My Forthcoming Book: “The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers” (2018)

In addition to my PhD thesis entitled ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700-c.1900’ and my forthcoming book, The Mob Reformer: The Life and Legend of Wat Tyler (2018), I have also been contracted to author another book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers which is due to be published by Pen & Sword Books in September 2018.

The book aims to resurrect the format of eighteenth-century criminal biographies such as those by Alexander Smith and Charles Johnson, who authored books such as A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1714) and Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) respectively.

It is envisaged as a cultural history of crime, being a readable and scholarly compendium of short biographies of the most notorious thieves, reprobates, rogues, and murderers throughout history. I will discuss whether Robin Hood was a real person, and I will introduce readers to Sawney Beane, the seventeenth-century Scottish cannibal whose story inspired the movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

The book will also contain several appendices such as a Dictionary of Thieves’ Cant, as well as several poems on highwaymen from historical works, such as the following one from William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834):

Of every rascal of every kind,

The most notorious to my mind,

Was the Cavalier Captain, gay Jemmy Hind

Which Nobody Can Deny

But the pleasantest coxcomb among them all,

For lute, oranto and madrigal,

Was the galliard Frenchman, Claude DuVall

Which Nobody Can Deny […]

Nor could any so handily break a lock,

As Sheppard, who stood on Newgate Dock,

And nicknamed the gaolers around him his flock

Which Nobody Can Deny

Nor did the highwayman ever possess,

For ease, for security, danger, distress,

Such a mare as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess! Black Bess!

Which Nobody Can Deny.

Having over the years also built up a collection of penny dreadfuls and criminal biographies, the book will also be profusely illustrated throughout with images taken from these rare items.

Below is a copy of the blurb which will appear on the back of the book:

“For as long as human societies have existed there have always been people who have always transgressed the laws of their respective societies. It seems that whenever new laws are made, certain people find ways to break them.

“This book will introduce you to some of the most notorious figures, from all parts of the world, who have committed heinous crimes such as highway robbery, murder, and forgery.

“Beginning with Bulla Felix, the Roman highwayman, this book traces the careers of medieval outlaws such as Robin Hood. Early modern murderers make an appearance such as Sawney Beane, whose story inspired the horror movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977). There is Jack Sheppard, an eighteenth-century criminal who escaped from prison on several occasions, and the ruffian Dick Turpin. There is the Scottish freedom fighter Robert Roy MacGregor, who was immortalised in Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), as well as the Eastern European outlaw Janosik. Australian bushrangers such as Ned Kelly and the American Jesse James also make an appearance, along with many others whose names have become synonymous with crime and roguery.

“This book also includes an appendix of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thieves’ canting language, as well as several historical poems, songs, and ballads relating to the subjects discussed, and the work is prefaced with an essay highlighting the significance of crime literature throughout history.”

Further updates will follow.

Society Gets the Criminals it Deserves: The Resurrection Man from G. W. M. Reynolds’ “The Mysteries of London” (1844-45)

[All images unless otherwise stated are my own, scanned from a first edition of Reynolds’ Mysteries that is in my own collection – permission to use is freely granted providing there is a citation or link to this blog]

George William MacArthur Reynolds’ long-running serial novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-45), was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. It was full of sex, featuring characters such as the debauched aristocrat who keeps four beautiful women at his beck and call to service his every need. There is a lot of violence which is often gratuitous, as well as healthy doses of radical political sentiments. Reynolds (1814-1879) was a radical who espoused many political causes, the principal ones being Republicanism and Chartism. The sex, violence, and political radicalism of this novel and of Reynolds’ other novels moved Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to exclaim that Reynolds’ name was

A name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated.[1]

This post discusses the principal criminal character in The Mysteries of London, the Resurrection Man. While the Resurrection Man, or Anthony Tidkins as he is also known, is a menace to the good and virtuous (if slightly naïve) hero, Richard Markham, Reynolds simultaneously argues that we should not condemn this criminal character outright.

To begin, however, let us briefly discuss what a Resurrection Man was. The medical profession during the eighteenth century needed bodies to dissect and study. In London, the profession received a steady supply of bodies from the many criminals hanged at Tyburn. However, at the same time that the medical profession was expanding, juries were becoming more lenient and, to put it bluntly, there were not enough people being hanged. Still, the doctors managed to somehow get enough fresh cadavers to operate upon, often asking no awkward questions of the shady characters they had to do business with. Issues came to a head when it was revealed that Burke and Hare, two notorious Body Snatchers from Edinburgh in the 1820s, had not only been digging up graves but also murdering people to sell on to the surgeons. By the time Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London the Anatomy Act had been passed which had at least gone some way to regulating the supply of cadavers for the medical profession – Doctors could now legally have access to the bodies of deceased people provided there was no existing relatives. The Resurrection Man does not simply dig up corpses, however: his exploits comprise a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, blackmail, highway robbery, burglary, and murder.

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The Resurrection Man Relates his History to the Cracksman – G W M Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Yet the blame for the Resurrection Man’s course of life is attributed to Victorian society. Reynolds humanises him by giving his working- and middle-class readers the Resurrectionist’s backstory.

“I was born thirty-eight years ago, near the village of Walmer, in Kent. My father and mother occupied a small cottage – or rather hovel, made of the wreck of a ship, upon the sea-coast. Their ostensible employment was that of fishing: but it would appear that smuggling … formed a portion of my father’s avocations. The rich inhabitants of Walmer and Deal encouraged him in his contraband pursuits … and in consequence of the frequent visits they paid our cottage, they took a sort of liking to me.”[2]

Okay, so his father was a bit dodgy, and he used to supply the local villages with illegal cut-price luxuries. But neither the father nor young Tidkins are wicked to the core. They are generally good people.

But one morning the Resurrection Man’s father is arrested for smuggling, and the local villagers then become confirmed hypocrites:

“The whole neighbourhood expressed their surprise that a man who appeared to be so respectable, should turn out such a villain. The gentlemen who used to buy brandy of him talked loudly of the necessity of making an example of him: the ladies, who were accustomed to purchase gloves, silks, and eau-de-cologne wondered that such a desperate ruffian should have allowed them to sleep safe in their bed; and of course the clergyman and his wife kicked me ignominiously out of door”.[3]

While his father is in prison, the Resurrection Man and his mother are reduced to a state of dire poverty and the villagers, supposed Christian people, refuse to render them any assistance. The young soon-to-be criminal witnesses the local Parson preach charity and philanthropy from the pulpit.

The father is acquitted for want of evidence but the goodwill that Tidkins’ family enjoyed from the other villagers is never revived. Despite the hypocrisy he has witnessed, young Tidkins strives to grow up honest and respectable by finding himself a job. Yet he is met with more callous treatment at the hands of the villagers:

“I was not totally disheartened. I determined to call upon some of those ladies and gentlemen who had been my father’s best customers for his contraband articles. One lady upon hearing my business, seized hold of the poker with one hand and her salts-bottle with the other ;- a second was also nearly fainting, and rang the bell for her maid to bring her some eau-de-cologne – the very eau-decologne which my father had smuggled for her ;- a third begged me with tears in her eyes to retire, or my very suspicious appearance would frighten her lap-dog into fits ;- and a fourth (an old lady, who was my father’s best customer for French brandy), held up her hands to heaven, and implored the Lord to protect her from all sabbath-breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards”.[4]

From this point forward the young Tidkins realises that he can no longer maintain an honest livelihood even if he wanted to. But still he is not wicked. He becomes a Resurrection Man with his father and carries on the dubious trade for some time. Yet still there is the prospect of redemption for Tidkins. In the course of his duties as a Resurrectionist, he becomes acquainted with a certain medical doctor and his daughter. Tidkins and the daughter fall in love, and it looks as if he is ready to try and turn from his dishonest profession. However, further ill luck befalls the now adolescent Tidkins:

“One morning I was roving amidst the fields, when I heard a loud voice exclaim,- ‘I say, you fellow there, open the gate, will you?’ I turned round, and recognised the baronet on horseback. He had a large hunting whip in his hand.- ‘Open the gate!’ said I; ‘and whom for?’ ‘Whom for!’ repeated the baronet; ‘why, for me, to be sure, fellow.-‘ ‘Then open it yourself.’ said I. The baronet was near enough to me to reach me with his whip; and he dealt me a stinging blow across the face. Maddened with pain, and soured with vexation, I leapt over the gate and attacked the baronet with a stout ash stick which I carried in my hand. I dragged him from his horse, and thrashed him without mercy. When I was tired, I walked quietly away, he roaring after me that he would be revenged upon me as sure as I was born”.[5]

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The Resurrection Man Burns Down the Judge’s House – From G W M Reynolds The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Unlike what the television period dramas of men such as Julian Fellowes would have you believe, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not peopled with friendly and benevolent aristocrats. A lot of the time they were exploitative, framing laws in their own interests, resisting any demands for political reform, and treated the working poor with utter contempt. Tidkins is committed to gaol for two years and it is here that his heart becomes truly hardened:

“I could not see any advantage in being good … I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work”.[6]

He is eventually released, and after the manner of the time, there is no probationary service and he is simply left to fend for himself without a crust.

That day came. I was turned adrift, as before, without a shilling and without a crust … How could I remain honest, even if I had any longer been inclined to do so, when I could not get work and had no money – no bread – no lodging? The legislature does not think of all this. It fancies that all its duty consists in punishing men for crimes, and never dreams of adopting measures to prevent them from committing crimes at all. But I now no more thought of honesty: I went out of prison a confirmed ruffian. I had no money – no conscience – no fear – no hope – no love – no friendship – no sympathy – no kindly feeling of any sort. My soul had turned to the blackness of hell![7]

He resolves to get revenge upon the Justice who sentenced him to goal. He breaks into the Justice’s house and helps himself to the food in his pantry. He also carries off with him a significant quantity of silver plate. As he is making his way out of the Justice’s estate, he spies a barn and resolves to set it alight:

“A bright column of flame was shooting up to heaven! Oh I how happy did I feel at that moment. Happy! this is not the word! I was mad – intoxicated – delirious with joy. I literally danced as I saw the barn burning”.[8]

Tidkins’ glee is raised to new heights the day after when he reads in the newspaper that the fire in the Barn spilled over into the main house, and the Justice’s daughter is burned alive! He next puts the Baronet’s estate to the flame:

“Not many hours elapsed before I set fire to the largest barn upon the baronet’s estate. I waited in the neighbourhood and glutted myself with a view of the conflagration. The damage was immense.[9]

Although both the Justice and the Baronet suspect Tidkins of setting their property alight, they cannot prove it and although he is re-arrested he is released due to lack of evidence.

“And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few! Ah! the Lucifer-match is a fearful weapon in the hands of the man whom the laws, the aristocracy, and the present state of society have ground down to the very dust”.[10]

reynolds-4
G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Make no mistake: Reynolds does not ask us to sympathise with Tidkins – he is, after all, a wicked man. Rather, we are supposed to understand what led him to commit crimes in the first place.

Society has made him the way he is: the Resurrection Man was from the working classes, and the cards were stacked against him since birth. He had no choice but to turn to crime. This was a feature of what Gertrude Himmelfarb calls Reynolds’ nihilistic political radicalism: he often highlighted the plight of the working classes and the need for their enfranchisement, but as Himmelfarb says, if one examines Reynolds’ Mysteries, the only social message to be drawn from it is that:

Violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[11]

The root cause of criminality, as Reynolds argues, is the social and political oppression of the working poor. As the Resurrection Man says:

Let a rich man accuse a poor man before a justice, a jury, or a judge, and see how quick the poor wretch is condemned! The aristocracy hold the lower classes in horror and abhorrence. The legislature thinks that if it does not make the most grinding laws to keep down the poor, the poor will rise up and commit the most unheard-of atrocities. In fact the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor.[12]

Other questions of society are also raised in Reynolds’ novel, such as how to properly treat prisoners. Turning them out into the street with minimal support will only increase recidivism rates and harden them further. Thus, Reynolds’ depiction of the Resurrection Man’s history anticipates Emile Durkeim’s statement that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’.


References

[1] Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens ed. by Madeline House and Graham Storey 12 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 5: 604.

[2] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London 2 Vols. (London: G. Vickers, 1845), 1: 191.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 192.

[5] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[6] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[7] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 196.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p.450.

[12] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 193.

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.

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)

Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries crime, and in particular highway robbery, was a problem. Whether crime was actually as bad as Henry Fielding gloomily surmised, that the streets of London ‘were impassable but without the utmost hazard’, is open to debate. One thing is certain, however, for the average Londoner, the fear of being robbed was real to them.

Such fears left their marks upon the popular culture of the day. The theme common to a lot of popular literature produced between c.1660 and c.1740 is crime. Beginning in the 1660s there was Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1663). The early eighteenth century witnessed the publication of Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), along with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General of History of the Most Noted Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).

Jackson's Recantation
Richard Head’s Jackson’s Recantation (1674)

Daniel Defoe’s authorship has also been ascribed to three criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). It has been suggested by some scholars that Defoe was actually Charles Johnson, but I have discussed the credibility of that in another post. We know that Defoe definitely authored novels whose protagonists were criminals, such as Moll Flanders (1722), whilst Henry Fielding authored an embellished acccount of Wild’s life entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

It is to a work which Richard Head allegedly authored entitled Jackson’s recantation, or, The life & death of the notorious high-way-man, now hanging in chains at Hampstead delivered to a friend a little before execution: wherein is truly discovered the whole mystery of that wicked and fatal profession of padding on the road. They were fond of long titles in the eighteenth century, and the work purports to be the last confession of a relatively obscure highwayman, Francis Jackson.

525px-Richard_Head_1666
Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. His The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.

The protagonist, Jackson, is currently awaiting his execution in Newgate gaol. He is alone in the condemned hold, and is struck by remorse of conscience for his wicked life:

Heaven thought fit I should no longer reign in pride and arrogance, and therefore committed me into hands of Justice, to be punisht to the demerits of my Crimes. Being here confin’d in this Terrestial Hell, surrounded with horror and despair, my conscience started out of her dead sleep, and demanded a severe account of what I had done; guilt instantly did stop my mouth.

A priest, or The Ordinary of Newgate, comes to visit him in the condemned hold to hear his confession, as was the custom. The Ordinary also was able to make a little money out of these visits to prisoners; they would write down the felons’ stories and sell them to the publishers to make a profit.

The highwayman reveals that he turned to robbery in his youth because he was starving and destitute. Yet to Richard Head, this is no justification for robbery. After finding a purse full of money in the street, the highwayman takes it, and keeps it, and from then on it is a downward spiral for him into a life of sin and vice, until he soon joins forces with other robbers that he meets:

The first Robbery that I committed, I told you was on a Coach near Barnet; The second was this, we were four in Company, and took our Road towards Maiden-head, more for intelligence sake than for any present Booty; in Maidenhead we din’d, and towards four a clock in Summer time we travel’d on for Redding, making a little halt by the way at Maidenhead Thicket, expecting there to light upon some prize; having waited an hour or more to no purpose, we proposed to distribute our selves, and Ride into Redding singly, and that two should lie in one Inn, and two in the other, for the better benefit of observation. My other two Comerades lay in an Inn where they were intimately acquainted, and were winkt at by the Master of the House, the Servants also being at their Devotion; by whose means they understood that there was a Gentleman in the house who was the next morning with his Man, would set out for Malbrough, and that it was thought by the weight of a small Port-mantue, that it must be mony that caused it to be so heavy. We on the other side could make no discovery till after Supper, and then we heard what our hearts desired. An Attourney was in the company, and amongst other talk, he said he was bound for London to be there at the Term […] I put his hand in his pocket and pul’d out a Bagg wherein were an hundred and fifty Guinnies, saying, these I will so conceal in the Saddle I ride upon.

But this was not only a moralist text, expounding the dangers of falling into a life of vice and crime. It was also a manual for Londoners to know how they could avoid being robbed. The whole narrative is supposed to illuminate the modus operandi of organised criminal gangs in the seventeenth century. If you do happen to be robbed in London, Head gives this advice:

If you are set upon and rob’d in the Eastern quarter, take not that Road in which you were to London, nor raise the Country thereabout, for it is to no purpose; but ride with all speed to Holbourn, Strand, St. Jameses, or West∣minster, and there search with all diligence. If you are rob’d towards the North, never search any place in the City, but make all convenient speed to the Bank-side, Southwark, Lambeth, or Fox-hall; by thus planting themselves, they know, or think at least, they are sufficiently secure, having the City between them and you.

He also gives advice on how to spot a highwayman:

The first caution is this, be shy of those who are over prone in prossing into your company; it is more safe to entertain such who are unwilling to associate themselves with you, or if they do it is with such indifferency, that there need the urging of perswasions to effect it. Now to the intent you may distinguish an honest man from a Thief or Robber, take these informations and directions; first if you suspect your company, halt a little, and in your stay observe whether they still hold on their course, or slack their pace, or it may be alight and walk with their Horses in their hands, if you observe any of these, you may conclude them the justly suspected marks of an High-wayman.

This pamphlet was very popular, and provided inspiration for other writers of criminal biography such as Smith and Johnson, especially its illuminating descriptions of how highwaymen operated. But the pamphlet ends with a stark warning, saying that however much new laws are created to curb crime, criminals will always find a way to circumvent them:

Let this suffice, for according to the Proverb, new Lords, new Laws; so all new Gangs have new Orders, Plots and Designs, to Rob and Purloin from the honest Traveller.

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

Contemporary portrait of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) by James Thornhill.
Contemporary portrait of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) by James Thornhill. [Source: Wikipedia].

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is one of my favourite thieves, second only, in my opinion, to Robin Hood. He was rather like an eighteenth-century Artful Dodger, a proper cheeky chappie who thumbed his nose at authority, escaping from gaol no less than four times. This post gives a brief overview of his life and legend.

Jack Sheppard was born in Stepney, London in 1702. His father died when he was young, and Sheppard was placed into the care of the Parish Workhouse, where he remained for some time before being apprenticed to a carpenter named Mr. Wood, of Wych Street near Drury Lane. Contemporary accounts such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), the authorship of which has been credited to Daniel Defoe, tell us that Sheppard was in his early years a perfect apprentice.

Sheppard’s downfall into criminal ways, however, seems to be traced to the time that he first met a prostitute, named Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgeworth Bess, who he began cohabiting with. Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In a typical, Hogarthian idle apprentice manner, Sheppard began to grow weary of his industrious employment, and begins to quarrel with his master, Mr. Wood. Wood and his wife implored him not to associate any longer with Bess, but he would not listen to them. In fact, he beat Mrs. Wood with a stick for criticising Bess.

In July 1723 Sheppard committed his first robbery, having stolen a yard of fustian from the house of a Mr. Bains, a piece-maker who resided in Whitehouse Yard, London while on a job for Mr. Wood. Consequently, Sheppard and Mr. Wood parted ways, and his biographer tells us that:

He was gone from a good and careful patronage, and lay exposed to, and complied with, the temptations of the most wicked wretches this town could afford, as Joseph Blake alias Blueskin, William Field, Doleing, James Sykes, alias Hell and Fury.

In concert with these thieves, robbery followed robbery. One day he was apprehended in the attempt of picking a man’s pocket, and was committed to Newgate gaol with his companion, Edgeworth Bess. Gaols in the eighteenth century were privatised, and for the right price, the gaoler would allow you to have as many visitors as you wanted (even your own luxury private room, for the right price). Sheppard’s friends furnished him with a few instruments, and in three days’ time Sheppard managed to cut through his iron fetters, and cut off an iron bar from the window, out of which he and Bess escaped.

In a very moralistic passage, Sheppard’s biographer tells us that:

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

He returns to his thieving ways by robbing Mr. Carter’s house, a tailor who lived near his old master, Mr. Wood. From Mr. Carter he stole goods to the value of nearly £300, a princely sum in the eighteenth century. He then went on to rob a woollen draper, Mr. Kneebone, of goods that were also the equivalent of £50. He was no simple house-breaker though, for Sheppard also liked to rob people on the highway, as all the best eighteenth-century thieves did.

Jack Sheppard in Newgate. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839)
Jack Sheppard in Newgate. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839)

Sheppard’s fame, or infamy, grew so great that one of his victims, Mr. Kneebone, applied to the Thief Taker, Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) to have Sheppard apprehended and brought to trial. Wild was the chief agent of law enforcement in the country at the time, for there was no professional police force. The victim of a crime would go to Wild and tell him what he had stolen, Wild would then liaise with certain acquaintances of his from the criminal underworld to arrange, in return for a fee, the stolen goods (unbeknownst to most Londoners, however, is that it was usually Wild himself, at the head of a band of criminals, who was probably directing half of the robberies). Accordingly another warrant for Sheppard was drawn up, and was arrested when he broke into the house of William Fields.

After his indictment, Sheppard was committed to the New Prison, and sentenced to death by hanging. But again gaol could not contain Sheppard, and he escaped once again. His escape caused a sensation in the London press, and he became the talk of the town. The thing about Sheppard was that, while he was good at escaping from prison, he was never very good at evading recapture once he had escaped. He immediately went back to robbing people. And he was captured soon again. This time his time in gaol was spent with his feet weighed down with a ball-and-chain, lest he should try to escape again. By this time he was a celebrity; men and women of all ranks came to see him in prison. Even the famous artist, William Hogarth, came to draw him.

Yet inexplicably, despite being manacled on both of his limbs, Sheppard escaped again. The contemporary accounts of Sheppard’s life are not clear just how he managed this, but this last escape caused an even bigger sensation than his previous one. Unfortunately, he was again apprehended. It would have been better for him simply to have left London, but he did not. He was retaken. This last time there would be no escape, and on the 16 November 1724 Sheppard passed in the cart to Tyburn, where public executions were held, and was launched into eternity.

Jack Sheppard faces up to Jonathan Wild. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839).
Jack Sheppard faces up to Jonathan Wild. Illustration by G. Cruikshank (1839).

Sheppard’s story was used as the model for the highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728). As well as the contemporary accounts of his life allegedly written by Defoe, narratives of Sheppard’s life appear in well-known criminal biographies such as Charles Johnson’s A General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers (1734), and Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), as well as in the countless editions of The Newgate Calendar which were published during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also speculated that Sheppard may have been the inspiration for Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice in his series of prints entitled Industry and Idleness (1747). There were also plays about his life staged at the St. Bartholomew Fair celebrations, in addition to numerous street ballads and songs detailing his life and exploits.

It was in the Victorian era, however, when Jack’s reputation soared to new heights. William Harrison Ainsworth published his novel Jack Sheppard in 1839. The novel was initially well-received and even outsold early editions of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), and is by far the best prose account of Sheppard’s story, although it is heavily fictionalised. Ainsworth draws upon Hogarth’s themes of industry and idleness; Sheppard and his childhood friend Thames Darrell are apprenticed to Mr. Wood. Sheppard is the idle apprentice while his friend Darrell is the industrious apprentice. Sheppard falls into a life of criminality; he commences by working for Jonathan Wild, but after a feud between the two, Wild vows to have Sheppard hanged, and eventually succeeds by the end of the novel.

Jack Sheppard's Progress to Tyburn. illustration by G. Cruishank (1839).
Jack Sheppard’s Progress to Tyburn. illustration by G. Cruishank (1839).

The novel soon generated controversy, however, and there was a storm of moral outrage in the press. A reviewer in The Athenaeum called it:

A bad book, and what is worse, one of a class of bad books, got up for a bad people…a history of vulgar and disgusting atrocities.

Alongside the unfavourable reviews in magazines such as The Athenaeum, matters came to head in July 1840. In that year Lord William Russell (1767-1840) was murdered in his sleep by his valet, Benjamin Courvoisier. In one of several public confessions the valet stated that the idea for murdering his master came from having read the novel Jack Sheppard. W. M. Thackeray was disgusted with the genre and wrote his own Newgate novel, Catherine (1840) in order ‘to exhibit the danger and folly of investing [criminals] with heroic and romantic qualities’. The reaction to Ainsworth’s work broke through the romantic quarantine which the popular criminals such as Dick Turpin had hitherto enjoyed in literature. Ainsworth responded to his critics by writing a vigorous defence of the novel in The Times, and concluded that these attacks were nothing more than:

A most virulent and libellous attack upon my romance.

However, the damage had been done. The genre fell out of favour with the respectable reading public. The work really was perceived by them as ‘a bad book…one of a class of bad books’. The reason why there was a big moral panic over the novel, and in particular youth’s idealisation of Sheppard, was because in the novel Sheppard is not a noble robber like Robin Hood, nor is he a gentlemanly highwayman like Dick Turpin. In Ainsworth’s novel his boy thief, rather, acts on his impulses and takes pleasure in his crimes. There was no justification for Sheppard’s crimes in the novel.

Paradoxically, while he is a thief, he is also inherently noble, loyal to his friend Darrell and his mother, Joan. His devotion to his mother leads to his arrest, for he is apprehended at her funeral by Jonathan Wild, the famous thief taker. Sheppard’s moral ambiguity accounts for why the novel was deemed to be truly subversive by middle-class commentators in the press, as Lyn Pykett explains that:

Critics of the novel objected to mixed motives and mixed morality, preferring the security of a moral universe in which the good and bad, the criminal and the law-abiding, were readily identifiable as such.

The novel’s publication also coincided with the emergence of Chartism in 1838 – the year before the publication of the novel, and in the summer of 1839 – the year of Jack Sheppard’s publication – there was particularly violent rhetoric coming from the mouths of Chartist leaders, many of whom advocated strikes and violence against authority. Many young boys often took an active role in the Chartist movement, and contemporary police reports from the 1840s lay a particular emphasis upon the presence of young males at Chartist meetings. Although admittedly many of the boys present at those meetings may simply have been pickpockets who wished to capitalise upon the pickings to be had where a great number of people were present. Be that as it may, the figure of ‘the Artful Chartist Dodger’ was a worrying spectre for the respectable classes of Middle England, combining threats of both criminality and political insurrection.

You have to wonder why, in an age in which several novels featuring thieves and highwaymen were published, such as Rob Roy (1817), Robin Hood (1819), Ivanhoe (1819), Maid Marian (1822), Paul Clifford (1830), Eugene Aram (1832), Rookwood (1834), it was only Jack Sheppard in 1839 that was singled out for attention. And this was not lost on some contemporary reviewers:

Critics, who had always a passion for heroes in fetters before, now found out that housebreakers are disreputable characters. They were in raptures with the old-established brigand still, and the freebooter of foreign extraction; they could hug Robin Hood as fondly as ever, and dwell with unhurt morals on the little peccadilloes of Rob Roy; nay, they had no objection to ride behind Turpin to York any day, and would never feel ashamed of their company; but they shook their heads at Sheppard, because low people began to run after him at the theatres; he was a housebreaker!

Title Page to Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). A rare penny dreadful.
Title Page to Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). A rare penny dreadful.

After the furore surrounding Ainsworth’s novel in the 1840s died down, Sheppard’s tale continued to be popular, especially with young readers in the emerging ‘penny dreadful’ genre of literature. For example, there was the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847). Despite the serial’s purporting to be an original story ‘arranged from some rare and original documents, in connection with the remarkable history of the above notorious individual, only recently discovered’, it is a virtual abridgment of Ainsworth’s novel. There was also The Eventful Life and Unparalleled Exploits of the Notorious Jack Sheppard, the Housebreaker, The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard, as well as The Life of Jack Sheppard the Housebreaker, which are all undated but probably published around the 1840s. Other penny serial authors appropriated Sheppard’s name and fame for stories of other boy thieves, such as Charley Wag; or, The New Jack Sheppard (1865). Young male readers loved these tales, as indicated by the interviews with some youths which the social investigator, Henry Mayhew, published in his London Labour and the London Poor (1861):

Fifty of this number [of youths interviewed] said they had read ‘Jack Sheppard’ and the lines of Dick Turpin, Claude du Val, and all the other popular thieves’ novels, as well as the Newgate Calendar and Lives of Robbers and Pirates. Those who could not read themselves, said they’d had ‘Jack Sheppard’ read to them at the lodging houses. Numbers avowed that they had been induced to resort to an abandoned course of life from reading the lives of notorious thieves and novels about highway robbers.

And one youth told Mayhew that:

Of a night…we’d read stories about Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, and all through that set. They were large thick books, borrowed from the library. They told how they used to break open the houses, and get out of Newgate, and how Dick got away to York. We used to think Jack and them very fine fellows. I wished I could be like Jack (I did then), about the blankets in his escape, and that old house in West-street -it is a ruin still.

Stage plays were held frequently throughout the nineteenth century in many of the ‘penny gaff’ theatres. And it may not be amiss to say that during the nineteenth century Jack Sheppard’s fame equalled that of Robin Hood himself, the original highwayman. And his image was also in advertising, and on cigarette trading cards. In short, he was one of the most famous thieves of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the memory of Jack Sheppard has faded from public consciousness. He was the subject of a movie called Where’s Jack? (1969), which starred Tommy Steele in the title role. Perhaps one day some movie-maker will resurrect Jack Sheppard back into public memory.


n.b. All illustrations used are scanned from my own copies of first editions of these novels.