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).

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.

Organised Crime in “The Mysteries of London” (1844)

The Mysteries of London was a long-running penny dreadful serial which ran between 1844 and 1846 and was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian era. Read the ebook here.

A version of this post was also published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online 


Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: Victorianweb.org]

When I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) there was an excellent module I completed entitled ‘Organised Crime in the Modern World’ run by Dr. Kelly Hignett. It was an interesting area of study which looked at why organised crime emerges in certain conditions at certain times. Of the case studies we looked at there was, obviously, the Sicilian Mafia, as well as other groups such as the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia. Whilst drawing on longer established histories, these groups have all flourished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and some of them have been immortalised in movies such as The Godfather (1970), Goodfellas (1990), and, my favourite, Donnie Brasco (1997). These films depicting organised crime are set in the twentieth century, and it is often assumed by law-makers, academics, and the public that organised crime is a modern phenomenon’. However, crime fiction in the early-Victorian period shows that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming sophisticated and increasingly organised. Terms such as ‘professional criminal’ signified a person whose sole living was earned through the proceeds of crime, and into this category would have fallen well-known characters like Bill Sikes and Fagin from Oliver Twist (1838). I would like to show how some of the current theories in criminology relating to organised crime can be applied to the representations of crime in the early nineteenth-century penny serial The Mysteries of London (1845) by G. W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879).

First, though, it would be useful to have a working definition of ‘organised crime’, although arriving at a single definition has proven to be a headache for academics and policy makers alike. Generally speaking, however, ‘organised crime’ can be defined as ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy for their private gain through illegal activities’. Organised crime may indeed exist separately as a murky underworld alongside a society of law and order, but it cannot exist without an organised society. Hence ‘organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order’.

Illustration from Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: Victorianweb.org]

Most readers will be aware that London society had become increasingly organised by the early nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century system of law enforcement, with its corrupt web of thief takers, constables, and watchmen, had been abolished and replaced with a professional police force in 1829. Although limited in its scope, welfare for the most destitute members of society was provided through the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which expanded the workhouse system. Working life was increasingly regulated through successive Factory Acts passed in the 1830s and 1840s. The government in the early Victorian period, therefore, extended its reach into more areas of public life than before it had done previously.

Organised crime historically flourishes in places where law enforcement and social institutions are seen as weak or ineffectual, or are mistrusted by large sections of the population. As you will probably agree, despite the government’s efforts at ‘organising’ society there were still holes in its fabric which underworld figures exploited – for with the workhouse system as cruel as it was, is it any wonder that the young boys in Oliver Twist turned to Fagin? Added to this is the fact that the police force in the early Victorian period was not trusted by the working classes. They were seen as a force which protected the propertied classes only, and to working-class people they merely ‘guarded St. James by watching St. Giles’.

It was such a society that was depicted by Reynolds in his penny serial The Mysteries of London. The modern industrial city is depicted as a maze in which vice and criminal behaviour exist in both high and low life. There are four main criminal characters in the story: the Cracksman, Crankey Jem, the Buffer and the sinister Resurrection Man. They are all natives of the worst rookeries and slum districts of the metropolis. The gang is hired at one point by a bourgeois capitalist named Montague Greenwood to carry out a criminal act:

‘What’s the natur’ of the sarvice?’ demanded the Cracksman.
‘A highway robbery’ coolly answered [Eugene]…‘I will explain what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet. His horse is bay, with silver mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours:-but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be brought to me’.

The gentleman in question is consequently robbed and receives the butt of a pistol bashed against his head for good measure. It becomes clear that this band of criminals’ sole motivation in carrying out this crime was profit, for when Greenwood pays the Cracksman he exclaims that he hopes ‘he should have his custom in future’. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote in 1848 that in a capitalist society relationships between members of society had been reduced to a ‘callous cash payment’. As the “upperworld” and the “underworld” reflected each other, it is clear that crime in the modern industrial city is driven by financial considerations.

As I have highlighted already, organised crime has to be a continuing illegal enterprise – a criminal network should still function even if one or more of its members are incarcerated or killed. Reynolds seems to have had at least some understanding of this. In the story, Crankey Jem seized by the authorities and consequently sentenced to Transportation for life. The gang still operates despite the departure of this member who had been a central figure in Reynolds’ depiction of the London underworld. At the end of the first series, the Resurrection Man appears receives his just desserts, dying by the hand of a former associate. Yet true to his name, in the second series of The Mysteries of London the Resurrection Man was resurrected for readers. It turns out that he did not die and he returns to assume his place in the labyrinthine network of the Victorian criminal underworld.

The sinister Resurrection Man. Illustration from The Mysteries of London (1844) [Source: victorianweb.org]

Of course, Reynolds merely represented organised crime. The next question to be asked is whether organised crime groups actually existed in this period? I will admit now that you would be unlikely to find the term ‘organised crime’ in any early-Victorian text. As I mentioned earlier, the Victorians preferred terms such as ‘professional criminal’. Kellow Chesney’s work on crime in the Victorian period is now a classic, however, and regarding the methods of men such as cracksmen he says: ‘they often spent months surveying and preparing a big robbery’. There also appears to have been a loose hierarchy among criminals in this period, as Chesney says that gangs were comprised of many different types of thieves, each of whom usually performed a different function, from the head house-breaker down to the lowly look out. Now obviously the depictions of organised crime gangs in Reynolds’ work, and their real-life nineteenth-century counterparts, did not follow modern criminologists’ definitions of organised crime to the letter. Yet Chesney’s research shows that there was at least some kind of organised and sophisticated structure to these gangs’ operations in this period.

What I have intended to show, then, is that while organised crime is often thought to be a strictly modern phenomenon. Yet the theories of criminologists relating to organised crime can be applied to the study of crime and its representation in the early Victorian period. A short glance at Reynolds’ penny blood of in the early nineteenth century illustrates that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The gradual organisation of the “upperworld” in the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for the organisation of the underworld. Crime in the modern industrial society of the nineteenth century was ruthless, cold, and driven by profit. As you can see, it had become organised. Thus an understanding of how and why organised crime emerges and flourishes in particular times and places can enhance our understanding of the history of Victorian crime.


This is the second post in a series on organised crime and its representation in historical literature.


Endnotes

  • Mark Galeotti, a leading criminologist, has recently argued against this perspective, see: Galeotti, M. ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction’. In Organised Crime in History, ed. Mark Galeotti (London: Routledge, 2009), p.1.
  • Emsley, C. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. (London: Harper, 1987), p.168.
  • J.O. Finckenaur ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime, 8:3, 2005, p.64.
  • Galeotti ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.6
  • Galeotti, ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.1.
  • Skaperdas, S. ‘The Political Economy of Organised Crime: Providing Protection When the State Does Not’. Economics of Governance, Vol. 2 (2001), p.173.
  • Storch, R. ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’ International Review of Social History 20:1, 1975, p.61.
  • George W.M. Reynolds The Mysteries of London. (London: Published for the Booksellers, 1845:1890), p.81.
  • Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, p.82 (Emphasis added).
  • Marx, K. and Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1848:2005), p.5.
  • Chesney, K. The Victorian Underworld (London: Penguin Books, 1970), p.196.
  • Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, p.198.

Jonathan Wild – London’s First Mob Boss

This blog post is adapted from an essay I submitted whilst I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Beckett University. The module tutor and course leader was Dr. Kelly Hignett and I was also completing a thesis at this time on Victorian crime under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

This essay uses the the theoretical concepts in criminology relating to organised crime to analyse the reign of one of London’s first mob bosses. (n.b. being adapted from an essay, this post is a bit more formal and very “essay-like” in tone).


A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.

Defining Organised Crime

Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.

Alexander Smith’s The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714). [Source: pierre-marteau.com]

Criminal Narratives in the Eighteenth Century

Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.

Why Organised Crime Flourished.

In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:

The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).

Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.

Henry Fielding (Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara) Tags: portrtt frfattare henryfielding storbritannien
Henry Fielding, Esq. (1707-1754)

Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:

Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).

Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.

Jonathan Wild: Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland

Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).

Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:

Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).

Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainder, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:

How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).

Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.

Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar
Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar [Scanned Image]

Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.

Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas"
Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”

Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.


Primary Sources

  • Anon. (1774). ‘Jonathan Wild’. In Birkett, N. ed. (1951). The Newgate Calendar. London: Folio Society
  • Daily Courant (1715) ‘Notices’. November 22nd pp.1-2
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1725). ‘The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. Dublin: G. Faulkner
  • Fielding, H. (1742). ‘Joseph Andrews’. Joseph Andrews & Shamela (1998). London: Everyman
  • Gay, J. (1728). ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. The Beggar’s Opera & Polly (2013). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • H.D. (1725). ‘The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death’. In Rawson, C. ed. (2003). Jonathan Wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Smith, A. (1714). The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, of both Sexes, for above Fifty Years Past. London: J. Morphew
  • Warrant of Detainder (1725). In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
  • Wild, J.[?] (1725). ‘Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin

Secondary Sources

  • Beattie, J. M. (1986). Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Blok, A. (2000). Honour and Violence. London: Polity
  • Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge
  • Cawelti, J. G.(1975). ‘The New Mythology of Crime’. Boundary 2 3(2) pp.324-357
  • Cottino, A. (2000). ‘Sicilian Cultures of Violence: The interconnections between organized crime and local society’. Crime, Law, and Social Change No.32 pp.103-113
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  • Galeotti, M. (2009). ‘Criminal Histories: An introduction’. In Galeotti, M. ed. (2009). Organised Crime in History. London: Routledge
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  • Moore, L. (2001). ‘Introduction’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
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Visual Media Sources

  • Goodfellas (2005) Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA, Warner Bros. [DVD]

‘The Outlaws’ Code’. Robin Hood: Research Update, Number 7, December 24th, 2014

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).
Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

All organised crime gangs have certain codes of conduct which, to be counted as part of their respective gangs, they must adhere to. For the Italian Mafia there is Omerta, a code of silence which forbids them to talk about the gang to non-members. Members of the mafia are also forbidden from committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, theft (burglary, mugging, etc.), and in the past even to stay away from drug and human trafficking. The Italian Mafia was supposedly above these types of crimes, and forbade their respective members from carrying them out.

In the one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), Robin Hood similarly laid down a code of conduct for his men to follow. Little John asks Robin how they should conduct themselves:

Mayster, than sayd Lytell Johan / And we our borde shall sprede / Tell us whether we shall gone / And what lyfe we shall lede.

Where we shall take, where we shall leve /  Where we shall abide behynde / Where we shall robbe, where we shall reve / Where we shall bete and bynde.

To which Robin Hood replies, firstly, that the outlaws should never harm any company where there were women present and also:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn / We shall do well ynough / But loke ye do no housbonde harm / That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman / That walketh by grene wode shawe / Ne no knyght ne no squyer / That wolde be a good felawe.

The outlaws, therefore, are to protect women, husbandmen, and those that work the land, as well as yeoman, knights, and squires. But as for members of the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin is less kind:

These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes / Ye shall them bete and bynde / The hye sheryfe of Notynghame / Hym holde in your mynde.

Robin Hood had two main enemies: the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and gave his outlaws free rein to beat and bind them.

Organised crime historically emerges and flourishes in times where the state and its ability to enforce the law is weak (as the English State was in the late medieval period) and the local populace at the mercy of tyrant landlords. In these situations, groups that would normally be classed as criminal emerge as friends of the poor, they become, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm named Robin Hood ‘the international paradigm of social banditry’. Social Bandits, according to Hobsbawm:

Are peasant outlaws whom the Lord and State regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…men to be admired, helped, and supported.

The ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ makes no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, it merely says at the end that he ‘did pore men moch god’. This detail was added to the legend between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time that Joseph Ritson produced his pioneering work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood had become the ultimate social bandit:

That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denied…[But] in these exertions of power, he took away the goods of rich men only, never killing any person, unless  he was attacked or resisted; that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots…he was the most humane, and the prince of all robbers.

Perhaps these medieval ballads of Robin Hood and his men are recounting and glorifying the actions of medieval mobsters in the same way that movies like Goodfellas today do for us? Outlaw gangs were loosely organised, had customs, and codes of conduct, and were social bandits in the sense that they were supported by local people. Dr. Kelly Hignett of Leeds Beckett University has written a study of what is a comparable case of late-medieval organised crime gangs in Southern Russia, Dalmatia, and Bohemia, and the role which they assumed in the absence of effective state law enforcement. It was these outlaws’ codes of conduct, in which they did not (supposedly) hurt poor people, which earned them the support of local communities.


Further Reading:

Hignett, K. ‘Co-Option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’. In Galeotti, M. ed. Organised Crime in History (London: Routledge, 2008).

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).