Being A General and True History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Rogues, Cheats, Murderers and Rebels of Every Description; Together with Examinations of Historical True Crime Literature, Penny Dreadfuls, and other Sorts of Pernicious Trash; Set Forth to Public View for the Common Benefit of Mankind
All too often histories of crime focus upon what happened in the big cities such as London, Manchester, and New York. Part of the reason for this is that, as is especially the case with London, more records are available and many of them are digitised (see the Old Bailey Online website, for example). So, whenever I find a notorious story from near where I live in West Yorkshire, I feel that it is kind of my civic duty to bring it to people’s attention (even though having a criminal associated with your local area is not, I suppose, something to take particular pride in…).
The following case, which recounts a notorious murder committed by one John Terry from Wakefield, West Yorkshire comes from The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters, which was published in four volumes between 1804 and 1809. In their form, structure, and content the volumes resemble earlier eighteenth-century compendia of the lives of criminals such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714) and Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734). Smith and Johnson’s earlier works focused solely upon the lives and crimes of the criminals, while accounts of the felons’ trials are almost non-existent in their works. The Criminal Recorder is different in this respect however, for it is written ‘by a Student of the Inner Temple’ and the majority of each of the accounts contained therein is devoted to the criminals’ trials (the Inner Temple is one of the four Inns of Court in London, and to become a barrister one still has to be a member of one of these Inns of Court).
We know nothing of John Terry’s early life apart from the fact, at the time of his being committed to trial at the York Assize Courts, he was listed as an apprentice from Wakefield. Terry, along with another apprentice named Joseph Heald, were tried and found guilty of the murder of a sixty-seven year old woman, Elizabeth Smith.
Elizabeth was a respectable woman who lived in Wakefield, and although relatively poor, she maintained herself in her humble dwelling by keeping cows and selling the milk to local residents. However, two of her cows died and she found herself almost on the point of destitution. Being a pillar of the local community, however, her neighbour granted her some monetary assistance, and her son who lived in Leeds also gave her eighteenth guineas with which to purchase more livestock. The whole neighbourhood was happy for her, and the following day she resolved to go to Leeds and purchase two more cows.
At night, however, Terry and Heald met together and resolved to break into Elizabeth’s house and steal the eighteenth guineas. While she was sleeping, the pair broke into her dwelling and, although Terry only ever wanted the money, Heald became inexplicably enraged and began beating the sleeping Elizabeth upon the head, and then took a razor and cut her throat.
The pair got the money and made a quick escape. They were arrested soon afterwards by two of the town’s constables, T. Shaw and S. Linley. Terry instantly confessed to everything, although Heald was adamant that he was not present at the burglary. The judge and the jury did not believe Heald’s tale of innocence, and both men were found Guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged on 21 March 1803.
On the evening before the execution, as the gaol Ordinary was administering the sacrament to Terry, the latter admitted that he had indeed been lying at his confession, and that Heald was never with him, and that if they did hang Heald, then they would be hanging an innocent man. Terry said that he only accused Heald of being with him in the hope that he might get a lesser sentence or even, having become an informant, a full pardon. When he realised that he was not going to get away with the murder he felt it his Christian duty to admit to his lies.
The Judge was immediately asked to review the case, although he recommended that the execution of both men should still go ahead because the circumstantial evidence against Heald was strong.
The execution of both men went ahead. But just before their execution, Terry implored the officials and the public spectators present not to hang Heald. But Heald was hanged in spite of these protestations. Did the town of Wakefield hang an innocent man based upon the lies of another? We will never know!
The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: J. Cundee, 1804-09), 4: 335-340.
The eighteenth century was the period in which criminal biography flourished, when men such as Charles Johnson were publishing books such as Lives of the Highwaymen (1734) alongside serialised publications such as The Newgate Calendarand The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.
The genre did not die at the end of the eighteenth century, however, for during the nineteenth century two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, published a new five volume edition of The Newgate Calendar in 1824 and a revised version 1826. A cheaper penny dreadful version entitled The New Newgate Calendar was published in 1863. Charles Macfarlane also authored The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in All Parts of the World (1833) while in the following year Charles Whitehead published Lives and exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers (1834).
Crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century, but it is only in the nineteenth century that the government actually decided to do anything about it. The creation of a professionalised police force in 1829 replaced the haphazard system of law enforcement involving thief takers and part time constables that had existed until that point. Gaols, which had previously been nothing more than holding centres until an offender’s trial, became large institutions where people stayed for a long time. The persistence of criminal biography as a genre is therefore a reflection of the ongoing public debate that was occurring in parliament and the popular press over reforms to the criminal justice system.
Most of these collections detailing the lives of criminals were very London-centric, with little attention paid to criminals from outside the capital. In light of this, William Knipe authored Criminal Chronology of York Castle (1867). Knipes work gave a brief biography of almost every criminal executed at York between the fourteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century.
Like Johnson before him, Knipe intended his work to be read as a piece of moralist literature:
The numerous and melancholy examples which our pages record of persons hurrying on from one crime to another, till the awful hand of justice has required their lives, will, we trust, alarm and deter the young and inexperienced from an indulgence in those pursuits or company which tend to weaken their ideas of justice and morality, the sure and certain prognostic of future ruin.
Despite the moral purpose behind his work, Knipe avoids the sensational style of writing that was characteristic of the work of Johnson. Knipe was an antiquary and wanted his discussion to appear more sober and detailed. While Johnson often just made things up (Johnson even gives us an account of the life of that notorious robber, Sir John Falstaff), Knipe’s work was ‘carefully compiled from prison documents, ancient papers, and other authentic sources’ according to the title page.
The gallows in York was first erected on 1 March 1379 in order to execute all those who had been capitally convicted in the County of Yorkshire, and the first criminal to have the ‘honour’ of being executed at the ‘York Tyburn’ (so called after the more famous London Tyburn) was a man called Edward Hewison:
At the Spring Assizes of 1379, Edward Hewison, aged 20, a native of Stockton, near York, and a private soldier in the Earl of Northumberland’s Light Horse, was tried and capitally convicted for committing a rape upon Louisa Bentley, 22 years of age […] when Hewison saw her alone in the field on the footpath, he got off his horse and tied it to a tree. He then went into the field, threw the young woman down, and ravished her.
While Knipe’s work is primarily a compendium of the lives of criminals, one thing which distinguishes his work from earlier works by Johnson et al is the fact that he includes political rebels. The three leaders of the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ during the reign of Henry VIII: Sir Robert Aske, Lord Hussey, and William Wode are all presented in his work. Aske got off lightly compared to the latter two, for he was merely ‘hanged in chains’ and his body left to hang in a gibbet. Hussey and Wode, however, were hanged, drawn and quartered, and:
[Their] mutilated remains put into a coffin and given to their friends for internment.
Whereas Johnson’s accounts of each individual criminal are quite lengthy, most of Knipe’s accounts of criminals who existed before the Victorian era are relatively short. This is all he says, for example, of two criminals from Leeds named John de Viner and Harris Rosenberg who were executed at the York gallows in 1603:
Saturday, March 30th, A.D. 1603. – Harris Roseberg, aged 56, a native of Florence; and John de Viner, aged 32, servant to the above, a native of Paris, were executed at the Tyburn without Micklegate Bar, for the atrocious murder of Mr. Millington, an innkeeper at Leeds, on the night of the 8th day of November last. These unfortunate men suffered death in the presence of a large concourse of spectators. Their bodies on being taken down from the scaffold were given to the surgeons for dissection, in accordance with the sentence passed upon them.
The criminal who receives the lengthiest account in Knipe’s work is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). For his account of Turpin, Knipe appears to have abridged an earlier account of Turpin’s life entitled The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739).
For criminals who existed prior to his own day Knipe avoids making any moral judgements upon their course of life. As he moves into his own era, the Victorian era, however, he begins to moralise more and more. While criminality in earlier periods can be explained by the fact that Englishmen’s manners and morals were not as refined as they were in his own day, the fact that criminals existed and were still being hanged in the Victorian period baffles Knipe. Take his account of a murder committed in Hunslet, Leeds in 1849:
Thomas Malkin. Saturday, January 6th, A.D. 1849. – Thomas Malkin was hanged on the new drop, in front of St. George’s Field, for the murder of Esther Inman, near Leeds. It is again our painful duty to record one of those brutalizing spectacles, of which England, that land of Bibles and privileges, can boast so many, viz., the public strangling of a fellow creature.
This is a double-edged critique of Knipe’s own society – with Bibles and ‘privileges’ being plentiful in the Victorian era (Knipe does not say what these ‘privileges’ are), in theory there should be no criminals and no hangings.
Knipe’s accounts of criminals from before the Victorian era rarely carry any information about their trial. Likely this was down to lack of primary sources, but accounts of Victorian criminals are conspicuous in Knipe’s work with the inclusion of trial proceedings.
Knipe gives a lengthy account of the trial of Alfred Waddington from Sheffield who was executed on 15 January 1853 for the murder of his illegitimate child. While most of Knipe’s accounts of pre-Victorian criminals concentrate upon the birth and upbringing of the offender, in the accounts of criminals from the mid-Victorian period sometimes all that Knipe gives the reader is details of the trial. This is the case in Knipe’s account of William Dove from Leeds, who was executed for murdering his wife Harriet on 9 August 1856.
[When] publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence, the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.
The criminal had failed society, and their guilt had been determined through being found guilty by a jury of their peers. They had been justly punished.
Knipe’s work does not appear to have been extremely popular, and only went through one edition. In contrast, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar went through several editions during the Victorian era and are still being reprinted even today (the most recent edition of The Newgate Calendar was published by The Folio Society in 1993). The reason why Knipe’s work was not as successful, it might be speculated, is probably because it was too serious. It lacked Johnson’s acerbic wit and humour. Nevertheless, Knipe’s work is probably one of the most comprehensive accounts of crime in Yorkshire that has ever been published.
 William Knipe, Criminal Chronology of York Castle; with a Register of the Criminals Capitally Convicted and Executed at the County Assizes, Commencing March 1st 1379, to the Present Time (York: C. L. Burdekin, 1867), p.vii.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.i.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.1.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.1-2.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.4.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.4-5.
 Knipe Criminal Chronology, p.15.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, p.230.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.240-244.
 Knipe, Criminal Chronology, pp.248-253.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (London: Penguin, 1975), p.9
UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ARE SCANNED IMAGES TAKEN FROM COPIES OF BOOKS IN MY OWN COLLECTION.
According to the legend, in old age Robin Hood fell ill and went to visit his cousin, who was the Prioress of Kirklees, so that he could be bled. However, his cousin conspired with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. So she opened a vein, locked Robin in the upper room of the gatehouse, and let him bleed to death. This is how the story is recounted in one of the earliest Robin Hood texts, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450):
Yet he was begyled, I wys, through a wycked woman, the pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of kynne.
For the love of a knyght, Syr Roger of Donkester, that was her owne speciall, full evyll mote they fare.
They toke togyder theyr counsell, Robyn Hode for to sle, and how they myght best do that dede, his banis for to be.
Than bespake good Robyn, in place where as he stode, to morrow I muste to Kyrkesley, craftely to be leten blode.
Syr Roger of Donkestere, by the pryoresse he lay, and there they betrayed good Robyn Hode, through theyr false playe.
Cryst have mercy on his soule, that dyde on the rode, for he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.
Later Robin Hood texts would expand upon the story of the death even further. The ballad Robin Hood’s Death and Burial says that in his dying moments, Robin sounded his bugle horn and Little John came running. John wanted to burn down the priory in revenge for Robin’s death, but, noble to the end, Robin commands him not to, for:
I never hurt woman in all my life, nor man in woman’s company.
Instead, Robin wishes John to help him fire one last arrow, and where the arrow falls, says Robin, is the spot that should mark his grave:
Lay me a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, and lay my bent bow by my side, which was my music sweet, and make my grave of gravel and green, which is most right and meet.
The arrow falls over a mile away from the priory, and the spot, legend has it, is now marked by the grave that now stands to this day.
On the grave itself there is an epitaph which reads (in a text which is supposed to resemble Middle English):
Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.
You may be able to see this epitaph on the accompanying picture, though you may have to enlarge it.
Now, there have been doubts about this grave for a great number of years. The earliest reference to the existence of this grave is in the year 1610 – quite a few years after Robin Hood, if he ever existed, actually lived!
Thomas Percy, the editor of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), admitted that the grave and the epitaph was suspicious.
Joseph Ritson, on the other hand, in his Robin Hood (1795), seemed to think that it was genuine enough.
The current structure around the grave actually dates from the 1850s, so what you’re seeing in the picture is not a medieval structure.
Whether there is a Robin Hood buried under there cannot be said. It’s around the right location for a grave of the famous outlaw (if he existed), and no one has ever disturbed the soil to see if anyone is buried under there.
Most modern researchers tend to take the grave with a pinch of salt, unless they’re a big part of the ‘real Robin Hood’ industry (a bit like the Jack the Ripper industry).
All doubts aside, it was an enjoyable visit, and it’s nice to see where Robin might have died, had he existed.