Capt. Charles Johnson’s “General History of the Pyrates” (1724)

In 1724 a book appeared entitled A General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) which was written by a “Captain” Charles Johnson. The name of Charles Johnson is likely a pseudonym for a writer whose name is now lost to us. Early twentieth century critics such as J. R. Moore argued that he was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym, but recent research by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens has cast doubt upon this.[1]

Johnson was writing during the golden age of sea pirates, and he is probably the same man who authored an earlier play entitled The Successful Pyrate (1713). The History of the Pyrates was Johnson’s first work to deal with criminals and he would go on to author The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

As with all of Johnson’s works, although it is called a ‘history’, he invented quite a few of the ‘facts’ in his narrative as authors during the eighteenth century rarely cared for historical authenticity, although his preface does reveal a competent knowledge of sea laws during the early eighteenth century.[2]

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Title Page: Capt. Charles Johnson’s History of the Pyrates (1724) (c) EECO.

The purpose of writing the work was, Johnson tells us, first and foremost to provide moral instruction to readers:

We have given a few instances, in the course of this history, of the inducements men have to engage themselves headlong into a life of so much peril to themselves and so destructive to the navigation of the trading world.[3]

But Johnson says that the work will also be of practical value to the captains serving in the Royal Navy; through reading Johnson’s book he assures his readers that the captains of the Royal Navy will be able to learn the wicked ways of the pirates.[4]

Of course, the “moralism” of Johnson’s kind was more akin to today’s Daily Mail, having no compunction in denouncing sex and violence while actually taking great pleasure in showing it. Take the example of Mary Read (discussed in greater detail below) falling in love with another pirate:

When [Read] found she had a friendship for her as a man, she […] carelessly [showed] her breasts, which were very white. The young fellow, who was made of flesh and blood, had his curiosity raised by this sight […] Now begins the scene of love…[5]

Unsurprisingly, it was not unusual for criminal biography and trial reports in the eighteenth century to serve a dual purpose: news and erotica.[6]

The narratives of well-known pirates appear in Johnson’s book. There is Captain Teach alias Blackbeard:

A courageous brute, who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause.[7]

Other criminals include the famous Captain Kidd, but perhaps Johnson’s most interesting narratives are those of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, two female pirates (see header image).

Read’s father died when she was young, leaving both Read and her mother in a state of poverty. The only family remaining that the two could count upon was Read’s grandmother on her father’s side. However, Read’s mother, knowing that she would obtain greater monetary assistance from the grandmother if she said that she had a son, made Read dress as a boy. Thinking that she had a grandson to be taken care of, the grandmother agreed to send a crown per week for the ‘son’s’ maintenance.

Read’s had always assumed that she was a boy throughout her youth, and only learned that she was a girl during her adolescence, and this contributed to her:

Growing bold and strong, and having also a roving mind.[8]

This ‘disposition’ led her to enlist (now she was a ‘man’) on a man-of-war, and subsequently serving as a cadet in Flanders. She was a very good soldier, earning the esteem of her superior officers, until one fateful day when she meets a man and develops feelings for him:

But her comrade, who was a Fleming, happening to be a handsome young fellow she falls in love with him, and from that time grew a little more negligent in her duty, so that, it seems, Mars and Venus could not be served at the same time.[9]

She eventually reveals her true sex to the Fleming, and they soon marry and quit the army. Unfortunately her happiness was not to last, for the Fleming dies, and thus grieving without a penny to her name she becomes a man again and takes service upon another ship. The ship is then taken by pirates and Read followed the ‘trade’ of piracy for some months.

A Royal Proclamation was then sent out to all parts of the West Indies offering a pardon to the pirates, but while the captain of the pirates and some of his ‘officers’ take advantage of the pardon, Read and several of them did not. She subsequently falls under the command of the pirate Captain Rackham and his lover Anne. Anne became infatuated with the young ‘man’ Read, and sensing this, Read revealed to Anne the truth about her sex.

Read remained a pirate throughout her life, engaging in many interesting adventures (doubtless all plagiarised in some form or another from earlier books). Eventually Rackham’s crew is captured by the English navy off the coast of Jamaica and she is brought before the court. She acquired another lover during her days with Rackham’s crew, and “pleads her belly”, obtaining a stay of execution. She might have lived longer had she not, sadly, been seized with a violent fever and died in gaol.

blackbeard
Capt. Blackbeard, from Johnson’s History of the Pyrates (1724) (c) ECCO.

Johnson’s attitude towards his pirates vacillates between admiration and condemnation. Speaking of Philip Roche, a notorious pirate of Irish origin, he says that:

He was a brisk, genteel fellow of 30 years of age at the time of his death; one whose black and savage nature did no ways answer the comeliness of his person, his life being almost one continued scene of villainy before he was discovered to have committed the horrid murders we are now speaking of.[10]

But Johnson also recognises the bravery of these men and women who took to the seas. He even argues that at certain times the nation needs its pirates. Speaking of Captain Martel and his crew, he says:

I come now to the pirates that have rose since the Peace of Utrecht [1713]. In war time there is no room for any, because all those of a roving, adventurous disposition find employment in privateers [state-commissioned pirate vessels], so there is no opportunity for pirates. Like our mobs in London, when they come to any great height, our superiors order out the trainbands, and once they are raised, the others are suppressed of course.[11]

And introducing readers to far off, exotic places and settings cannot have failed to romanticise the life of a pirate for contemporary readers. The sensationalism and romance of Johnson’s work probably accounts for its popularity, for the work went through numerous editions. By the nineteenth century, the Pyrates was usually incorporated into Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen. Although many parts were obviously made up, Johnson’s Pyrates remains an important source for historians studying contemporary reactions to piracy during its so-called ‘golden age’.


References

HEADER IMAGE: (c) Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[2] Charles Johnson, A General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates ed. by Arthur Heyward (London, 1724; repr. London: Routledge, 1927), p.vii.
[3] Johnson, Pyrates, p.vii.
[4] Johnson, Pyrates, p.vii.
[5] Johnson, Pyrates, p.134.
[6] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[7] Johnson, Pyrates, p.55.
[8] Johnson, Pyrates, p.131.
[9] Johnson, Pyrates, p.131.
[10] Johnon, Pyrates, p.334.
[11] Johnson, Pyrates, p.37.

The Newgate Calendar

People in the eighteenth century believed that they were living in a crime-ridden society. In addition to Capt. Alexander Smith’s and Capt. Charles Johnson’s criminal biographies, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, a series of books were printed in London entitled The Newgate Calendar.

Pillory
A man being publically whipped in the Sessions House Yard. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

There is no single authoritative text of The Newgate Calendar as there have been many versions of works bearing the name since the eighteenth century, so a brief history is offered here. Newgate Calendars were named after the infamous London gaol, Newgate, which was first built in 1188, and subjected to numerous renovations and rebuilds in its history until its demolition in 1904.

There were various criminal ‘calendars’ compiled from the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as The Tyburn Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register (1705), and The Chronicle of Tyburn; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches (1720).

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The Execution of William Dodd. Illustration from The Newgate Calendar (1795) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection]

The first publication that bore the name of The Newgate Calendar appeared in 1774, entitled The Newgate Calendar, or the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, and published in five volumes. Five years later, there was The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, dedicated to the magistrate, Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), the co-founder of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first dedicated law enforcement agency.

Another publication, The New and Complete Newgate Calendar appeared in 1795, whilst William Jackson’s The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactor’s Universal Register, appeared in 1818.

Like Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar contains biographies of the most notorious criminals. For its sources, the various versions often directly plagiarised contemporary criminal narratives, in particular the ‘Last Dying Speech’ broadsides which contained news of convicted felons. In the words of the 1784 edition, The Newgate Calendar comprises:

All the most material passages in the SESSIONS PAPERS, for a long series of years; together with the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Capital Convicts, and complete narratives of all the most remarkable trials. [1]

And some familiar faces appear in the pages of The Newgate Calendar such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1734), Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), and Dick Turpin (1705-1739). The claim to provide ‘complete’ and ‘true’ accounts of all the trials of these offenders, however, is a little suspect. Despite the claims of the Proceedings (upon which, as we have seen, The Newgate Calendar was based), for instance, to provide a ‘fair, true and perfect narrative’ the publishers of these works had the final say in their content, and they had to be entertaining so they could be profitable. Hence ‘greater attention [was] paid to murders, robberies, and thefts from the person (involving titillating details of prostitutes’ interactions with their clients)’ in order to ‘make the Proceedings appeal to a wide audience,’ and thereby proving profitable.[2]

(For a discussion of how ‘true’ their accounts are, bear in mind that some of these authors thought that Sir John Flastaff was a real person…)

The accounts of each offender, like the broadsides and criminal biographies that they were taken from, were very formulaic in style. They begin with an account of the offender’s birth and parentage, and then describe his/her descent into a life of sin and depravity. Crime, if you have read some of the other posts on this site, in the eighteenth century was viewed as a sin. Criminals were not necessarily inherently wicked: they were people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, which is why a lot of criminals are portrayed sympathetically in the accounts (murderers apart). [3] Hence in the case of the burglar Luke Cannon, it was ‘an early attachment to bad company, an early introduction to the paths of vice, [that] led with rapid success to his ruin’. [4]

At the close of the narrative they are hanged for their crimes. [5] In a world that lacked a professional police force, one of the aims of the eighteenth-century version of The Newgate Calendar was (as well as providing sensational entertainment), to function as moralist texts. Readers were supposed to shun the examples of sin and vice and avoid making the same unhappy mistakes that had led the criminals to the gallows.

In fact, the title page of the 1795 edition contains a short piece of verse which is illustrative of its aims:

The crimes related here art great and true,
The subjects vary, and the work is new,
By reading, learn the ways of sin to shun,
Be timely taught, and you’ll not be undone. [6]

It might be supposed that The Newgate Calendar was cheap entertainment for eighteenth-century readers. However, this is not the case: firstly, all editions of The Newgate Calendar were multivolume sets, and accompanied with fine engravings. Although we do not know the prices for the individual editions of The Newgate Calendar, comparisons can be made with the prices of other works. Volume three of Alexander Smith’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1719) cost half a crown, an expensive amount in the 1700s. Similarly, Charles Johnson’s Highwaymen addressed ‘gentlemen’. We are talking about a literate and sophisticated audience who read these books.

There were further publications bearing the name of The Newgate Calendar during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A major early nineteenth-century version was edited by two layers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in 1824, and given the name The Newgate Calendar; Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages upon the Laws of England since the Eighteenth Century, with a revised edition appearing in 1826.

After Knapp and Baldwin’s editions followed G. Thompson’s Newgate Calendar of 1840, which at first glance appears to be a virtual plagiarism of Knapp and Baldwin’s version. The penny dreadful version, The New Newgate Calendar, was then published weekly between 1863 and 1865, and then Camden Pelham published, in two volumes The Chronicles of Crime; or, the New Newgate Calendar in 1887.

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Penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar (1864) [Stephen Basdeo – Personal Collection].

The last large-scale five volume compilation of The Newgate Calendar was printed by the Navarre Society in 1927, whilst the Folio Society has more recently reprinted a selection of the most famous trials in two volumes, The Newgate Calendar, and The New Newgate Calendar (1951).

The legacy of The Newgate Calendar can be seen in any bookshop today. This publication, along with criminal biographies, initiated the whole ‘true crime’ book industry.

More importantly, however, criminal biographies and The Newgate Calendar paved the way for a form of literature that we still read today: the novel. Whereas fiction before the eighteenth century tended to focus upon the lives of aristocrats, such as Don Quixote (2 Vols. 1605, 1611), criminal biography primed readers for reading about ‘real life’. Hence it is no surprise that the first English novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), often made the protagonists of his novels, not Kings and nobles, but those from low life: prostitutes (Moll Flanders, 1722), pirates (Captain Singleton, 1720).

Thus although nobody today prints accounts of criminals in the same way as the publishers of The Newgate Calendar did, it has to be remembered that there would be no novels were it not for eighteenth-century criminal accounts.


References

[1] The New Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A. Hogg, 1795), 1.
[2] Robert Shoemaker ‘The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London’ Journal of British Studies 47: 3 (2008), 563.
[3] John Brewer The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 351.
[4] The New Newgate Calendar, 16.
[5] For a critical discussion of these accounts see Andrea Mckenzie Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007) and Lincoln B. Faller Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987).
[6] The New Newgate Calendar, 1.

Edgworth Bess, a Prostitute (fl. 1723-24)

This is a blog post written for my friend, Dr. Kate Lister, and her ‘Whores of Yore’ project.

All illustrations featured in the article are from original nineteenth-century books in my personal collection.


The two thieves which feature most on this blog are, of course, Robin Hood (supp. fl. c.1190s), and Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Robin was not the only thief to have been enamoured with a woman, however, for Sheppard was also. The name of Sheppard’s woman was Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgworth Bess. What little we know of Bess’ life is gleaned from the contemporary criminal biographies about Sheppard. She was born, apparently, in the county of Middlesex in the early eighteenth century, was the reputed wife of a soldier but also a prostitute, having led ‘a wicked and debauched life’. [1] She was ‘a large masculine woman’, and of her personal character we are told (from second-hand, highly-embellished sources) that she was fond of strong drink, and often beat her lover Sheppard when she quarrelled with him. [2]

Sheppard Fortescue
Jack Sheppard in Newgate. From Lincoln Fortescue’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845) [Scanned Image – Personal Collection]

To contemporary journalists, she was a temptress: ideas about criminality in the eighteenth century were not related to social class; instead of a sociological explanation of crime, the Georgians held to a theological explanation. Anyone in the eighteenth century was capable of becoming a criminal because all men were sinners. [3] People instead were ‘tempted’ into a life of crime through small sins which multiplied and hardened their hearts against God. As Andrea McKenzie explains:

It was a commonplace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought (if by no means new or unique to the period) that sin 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. [4]

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

The history of this unfortunate man affords another to the many examples of already given in this volume, that the company of profligate women have plunged men into scenes of dissipation and vice. [5]

In a biography attributed to Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) entitled The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), we are told how Sheppard was essentially a good lad when he first started his apprenticeship as a carpenter:

The lad proved an early proficient, had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business, and gave entire satisfaction to his master’s customers, and had the character of a very sober and orderly boy. [7]

In all of the accounts of Sheppard’s life, it is his fateful meeting with Edgworth Bess which leads him astray, however, and it is narrated by Defoe in a truly dramatic way:

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 […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin! [8]

In his own confession, printed by John Appleby in 1721, Sheppard himself (or more likely the Ordinary of Newgate who attended to him before his execution) blames Bess for his misfortune:

I may justly lay the blame of my temporal, and (without God’s great mercies) my eternal ruin on Joseph Hind, a button-mould-maker, who formerly kept the Black Lyon alehouse in Drury Lane; the frequenting of this wicked house brought me acquainted with Elizabeth Lyon, and with a train of vices, that before I was altogether a stranger to. [9]

But how, exactly, was Bess responsible for bringing Jack to a life of crime?

Firstly, she convinced him that ‘they must cohabit together as man and wife’. [10] She also convinced Sheppard to steal items for her on multiple occasions. At first they were small items, but having introduced Sheppard to other thieves in the Georgian underworld such as Joseph Blueskin Blake, his robberies became greater in number (crime, remember, was ‘addictive and progressive).

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Jack Sheppard in the Georgian Underworld. From: Anon. Jack Sheppard, or, London in the Last Century (1847) [Scanned Image: Personal Collection].

The pair’s first brush with the law came when Sheppard and Bess stole a watch from a gentlemen as they were passing through Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). The hue and cry was raised and Sheppard was captured, but Bess got away. Sheppard was consequently detained in St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Bess went to visit him the next morning, she too was arrested, having been implicated in the robbery the day before.

Remarkably, however, Sheppard and Bess managed to escape. With a file, Sheppard sawed off his and Bess’ fetters, cut an iron bar out of the window, and descended 25 feet down the walls of the prison by fastening a blanket to the remaining iron bars and lowering himself and Bess down. [11]

As soon as he was out, Sheppard turned again to robbery:

Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit. [12]

Sheppard managed to escape from gaol a further four times, and once with Bess’ help, when she visited him in gaol and secretly gave him the tools with which to carry out his escape.

Sheppard was hanged on 16 November 1724. It is not known if she attended the execution of her lover, and history is silent in all particulars of Bess’ life after that. There was an Elizabeth Lyons who gave evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1740, [13] and then there is an Elizabeth Lyons listed as a defendant in a trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1742. [14] It is unknown, however, if these two Elizabeth Lyons are the same person as the prostitute with whom Jack Sheppard was enamoured.

Whatever the circumstances of her later life, Bess did enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’. This came in the next century with William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839). In this novel, she comes across as quite a mean-spirited character: changeable, indifferent to Jack’s fate. Ainsworth’s novel was plagiarised several times: in Lincoln Fortescue’s Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845); in the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847); and in The Real Life and Times of Jack Sheppard (c.1850). In addition to these novels, she also appears in entries on Jack Sheppard in the numerous reprints of The Newgate Calendar (1825) and Camden Pelham’s The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887). All of these publications presented Bess in the same way that Defoe and Ainsworth had done: a treacherous, wicked woman.

An altogether more positive portrayal of Bess came in the little-known movie Where’s Jack? (1969). However, while the movie is certainly an entertaining watch, the producers were liberal with the truth. Bess is not a sex worker in the movie, and far from being a temptress, she actually tries to steer Jack away from a life of crime.

As of yet there is no scholarly biography of Bess’ life, and likely there never will be due to the lack of evidence surrounding her life. This post has merely endeavoured to shed light on the life and actions of an historic sex worker.


References

[1] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 6.
[2] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), 182.
[3] 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), 54.
[4] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburns Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[5] Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 367.
[6] Perhaps not written by Daniel Defoe. See P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[7] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 5.
[8] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[9] Daniel Defoe, ‘A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 51.
[10] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[11] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 10.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 16 April 1740 (t17400416-37) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=t17400416-37 Accessed 12 March 2016].
[14] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 28 April 1742 (t17420428-14) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=t17420428-14 Accessed 12 March 2016].

Daniel Defoe’s “The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood”

The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].
The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].

I recently came across an obscure little book entitled The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Companions. Written by Captain Charles Johnson. To Which are added, some of the most favourite ballads from an old book, entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (1800). The archival entry lists the author as Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), which had me puzzled. I knew Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for a writer whose real identity is now lost to us, but I never thought that he and Defoe were one and the same person.

Captain Charles Johnson wrote many of the criminal biographies I have written about on this website numerous times before. His major works are A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates, &c. (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Robin Hood features in his history of the highwaymen, and receives a bad reputation. He is of ‘a licentious and wicked inclination’, and, in true eighteenth-century style, only turns to crime because he followed not his trade (just as Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice), and associates himself with several robbers and outlaws. Much of the text is directly plagiarised from an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Captain Alexander Smith entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, published in three volumes between 1714 and 1719.

But was Johnson really Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym? Defoe’s novels do seem to have centred upon criminals; Captain Singleton (1720) is based on the life of the pirate Henry Avery, and Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of a prostitute. Yet it would be difficult to attribute Johnson’s works to Defoe. For one thing, even while Defoe lived, he acknowledged that some of the works which were attributed to him were not actually his:

And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the Style; another to this or that Expression; another to the Way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is to no purpose to oppose it.

Evidently, the literary attributions suited Defoe, as well as the hawkers, who probably thought they could make more money out of people if the name of a famous author such as Defoe was attached to the piece of low literary hack work which they were selling.

Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).
Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).

It was in 1934 that an American scholar J. R. Moore announced that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. He had no documentary evidence to make such a claim, and instead pointed to the style and subject matter. His main line of reasoning was that the frequent moralism throughout Johnson’s works is similar to the didacticism in Defoe’s novels. Thus Moore was, as Defoe himself put it ‘swearing to the style, or this or that expression’. Moore went further, and compiled a checklist of over 500 works that had been attributed to Daniel Defoe. It is a checklist that is still quite influential to this day, including works such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), The Life of Jonathan Wild (1725), and The True and Genuine Account…of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). These are works which I have used repeatedly in my own research, and in the latest edited edition of them by Richard Holmes entitled Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2002), the credit for these works is clearly given to Defoe.

It seems, however, that I need to go back to some of my old essays, my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation, and de-attribute these works from Defoe. During peer review for an article on Robin Hood in criminal biography I recently wrote, it was suggested that I take a look at P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens book Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1987). On the subject of Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, Furbank and Owens say this:

Moore announced his belief that Defoe had a considerable hand in this work, described on its title page as ‘by Captain Charles Johnson’, at an MLA meeting in 1932; and by 1939, when he published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, he was asserting that the General History was substantially Defoe’s work throughout and that it combined much authentic information with passages of historical fiction and ‘unrestrained romance’. His case was based entirely on internal evidence, and in particular ‘parallels’ with Defoe’s known works.

Furbank and Owens dismiss Moore’s belief that Johnson was in fact Defoe, and point out many differences between Johnson’s and Defoe’s works, such as the fact that the account of the life of the pirate Henry Avery is very different in style and tone to Defoe’s known history of him. Moreover, Johnson in his works displays clear Jacobite sympathies, and staunchly loyal to the Stuart monarchy. In his A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen praises Capt. James Hind ‘the loyal highwayman’, for robbing ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell’:

About this time the unfortunate Charles I suffered death for his political principles. Captain Hind conceived an inveterate enmity to all that party who had stained their hands with the sovereign’s blood, and gladly embraced every opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon them. In a short time they met with the usurper Oliver Cromwell.

In view of the fact that Defoe was a supporter of the Hanoverian regime and Robert Walpole, it seems further unlikely that Johnson, who manifests Jacobite beliefs throughout all of his works, is the same person as Daniel Defoe. For example, he wrote a vigorous defence of William III entitled The True-Born Englishman (1701), and also carried out intelligence work for the Whigs, writing numerous pamphlets attacking the Tories, who were predominantly Jacobite supporters.

Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)
Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)

Who Captain Charles Johnson was nobody knows; perhaps we never will know. One thing is certain, however, he was not Daniel Defoe. Whilst there have only been a couple of famous novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) associated with the Robin Hood legend, unfortunately, it seems that we cannot add Defoe to the list.


Further Reading:

P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987).