The Meaning of ‘Mafia’

By Stephen Basdeo

The early 1860s in Italy was a decade of hope.

King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had, with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s help, unified the whole of the Italian peninsula under his rule, where previously the region had been divided into a number of small petty kingdoms, often ruled by foreigners.

It seemed like the dream of the Italian radicals – that of the Risorgimento (‘rebirth’) – had finally been realised, a sentiment that is reflected in the Cango degli Italiani (1847), which is now used as the Italian national anthem:

Noi fummo da secoli [We were for centuries]

Calpesti, derisi [Downtrodden, derided,]

Perché non siam popolo, [Because we were not one people,]

Perché siam divisi. [Because we were divided.]

Raccolgaci un’unica Bandiera, una speme: [Let one flag, one hope gather us all]

Di fonderci insieme Già l’ora suonò. [The hour has struck for us to unite].

Yet the dream turned sour and far from a unification it looked increasingly as though Piedmont-Sardinia had merely conquered or colonised the rest of Italy – Victor Emmanuel even retained the regnal number ‘II’, instead of opting to be named Victor Emannuel I of Italy. Some of the tax and conscription measures passed by the new government prompted angry rebellions in the southern part of the peninsula and banditry became rife, which of course made the government send troops into the region to put down the bands of brigands that flourished there.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

If the southern part of the mainland had its problems, Sicily was deemed to be virtually lawless. Sicilians had often been viewed by northern mainlanders, if not with contempt and suspicion, at least as an exotic ‘Other’. They were to all intents and purposes a separate people with their own customs. Law enforcement here was practically non-existent which, as in the region of Naples, still suffered from endemic banditry.

According to Robert M. Dainotto, about this time a new word appeared in the Italian language which was ‘shrouded in mystery, eerie in sound, mysterious in origin, menacing in the images it evoked’.

The word was mafia.

It is true that the word had been around before; a record from the Inquisition in 1685 lists a case of alleged witchcraft as maffia, and a successful but short lived play by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca entitled The Mafioisi of Viccaria (1863) used the word to describe a set of law-breakers.

The word originally signified a state of mind, an attitude that was opposed to all forms of central and governmental authority, and only later was it applied to paramilitary groups which had been hired by Sicilian landowners to protect their estates from brigands. It was a marriage of convenience; it gave men from the poorer classes a wage and an escape route from dire poverty while more affluent citizens could carry on their businesses without hindrance from brigands.

Yet these ‘mafia’ paramilitary groups soon became aware of just how powerful they were – they sought to gain the upper hand over the Sicilian propertied classes by controlling local businesses and taking a cut out of their takings, while in some cases they even ejected business owners and farmers from their properties.

The first notable instance we have of a mafia-style group taking extorting money from and then taking control of a thriving business occurred in the 1870s. Just like they are today, back in the 1800s, Sicilian lemons were popular with consumers, and anyone who bought into the citrus business could make themselves a nice profit.

lemon
Italian lemon grove

So Dr Gaspare Galati thought when he inherited an already thriving large lemon grove with state-of-the-art irrigation pumps in 1872. The warden of the farm, a man called Benedetto Carollo, began taking many of the lemons under Galati’s nose and selling them for his own gain. Carollo’s main purpose, however, was to run the business into the ground so others could buy the farm for a negligible amount. Carollo was sacked and his replacement was shot; the perpetrator was identified as a man named Signor Giamonna, who according to the local authorities was a pillar of the community. Although Giamonna attempted to murder the new warden, Giammona visited him at his sickbed and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, after which the replacement warden retracted his accusation and Giamonna never faced any consequences for his attempted murder.

In 1875, feeling exasperated and powerless, Dr Galati abandoned the lemon grove and it was taken over by Giamonna.

In the same year, a Professor of History named Pasquale Villari decided to turn his attention to the problem of lawlessness in Sicily. In his Southern Letters (1875), he attributed the rising crime rate in Sicily to the dire economic inequality of the region and to the fact that the policies of central government were widely disliked, and he used the word ‘mafia’ to describe the groups of law-breakers and paramilitary ‘protection’ groups which flourished in the region.

220px-Pasquale_Villari
Pasquale Villari

Dr Galati decided to get in touch with Villari and relate his experiences with these new mafia-style groups, detailing their strange rituals and outlining their crimes in exact detail. Giamonna’s mafia group seemed all-powerful and sinister, willing to even resort to murder if they were crossed.

It was in Villari’s Southern Letters, therefore, that the Mafia, as we understand it today, was born.

The information for this post is taken from a reading of Robert M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History (2015), particularly chapter one.

 

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The Mysteries of New York

 

By Stephen Basdeo

During the nineteenth century, a series of ‘Urban Mysteries’ novels were published. The most famous of these are Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1843), and two of G. W. M. Reynolds’s serials entitled The Mysteries of London (1844–46) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1848–56). Reynolds’s original serial was then continued by Thomas Miller and E. L. Blanchard as The Mysteries of London; or, The Lights and Shadows of London Life (1848-52). As their names suggest, these stories were set in the modern industrial city and focused upon crime and depravity in high and low life.

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Poverty in 19th-century New York

In the Victorian era, New York was in many ways comparable to Paris and London; it was a large industrial city with ‘dark Satanic mills’, or factories, in which the poor and the rich lived “cheek by jowl”; paupers lived a hand-to-mouth existence and for many, a life of crime as part of an organised criminal gang was more attractive to a life of toiling for a pittance in a factory. And just as London with its alley-ways and courts provided the perfect setting for Reynolds’s and Sue’s crime novels, so Ned Buntline imagined it as the perfect place to set his own crime novel: The Miseries and Mysteries of New York (1848–49).

astor-place-riot-new-york-state-everett
A contemporary print depicting the Astor Theatre Riots

Buntline was, like his British counterpart Reynolds, a moralist and social reformer, although Buntline’s radicalism and ideology were of an entirely different hue to that of Reynolds. Buntline was a ‘nativist’ (racist); was fiercely anti-Catholic, an attitude which likely stemmed from prejudice against Irish people who arrived in New York in large numbers during the 1840s; and he was strongly opposed to immigration. When he and those who shared his views could not achieve an end to immigration through democratic means, they incited riots. Buntline became notorious as one of the leaders of the infamous Astor Place Theatre Riot on 10 May 1849. It should be remembered that the United States was, at this point, a young nation, having won its independence from Britain in 1783. The cause of the riot at Astor Theatre was because some of the nativists, who had some dubious connections with the gangs located around the Five Points area of New York, objected to seeing an English actor, William Charles Macready, on stage playing in Macbeth and outselling a performance of the same play at a rival theatre a few days before, starring an American, Edwin Forrest.[i] Indeed, cordial relations between the citizens of the USA and the UK, and their respective governments, really only came about after the Second World War (1939–45).

Astor_Place_riots_handbill_(1849)
Anti-English Posters printed in the lead up to the Astor Place Theatre Riots

It was on the side of the American actor, Forrest, that Ned Buntline marshalled support in the riot. Intensely distrustful of the English, in The Mysteries of New York, the most notorious organised crime gang is one in which all its members are English:

There is a house in Cherry Street, not far from Catherine Market – a low, frame-house, painted yellow – a two storied building, which is well-known to every police officer in city … [which] was a kind of general assembling room for the English burglars and pickpockets, who, driven from their own land, pursued their “profession” in New York.[ii]

The gang is arranged in a “traditional” hierarchy with a clear leader, named Jack Circle, and under him

They have formed themselves into a regular confederacy, agreeing to act upon the orders of their chief, which were to be given in consultation with the gang in assembly. And the gang had their regular meetings, when the report of each member was as duly given to the chief as the reports of the city police are to their worthy head.

Thus, Circle’s gang mirrors traditional legal and social structures. Buntline then introduces readers to several of the most prominent members of the criminal, who are all ‘Englishmen of the real St. Giles’s order’, and in their appearance recall Bill Sikes from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838). Circle is a rather brutish fellow, about fifty years of age, red-faced from a life of heavy drinking, but large and muscular. He was probably based upon a real-life criminal named Harry Hill, an Englishman born in 1827 but who emigrated to New York at an early age and, throughout his life, maintained several gambling dens in the Bowery area.

Downtown Saloon
A “low” drinking establishment in Downtown New York

There were, in fact, a number of English criminals who had made a life for themselves in New York City during the nineteenth century. In the 1850s, Harry Lazarus emigrated to the city from England and made his name as a boxer while simultaneously establishing himself as an important underworld figure.

There is also a female member of Circle’s gang who, unlike in most organised crime units, past or present, takes an active role in the network’s criminal activities. There was indeed a notorious Englishwoman who flourished in New York during the mid-nineteenth century named Gallus Mag, though readers may be more familiar with the character of Hell-Cat Maggie in the movie Gangs of New York (2002). The ferocity of the historical Hell-Cat Maggie is described by Alfred A. Knopf in this manner:

It was her custom, after she’d felled an obstreperous customer with her club, to clutch his ear between her teeth and so drag him to the door, amid the frenzied cheers of the onlookers. If her victim protested she bit his ear off, and having cast the fellow into the street she carefully deposited the detached member in a jar of alcohol behind the bar…. She was one of the most feared denizens on the waterfront and the police of the period shudderingly described her as the most savage female they’d ever encountered.[iii]

Being English criminals, of course, they speak in a special language called “English flash”, which Buntline says is similar to the cant spoken by thieves found in the East End of London. And being English, Circle attempts to model himself, presumable without much sincerity, however, upon the English criminals of folklore and history, and he is a huge fan of the novels of Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer Lytton.

To cite this article:

MHRA:

Basdeo, Stephen, ‘The Mysteries of New York’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood (2018), http://www.gesteofrobinhood.com/the-mysteries-of-new-york-stephen-basdeo [Date Accessed]

Harvard:

Basdeo, Stephen, 2018. ‘The Mysteries of New York’. Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood. Available at: www.gesteofrobinhood.com/the-mysteries-of-new-york-stephen-basdeo [Date Accessed]


[i] John W. Frick, ‘The Wicked City Motif on the American Stage before the Civil War’, New Theatre Quarterly 77, 20: 1 (2004), 19-27 (p. 21)

[ii] Ned Buntline, The Mysteries of New York: A Tale of Real Life (London: Milner [n. d.]), p. 22.

[iii] Alfred A. Knopf, The Gangs of New York (New York: Knopf, 1928), p. 31.

All photographs taken from Wikimedia Commons or the works of Jacob A. Riis.

Passo di Lupo: An Italian Bandit

An outlaw’s life was not a merry one: in the 1820s, banditry in Italy was rife; at this time, a young travel writer named Charles Macfarlane was touring the country and managed to obtain a rare interview with one of these brigands.

I recently managed to track down a copy of Charles Macfarlane’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833). The early nineteenth century was a good time for an aspiring author to be writing about outlaws and highwaymen. Walter Scott had already authored Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin had released a new multivolume edition of The Newgate Calendar (1824), and Edward Bulwer Lytton had published Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), two crime novels, to critical and popular claim. Macfarlane probably presumed that he could capitalise on the popularity of the ‘Newgate Novel’ (named after the infamous London gaol), by offering an updated version of Charles Johnson’s and Alexander Smith’s famous eighteenth-century Lives of the Highwaymen books.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

(A quick plug: I shall also be following in the footsteps of Johnson, Smith, and Macfarlane when my forthcoming book, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (2018) is published).

 

However, instead of the sensationalised style of writing adopted by his eighteenth-century forbears, Macfarlane pursues a different approach: he warns the reader in his preface that

You will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those that occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. [You] will meet with men strangers to that virtuous violence of robbing the rich to give to the poor.[i]

This was not mere moralising, for Macfarlane does fulfil his promise to the reader that he will not be overly romanticising them. As for the famous Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Macfarlane is sceptical, or rather, cynical, about this practice:

They [bandits] give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to induce the poor to remain passive while they carry out their work of depredation against the rich.[ii]

Thus, Macfarlane’s purpose in writing the Banditti is not to render bandits in a Scott-esque romantic mode, but to present a picture of criminality.[iii] Such intentions anticipate Charles Dickens’s remarks upon thieves in the preface to Oliver Twist (1838), where, referring to Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727), he says that in his depiction of thieves there will be

No canterings upon moonlit heaths, no merry makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack boots, no crimson coats and ruffles.[iv]

Macfarlane was first and foremost a travel writer, and one example he gives of this decidedly unromantic view of a bandit’s life is in his account of a meeting with a former bandit named Luca whose nickname was ‘Passo di Lupo’ (Wolf’s Step).

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Italian Bandits. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti. (c) Stephen Basdeo

Let me provide some context first: Italy is still a relatively young nation state. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, it was divided into a series of small sovereign states. This state of affairs continued until the nineteenth century, and after the upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), which in reality was the first ‘world war’,[v] the division of the country was as follows: the Pope directly ruled Rome and a large part of central Italy; the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the north of the country, which also included Nice (now part of France); the regions of Lombardy and Venetia were subject to rule by the Habsburg monarchy, while southern Italy and Sicily, known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were ruled by the Bourbon dynasty.[vi] None of these states had any effective form of law enforcement beyond the local militia, and these structural weaknesses make the more rural areas of a country more likely to develop a problem with banditry.[vii] Even when Italy was unified in 1861 under the banner of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it still experienced a problem with banditry until World War Two (1939–45), as the case of Salvatore Giuliano (1922–50) attests.

And this was the state of Italy when Macfarlane met Passo, while traveling through Abruzzi during the 1820s, which was then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Passo was a former member of a fearsome gang of outlaws named the Vardarelli, whom Macfarlane met at a gathering in the town square. He made enquiries as to who the strange-looking man was, and his guide immediately recognised him as a local famous former outlaw. This is the description of his appearance that Macfarlane gives:

I was struck with  the appearance of a fellow with the deep scar of an old wound across his swarthy brow, and his left arm in a sort of sling.[viii]

Macfarlane’s first question was to ask him what motivated him to become a bandit:

“Please your excellency,” said [Luca], “I was making love with a Paesana, and had the misfortune to give a blow of the knife to one I thought my rival.”[ix]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to arrest Luca for having killed a man, although Luca himself viewed this as a wholly unreasonable persecution.[x] In fairness to Luca, however, the vendetta – the settling of feuds through violence – was a custom amongst both the elites and the plebeian classes between the Renaissance and the twentieth century, and it still persists among organised crime groups in Italy. Thus, Luca’s view of the authorities’ apprehension of him as unreasonable should be viewed in context.[xi] 

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Bandits in a standoff with the local milita. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Luca’s brush with the law made him seek out the company of a famous group of brigands, the Vardarelli, who operated in Ponte di Bovino, a mountain range about thirty miles from his home in Monte Gargano. However, he was not welcomed with open arms at first. The brigands distrusted him at first, and he was effectively a prisoner in the camp for a number of weeks and not permitted to venture outside of it. Only after having proved himself to them by taking an oath administered by a local priest who ministered to the bandits was he finally allowed to accompany the robbers on their excursions. Nevertheless, Luca looked back to his robbing days with nostalgia, as Macfarlane records that,

I thought the fellow’s hawk-like eyes still beamed joyfully as he talked of stopping government mails and diligences, and rich graziers from the fairs of Foggia; and as he told me, how, at times, he had scoured the whole plain of Apulia and crossed the mountains of Basilicata, and plunged into other provinces – meeting nowhere a formidable resistance – nearly everywhere an impunity of plunder.[xii]

However, Luca recalled that the bandit chiefs kept the lesser people of the gang in a state of near poverty: the guappi, or the bullies of the gang, kept the lion’s share and threw morsels only to those below them. Then again, Macfarlane says that Luca recalled never being able to spend the little money that he did get on the few luxuries he desired. The townsfolk were generally hostile to them, which made it a no-go area. It did not help the robbers’ cause, of course, that they were indiscriminate in whom they chose for their victims, for they robbed peasants as well as rich farmers. The peasants were only left alone or given money if they needed a hiding place in the winter months. Lodging in a peasant’s house then brought with it a further threat of being betrayed to the authorities for the reward money. During the milder seasons, their accommodation was scarcely more inviting as they slept in cold caves. As a result, food could often be scarce, and Luca recalls that often they were so hungry that sheep were stolen from fields and eaten raw on the spot.[xiii] Scarcity of food meant that quarrels often broke out between the bandits. Duels were conducted and these frequently resulted in the death of a gang member.[xiv]

Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal study of banditry states that bandits often have short careers due to the fact that their ‘profession’ is a high risk one and conducive to a long life. In fact, the typical bandit’s career can be as short as two years before being either captured and punished, or returns to mainstream society.[xv] The man whom Macfarlane interviewed fell into the latter camp. Macfarlane asks him what induced him to forsake his former accomplices. It transpired that his arm had been badly injured in an altercation with the Bourbon government militia. He was permitted by some sympathetic townsfolk to shelter and recuperate in one of their houses, hidden from the authorities. Although he recovered, his injuries meant that he would not be of any further use to his fellow brigands. Luckily at this time, with banditry being so endemic in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand decided that, instead of fighting what seemed like an ever losing battle, he would simply extend a pardon to all bandits who wished to take up the offer. Passo was one of those who took advantage of this. Little is known of how Lupo died – after their encounter Macfarlane does not know.


References

[i] Charles Macfarlane, Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (Philadelphia: G. Evans, 1833), p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, rev. ed. (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841), p. x.

[v] Michael Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[vi] For more information on the history of Italy during the 19th century see the following: Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[vii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[viii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Raymond E. Role, ‘The War Games of Central Italy’, History Today, 49: 6 (1999), online edn. http://www.historytoday.com/raymond-e-role/war-games-central-italy [Accessed 11 November 2017].

[xii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 18.

[xv] Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 34-45.

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.

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).

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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.