Jack ‘Sixteen-String’ Rann (1750–74)

The eighteenth century was without a doubt the golden age of highwaymen, being the era in which robbers such as Jack Sheppard (1702–24), Dick Turpin (1705–39), and James Maclaine (1724–50). Most of the ‘celebrity’ highwaymen lived in the earlier part of the century, however, and as the Georgian era progressed, highwaymen were increasingly condemned in newspapers and by others. There was one outlier, however: his name was John ‘Sixteen-String Jack’ Rann who, with his fine clothes and polite manner, was the last of the gentlemanly highwaymen.[i]

Rann1
Illustration of Jack Rann and Miss Roche from 1774.

Rann was born in Bath of honest and respectable parents who, although they were destitute, raised him well. They could not afford any schooling for him, so at an early age he was sent to work. He made money by selling goods from a cart and through this formed a friendship with an aristocrat who was visiting the spas at Bath. The town in this period was what is known as a ‘Spa Town’. The underground springs were assumed to possess restorative powers and the great and the good flocked there, as well as to other places such as Harrogate, to ‘take the waters’. The lady took Rann into her service when he was about 12 years old and he returned to London with her when the spa season was over. By all accounts, the noblewoman was very pleased with his work. Rann, however, wanted to be his own boss and so, parting ways with the lady amicably, he resolved to set up his own business.

Rann 2
Title page to the earliest account of Rann’s life, c. 1774.

He could not read and write, but he knew how to drive a cart and had saved up a little capital from his time working in service. So he immediately purchased a post-chaise and started his own business as what we might now think of as an upper-class taxi driver. He would drive clients home after their nights out and through this made many friends in fairly high places. He did this part time while serving as an army officer’s errand boy. Perhaps as a result of mixing with the upper classes, Rann began to emulate gentlemen in his style of dress, and due to his fine clothes he was nicknamed ‘Sixteen-String Jack’.

Unfortunately his business folded because, along with purchasing high value clothes, he also frequented upper-class drinking establishments and soon ran into debt, to the tune of £50 (this was the equivalent to £4,335 in today’s money).[ii] In order to avoid the bailiffs, Rann turned pickpocket and soon fell in with two other young men engaged in the ‘profession’, known by the names of Jones, Clayton, and Colledge, who encouraged Rann to stick to this new way of life. Contemporary biographers record that his descent into a criminal course of life was also abetted by his budding relationship with a sex worker named Miss Roche.

With his friends, Rann commenced a series of robberies throughout London. He liked to live dangerously: he would taunt the Bow Street Runners, London’s first police force, by leading them on a chase throughout London and then giving them the slip. He also did not try to hide his identity: at one point, so his biography records, Rann was being hunted by John Fielding’s runners when he arrived at a turnpike and told the toll keeper:

“I am Sixteen-String Jack, the famous highwayman – have any of Sir John Fielding’s people been this way?”

“Yes,” said the man, “some of them are but just gone through.”

Rann replied, “If you see them again tell them I am gone towards London.”

And then he rode off with the most unconcern.[iii]

He was actually arrested three times in the last four years of his life on multiple counts of highway robbery. Yet none of the prosecutors could ever make the charges stick due to lack of evidence.

20180423_161137
Jack Rann at the Old Bailey

However, his downfall came when he robbed Dr William Bell, who was the chaplain to Princess Amelia (1783–1810) while he was travelling on Uxbridge Road. Rann was reportedly most uncivil about the whole affair:

Rann crossed the head of [Bell’s] horse and, demanding his money, said, “Give it to me and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.”

The doctor, not wanting to test Rann’s threat, gave him 1s 6d as well as a tortoise-shell watch.[iv] Rann and his fellow robbers needed to get rid of their stolen goods, however, and on the same day as the robbery Miss Roche visited a pawn-brokers in order to exchange it for money. The pawnbroker assumed that the watch had not been acquired honestly, and so quietly alerted the authorities. Runners were sent to watch Roche’s apartment and the instant that Rann and his pals approached they were all arrested.

Rann’s accomplice, Clayton, was acquitted on all charges (accounts do not say why although it may due to the fact that he turned king’s evidence). Roche was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for fourteen years. Rann himself was sentenced to be hanged. While he was understandably dismayed at the sentence, he did not let this put him off from enjoying his last few days in gaol. While confined in Newgate prison he entertained several ladies with food and drink. He was finally put to death on 30 November 1774, one of the 35,000 people who suffered under the harsh penal laws in place between 1770 and 1830.[v] Rann’s biographer actually regretted the harsh sentence that was passed upon him:

As in the course of these memoirs we have had occasion to draw a parallel between the offences of Sixtreen-String Jack and the accumulated guilt of others, we cannot help observing, that though his charges are many, yet compared with those of a blacker dye, who have received mercy, we cannot help wishing, that this once happy young man might receive some proportion of that heaven-like attribute, and be endowed with grace sufficient to become a useful member of society.[vi]

What was the point, argues the author, of executing a young man when others had committed worse crimes and gotten away with them? Would it not be more useful to society as a whole if this enterprising young man was pardoned and given the opportunity to turn his hands to a useful trade? It is during the late eighteenth century that concerns gradually began to be raised in some quarters about the efficacy of the death penalty, although they were very much in the minority and, of course, Britain did not abolish it until the 1960s.

While earlier criminals such as Maclaine and Sheppard were celebrated in the press, Rann merely cut a rather ridiculous figure. The general public had grown tired of highwaymen after the 1760s. Newspapers had taken over the reporting of crime from the criminal biographies and pamphlets of individual criminals’ lives that had flourished in the earlier part of the century. They often reported crime in a matter of fact way, and instead of providing lengthy justifications for criminals’ actions, endeavoured instead to emphasise the suffering of the victim in accounts of crime. Lincoln B. Faller also argues that a middle-class consciousness seeped into popular crime literature, and the middle classes, who at this time were wanting to differentiate themselves both from the aristocracy and the plebeian classes, actively disowned any identification that they might have had with such low lives. And it was, after all, the middle classes whom highwaymen robbed the most.[vii]

While heavily fictionalised stories of some highwaymen such as Sheppard and Turpin remained popular into the Victorian period, being featured in novels and penny dreadfuls, poor Jack Rann, who really wanted to be classed alongside the ‘great’ highwaymen of old, was easily forgotten.


[i] This account is based upon readings from the following sources: The Annals of Newgate; or, Malefactors’ Register, 4 vols (London: J. Wenman, 1776); Andrew Knapp and William Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar; or, The Malefactors’ Bloody Register, 4 vols (London: J. Robins, 1824); A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen-string Jack (London: Bailey, 1774); The Malefactor’s Register; or, the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 vols (London: A. Hogg, 1779).

[ii] See National Archives’ Currency Converter <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter> [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Knapp and Bawldwin, The Newgate Calendar, 3: 2.

[iv] Ibid., p. 4.

[v] For statistics see V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[vi] A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, p. 4.

[vii] 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), pp. 191-93.

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Thomas Dun: A Medieval Pirate & Highwayman

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).

eustacethemonk
The Execution of a Medieval Pirate, Eustace the Monk

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.

As with the lives of so many criminals, however, the details are embellished and their life story becomes something unrecognisable. Thomas Dun’s story was recounted in a number of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), all of which were written in the eighteenth century, which is over five hundred years after he is said to have lived.

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).

thomas-dun-comic

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.


Works Cited

Illustrations from comic taken from: https://pappysgoldenage.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/number-1923-thomas-dun-undone.html

[i] ‘Piracy in Medieval Europe’ Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library ed. by Jennifer Stock 3 Vols (Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2011), 3: 17-34.

[ii] William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (New York: Viking, 2014), p.120.

[iii] Tim Hodkinson, The Waste Land (Lulu Publishing, 2015), p.6.

[iv] ‘Photo Essay: Thieves, Pirates and Conwy Castle – a trip through medieval Wales’ Irish History Podcast [Internet <http://irishhistorypodcast.ie/photo-essay-thieves-pirates-and-conwy-castle/> Accessed 9 February 2017].

[v] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.127.

[vi] Charles Johnson, Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Street Robbers (London, 1734; repr. T. Tegg, 1839), p.81.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1933), p.17.

[ix] Smith, Highwaymen, p.19.

[x] Joan Curran, ‘Town History: 12th Century’ Medieval Dunstable [Internet <http://medievaldunstable.org.uk/thistory.html> Accessd 9 February 2017].

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]

johnson-title
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.

Last Dying Speeches, Trials, and Executions: The Changing Format and Function of Crime Broadsides, c.1800 – c.1840

A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016.


Abstract: Crime broadsides are usually assumed to be unchanging and static. Yet this paper argues that subtle changes appeared in their format and content over time which reflect changing public attitudes to crime and criminality.


The morning dawned […] the clock had just struck eight, when the voice of a man in the street fell upon his ear. He heard the following announcement: –

“Here is a full account of the horrible assassination committed by the miscreant William Bolter upon the person of his wife […] only one penny! The fullest and most perfect account – only one penny!”

G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45).[1]

Introduction

As G. W. M. Reynolds’ statement implies, crime broadsides were a regular feature of Victorian street life. Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) remarked how a ‘very extensive […] portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by “Sorrowful Lamentations” and “Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution” of criminals’.[2] The association of crime broadsides with the poor persisted into twentieth-century historical criticism, even though they addressed readers of all classes.[3] Indeed, crime broadsides were once denounced by F. W. Chandler as

Catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many’ and falling ‘below the dignified historian’s line.[4]

Thankfully, academics such as Vic Gatrell, Andrea McKenzie, and Phillipe Chassaigne now recognise the value of these sources and what they can tell historians about constructions of criminality in the past.[5] Yet even by modern scholars broadsides are usually written about as though they were unchanging, static pieces of literature. The digitisation of broadsides by Harvard Library School of Law and the National Library of Scotland, however, has been especially useful for the research presented in this paper which examines change over time in the content of broadsides;[6] no longer are broadsides

So widely scattered as to be reassembled for the purposes of study only at a cost of pains and patience out of all proportion to their apparent merit.[7]

This paper analyses broadsides relating to property theft between c.1800 and .1840. It is best to focus upon one type of crime because others provoked different responses in the press: murder was a sin against God, whilst forgery was viewed essentially an act of treason. The argument of this paper is that subtle changes occurred in the format and content of crime broadsides reflected changing public attitudes to criminality, thus building upon an undeveloped statement by Peter Linebaugh in The London Hanged (1991) where he stated that ‘there has hitherto been a tendency to overlook the changing nature of broadsides’.[8] This paper will show how late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century broadsides reflect the Georgian attitude to criminality, in which a degree of sympathy is extended to the condemned felon. This paper then shows how the content gradually evolved and manifested a typically Victorian view of criminality, where empathy with the accused gradually disappeared in favour of emphasising the offender’s guilt and just punishment through an increased focus upon the victim and the trial.[9] Hence ‘Last Dying Speeches’ gradually became the ‘Trial and Execution’ of a felon.

Context: Shifting Perceptions of Criminality during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth century, criminals could come from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) usually highlighted the fact that most criminals such as the highwayman Ned Bonnet were ‘born of very good and reputable parents’.[10] This was in order that, as Henry Fielding mused in a revised edition of Jonathan Wild (1743), the offenders ancestors ‘might serve as a foil to himself’.[11] Yet a criminal’s family could be ‘good and reputable’ whether they were rich or poor. Social status had no bearing upon criminality because ‘all men [were] equally tainted by original sin’, hence ‘criminals [were] not different in kind from other people, only in degree. Anyone might become a criminal.’[12] Like Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera (1728), whose love of women and good living eventually brings him to the gallows, criminals were simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations.[13] It is this idea that criminals could be ‘everyman’ which accounts for the sympathy extended to some felons in eighteenth-century criminal accounts.

The situation changed as the nineteenth century progressed, when the poor migrated to cities as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation. One effect of having so many people living in dire poverty in close proximity is that the areas where they do live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England stated that ‘the incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world’.[14] In the early Victorian press, then, references to ‘professional criminals’ and ‘criminal classes’ began to appear. This type of offender is represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes and Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabit an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. Thus the Victorian elites began to believe that there was a “criminal class”, drawn from its poorest ranks, who was responsible for the majority of crime. In other words, there was now a sociological explanation for criminality. Criminals were no longer dashing highwaymen such as James Maclean or Claude DuVall. Instead they were largely portrayed as desperate and wicked fellows.

Broadside Images

The public execution of criminals by hanging was a common occurrence in Britain. For example, a Londoner born in 1780 would have had the opportunity to witness four hundred hangings by 1840.[15] Early broadsides usually contained a crude woodcut of a man being hanged, or the moment that they were ‘launched into eternity’. These woodcuts did not depict the actual felon from the text, however, because they were stock images that were often reused on several occasions. The same woodcut, for instance, is used by the Leicestershire-based publisher, Martin, to depict the hanging of both Thomas Wilcox at Nottingham in 1820,[16] and of William Oldfield at Bradford also in 1820.[17]

comparison
Courtesy Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS IDs: 009799979 & 009799658

To a modern reader these images appear macabre. Precisely what individuals during the nineteenth century felt upon seeing such images may never be known. Gatrell does speculate, however, upon what contemporaries may have thought, arguing that they were

Totemic artefacts […] symbolic substitutes for the experiences watched […] mementoes of events whose psychic significance was somehow worth reifying.[18]

epsom
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007076646

Gatrell further hints that the images may have allayed readers’ fears regarding their own mortality, making them inwardly thankful that they were not upon the scaffold themselves.[19] The further emotion that may have been elicited by the crude and macabre woodcuts is sympathy. Sympathy can be extended to a man depicted in the moment of dying upon the gallows, a point raised recently by Rachel Hall in her research on American outlaws in visual culture.[20] But by the 1820s broadside images began to become more detailed, and many were including images of the crime being perpetrated. For example, the only image included upon the broadside detailing the Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery in 1834 committed by Charles Cottrell is literally of the victim’s brains being blown out.[21] Sympathy can easily be extended to a man about to die, but it is harder to empathise with a person who is depicted as committing a brutal criminal act.[22]

dormand
Courtest of The National Library of Scotland Shelfmark: 6.314(31)

Headline and Text

Broadside images alone are not sufficient to illustrate the argument of this paper because some obscure publishers were reusing eighteenth-century woodcuts as late as the 1860s,[23] thus it is better to concentrate upon changes in the textual content of broadsides. Headlines usually followed a similar formula of words. For example, there is The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand in 1793.[24] Similarly, nine years later there was The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham on Wednesday 31st March 1802 (1802).[25] Broadsides recounted what their respective titles advertised: an account of the life of the criminal, their dying speech and last moments. A great deal of continuity is apparent in these late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century broadsides with the way that earlier criminal biographies presented their accounts of criminals’ early lives. For example, James Dormand was born to ‘honest and respectable parents’.[26] The same goes for the highway robber Thomas Hopkinson who was executed at Derby in 1819. Born of ‘respectable’ parentage but:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till he was “driven away with his wickedness”.[27]

That account is reminiscent of a 1724 account of the life of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) who was said to have first turned to crime after having associated with the prostitute Edgeworth Bess, thereafter committing a string of robberies.[28] As already stated, in the eighteenth century all people were assumed to be capable of crime because everybody was guilty of original sin, and therefore anyone might become a criminal. A person usually became a criminal when they began committing small sins, such as the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and this gradually led them on to bolder offences.[29]

broadside-1802
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799953

Yet by the 1820s broadsides began to include a mention of the trial in both the headline and the body of the text. They began to carry titles such as Trial and Sentence,[30] or, as in the case of the burglar William Harley in 1836, The Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley for the Chipstead Burglary.[31]

broadside-1836
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007053667

These later broadsides contained a very brief account of the life of the criminal. Indeed, all that is said of Charles Cottrell, the perpetrator of the Epsom robbery cited above, is that he was ‘known to be a desperate fellow’, thus associating him with the poor and dispossessed, or the criminal or dangerous classes.[32] The depiction of the trial in the main body of the text would have left readers in no doubt as to the felon’s guilt. James Mitchell and John Sharp in 1825, for example, are depicted as being unequivocally guilty because

After a few minutes’ absence, [the jury] returned a viva voce verdict, finding the pannels [sic] guilty.[33]

That is a very simplistic representation of the particulars of the case: Mitchell and Sharp committed a heinous crime, had been found guilty by a jury of their peers, and sentenced to death. Justice had been served. The inclusion of the trial served an important function when many people’s exposure to the workings of the judicial process would have been rare. It included people into the judicial sphere, and with the gradual focus upon the victim in the text, the trial allowed ‘the whole community to unite against the criminal’.[34]

Michel Foucault states that public executions during the eighteenth century, and their representation in print, effectively shamed both the executioner (the state) and the condemned. But when publicity shifts to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution of a criminal becomes something that justice is ashamed of but deems necessary to impose upon the condemned criminal for breaking the social contract.[35] Changing sensibilities and the rise of respectability during the nineteenth century meant that by the 1820s and 1830s the highwaymen depicted on broadsides were not the semi-glamorised and heroic individuals that they had been in the eighteenth century (unless they were historic, of course, as in William Harrison Ainsworth’s novels). Instead they were simply felons who were deserving of their fate. While Charles Dickens (1812-1870) may have criticised public executions for their effect upon the morality of the spectators, he never argued that these men should not be executed, and in the latter part of his life he declared that ‘I should be glad to abolish both [public executions and capital punishment] if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them.’[36]

One aspect of broadsides which appears to have remained constant was the moment that the criminal was ‘launched into eternity’, which was a common phrase to appear on broadsides. Other such phrases include burglars such as Thomas Boggington and Thomas Francis who in 1813 ‘met their awful fate’.[37] Being ‘launched into eternity’ through hanging was a painful, degrading experience: the hanged felon would feel cervical pain along with an acute headache as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck; sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve would continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocked them; male sufferers would have an erection after hanging due to the pooling of blood in the legs and lower body, and might also ejaculate while dangling on the rope.[38] These euphemisms, however, sanitised the state-sanctioned violence of the death sentence:[39] it seems that ‘it [was] ugly to be punishable, but there [was] no glory in punishing’.[40] The execution really was something that the state was ashamed to have to impose.

Conclusion

The digitisation of crime broadsides in recent years has facilitated an examination of their changing format and content. This paper has shown that while their general format and appearance changed little over the course of this period, there were subtle differences that can be discerned from studying their content over time. The earliest broadsides represented continuity with an eighteenth-century view of criminality which held that all people were capable of committing crime because of original sin, and which consequently accounts for the sympathetic view of criminals in them. Broadsides from the 1820s and 1830s, however, told a different story. The inclusion of the trial inculcated a respect for the law, with death being presented as something that the justice system was ashamed to impose upon its offenders who were, if broadside accounts are to be believed, deserving of their fate.


References

[1] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (2 Vols. London: J. Dicks, 1845; repr. London: Printed for the Booksellers [n.d.]), p.42.
[2] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (3 Vols. London: George Woodfall & Sons, 1851; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p.93.
[3] Last Farewell to the World of John Cashman, for Burglary, who is Ordered for Execution on Wednesday next, Opposite Mr. Beckwith’s House, on Snow Hill; Andrew Barton and James Frampton, for Highway Robbery, who will be Executed on Friday in the Old Bailey ([London]: Pigott, Printer, Old Street, London [1817]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 008108832; for example, ‘Good people all a warning take’ appears in this broadside and many others, implying that broadside publishers at least anticipated a wider readership for their wares.
[4] F. W. Chandler, The Literature of Roguery 2 Vols. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1907), 1: 181
[5] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Continuum, 2007); Phillip Chassaigne, ‘Popular Representations of Crime: The Crime Broadside – A Subculture of Violence in Victorian Britain?’ Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies 8: 2 (1999), 23-55.
[6] Harvard Library School of Law Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides [Internet << http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu/faq.php Accessed 11 September 2016] & National Library of Scotland Word on the Street [Internet <http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/&gt; Accessed 11 September 2016].
[7] Chandler, The Literature of Roguery, 1: 181.
[8] Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Penguin, 1991), p.89.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.54.
[10] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen ed. by Arthur Heyward (3 Vols. London: J. Morphew, 1719; repr. London: Routledge, 1933), p.56.
[11] Henry Fielding ‘Jonathan Wild’ in The Works of Henry Fielding 12 Vols. (London, 1743; repr. London: J. Bell, 1775), 5: 4.
[12] Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
[13] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 2013), p.351.
[14] Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009).
[15] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.32.
[16] Account of the Life, Character and Behaviour of T. Wilcocks, Who was Executed this Day, March 29th, 1820, on Nottingham Gallows, for Highway Robbery ([Leicester]: Re-printed by Martin, Leicester [1820]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799979.
[17] The Full Confession and Execution of William Oldfield, Innkeeper, of Bradford, Yorkshire, Who Suffered on Thursday Last, July 27, 1820, at York for the Murder of his Wife Mary Oldfield ([Leicester]: Re-printed by Martin, Leicester [1820]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799658.
[18] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.175.
[19] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, p.243.
[20] Rachel Hall, Wanted: The Outlaw in American Visual Culture (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009), p.37.
[21] The Latest Particulars: The Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery: Committed, as Supposed to be, by Two Ruffians, on Mr. John Richardson, Farmer of Bletchingly, Who was Robbed, and Barbarously and Inhumanly Murdered about Half-Past Six O’Clock in the Evening of Wednesday the 26th of February 1834, on his Return Home from Epsom Market ([n.p.] [n.pub.], 1834). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 007076646.
[22] Rosalind Crone, Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p.107; the representation of such violent acts, naturally, was also a part of the increasing demand on the part of nineteenth-century audiences for violent entertainment.
[23] Life, Trial, Sentence, and Execution of Catherine Wilson, for the Murder of Mrs. Soames ([London]: Taylor, Printer, 93, Brick Lane Spitalfields, [ca. 1862]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 008120856.
[24] The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand, Who was Execute [sic’] at Perth, on Friday 31st May 1793 for Highway Robbery ([n.p.] [n.pub], 1793). National Library of Scotland, Shelfmark 6.314(31).
[25] The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham on Wednesday 31st March 1802 ([Leicester]: Throsby, Printer, Leicester, [1802]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 009799953.
[26] The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand.
[27] The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson, Jun.: Who Suffered this Day on the New Drop, in Front of the County Gaol, Derby, for Highway Robbery ([Derby]: G. Wilkins, Printer, Queen Street, Derby [1819]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 005949713.
[28] Anon. ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild ed. by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), pp.5-6.
[29] McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs, p.59.
[30] Trial and Sentence: A Full and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of James Mitchell and John Sharp ([n.p.] [n.pub.], 1825). National Library of Scotland. F.3.A.13(99)
[31] Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley, for the Chipstead Burglary at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Old Montague Street, Whitechapel (London: Carpue, Printer [1836]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 007053667.
[32] The Latest Particulars: The Epsom Murder and Highway Robbery.
[33] Trial and Sentence: A Full and Particular Account of the Trial and Sentence of James Mitchell and John Sharp.
[34] Chassaigne, Popular Representations of Crime, p.40.
[35] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System Trans. by A. Sheridan 2nd Edn. (London: Penguin, 1977), p.9.
[36] Charles Dickens cited in Michael Fraser, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p.249.
[37] The Trial and Execution, of Thos. Boggington, Sen., Thomas Francis, Thomas Norman, William Hasledon, alias Samuel Moss, for Burglaries; and Luke Marin, for Coining, who Suffered Death, this Morning, at the Surrey County Gaol, Horsemonger-Lane ([London]: Printed by Jennings, 13, Water-Lane, Fleet-Street, London. [1813]). Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS: 003184872.
[38] Capital Punishment UK, ‘Hanged by the neck until dead! The processes and physiology of judicial hanging’ [Internet] http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/hanging2.html#pain [Accessed 12/08/2014].
[39] Crone, Violent Victorians, p.103
[40] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p.10.

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

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

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

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

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

highwayman
Engraving of an 18th-Century Highwayman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of Smith’s accounts follow a similar formula: he opens the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. The felons’ parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Ned Bonnet, a highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Smith’s history:

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

After an account of the offender’s good upbringing, Smith tells the tale of how the criminall falls into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. This usually follows as the result of keeping unwholesome company, as is the case of Tom Gerrard, a house-breaker:

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

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs. [8]

Sometimes Smith’s highwaymen come across as sympathetic figures. The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns. [9]

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

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

At the end of the tale readers are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, and the case of another highwayman, Jack Shrimpton, is typical of how many of Smith’s accounts end:

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

However much readers may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history. [12]

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

Mollflanders
Moll Flanders (1722)

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


References

[1] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p.1.
[2] Smith, Highwaymen, p.401.
[3] Smith, Highwaymen, p.24.
[4] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[5] Peter Wagner, ‘Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 5: 1 (1982), pp.117-121.
[6] Smith, Highwaymen, p.56.
[7] Smith, Highwaymen, p.167.
[8] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), p.59.
[9] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[10] Smith, Highwaymen, p.138.
[11] Smith, Highwaymen, p.144.
[12] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (p.701)

Historic Yorkshire Criminals: William Knipe’s “Criminal Chronology” (1867)

The eighteenth century was the period in which criminal biography flourished, when men such as Charles Johnson were publishing books such as Lives of the Highwaymen (1734) alongside serialised publications such as The Newgate Calendar and The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

The genre did not die at the end of the eighteenth century, however, for during the nineteenth century two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, published a new five volume edition of The Newgate Calendar in 1824 and a revised version 1826. A cheaper penny dreadful version entitled The New Newgate Calendar was published in 1863. Charles Macfarlane also authored The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) while in the following year Charles Whitehead published Lives and exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1834).

Crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century, but it is only in the nineteenth century that the government actually decided to do anything about it. The creation of a professionalised police force in 1829 replaced the haphazard system of law enforcement involving thief takers and part time constables that had existed until that point. Gaols, which had previously been nothing more than holding centres until an offender’s trial, became large institutions where people stayed for a long time. The persistence of criminal biography as a genre is therefore a reflection of the ongoing public debate that was occurring in parliament and the popular press over reforms to the criminal justice system.

FullSizeRender-1
William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867)

Most of these collections detailing the lives of criminals were very London-centric, with little attention paid to criminals from outside the capital. In light of this, William Knipe authored Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867). Knipes work gave a brief biography of almost every criminal executed at York between the fourteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.

Like Johnson before him, Knipe intended his work to be read as a piece of moralist literature:

The numerous and melancholy examples which our pages record of persons hurrying on from one crime to another, till the awful hand of justice has required their lives, will, we trust, alarm and deter the young and inexperienced from an indulgence in those pursuits or company which tend to weaken their ideas of justice and morality, the sure and certain prognostic of future ruin.[1]

Despite the moral purpose behind his work, Knipe avoids the sensational style of writing that was characteristic of the work of Johnson. Knipe was an antiquary and wanted his discussion to appear more sober and detailed. While Johnson often just made things up (Johnson even gives us an account of the life of that notorious robber, Sir John Falstaff), Knipe’s work was ‘carefully compiled from prison documents, ancient papers, and other authentic sources’ according to the title page.[2]

Ivanhoe 1871
Micklegate, York in the 19th century

The gallows in York was first erected on 1 March 1379 in order to execute all those who had been capitally convicted in the County of Yorkshire,[3] and the first criminal to have the ‘honour’ of being executed at the ‘York Tyburn’ (so called after the more famous London Tyburn) was a man called Edward Hewison:

At the Spring Assizes of 1379, Edward Hewison, aged 20, a native of Stockton, near York, and a private soldier in the Earl of Northumberland’s Light Horse, was tried and capitally convicted for committing a rape upon Louisa Bentley, 22 years of age […] when Hewison saw her alone in the field on the footpath, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. He then went into the field, threw the young woman down, and ravished her.[4]

While Knipe’s work is primarily a compendium of the lives of criminals, one thing which distinguishes his work from earlier works by Johnson et al is the fact that he includes political rebels. The three leaders of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ during the reign of Henry VIII: Sir Robert Aske, Lord Hussey, and William Wode are all presented in his work. Aske got off lightly compared to the latter two, for he was merely ‘hanged in chains’ and his body left to hang in a gibbet.[5] Hussey and Wode, however, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and:

[Their] mutilated remains put into a coffin and given to their friends for internment.[6]

Whereas Johnson’s accounts of each individual criminal are quite lengthy, most of Knipe’s accounts of criminals who existed before the Victorian era are relatively short. This is all he says, for example, of two criminals from Leeds named John de Viner and Harris Rosenberg who were executed at the York gallows in 1603:

Saturday, March 30th, A.D. 1603. – Harris Roseberg, aged 56, a native of Florence; and John de Viner, aged 32, servant to the above, a native of Paris, were executed at the Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, for the atrocious murder of Mr. Millington, an innkeeper at Leeds, on the night of the 8th day of November last. These unfortunate men suffered death in the presence of a large concourse of spectators. Their bodies on being taken down from the scaffold were given to the surgeons for dissection, in accordance with the sentence passed upon them.[7]

The criminal who receives the lengthiest account in Knipe’s work is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). For his account of Turpin, Knipe appears to have abridged an earlier account of Turpin’s life entitled The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739).

FullSizeRender(23)
Illustration of a criminal being executed from The Newgate Calendar

For criminals who existed prior to his own day Knipe avoids making any moral judgements upon their course of life. As he moves into his own era, the Victorian era, however, he begins to moralise more and more. While criminality in earlier periods can be explained by the fact that Englishmen’s manners and morals were not as refined as they were in his own day, the fact that criminals existed and were still being hanged in the Victorian period baffles Knipe. Take his account of a murder committed in Hunslet, Leeds in 1849:

Thomas Malkin. Saturday, January 6th, A.D. 1849. – Thomas Malkin was hanged on the new drop, in front of St. George’s Field, for the murder of Esther Inman, near Leeds. It is again our painful duty to record one of those brutalizing spectacles, of which England, that land of Bibles and privileges, can boast so many, viz., the public strangling of a fellow creature.[8]

This is a double-edged critique of Knipe’s own society – with Bibles and ‘privileges’ being plentiful in the Victorian era (Knipe does not say what these ‘privileges’ are), in theory there should be no criminals and no hangings.

Knipe’s accounts of criminals from before the Victorian era rarely carry any information about their trial. Likely this was down to lack of primary sources, but accounts of Victorian criminals are conspicuous in Knipe’s work with the inclusion of trial proceedings.

Knipe gives a lengthy account of the trial of Alfred Waddington from Sheffield who was executed on 15 January 1853 for the murder of his illegitimate child.[9] While most of Knipe’s accounts of pre-Victorian criminals concentrate upon the birth and upbringing of the offender, in the accounts of criminals from the mid-Victorian period sometimes all that Knipe gives the reader is details of the trial. This is the case in Knipe’s account of William Dove from Leeds, who was executed for murdering his wife Harriet on 9 August 1856.[10]

Eighteenth-century accounts of criminals presented criminality as something that was the result of original sin, and this contributed to an often sympathetic depiction of criminals. They were simply people who had succumbed to their sinful inclinations through a tragic fatal flaw. But the conception of criminality had changed by the Victorian era: criminality became associated with the rise of a criminal class – a class of people drawn from society’s poorest ranks and who were thought to be responsible for the majority of crime. At the same time, however, there were murmurings from middle-class reformers about the barbarity of the spectacle of public hanging. Some might even argue that society was collectively responsible for crime – as the saying by Emile Durkheim goes: ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Thus the wickedness and depravity of the offender was exposed with the inclusion of trial:

[When] publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.[11]

The criminal had failed society, and their guilt had been determined through being found guilty by a jury of their peers. They had been justly punished.

Knipe’s work does not appear to have been extremely popular, and only went through one edition. In contrast, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar went through several editions during the Victorian era and are still being reprinted even today (the most recent edition of The Newgate Calendar was published by The Folio Society in 1993). The reason why Knipe’s work was not as successful, it might be speculated, is probably because it was too serious. It lacked Johnson’s acerbic wit and humour. Nevertheless, Knipe’s work is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of crime in Yorkshire that has ever been published.


References

[1] William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle; with a Register of the Criminals Capitally Convicted and Executed at the County Assizes, Commencing March 1st 1379, to the Present Time (York: C. L. Burdekin, 1867), p.vii.
[2] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.i.
[3] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.1.
[4] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.1-2.
[5] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.4.
[6] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.4-5.
[7] Knipe Criminal Chronology, p.15.
[8] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.230.
[9] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.240-244.
[10] Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.248-253.
[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (London: Penguin, 1975), p.9

UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ARE SCANNED IMAGES TAKEN FROM COPIES OF BOOKS IN MY OWN COLLECTION.