
I’ve read quite a lot of 18th-century literature, and if you’re going to begin to make your own foray into the 18th-century world, I urge you to start with Fielding’s works…definitely don’t start with Richardson’s!
book [bʊk] noun.book; plural noun: books; noun: the book: a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.
Above is a standard dictionary definition of the word ‘book’. However, I’ve just finished reading an excellent article by Leslie Howsam in a book which she edited called The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015) which has made me rethink the way that I think about a book. As a collector of second-hand books, and someone whose PhD project makes forays into book history, Howsam’s article was a fascinating read, forcing readers to consider what, exactly, a book is.
Do we read ‘books,’ or do we read texts? These are the types of issues which Howsam deals with in her article, and which, published this year, represents the latest research in the field of book history, and I’ll attempt to summarise the article here.
When we think of the word ‘book,’ most people, myself included, usually think of the material form of a body of knowledge or stories. We think of what is known as the ‘Codex’. And yet when one studies the history of the book, this common conception becomes problematic. Books existed before there were codices. In Ancient Greece and Rome people read ‘books,’ but their material form was different to today: there were scrolls. In Ancient Mesopotamia, Howsam points out, they had books, but their books were written on clay tablets. The codex (the material form of a text which we would recognise, in which the leaves of a book are bound together) only emerged in the second century CE.
Indeed, Howsam does not mention it specifically, but her article got me thinking of the Bible. Pick up any copy of a Bible from a bookstore and you will be, in effect, buying a book, that is a codex, in which paper leaves are bound together. But then read inside and you will see that there are actually books within books. There is ‘The First Book of Moses, Commonly called Genesis,” “The Book of Exodus.’ So there are numerous books within a book. The material form in which we buy these many combined books (a library of books, as that is what the word Bible means) is a book, but the actual books are inside the covers.
And so Howsam argues that a book is many things:
A book is a text.
A book is an object.
A book is a transaction.
A book is an experience.
The Book as a Text.
So a book must have text. An author writes the text. This can be a work of fiction, or a factual text such as a history or a science book. Literary critics tend to consider texts only, apart from their social, economic, and cultural contexts, whereas an historian might concentrate, not so much on the text of an historic book itself, but on its significance. And this is where, argues Howsam, that book history can make valuable contributions to both fields. But a text is not solely the work of an author. Editors edit texts, typesetters set the print type, and publishers publish the text.
The Book as an Object
The materiality of books is another aspect of a text that is frequently overlooked by scholars, usually due to the significance of their texts. Once the words of an author have taken physical form, on a sheet of paper, they are a book. And this is why we can class magazines, comics, and periodicals as books also. Books are objects: material things.
The Book as a Cultural Transaction
The book as a cultural transaction signifies, in Howsam’s words:
A relationship of communication and exchange (often commercial exchange) that operates within a culture and a political economy.
The transaction can be ‘the nexus between one reader and another, as well as the interplay between the reader and writer implied in the every day act of reading.’ However, the transaction is also between author and publisher, between publisher and bookseller, who publish and sell books.
The Book as an Experience
Everyone reacts to books: ‘the reader, the collector, and the scholar, all in their different ways, react emotionally and intellectually to the books in their purview.’ These responses are based, yes, on the genre of the text they are reading (some people like Romance novels, others like fantasy novels), however, these reactions to books can only take place once a the text has received its material form, once it has been edited, bound, and gone through cultural and commercial transactions. And readers reactions may stem from many things. For example, for some readers the (commercial) price of a book will give them a certain reaction to the text.
Howsam also looks forward in her introductory essay to the future. Will ebooks replace the material book? Will a book still be called a book if it is only online. Indeed, and this is my sidenote to Howsam’s work, I think that in our demarcation of the ‘ebook’ we are already implicitly arguing that an ebook is not a book. Somehow it is a different entity, and mimics the way that scrolls were written, as continuous texts (Howsam makes the point here about the similarity between ebooks and ancient scrolls, noting that we tend to ‘scroll down’ a page when looking at a text on a screen).
So as can be seen from Howsam’s article, the word ‘book’ cannot be summarised in a single sentence. It is certainly much more than the dictionary definition above would imply.
Leslie Howsam (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
This is a copy of the paper that I presented at the International Association for Robin Hood Studies ‘Outlaws in Context’ Conference, 30 June – 1 July 2015.
Abstract. The eighteenth century was the perfect time for Robin Hood stories to circulate, being the golden age of criminal biography and ‘gentlemanly’ highwaymen such as Dick Turpin. Yet apart from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795), the outlaw’s appearance in eighteenth-century print culture is under-researched. Robin Hood frequently appeared in the genre of criminal biography. In these works, Robin Hood holds a dubious reputation, his life held up as an example to readers to avoid a life of sin and vice. This paper argues that to fully understand the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, then these hitherto neglected sources deserve critical examination from Robin Hood Studies researchers.
The image which most people have of Robin Hood in the eighteenth century is the Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies. He is the noble Earl of Huntingdon. He steals from the rich to feed the poor. But this is not the eighteenth-century Robin Hood of whom I wish to speak. During my BA and MA studies, under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore, I was introduced to one of the most fascinating genres of eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. So when I began my Ph.D. project, I decided to explore whether Robin Hood appeared in any of these criminal biographies, my reasoning being that, as the eighteenth century was the golden age of the highwayman, then Robin Hood, who in many respects is the original highwayman, must surely have made an appearance somewhere. And sure enough he did. Whilst some early eighteenth-century authors such as Sir Richard Steele call Robin Hood a ‘British Worthy,’ equal to classical heroes such as Jason, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar, these criminal biographies depict Robin Hood as a cold-blooded killer, a sinner who turned to crime because he gave into his wicked inclinations.
You are probably wondering why I have called this paper ‘Robin Hood the Brute’. I will explain why by going into some of the theory which underpins this talk and my Ph.D. project as a whole. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no Robin Hood scholars have taken up the study of representations of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century criminal biography. So I have had to turn to the work of Lincoln B. Faller who in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987) studied over 2,000 criminal biographies from this period. Based on readings of these sources, he came up with a typology of thieves:
We may begin by positing three categories of thief: hero, brute, buffoon…practically all of them may be described within this range. 
I have found that Robin Hood is no exception to this rule, so at the moment I am arranging my own study of Robin Hood literature from the eighteenth century along these lines. The Robin Hood of the broadside ballads, in which he comes across as a bit of a jokey, carnivalesque type outlaw, falls under the ‘buffoon’ category. The Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies falls under the ‘hero’ category. And the Robin Hood I am about to introduce you to, in which he is portrayed as cold blooded killer, falls under the ‘brute’ category, and I will make the case that these hitherto neglected pieces of literature are worthy of our consideration as Robin Hood scholars if we are to understand more fully how the legend has developed over time.
The Significance of Criminal Biography in the 18th Century
Now, I realise many of you here are medieval historians and literary critics, so just as Henry Fielding frequently does in Tom Jones (1749), in true eighteenth-century style I would like to briefly digress, in order to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did, and to highlight just how popular it was with contemporaries. In the eighteenth century crime appears to have been the subject upon everybody’s lips. People believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. One late seventeenth-century commentator exclaimed that ‘even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed.’  The situation was apparently still bad in the mid-eighteenth century, as Fielding wrote in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. (1751) that:
The great increase of robbers within these few years, is an evil which to me appears to deserve some attention; and the rather as it seems (tho’ already become so flagrant) not yet to have arrived to that height of which it is capable, and which it is likely to attain […] In fact, I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. 
The legal response to this perceived crime wave was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code, in which over 200 offences became capital felonies. Its concomitant cultural response was the proliferation of criminal biographies. Along with serialised publications such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, there were also many standalone criminal biographies such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) and H.D.’s The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death (1725). Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies. Daniel Defoe authored three of these types of criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of Jonathan Wild the Great (1725). In fact, some of Defoe’s novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) are often seen as more ‘sophisticated’ criminal biographies.  Fielding himself authored another history of Jonathan Wild entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). The point here is that this is not some fringe genre of literature which was read by only a few, but in some ways was the most popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century, especially the early part of it.
Robin Hood the Brute
The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’  Robin also makes an appearance in a similar compendium of felons’ lives, Captain Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen and Street Robbers (1734). Robin appears also in two more of these; the anonymously-authored The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737), and The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (1787). Smith’s Highwaymen is the model for all subsequent editions, and many passages in the later biographies are lifted directly from Smith’s work. Criminal biographies are formulaic, beginning with the birth and parentage of the offender. They then recount the criminal’s descent into vice and a life of crime, or, as Faller would put it, ‘a graduated sequence of steps downward, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’  Then there is the death of the offender, and all of the Robin Hood criminal biographies follow this pattern.
There is disagreement about Robin Hood’s social status amongst these criminal biographies. We are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as being the noble Earl of Huntingdon today, but Smith was not convinced:
This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second. 
I shall not trouble my reader with a long genealogy of the descent of our famous Earl of Huntingdon, whose father was head ranger in the North of England, [and] his mother [who was] the daughter of the Right honourable Earl of Warwick, [and] his uncle [who] was the Squire of Gamwell Hall. 
To be honest, Robin Hood’s social status is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the eighteenth century, and indeed the authors themselves were rarely concerned with establishing facts.  There was no concept of a ‘criminal class’ in eighteenth-century England, and offenders were not sociologically different to law-abiding people. Instead all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners.  You became a criminal if you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.
Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws.’  The theme of young men who ‘follow not their trade’ is a recurring motif in eighteenth-century criminal biography, and is often the first step towards a criminal career. In Defoe’s biography of Jack Sheppard, for instance, it is Sheppard’s gradual dislike of honest employment that ‘laid the foundation of his ruin.’  It is a theme that is most apparent, of course, in William Hogarth’s series of prints Industry and Idleness (1747). Reminiscent of Hogarth’s prints, in which the tales of an industrious young apprentice is juxtaposed with that of an idle apprentice, is the 1737 version of Robin Hood’s life. The content of Robin’s life is heavily plagiarised from Smith’s work, but the interesting thing about this work is that it is bound together with The History of Johnny Armstrong of Westmoreland. Unlike Robin, Johnny Armstrong is industrious, and grows rich, and in time ‘there was such a providence upon his industry.’  And this appears to have been a deliberate intention on the part of the author or publisher, for in contemporary ballads of Johnny Armstrong, he is every bit of a marauding freebooter as is Robin Hood.  If it was not the intention on the part of the author to present the tales of these two men as tales of industry and idleness, then why amend Johnny Armstrong’s story in such a way?
All of the criminal biographies then recount in prose the tales of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballads, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, and The Jolly Pindar of Wakefield. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the eighteenth century this does not make a thief anything special. It is almost as though people simply rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. Smith records other highwaymen, such as James Hind, doing this on occasion.  In fact, when one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told the Ordinary of Newgate that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the Ordinary sarcastically replied that it was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers.’  Another way that the criminal biographies portray Robin negatively is when he meets the king. In A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode(c.1450), which is one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, the king travels to Nottingham in disguise, meets Robin, and after a feast and a game of archery, the king reveals himself to Robin:
Robyn behelde our comly kynge,
Wystly in the face,
So dyde syr Richard at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place. 
These types of ‘King and Commoner’ tales, as we heard from Mark earlier, are common in folk ballads from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period.  Now, the criminal biographies begin the tale of the king and commoner in the usual way; the king sets out on a progress to Nottingham, but ‘Robin Hood, hearing thereof, resolved to rob him.’  And instead of the meeting between the King and Robin ending amiably, as we are used to seeing in adaptations of the legend today, Robin just robs him. Smith writes that ‘the King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.’  So obviously we have here a very revised figure from the Robin Hood whom we would recognise today, and I would like to think that this image of Robin, if he existed at all, is probably closer to how he existed than the Robin Hood of, say, Ivanhoe (1819), or late Victorian children’s books.
We all had the wonderful opportunity to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees yesterday, and I am sure, as Robin Hood scholars, we are all familiar with the accounts of how he dies in the Geste and Robin Hood’s Death and Burial; he is old, he goes to his cousin at Kirklees to be bled, but, conspiring with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, who wants him dead, she bleeds him to death:
Syr Roger of Donkestre,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe. 
In his dying moments Little John asks that he might burn the place down but Robin, noble to the end, commands him not too, for he never hurt any company that a woman was in.  But in the eighteenth century, the situation is represented rather differently:
Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay. 
Firstly, the nun receives no censure in this account. It seems as though his death is like divine punishment for having lived a ‘licentious course of life’ for 20 years.’ It has to be remembered that, to the reader of Smith’s work, Robin Hood was not a simple highwayman but also a murderer. Murder was a most heinous crime in the eighteenth century, a direct attack on God, for it was essentially defacing and maiming the image of God which he had placed upon the world.  It was believed during the century, even by men as “Enlightenment” as Fielding, that God himself directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murder. The author of the 1748 work The Theatre of God’s Judgement declared that ‘the justice of God riseth up, and with his own arme he discovereth and punisheth the murder; yea, rather than the murderer shall go unpunished, senceless creatures and his own heart and tongue rise to give sentence against him.’  As you can see in Smith’s account, Robin’s own heart had risen up against him, when he was ‘struck with some remorse of conscience,’ and it was then, we he sought refuge in a monastery, that he was finally punished for his wicked ways.
An even more surprising account of the death comes in the 1787 version of Robin Hood’s life:
Being worn out with the many desperate battles he engaged himself in, he retired to his cousin’s who then resided at Kirkley-Hall in the County of York, and upon desiring her to let him blood, she did it so effectually that she meant him never to do any more harm, for, after opening a vein, she locked him in a room, where he bled to death; but, just before his departing, he sounded his bugle horn, when Little John, who heard the summons, directly [illegible] to his lord and master, who begged with his last breath that Kirkley Hall and the nunnery adjoining it, might be burned to the ground as revenge for his death – which request we are informed was complied with. 
I have included this account here just to show you all the extent to which the writers of criminal biography were prepared to revise the Robin Hood legend in their writings. He was not the ‘good yeman’ of early medieval texts,  nor was he the ‘gentle master’ of seventeenth and eighteenth-century plays.  He really was a brute.
The authors of criminal biographies intended their works to serve as pieces of moral instruction. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led the felons to the gallows. And these are texts predominantly aimed at the middle classes. Volume three of Smith’s Highwaymen cost half a crown, whilst Johnson’s Highwaymen was published in folio format complete with fine engravings.  Perhaps the best indication of the audience for this type of literature can be gained by examining the frontispiece to another famous (multi-volume, and no doubt expensive) criminal biography entitled The Newgate Calendar (1785). In that picture, a well-to-do lady in a finely furnished apartment hands her son a copy of The Newgate Calendar whilst pointing to the gibbet outside the window, in order to ensure that her son heeds the moral lessons in the text. Whether people actually paid attention to the moral lessons of these texts is debatable. In fact, writers such as Hal Gladfelder have argued that the authors themselves were only paying mere ‘lip service’ to conventional morality in their writings, and that really the desire of Smith and others was to capitalise on people’s desire for sensational and violent entertainment. But I think Robin Hood’s case complicates that position somewhat. Why would the authors take Robin Hood, a man whom contemporary writers such as Steele thought was a ‘British Worthy’ and deliberately reconfigure him into a brute? Why do it if their moralism was only an ‘obligatory gesture’? It seems to me that it is more than mere ‘lip service’ if they were willing to do this.
In terms of our understanding of the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, I also believe that this complicates the rather clear-cut thesis that currently seems to be the consensus among Robin Hood scholars. Currently we think of the development of the legend in the following way: in the medieval period Robin was a bold robber, an often violent yeoman, then in the seventeenth century he becomes gentrified and that largely is a process that has continued to this day.  Robin is now usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, steals from the rich, etc. etc. These sources from the eighteenth century, however, almost make it seem as though the brakes were applied temporarily to the ongoing gentrification of the legend, especially between c.1720 and c.1740, for there is other sources such as the political ballad Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) which portray Robin negatively also.
I am sure we are all aware of what happens to the Robin Hood legend in the second half of the eighteenth century. Robin’s gentrification continues in plays such as Moses Mendez’ Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751), and Leonard MacNally’s Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784). It is in the works of late eighteenth-century antiquaries, however, that Robin receives a new breath of life. In Joseph Ritson’s 1795 work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Robin becomes, as the subtitle implies, the ‘celebrated English outlaw.’ Ritson’s text, including his ‘Life of Robin Hood’ and the anthology of ballads which was included in his work, have been studied at length by scholars, and Ritson’s work is said to be one of the most important works in the history of the Robin Hood legend. His work presents ‘a hero who was undeniably gentrified but also memorable, bold, and adventurous.’  But the criminal biographies I have discussed here, I think, were more subtly influential upon the legend than we Robin Hood scholars have hitherto realised. When Ritson was writing the biography of Robin Hood, in his first paragraph, he references Robin’s previous ‘professed biographers.’ In his very first footnote, he cites some of the criminal biographies I have examined here:
“Former biographers”…the first of these respectable personages is the author, or rather compiler, of “The noble birth and gallant atchievements of that remarkable outlaw Robin Hood”…Another piece of biography, from which not much will be expected, is, “The lives and heroick atchievements of the renowned Robin Hood, and James Hind”…This, however, is probably nothing more than an extract from Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen. 
It almost appears as though Joseph Ritson, arguably the most famous man in the history of the Robin Hood legend, wrote his biography of Robin Hood in response to these criminal biographies. He is admiring of his forebears, referring to them as ‘respectable personages’ but Ritson aims to produce a more detailed and scholarly account than the stories of Robin Hood’s birth that were current during the eighteenth century. So I just want to conclude by saying that Robin Hood, for a significant part of the eighteenth century, and in one of the most popular genres of literature, Robin Hood was not a man to be admired, but was nothing more than a brute; knowing this will add to a more nuanced understanding of the development of the legend as a whole in the post medieval period.
 Richard Steele, ‘The Tatler, Tuesday 18 October 1709’ The Tatler and the Guardian Complete in One Volume (London: Jones & Co. 1801), pp.178-181 (p.181).
 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), p.127.
 Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.X.
 Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil. In Which the Present Reigning Vices are Impartially Exposed; and the Laws that Relate to the Provision for the Poor, and to the Punishment of Felons are Largely and Freely Examined (Dublin: Printed for G. Faulkner, in Essex Street, P. Wilson, R. James, and M. Williamson in Dame-Street, Booksellers, 1751), p.1.
 See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
 Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats  ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), p.408.
 Faller, Turned to Account, p.127.
 Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
 Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (London: Henry Woodgate, 1737), p.1.
 Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.84.
 Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
 Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
 Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’  ed. by Richard Holmes Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), pp.1-44 (p.6).
 Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood, p.60.
 George Barnett Smith, ‘Introduction: Johnnie Armstrong’ ed. by George Banrett Smith Illustrated British Ballads: Old and New (London: Cassell & Company Ltd. 1894), p.330.
 Smith, Highwaymen, p.137.
 Stephen Roe, The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of Three Malefactors…Who Were Executed at Tyburn on Wednesday May 4th 1763 (London, 1763), p.35
 Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.73.
 Mark Truesdale, ‘The “King and Commoner” and “Robin Hood” Genres: þe best archer of ilkon, / I durst mete hym with a stone’ International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 30 June – 3 July 2015.
 Smith, Highwaymen, p.411.
 Smith, Highwaymen, pp.411-412.
 Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.80.
 Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial,’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. II (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.186.
 Smith, Highwaymen, p.412.
 Faller, Turned to Account, p.73.
 Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
 Anon. The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (Knaresborough: Broadbell, 1787), p.16.
 Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.2.
 Francis Waldron, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, a Fragment, Written by Ben Jonson, with a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix (London: J. Nichols, 1783), p.12.
 Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
 See Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994).
 Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p.96.
 Joseph Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.iii.
 Joseph Ritson, ‘Notes and Illustrations’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.xiv.