Last week Google celebrated the life of Victor Hugo (1802-85) with some quirky illustrations on its masthead, so I thought I would do the same by writing a post on an early novel by Hugo entitled The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829).
To most people, Hugo will be familiar as the man who authored Les Miserables (1862), which during the 1980s was adapted in London’s West End’s longest-running and most successful musical. To those familiar with Hugo’s epic story, it will come as no surprise that he was an outspoken political activist who involved himself in many causes, and one of these was the abolition of the death penalty. Thus, in Hugo’s own words, The Last Day of a Condemned Man is,
nothing more than an appeal – direct or indirect, however you wish to see it – for the abolition of the death penalty.[i]
During the nineteenth century, France’s method of executing criminals was via the guillotine. Most people who have studied the French Revolution at some point in their lives will be familiar with that infamous machine as the symbol of the “Reign of Terror”. The guillotine continued to be used as a method of execution in France until the 1970s, although debates about its abolition began in the nineteenth century. Still, at least it was a more humane method of execution than hanging, because it killed the offender instantly.
As the title of the novel suggests, it is an hour by hour account of the last day of a criminal who has been sentenced to death. Executions in nineteenth-century France were public, and the only contact that most people would have had with the condemned felon would have been through the newspapers by reading about their life (which had a flourishing genre of crime writing, including ‘Last Dying Speeches’ broadsides, to that which existed in England in the same period).
Newspaper and broadside accounts of offenders and their crimes were formulaic and, to quote Vic Gatrell, ‘to read one is to have read them all’.[ii] At a time when most people, if they knew much about the offender at all, would have only been acquainted with the one heinous act they had done to warrant the death penalty, Hugo therefore humanises the figure of the (fictional) condemned man:
Once, because it seems years rather than weeks, I was a man like other men. Every day, every hour had its idea. My mind, young and fertile, was full of fancies … There were young girls, bishops’ magnificent copes, battles won, theatres full of noise and light, and then more young girls … Now I’m a prisoner. My body is in irons in a dungeon, my mind imprisoned in an idea … I have only one thought now, one belief, one certainty: condemned to death![iii]
Hugo does not tell us what the man is condemned for, however, and while the novel elicits sympathy for the condemned man, at the time it was written it would have been an uphill struggle for French readers to empathise with such an offender.
The condemned man vacillates between wanting the execution to be finished quickly, to preferring a life sentence. Heartrendingly, his wife and young daughter come to visit him in his cell, but the daughter does not recognise him as he has been in too long.
Finally the hour comes – he can hear the crowds outside laughing like hyenas. He asks for the execution to be postponed for a few minutes until he should know whether he has received a pardon or not. The magistrate and the executioner then leave his cell for a short time. The novel then ends abruptly:
It sounds as if they are coming up the stairs…[iv]
The publication of Hugo’s text came at interesting point in European history, when social justice began to dominate the political agenda. While novelists in France such as the Eugene Sue in his Mysteries of Paris (1843) drew attention to the plight of the poor, as Hugo also would in Les Miserables, the abolition of the death penalty was a cause that was enthusiastically taken up by the same reformers who viewed the practice as barbaric. It is for this reason that the literature of the 1840s in France are said to represent the beginnings of ‘bleeding heart liberalism’.[v]
Despite the best efforts of reformers in combatting the grisly and inhumane death penalty, it would not be until the 1960s that the death penalty was abolished in the UK, and in France during the 1970s.
[i] Victor Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man Trans. Christopher Moncrieff (London: One World Classics, 2009), p. 3. For further reading on Hugo’s novella, see the following: Amandine Andrade, ‘Le bourreau, figure emblématique du débat sur la peine de mort au dix-neuviéme siècle’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 2012).
[ii] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 156.
[iii] Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, p. 37.
George Waldron, alias Barrington, was born into a poor family at Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland. Although destitute, his mother and father made sure to learn that he could read and write. Because of his rudimentary education, he attracted the attention of the local doctor, who privately tutored him in mathematics, geography, and grammar. The young George Barrington made great progress, and the local bishop paid for him to go to the grammar school at Dublin.[i]
But from a young age, it seems, Barrington, always had a propensity to commit acts of violence. While at school, he stabbed one of his schoolmates with a pen-knife. The wound was not fatal, luckily for the other boy, and Barrington was flogged for the assault. He resented the punishment, and in May 1771, he stole a few pieces of gold from the school and absconded.
He set off on the Great North Road from Dublin until he came to Drogheda, where he stopped at inn. After having eaten a meal and gotten some rest at the inn, he got talking to a man named John Price, ‘an abandoned character’, according to Barrington’s biographer. Price was the manager of a company of travelling street performers. He invited Barrington to tour with them.
He turned out to be a pretty good actor, and apparently distinguished himself in the lead role of a play entitled Venice Preserved. But the successes were not to last, and soon the entire company of players fell on hard times. Having noted his acting skills, Price asked Barrington if he would use his talents to become a gentleman pickpocket, ‘by affecting the airs and importance of a gentleman of fashion’.
It seems, however, that he was not a very good pickpocket. He first attempted an aristocrat at the races in Carlow, but he was caught. However, the good-natured nobleman said that if he returned his property nothing more would be said about the matter. Barrington wisely agreed.
Meantime, his former master, Mr. Price, had been arrested for forgery and was hanged. So Barrington decided it was best if he moved to England and tried his game there. He first travelled to Brighton where, in 1775, he ingratiated himself into polite society. During this time he robbed several of his high-born friends.
He then travelled to London where he became acquainted with a Mister Lowe, another pickpocket, and the two men became quite daring in their enterprises.
Barrington went to Court where the Queen’s birthday celebrations were being held. Dressed as a clergyman, and again ingratiating himself with all the nobility, managed to rob several pounds from various people, as well as a diamond. He then retired from the party without suspicion and sold his stolen goods to a Jewish fence.
Barrington next visited a Drury Lane theatre, and proceeded to play a game of cards with Count Orlow, the Russian ambassador. He robbed the Russian of a gold snuff box set with diamonds. But one of the count’s servants saw him and seized him. Hauled before the Magistrate of Westminster, Sir John Fielding, Barrington confessed all, whereupon he was sentenced. The Count declined to prosecute, however, and so the matter went away.
He soon returned to his old ‘profession’, however, and in the Spring of 1777, he was arrested and sent to the prison hulks for three years. Due to his good behaviour, he was released after only twelve months, and went straight back to thieving.
Only a few days after his release, he attended a sermon at St. Sepulchre’s Church, and attempted to rob a lady’s purse. But he was seen by Constable William Payne, and again taken before the magistrate. He was found guilty and probably would have been hanged had he not pleaded for mercy before the judge. The account of Barrington’s life in The Criminal Recorder (1804-09) records this purported speech, in which he blames his criminality on his poverty. Although given the many fictional confessions at the time, there is no way of knowing if Barrington ever actually said these words.
The magistrate took his lengthy speech into consideration, and sentenced him to seven years’ transportation to Botany Bay (see my other post on transportee Charles Kinnaister). While there, he conducted himself in an admirable manner, but in the latter part of his life suffered from various mental health problems, and he died in 1804.
Barrington went on to enjoy a limited literary afterlife as the hero of a long-running serial in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar. There are various stories of him robbing corrupt officials and decadent aristocrats. As all true outlaws should, he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He is named in these serials as ‘The Prince of the Pickpockets’.
Like all eighteenth-century criminals who enjoyed a brief resurgence in Victorian literature, however, he soon fades from cultural memory. It seems that no historical thief can compete with Robin Hood.
[i] Information for this article taken from the following books: The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: T. Hurst & D. Symonds, 1804-09), 1: 38-46; Camden Pelham, Esq. The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (London: T. Miles, 1887), pp. 363-369.
All too often histories of crime focus upon what happened in the big cities such as London, Manchester, and New York. Part of the reason for this is that, as is especially the case with London, more records are available and many of them are digitised (see the Old Bailey Online website, for example). So, whenever I find a notorious story from near where I live in West Yorkshire, I feel that it is kind of my civic duty to bring it to people’s attention (even though having a criminal associated with your local area is not, I suppose, something to take particular pride in…).
The following case, which recounts a notorious murder committed by one John Terry from Wakefield, West Yorkshire comes from The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters, which was published in four volumes between 1804 and 1809. In their form, structure, and content the volumes resemble earlier eighteenth-century compendia of the lives of criminals such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734). Smith and Johnson’s earlier works focused solely upon the lives and crimes of the criminals, while accounts of the felons’ trials are almost non-existent in their works. The Criminal Recorder is different in this respect however, for it is written ‘by a Student of the Inner Temple’ and the majority of each of the accounts contained therein is devoted to the criminals’ trials (the Inner Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, and to become a barrister one still has to be a member of one of these Inns of Court).
We know nothing of John Terry’s early life apart from the fact, at the time of his being committed to trial at the York Assize Courts, he was listed as an apprentice from Wakefield. Terry, along with another apprentice named Joseph Heald, were tried and found guilty of the murder of a sixty-seven year old woman, Elizabeth Smith.
Elizabeth was a respectable woman who lived in Wakefield, and although relatively poor, she maintained herself in her humble dwelling by keeping cows and selling the milk to local residents. However, two of her cows died and she found herself almost on the point of destitution. Being a pillar of the local community, however, her neighbour granted her some monetary assistance, and her son who lived in Leeds also gave her eighteenth guineas with which to purchase more livestock. The whole neighbourhood was happy for her, and the following day she resolved to go to Leeds and purchase two more cows.
At night, however, Terry and Heald met together and resolved to break into Elizabeth’s house and steal the eighteenth guineas. While she was sleeping, the pair broke into her dwelling and, although Terry only ever wanted the money, Heald became inexplicably enraged and began beating the sleeping Elizabeth upon the head, and then took a razor and cut her throat.
The pair got the money and made a quick escape. They were arrested soon afterwards by two of the town’s constables, T. Shaw and S. Linley. Terry instantly confessed to everything, although Heald was adamant that he was not present at the burglary. The judge and the jury did not believe Heald’s tale of innocence, and both men were found Guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged on 21 March 1803.
On the evening before the execution, as the gaol Ordinary was administering the sacrament to Terry, the latter admitted that he had indeed been lying at his confession, and that Heald was never with him, and that if they did hang Heald, then they would be hanging an innocent man. Terry said that he only accused Heald of being with him in the hope that he might get a lesser sentence or even, having become an informant, a full pardon. When he realised that he was not going to get away with the murder he felt it his Christian duty to admit to his lies.
The Judge was immediately asked to review the case, although he recommended that the execution of both men should still go ahead because the circumstantial evidence against Heald was strong.
The execution of both men went ahead. But just before their execution, Terry implored the officials and the public spectators present not to hang Heald. But Heald was hanged in spite of these protestations. Did the town of Wakefield hang an innocent man based upon the lies of another? We will never know!
The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: J. Cundee, 1804-09), 4: 335-340.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many criminals recorded in works such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714), and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), as well as his Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) were said to have begun their criminal careers as unruly, or idle apprentices. The notorious Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is said to have been apprenticed to a carpenter, but being of a wicked disposition fell out with his master, and began cohabiting with a prostitute, Edgeworth Bess, and thereafter commencing a criminal career.[i] Even when discussing Robin Hood, the authors cited above, in a complete break with the existing historical tradition, state that he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, but ‘being of a wicked, licentious inclination, he followed not his trade’.[ii] (Not a single Robin Hood text, from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, records the famous outlaw as having been a butcher, and eighteenth-century accounts are unusual in this respect).[iii] The figure of the idle apprentice received its most famous artistic representation in William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled Industry and Idleness (1747).
One of the reasons why the idea of the unruly apprentice became a worrying figure was because, by going against his master, the delinquent youth was effectively signalling his intention to revolt against, not only his employer, but also the state and divine providence, ‘the concept that invokes hierarchical orders which support eighteenth-century life from the arrangement of the Cosmos to the distribution of wealth among the social classes’.[iv] The noted critic, John Richetti, for example, argues that the idle, or the “revolted apprentice”, ‘embodied furtive and unnatural longings for disruptive revolt […striking out] against social and moral restraints, against any sort of control from an external source’.[v] Moreover, when a certain criminal is represented in literature as having shunned hard work in his youth and preferring to follow a life of crime, this trope allowed the reader to view the felon’s criminality as part of an enduring strain of wickedness in the boy’s moral character, which early signs were present when he was young.
There were several factors which could induce initially virtuous young apprentices to fall into a life of criminality. First among these was the apprentice masters who, it was reasoned by some writers at the time, often failed to act as a moral guide for the youngsters. Often it is the dissolute habits of masters themselves which were assumed to have an adverse effect upon the minds of impressionable youths. For example, The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters (1804-10), says that,
The evil habits of masters are in a great degree the means of corrupting apprentices. No sooner does an apprentice advance towards the last year of his time, than he thinks it incumbent on him to follow the example of his master by learning to smoke. This accomplishment acquired (according to his conception), he is a fit associate for those who frequent public houses.[vi]
Visiting public houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not, and still is not, a marker of potential criminality of course, but the same writer goes on to argue that, although the master may visit respectable public houses, the apprentice, in order to avoid meeting with the master on a night out, must necessarily visit those places to which he knows that his master will not venture, namely, places of ill-repute where the apprentice ‘meets with depraved company’.[vii]
It is through frequenting such places of ill-repute that the youth first becomes ‘ensnared’.[viii] A major factor in apprentices’ fall from grace is when they first become acquainted with prostitutes in these low public houses, as The Criminal Recorder writes:
Having arrived at the age of puberty, and meeting with profligate females in those haunts of idleness, his passions become inflamed. The force of evil example overpowers him. He too becomes depraved – Money must be procured to supply his wants which are generated by depravity. Aided by the facilities held out by old iron shops, he pilfers from his master to supply those wants, or associates himself with thieves, whose acquaintance he made in the progress of his seduction.[ix]
It will be recalled that this is how the criminal career of Jack Sheppard began, through meeting a prostitute, at which point in his biography Daniel Defoe exclaims:
Sometimes thieves and prostitutes could collaborate together in robbing people to supply their wants, through a system known as the ‘buttock and file’. The woman would entice a respectable passer-by into a dark alley with the prospect of sex. Then her male partner would emerge out of the shadows, usually deal a blow to the gentleman, and rob him.
Yet the idea of the unruly apprentice who shunned hard work and became a criminal was very much a metropolitan idea. Fewer accounts of criminals from outside London record their having been apprentices initially. Much of this was down to the nightlife temptations that were on offer in the capital, which, combined with apprentices’ youth, could be a recipe for moral disaster. As the fictional Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817), based upon an earlier play entitled The London Merchant (1731), records:
The juvenile mind is constitutionally sanguine; and the imagination wanders into wild and fanciful expectations, before its exuberances have been repressed by reason, and its dangerous heat tempered by experience. In the critical season of youth, before prudence and judgement have assumed the sceptre in the bosom, fancy is too apt to “riot in pleasure,” and to revel in visionary delights, the offspring of its own ardour, and which, unless seasonable correctives are applied to keep them in check, may ultimately lead to practical excesses of the most unprincipled nature and dangerous tendency.[xi]
If not constantly on his guard, the unsuspecting apprentice could find himself drawn into the criminal underworld. The account of Robert Crouch, a footpad, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, tells the story of how he was initially apprenticed to a butcher in Newgate Market,
But as soon as he was out of it he addicted himself to gaming, drinking, and whoring, and all the other vices which are so natural to abandoned young fellows in low life.[xii]
And it was women, gaming, drinking, and crime that would, it was supposed, eventually lead the apprentice to the gallows, just as happens to Hogarth’s Idle Prentice at the end of his story. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), references, references ‘Marybone and the Chocolate Houses’ as being the ‘undoing’ of the highwayman, Captain Macheath.[xiii]
Of course, this was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and when it came to discussions of the luxuries and vices of the town in the public sphere, there was inevitably some class-based hypocrisy at play. The poorer classes might become criminal through indulging their passions at womanising, drinking, and gaming, but the sons of rich aristocrats, or rakes, which did the same, were rarely condemned as criminal. There are further comparisons to be made between the rake and the idle apprentice, one of them being the fact that neither could hold down a job, although of course the sons of the aristocracy had inherited wealth to fall back on. The image of the aristocratic rake is a recurring one throughout the eighteenth century. For example, in issue two of Joseph Addison’s Spectator magazine, one of the members of the fictional coffeehouse club is Will honeycomb, a man who is
Very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.[xiv]
In his memoirs, William Hickey (1749-1830) records how he partook of the entertainment of the town, debauching one or two young maidens in the process.[xv] Generally seen as a bit of a cad, this type of man pursued the same pleasures of the town as the idle apprentice, but of course he was not condemned for it.
So what could be done to turn the unsuspecting eighteenth-century apprentice away from a life of crime, and inculcate respect for virtue, religion, and authority? One of the reasons that so many criminal accounts appeared in the eighteenth century is because, at a time of great public concern about the apparently ever-rising crime wave, they were intended as moralist texts. A person was supposed to read the account of the criminal and take lessons from his life. As Johnson in the preface to Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals states,
My intention in communicating to the public the lives of those who, for about a dozen years past have been victims to their own crimes, is to continue to posterity the good effects of such examples, and by a recital of their vices to warn those who become my readers from ever engaging in those paths which necessarily have so fatal an end.[xvi]
Other solutions proposed by the author of The Criminal Recorder include stopping all apprentices’ wages, and making the apprentices entirely dependent upon their masters for food, drink, and lodging. To do otherwise is to ensure that the apprentice falls into a life of crime.[xvii]
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution continued, the number of apprenticeships drastically declined. But instead of the unruly apprentice, public fears towards the emerging idea of the juvenile criminal. From the 1830s onwards, it would be figures such as the Artful Dodger and the Wild Boys of London, homeless pickpockets with no master, and eventually the hooligan from the late nineteenth century, that would be society’s cause for concern.
Header Image: Illustration of Jack Sheppard from The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10). Author’s Collection.
[i] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, edited by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), p. 4.
[ii] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 408.
[iii] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography’ Law, Crime and History 6: 2 (2016), pp. 54-70.
[iv] John Richetti, cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Late-Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 45.
I have just returned from a conference entitled ‘Reworking Walter Scott’, held at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where I gave a paper on ‘The Chartist Robin Hood’ (a reworked and expanded version of an earlier blog post). Obviously there was no way I could have missed this one, given that Walter Scott (1772-1831) had such a profound and lasting influence upon the legend of Robin Hood, having authored the novel Ivanhoein 1819. On the way back, I decided to stop at Abbotsford, the Baronial hall that Scott had built in the early nineteenth century. While there, I learned how Walter Scott became best friends with a man who was originally caught poaching from his land. This man’s name was Tam Purdie (1767-1829).
In 1804, long before Abbotsford was built, while Scott was living in Ashestiel, a small village near the Scottish border, Thomas ‘Tam’ Purdie was caught poaching from Scott’s land. This was a serious offence during the eighteenth century, and in England (whose laws on this matter were practically the same as those in Scotland), there was no right to trial by jury, and sentencing was summary in front of the local magistrate. Summary justice was meted out, probably, because juries were often reluctant to convict offenders of poaching. For example, there was a case in the 1830s where,
A poacher was acquitted because though he had a gun, which had just been fired, and was holding a “warm pheasant”, there was no proof that he had actually fired the gun.
It was not unusual for juries to downgrade the charge, or look for ways to deliberately lessen the verdict, a practice that was known as ‘Pious Perjury’ (after all, especially in those cases which involved potentially warranted the death sentence, what decent person would want to be the among the ones to sentence a person to death?). Needless to say, for the wealthy landowners whose lands were being poached, in a time when the plaintiffs had to fund the prosecution of a felon themselves, having the case dealt with summarily by a magistrate would have had a better chance of them getting the verdict they desired: a guilty verdict for the defendant. Indeed, many of the magistrates would have been landowners and hunters as well, so they would have been sympathetic to those whose lands were being invaded by poachers. And there could be a heavy fine imposed by the magistrate if a person was caught poaching, amounting to £10 as well as three month’s imprisonment.
And so Purdie found himself in the dock at Selkirk Courtroom before Scott in his role as Sheriff (Scotland’s equivalent, in those days, of the English magistrate, who dealt with civil cases such as bankruptcies, probates, as well as the summary cases outlined above). One might imagine that Purdie would have received an unusually severe sentence, given the fact that the man he had stolen from was the man who was deciding what should be done with him.
Purdie stated that his reasons for poaching Scott’s land were the fact that his family were going hungry, and that, to quote Purdie, ‘work was scarce and game plentiful’, and that he had merely, ‘grinned a hare or twa to prevent them frae doing any mischief’.
What happened next demonstrates Scott’s good nature: he took pity on the man, and instead of sentencing him to a fine and a prison sentence, decided to employ Purdie on his land instead as his ‘Special Assistant’. Purdie brought his own family to live on Scott’s estate with him, In time, he became, not only Scott’s gamekeeper, but also his librarian, and most importantly, his best friend:
What a blessing there is in a man like Tam whom no familiarity can spoil, whom you may scold and praise and joke with.
The pair spent much leisure time together, and sometimes Scott preferred Tam’s company to that of some of the members of high society whom he entertained from time to time (by virtue of Scott having been the world’s first celebrity author).
When Tam died, at Scott’s home, Abbotsford, in 1829, he was much affected:
I have lost my old and faithful servant – my factotum – and am so much shocked that I really wish to be quit of the country and be safe in the town.
Scott had his old friend buried in Melrose Abbey, and the following inscription was laid upon Tam’s grave:
In Grateful Remembrance of the Faithful and Attached Services of Twenty-Two Years, and in Sorrow, for the Loss of a Humble but Sincere Friend, this Stone was erected by Sir Walter Scott, Bart. of Abbotsford.
Scott died just two years later of a stroke in the latter part of 1831, but I like to think that his friendship with this criminal has potential lessons for our own day: it asks us to consider whether punitive sanctions are always the appropriate course of action to take against those convicted of petty thefts when circumstances have driven them to commit crime.
 Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.128.
[The following is the text of a talk given at Lancaster University’s ‘Class and the Past Conference’ on 16 March 2017].
George William MacArthur Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1846, was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. In recent years Reynolds’ life and work have received renewed critical attention from literary scholars, who have explored, as Stephen Carver does, Reynolds’ representation of the underworld.[i] The term ‘underworld’ is one that is often used by scholars, but usually without a full consideration of its meaning. For example, while many scholars speak of an underworld of organised crime, rarely do researchers account for the fact that an ‘upperworld’ must exist also, and that the criminal members of both worlds, or classes, collude together in order to cause harm to ‘the industrious classes’. Given that Reynolds sees society as being divided into three distinct classes: the aristocracy, the industrious classes, and the criminal classes, Reynolds’ depiction of organised crime challenged emerging Victorian stereotypes of a ‘criminal class’. Crime in The Mysteries of London is not merely a story of ‘the wrongs and crimes of the poor’; it is also a story of the wrongs and crimes of those in the ‘upperworld’, which of course suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments.
Reynolds’ Conception of Society
As stated above, Reynolds does not hold to the typical Victorian conception of society as being divided into upper class, middle class(es), and working classes. As we can see, there are several gradations in society: at the top, there is the monarchy and the aristocracy, an institution and a class of people for which Reynolds certainly had no high degree of admiration, and often complained about ‘the sickening specimens of grovelling and self-abasement’ some people displayed towards the monarchy.[ii] A flavour of his attitude towards the aristocracy is evident in his comments about the Duke of Newcastle, who according to Reynolds had ‘a mental capacity amounting almost to the idiotic’.[iii] The Duke of Cumberland’s obituary in Reynolds’ Newspaper said that he was ‘a monster in human shape, a veritable fiend without a single redeeming quality’ whose life amounted to a progression of ‘perjury, adultery, seduction, incest and murder’.[iv]
Towards the clergy and the Christian religion in general Reynolds likewise had no great regard. One of his earliest written works was a short pamphlet entitled The Errors of the Christian Religion Exposed (1832). In this work he writes of how he became a deist, having concluded that ‘we find the Old and New Testament to be false’.[v] Of the nineteenth-century clergy he scathingly asks:
Who are more addicted to the luxuries and sensualities of life than the ministers of God?[vi]
The people who matter in society, according to Reynolds, are the middle classes and ‘the industrious classes’. The hero of The Mysteries of London, Richard Markham, is a member of the middle classes, as was Reynolds himself, in spite of his repeated bankruptcies. Reynolds deplored the condition of the working classes, whose problems he attributes to the upper classes:
The country that contains the greatest wealth of all the territories of the universe, is that which also knows the greatest amount of hideous, revolting, heart-rending misery. In England men and women die of starvation in the streets. In England women murder their children to save them from a lingering death by famine. In England the poor commit crimes to obtain an asylum in a gaol. In England aged females die by their own hands, in order to avoid the workhouse.[vii]
The condition of the working poor is set in contrast with the gluttony of the aristocracy who enjoy a life of plenty.[viii] But this is not to say that Reynolds views the poor as saints. In his opening chapter, he states that ‘crime is abundant in this great city’.[ix] And in the ensuing novel, he makes clear that many members of the poorer classes are indeed criminal. Nevertheless, Reynolds was popular with working people, especially Chartists.[x] And he certainly had nothing to gain by vehemently expressing his radical and republican sentiments in the press except the opprobrium of contemporaries such as Dickens, who wrote in 1849 that Reynolds’ name was ‘a name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated’.[xi] While some might argue that Reynolds simply supported radical causes to curry favour with the working classes, as will be illustrated below, Reynolds was not writing solely for that class. Instead, Reynolds perhaps saw himself as the Republican activist in The Mysteries of London sees himself; he is a man who is
Represented as a character who ought to be loathed and shunned by all virtuous and honest people […] And yet, O God! […] I only strive to arouse the grovelling spirit of the industrious millions to a sense of the wrongs under which they labour, and to prove to them that they were not sent into this world to lick the dust beneath the feet of majesty and the aristocracy!”[xii]
It will be noted that he never attacks the middle classes here; he merely speaks of the ‘industrious millions’ as occupying a place beneath the feet ‘of majesty and the aristocracy’. Hence Reynolds’ merging of the middle classes and working classes looks back to earlier forms of nineteenth-century radicalism in which both classes formed an alliance to effect parliamentary reform before the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1832.[xiii] Among the many readings of Reynolds’ radicalism, it is Gertrude Himmelfarb whose assessment seems most appropriate:
[Reynolds’] radicalism was of an entirely different order and because his idea of poverty was nihilistic rather than compassionate or heroic […] violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[xiv]
In essence, Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst the poorer classes is a literary representation of the fact that society gets the criminals that it deserves.
Collaboration between Upperworld and Underworld
The principal underworld villains in the novel are the Resurrection Man, the Buffer, Dick Flairer and Bill Bolter. They are a tight-knit criminal gang who also have links to a wider network of criminals known as the Forty Thieves.[xv] Yet organised crime groups usually carry out their activities with the often tacit approval of those in the upperworld.[xvi] There is an instance in the novel which neatly illustrates the collusion between people from the two worlds: the Cracksman’s undertaking of a highway robbery.
Reynolds’ novel is essentially the story of two brothers, the virtuous Richard Markham and his not-so-virtuous brother, Eugene. Although Richard experiences some misfortunes throughout his life, he rises in society through his own virtue, and eventually marries into the family of an Italian nobleman. Eugene, on the other hand, also advances in society through means of corruption, fraud and embezzlement. He eventually becomes the MP for a place called Rottenborough, the naming of which is an allusion to pre-Reform Act constituencies such as Old Sarum. Eugene, who goes under the assumed name of Montague Greenwood, plots to defraud the good Count Alteroni of his fortune. However, he must first acquire a vital document from him. For this, Eugene must employ the services of the Cracksman and his fellows:
“What’s the natur’ of the service?” demanded the Cracksman, darting a keen and penetrating glance at Greenwood.
“A highway robbery,” coolly answered [Eugene …]
“All right!” cried the Cracksman. “Now what’s the robbery, and what’s the reward?”
“I will now explain to you what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet, with a tiger, only twelve years old, behind. The cab is light blue – the wheels streaked with white. This is peculiar, and cannot be mistaken. The horse is a tall bay, with silver- mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain – everything, mind – must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours, and I will add fifty guineas to the amount: – but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be handed over to me.”[xvii]
Note the precision with which the robbery is to be carried out: clear and concise instructions are given; crime in the urban, industrial society is cold and calculated; it is organised crime. This is not the romantic highway robbery of the type carried out by William Harrison Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin in Rookwood (1834). Before the Cracksman commits the crime, he receives an ‘advance’ of twenty guineas, at which the Cracksman exclaims: ‘that’s business!’[xviii] The robbery is carried out, and at Eugene and the Cracksman’s second meeting the villains are paid in full for their work. The meeting is concluded with the Cracksman hoping ‘that he should have his custom in future’ (italics in original).[xix] To the villains of The Mysteries of London crime is a business carried out with the sole purpose of financial gain. Surgeons are their customers, or they make themselves available as henchmen-for-hire willing to do the dirty work of those in from supposedly more respectable stations in life as long as the price is right.
The Wrongs and Crimes of the Upperworld
Although the above serves as an example of collaboration between members of the upper world and the underworld, Reynolds shows that members from the supposedly respectable classes were capable of committing crime independently of their counterparts from criminal class. Eugene Markham, for instance, along with several MPs, a Lord, and the Sheriff of London are seen conspiring together to establish a fraudulent railway company at a dinner party held by Eugene for his fellow conspirators:
Algiers, Oran, and Morocco Great Desert Railway.
“(Provisionally Registered Pursuant to Act.)
“Capital £1,200,000, in 80,000 shares, of £20 each.
“Deposit £2 2s. per Share.
Committee of Direction: The Most Honourable Marquis of Holmesford, G. C. B. Chairman. – George Montague Greenwood, Esq. M.P. Deputy Chairman.[xx]
The conspirators require capital, but as Eugene assures those assembled at his dinner party, no such railway scheme exists, and it has only been devised solely for defrauding investors:
And now, my lord and gentlemen, we perfectly understand each other. Each takes as many shares as he pleases. When they reach a high premium, each may sell as he thinks fit. Then, when we have realized our profits, we will inform the shareholders that insuperable difficulties prevent the carrying out of the project,- that Abd-el-Kadir, for instance, has violated his agreement and declared against the scheme,- that the Committee of Direction will, therefore, retain a sum sufficient to defray the expenses already incurred, and that the remaining capital paid up shall be returned to the shareholders.[xxi]
This is an example of what might now be termed ‘white collar crime’ and reflects the ‘Railway Mania’ of 1846-47, occurring at precisely the time when Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London. The enthusiasm for investing in speculative railway schemes was felt among both the upper and middle classes, and it was the first time that companies relied heavily on investors’ capital rather than on government bonds.[xxii] As George Robb notes, the mania for investing in railway companies was perfect for fraudsters wishing to embezzle funds from their investors: bills for the establishment of new railway companies could be obtained from parliament relatively easily, and investors had little access to sound financial advice and accurate financial data.[xxiii]
The Victorians were under no illusions about the opportunities for fraud and embezzlement that were available to unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen in the nineteenth-century financial world.[xxiv] There are many characters in Victorian literature who exemplify the crooked businessman. Clive Emsley points to Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50), a snakelike, devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White (1859-60), who plots to claim Laura Fairlie’s fortune by faking her death.[xxv] Shore similarly points to some contemporary press reports which expose she what calls ‘a hidden financial criminal underworld, straddling a line between the criminal class and the respectable class’.[xxvi] For the most part, however, members of the supposedly respectable upper and middle classes who turned to crime were just viewed by contemporaries as ‘bad apples’ that had been led astray or placed in tempting situations.[xxvii]
Reynolds’ depiction of criminality amongst members of respectable society is more nuanced than Dickens or Collins: according to Reynolds there is a criminal upper class, and a criminal lower class; the underworld mirrors the upper world. Sometimes members from both spheres collaborate to cause harm to members of ‘the industrious classes’. The M.P., Eugene Markham, is not merely a ‘bad apple’ who has been led astray. Instead, he actively pursues a ‘white collar’ criminal course of life. Portraying the upper world of crime, of course, suited Reynolds’ radical sentiments: as we have seen, he detested the political establishment and ensured that in The Mysteries of London its members were implicated in criminal acts, even if their complicity is limited to merely purchasing smuggled goods.[xxviii] If a majority of the poor are indeed criminal, it is because their upper-class counterparts facilitate or indeed, as we saw with the exchange between Eugene and the Cracksman, take a leading role in directing such crime.
[i] Stephen J. Carver, ‘The Wrongs and Crimes of the Poor: The Urban Underworld of The Mysteries of London in Context’ in G.W.M. Reynolds and Nineteenth-Century British Society: Politics, Fiction and the Press ed. by Anne Humpherys & Louis James (London: Ashgate, 2008), pp.185-212
[ii] G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, ‘From Journalism and Fiction into Politics’ in Anne Humpherys & Louis James (eds.) G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp.91-99 (p.91).
[ix] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.2.
[x] ’Jessica Hindes, ‘Revealing Bodies: Knowledge, Power and Mass Market Fictions in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012), p.12n: ‘Reynolds was elected to the National Chartist Association’s National Executive in 1848 with more votes than any of his fellow committee members; 1,805 to Feargus O’Connor’s 1,314’. Further discussions of Reynolds’ role in working-class and radical causes are to be found in the following works: Ian Haywood, ‘George W. M. Reynolds and “The Trafalgar Square Revolution”: Radicalism, the Carnivalesque and Popular Culture in Mid-Victorian England’ Journal of Victorian Culture 7: 1 (2002), pp.23–59
[xi] Charles Dickens, Letter to W.C. Macready, August 30, 1849, cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: Or the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Victorian Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), p.191.
[xii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.70.
[xiii] On working-class and middle-class radicalism, the alliances between the two classes, and the Reform Act of 1832 more generally, see the following works: Paul Adelman, Victorian Radicalism: The Middle-class Experience, 1830-1914 (London: Longman, 1984); Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780-c.1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Nancy D. LoPatin, Political Unions, Popular Politics and the Great Reform Act of 1832 (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999); Eric J. Evans, Britain Before the Reform Act: Politics and Society 1815-1832 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).
[xiv] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), p.451.
[xv] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 2 (London: G. Vickers, 1846), p.187.
[xvi] Kelly Hignett, ‘Organised Crime in East Central Europe: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland’ Global Crime 6: 1 (2004), pp.70-83 (p.71).
[xvii] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London Vol. 1, p.149.
Given that the term “fake news” has recently been bandied around by some very prominent public figures on social media (hurled as a term of abuse at various media outlets, and usually in capital letters), I thought I might bring to people’s attention an interesting little court case from June 1778.
On 23 April 1778, Mr. Alexander Scott, a bill poster was dutifully going about his job of sticking public proclamations to walls in one of the public marketplaces in London when he was stopped by a man who alleged that he came from the King’s Stationers and desired him to stick up some Bills. Scott was assured that he would be paid handsomely for it, and so he assented. The Bill read thus:
In Pursuance of his Majesty’s order in Council to me directed, these are to give public notice that war with France will be proclaimed on Friday next, the 24 instant, at the Palace Royal, St. James’s, at one of the clock [… Signed] D. M. Effingham.[i]
This was false news. The government was not intending to declare war on France.
At this news, the whole of London apparently became very alarmed, and the price of stocks and shares fell drastically. Scott, of course, simply carried on doing his job. After all, one did not refuse a commission from the Royal Printing House. So the next day more copies of this proclamation went up, causing further panic. Scott was observed sticking the proclamations up by two men from the Royal Exchange (the eighteenth-century equivalent of the stock market) named Richard Willis and Thomas Thorn. They instantly summoned a Constable and Scott was arrested and, rather dramatically, charged with High Treason (a crime which at that point still warranted the death penalty). The charge read that Alexander Scott did:
Unlawfully, wickedly, and maliciously, publish false news, whereby discord, or occasion of discord, might grow between our Lord the King and his people, or the great men of the realm, by publishing a certain printed paper, containing such false news.[ii]
The Bill had been supposedly signed by the Deputy Marshall of England, the Earl of Effingham, who was also summoned to the trial. Effingham declared that he certainly had known nothing about these bills, and that whoever put his name to them is guilty of forgery.
Luckily for Scott, nobody believed that he was the orchestrator of this falsehood. After having received the proclamations, he went to see his friend, Josiah Roe, who owned a public house. Roe’s witness statement records that:
Pulling out one of the bills, [Scott] said, “what do you think of the war now? I have bills to stick up; it is to be proclaimed on Friday.”[iii]
But of course, Scott had received the papers from the King’s printer, had he not? Nobody would print such falsehoods. Luckily for Scott, the jury agreed, like most of the witnesses and even the arresting Constable, that Scott was just the innocent victim of a malicious prank.
Scott’s trial occurred in the first week of June. But the irony is that, had the trial have taken place in the last week of the month Scott would have been guilty of nothing, for Britain did indeed declare war on France a few weeks later as America’s ally in their war of independence.
[i]The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register 5 Vols. (London: A Hogg [n.d.]), 5: 284
[ii]The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, p.284.
[iii]The New Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors’ Bloody Register, p.288
Stefan Huygebaert et al (eds.), The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), 205pp. ISBN9789401440417 RRP £20.
This lavishly illustrated book is related to a recent exhibition at the Groeningemuseum in Brugge, Belgium. The aim of the exhibition was to give an overview of how justice and the workings of the law have been depicted in European high art between the medieval and early modern periods. To this end, the Groeningemuseum displayed paintings from its own collection, such as the fifteenth-century work by Gerard David, Het Oordeel van Cambyses (“The Judgement of Cambyses”), as well as rare manuscripts, books, and artefacts. The exhibition was then supplemented by an academic conference on the theme of law and justice in art which is currently a neglected area of scholarship.[i]
The introduction by Georges Martyn is highly informative, prefacing the ensuing case studies by raising several interesting points about the reason why art and architecture is highly important to the operation of the law:
Throughout history, law and justice have been surrounded by an aura of sacredness. To judge is to exercise power […] in the 19th– and 20th-century courts of law, architecture played a vital role in legitimising authority. With their richly decorated rooms and the impressive robes of the togati, these ‘Temples of Themis’ inspired awe […] Art depicting law and justice helped to legitimise the power of the courts.[ii]
It was recognised at the time that artistic depictions of the law helped to shore up the power of the ruling elites. This is why, after all, many of the paintings displayed at the exhibition were often commissioned by Magistrates and other public officials, and it had become common practice to exhibit these paintings within official buildings.[iii]
The book is divided into a series of case studies by various authors, each of which analyses a particular painting or object and discusses it in its historical context. One interesting essay in the collection is Vanessa Pauman’s discussion of the afore-mentioned Het Oordeel van Cambyses. This painting was commissioned by the Magistrates of Bruges but was not intended to awe offenders with a sense of the power and glory of the workings of the law. Rather, as Paumen points out, it was a moral message for the judges who passed sentences. The painting tells the story of a judge who served the King of Persia. The judge, Cambyses, had been accepting bribes from offenders and thus ‘had tainted his noble profession’.[iv] As punishment, the King ordered Cambyses to be flayed alive, and had his skin to decorate the judges’ chair as a permanent reminder of the sacredness of their profession.
Additionally, in the medieval and early modern periods, the idea of earthly justice was intertwined with that of divine justice. Societies in those ages were, of course, more religious. While the Last Judgement features heavily in a lot of art, Georges Martyn also picks examines other lesser-known Biblical episodes which featured in a visual representations of justice. For example, Francis Floris I’s The Judgement of Solomon (1547) was exhibited in Antwerp City Hall in order to provide public officials with an example of the difficulties of trying to judge a case when it is a matter of one person’s word against another. Works such as Het Oordeel van Cambyses and The Judgement of Solomon remind us that the representation of justice is not always about aweing commoners into submission.
Other highlights include Jos Monballyu’s discussion of paintings depicting the Flemish jurist, Joos de Damhauder (1507-1581). The man was a ‘celebrity’ public official: the author of a highly influential law treatise entitled Practycke Criminele (1570), and appeared in numerous contemporary prints. Another highlight in the collection of essays is Stefan Huygebaert’s discussion of the uses of the sword in images of justice. The reason that recognisable figures in the iconography of the law carry a sword, we are told, is because such images draw upon images of Christ from the book of revelation. The sword carried by images of Lady Justice symbolises not only a willingness to judge (as Christ does at the Last Judgement), but also a willingness to protect the weak and vulnerable.
The book focuses heavily on paintings and prints, but one thing that could have enhanced this work is if it had discussed more artefacts. Huygebaert and Kristel Van Audenaeren co-author a chapter on a fifteenth century silver sculpture shaped like a fist and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Fist of Justice (there appear to be no public domain images of this and therefore I cannot show it). Such pieces were known as ‘penalty pieces’, imposed upon wealthy offenders who had committed violent acts and exhibited in the courtroom for future offenders to see. This was a person’s way of ‘giving something back to society’, so to speak. In spite of the highly interesting history of this and similar objects given by Huygebaert and Audenaeren, however, the subsequent chapters revert to discussing paintings.
Although this is an academic book, at twenty pounds it is relatively affordable when compared to the standard monograph price of approximately seventy pounds. The subject matter will render it useful to both researchers and students interested in the visual representation of the law, a sub-discipline of art, crime and legal history that is gaining ground. Moreover, its highly visual content will, furthermore, render the book popular with general readers interested in legal and crime history.
While England has given the world the archetypal image of the noble robber in the form of Robin Hood, one of the things that I have been doing recently is to look at other Robin Hood figures from across the world. Oleksa Dovbush (1700-1745) is one such Robin Hood type of figure who flourished in eighteenth-century Ukraine.
A large part of what is now Ukraine during the eighteenth century was a part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a power to be reckoned with during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but by the period that Dovbush flourished the State was beset by a weak economy. It was also, relatively speaking, a little backward: while states such as the Kingdom of Great Britain had embraced mercantile capitalism and had not been feudal for a long time, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth still was.[i]
It is in such primitive societies (I use the word ‘primitive’ here in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense to describe a state that has not developed beyond the feudal stage of society), that banditry flourishes. If one looks at the history of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe during the early modern period, it will readily be recognised that there were a great many bandits. Haiduks, Robin Hood type outlaws who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, flourished in the Balkans. Like England’s famous medieval outlaw, the haiduk’s deeds were told in the form of ballads that circulated among the peasantry.[ii] The most famous Eastern European bandit, Janosik (1688-1713), who was more of a Rob Roy than a Robin Hood, flourished in Eastern Europe around the same time as Dovbush.[iii]
As with most historical bandits and other marginal figures, little is known of his early life. He was born in 1700 in Pechenizhyn to a very poor family (the family’s property amounted to owning just several sheep, and they had to rent their humble dwelling, known as a komorah, from a local lord). We do not know what drove Dovbush to become an outlaw, or a part of the opryshky, as the records do not tell us. Although the corresponding term to opryshky in English is ‘outlaw’, it signified much more than simply ‘thief’ or ‘robber’: these men were perceived as freedom fighters who challenged the existence of the Polish feudal state. In concert with his brother, Ivan, Dovbush and his men raided Polish noblemen and their retinues along on the narrow ridge off Mount Chornohora.[iv] His weapon of choice was an axe. Like Robin Hood, in all of their exploits he and his men stole from the rich to give to the poor.
As is often the case in feudal societies, the Lords held all the power. While there were undoubtedly a great many good lords, there were, unfortunately, many who abused their powers. Eric Hobsbawm points out one instance where Dovbush and his men attacked the house of a local Polish nobleman named Konstantin Zlotnicky:
He held his hands in the fire and let them burn, poured glowing coals on his skin and refused any ransom. “I have not come for your ransom but for your soul, for you have tortured the people long enough”.[v]
The monks who recorded this episode noted that this particular nobleman was notorious for his cruelty. As a result of his fight against the Polish nobles, the state sent the army into the region that he was known to flourish in. Yet they could not catch him. There are a number of accounts as to how he was finally caught: some sources say that a woman betrayed him, others say that his brother, Ivan, betrayed him. More likely it is that it was a bounty hunter hired by the nobles who tracked him down and killed him. Apparently, when the bounty hunter found him a fierce fight ensued. This was to be his last fight – Dovbush was killed and his body was cut up into twelve pieces and hung in several places so as to warn off any peasants who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps.[vi]
His memory lives on in Ukraine in much the same way that Robin Hood is still known to people in the Western World today. He has become a folk hero. Ballads about him are still sung by the poorer classes, and the Dovbush rocks in the Carpathian mountains, where he and his gang were said to live, are visited by many tourists each year.
[i] The history of the region has recently been covered in excellent detail by Paul R. Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples 2nd Edn. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
[ii] Bodgan Vlad Vatavu, ‘The World of the Haiduks: Bandit Subcultures in the 19th-Century Romania and their Ballads’ Revista de Etnografie Si Folclor / Journal of Ethnography and Folklore Nos. 1-2 (2016), pp.139-164.
[iii] There is little scholarly literature in English for Janosik, so it is best to either read Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969) or visit the following website: The Polish Robin Hood [Internet <http://www.krykiet.com/janosik_robin_hood.htm> Accessed 19 February 2017].
[iv] Larisa Failkova, ‘Oleksa Dovbush: An Alternative Biography of the Ukrainian Hero Based on Jewish Sources’ Fabula 52: 1-2 (2011), pp.92-108
[v] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p.50.
Robin Hood was not the only famous law breaker in medieval times. Alongside Robin Hood were figures such as Adam Bell and the subject of this blog post, the medieval pirate Thomas Dun.
When the word ‘pirate’ is mentioned, many people will have in mind the image of an eighteenth-century pirate: an eye-patch wearing, sabre rattling, and rum-sodden dissolute character. This is an image that was first given to pirates in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). It is an image that has gained further traction recently in Disney’s series of films entitled Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, and 2011) as well as the television show Black Sails (2014 onwards).
But piracy in the medieval period was different from the eighteenth century. Often pirates were merchants who had been permitted, as part of their employment, to plunder foreign ships. The right to plunder foreign ships was granted by the King, providing that the Crown received a portion of the booty. Thus we should think of these pirates more as ‘privateers’ under contract with the monarch, rather than the semi-organised criminal networks that existed in the eighteenth century.[i]
Regarding Thomas Dun, little is known of his life and exploits, but modern-day historians place him during the time of Edward II and the Scottish Wars. Apparently he fought on the side of Robert the Bruce, whose forces were engaged in repelling the English occupation of Scotland.[ii] To place the events of Thomas Dun’s life in terms of people’s understanding of popular culture, then, this man lived shortly after the events of the Mel Gibson movie, Braveheart (1995). The campaign against the English forces occurred in both England and Ireland, and as the Scottish King had no navy to speak of, he employed Dun to ferry Scottish soldiers across the Irish Sea.[iii] There also is another story about him purportedly having raided the port of Holyhead, Wales in 1315.[iv] And that is, in all honestly, the extent of what we know of the man’s life.
Lincoln B. Faller divides the representation of criminals during the eighteenth century: heroes, in which category belong figures such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and James Mclean (1724-1750); there are also ‘buffoons’, and the type of thieves that belong in this category are men such as John Wheeler, a housebreaker who burgles a house and inadvertently ends up having sex with the mistress of the house. Finally, there is the brute, and into this category belongs killers such as Sawney Beanne and Dun.[v]
Smith and Johnson are at pains to present Dun as the worst type of criminal imaginable. Johnson says that
A man who is not forced from necessity, or a desire of pleasure, to become dishonest, but follows his natural dispositions in robbing and maltreating others, will, generally, be found to be destitute of every humane and generous principle. So will it be found with this character – a person of mean extraction.[vi]
Criminal biographers were never interested in historical facts, evident by the inclusion in their compendiums of the life of that noted robber, Sir John Falstaff. Thus, instead of depicting Dun as a Scottish pirate who flourished during the fourteenth century, he becomes an English highwayman who lived in the reign of Henry I, operating in the latter part of his reign. In fact, Scotland is not mentioned once in these criminal annals. Dun’s haunt is now depicted as being in Bedfordshire where,
He continued to commit many petty thefts and assaults, but judging it safer to associate himself with others, he repaired to a gang of thieves, who infested the country leading from St. Alban’s to Towcester, and they became such a terror.[vii]
Having spent half of his criminal career robbing and plundering in Bedfordshire, he then moved to Yorkshire (so say the criminal biographers), and proceeded to ‘commit many notorious robberies along the river Ouse’.[viii] After this he returned to Bedford and was eventually caught and suffered a gruesome death, according to Smith:
At length, seeing he could not escape and that he must die, he yielded, and then the executioners chopping off each hand at the wrists, his arms were cut off at the elbows, and all above that again within an inch of his shoulders; next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off five inches below the trunk, which after severing his head from was burnt to ashes.[ix]
There is not a more graphic account of execution than this in most of the criminal biographies I have seen. Smith and Johnson’s accounts then both end with saying that the town of Dunstable takes its name from the robber, due to the fact that Henry I built a garrison there. This, however, is pure fiction, and academics have provided more plausible accounts of the town’s etymology:
The English Place Name Society tells us that the first part of the name, dun, means hill, while the second part, originally written as staple, refers to a post, possibly marking a boundary. Dunestaple (or Dunestapel), as it was first called, was therefore the place at the post, or boundary marker, by the hill. Another theory, while agreeing about the meaning of dun, is that staple comes from the French word for market, estaple, and the name therefore means the market by the hill, or Downs.[x]
While his story continued to appear in some versions of The Newgate Calendar, Thomas Dun appears to have been forgotten about for a while, and his story did not make it into either Charles MacFarlane’s The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) or Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits Of English Highwaymen, Pirates And Robbers (1834). Curiously, the next literary representation of Dun’s life appears in a comic entitled Crime Must Pay the Penalty (1948).
As we can see, this is just one instance of how a criminal’s life has been remoulded and readapted throughout the centuries, and how the original historical details, such as Dun being a Scottish pirate, becomes unrecognisable when the details are placed in the hands of various authors who care not for historical facts.