The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton

 

1    The Criminal's Progress

The Underworld & The Underclass


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.


Most of the people convicted of crimes in eighteenth-century England committed only one or two crimes, usually opportunistic theft, and operated on their own without assistance from others. Though technically such people were 'criminals', they can hardly be distinguished from other members of the community. They were part of the norm of people living in poverty in the slums. They were not professional criminals, and they did not move in the criminal underworld. However, professional criminals and the criminal underworld nevertheless were a reality throughout this period, and these are the subject of this study. The young lad who steals a single pair of shoes from his master, or a silver tankard from a pub, or a shirt drying on a bush, or the young woman who steals a silver spoon from the kitchen, or the sheets from a bed in her lodgings, may indeed be a criminal, but the young lad who steals a dozen pairs of shoes one day, and then steals twenty pairs of stockings the following night together with an accomplice, is a professional criminal, and one who may well move in the underworld. It is this latter type of criminal, and his network, who are my subject.

Contrary to the view of some modern historians, the social and moral rather than strictly legal perception of 'crime' is not just a modern perception. Most people in eighteenth-century England, and not only law-enforcement officers, regarded crime as a comprehensive category of social behaviour of which breaking the law was just the outward evidence. Works like A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. (by 'Captain Charles Johnson', 1734, consisting mostly of a reprint of Alexander Smith's A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the most Notorious Highwaymen, 1714) in their search for the beginnings of crime, treat the single package of family disobedience, swearing, drunkenness, whoring, and falling in with bad company, as the inevitable prelude to a life of crime. Lumping together a large number of behaviours, attitudes and legal offences is very common both in public perception and in practice in the underworld. From at least the early eighteenth century, the word 'criminal' was used in exactly in the same way that we use it today. On the one hand, the word denotes persons or actions defined by statute as criminal, and there are frequent references to 'criminals' held in Newgate, 'criminals' defending themselves, and 'criminals' on their way to an execution: 'Three criminals were burnt in the hand, and one Murphy a footman received sentence of death for horse-stealing, and is to be executed on Wednesday fortnight' (Weekly Journal, or The British Gazetteer, 27 June 1730). On the other hand, the word also connotes a class of bad behaviour that goes beyond ordinary day-to-day sinfulness. The most common sense of the word implied habitual criminals, persons who regularly undertook illegal activities and who often associated together with similar persons for such purposes.

When the first Society for the Reformation of Manners was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690, the parish leaders described bawdy houses as 'not only the nurseries of the most horrid vices, and sinks of the most filthy debaucheries, but also the common receptacles, or rather, dens, of notorious thieves, robbers, traitors, and other criminals'. There is little foundation for the modern claim that the boundary between the criminal classes and the rest of the community was not drawn until the industrial revolution. The very common admission by criminals themselves throughout the eighteenth century (and earlier in the seventeenth century) that they were 'drawn away by wild company' means precisely that they were drawn across the boundary separating two worlds: away from respectable society and into the criminal underworld. Many terms used to describe the Georgian criminal – 'abandoned wretch', 'miscreant', 'villain', 'monster in iniquity' – were inherited from previous centuries, and indicate that criminals were thought of as being well beyond the pale – literally outside the bounds – of decent society. Just as in modern times, in the eighteenth century the contiguity of vice and crime allowed the conceptualiztion of 'criminals' as members of a unified class of persons, persons who typically associated with one another in the 'common receptacles' of the underworld – the 'den of thieves'. Other words commonly used in the eighteenth century in situations where we would use 'criminal' were 'felon', which literally means one who commits a felony and is most frequently used in a legal context, and 'malefactor', which literally means 'evil-doer' and which indicates the general feeling that there was a large class of wicked persons from which the smaller class of those who literally commit crimes are drawn. The commonsense understanding was that a criminal was not only one who commits crimes, but one who was likely to commit crimes according to a predictable pattern.

A typical criminal in this understanding would be Elizabeth Price: though her business ostensibly consisted in picking up rags and cinders, or selling fruit and oysters, crying 'Hot-Pudding' and 'Gray-Peas' in the streets, for various robberies she was whipt in 1701, burnt in the cheek in 1702, whipt in 1703, sentenced to death but pardoned in 1704 and sent to hard labour for one year, burnt in the hand in 1708 and sent to the Clerkenwell work-house, from which she escaped; she broke into chambers at the Inns of Court for the next several years, with accomplices, for which she was convicted for housebreaking in January 1712 but reprieved, then convicted again in October 1712 and hanged at Tyburn, age 37, when she confessed to a long string of robberies. It was recognized in the eighteenth century (and earlier) that there was a class of people which included beggars, layabouts, prostitutes, petty criminals, and hooligans, or what Karl Marx later called the lumpenproletariat: 'vagabonds, discharged soldiers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars . . . this scum, offal, refuse of all classes.'

It is also true, however, that certain criminals such as murderers, rapists and adulterers do not constitute a unified class of persons (except in strict legalistic terms), and they cannot be lumped together with thieves, highwaymen, coiners and pickpockets in a coherent 'criminal class'. Most murderers are husbands or wives who kill their spouses in a moment of passion; they do not socialize with other murderers. Similarly, rapists and adulterers do not form a subculture because rape and adultery do not require a network for distributing goods or an argot for establishing communications, and because rapists and adulterers do not seek out and enjoy one another's company. It does not therefore follow from this, that there is no such thing as a criminal class or a criminal subculture. Thieves who may commit murder in the course of a robbery generally think of themselves, and are viewed by society, as thieves rather than murderers, and they do not normally associate with murderers. They do, however, readily join an 'association' of thieves. Another distinction is that rapists, adulterers and murderers do not regularly commit series of these crimes over long periods: usually they are arrested following a single act of rape or murder. Thieves, on the other hand, once they were convicted, often confessed to committing a long line of thefts, and to leading 'a life of crime' over a decade or more. A rapist or murderer is an independent actor, whereas a good many thieves and housebreakers worked in small gangs of half a dozen men, living by nothing except theft and robbery over a period of several years, and spending all their time in disorderly houses with whores and other thieves, not daring to appear in public for fear of discovery. The crimes they committed, frequently and regularly, played a role in developing a sense of themselves as a category of person, who enhanced their self-image (as well as protection) by associating with others they perceived to be in the same class, thus creating a criminal underworld. Two other types of 'criminals' who will not feature in this study are forgers and embezzlers. Forgers and embezzlers invariably act as sole and secretive agents, who rarely associate with other criminals (except insofar as they may spend large amounts of money in gambling or in brothels), and whose criminal 'trade' has contributed virtually no terms to the argot of the criminal underworld – unlike coiners, who did create a large body of specialized slang and who, more importantly, worked in gangs and associated with other criminal networks.

People who were unfortunate in being apprehended during their first or second theft had no time to become 'hardened criminals' or to become part of the criminal underworld. But many men and women who were hanged were repeat offenders caught after forty or even a hundred robberies, and many of them had been repeatedly convicted. Jack Waldron, hanged at Tyburn in 1711 at the age of 19, was one of those youths characterized as 'a young man, but an old rogue'. His first conviction was for picking a gentleman's pocket, but he received mercy because of his tender age. He travelled to Dublin, where he specialized in robbing goldsmiths' showcases, then returned to London. 'After having been about 18 times in Newgate, besides New Prison, and all the Bridewells in town, often whipt at the cart's arse, burnt in the hand, and once in the face, he became very well known, whenever he came to the Sessions-House in the Old-Bailey, as an old offender. Whereupon, the Right Worshipful Sir Peter King, then Recorder of London, was pleas'd to tell him, That if ever he came there but for an egg, he would hang him for the shell.' Sir Peter kept his word when Waldron appeared one final time before him for a simple felony.

Criminals who associate with one another and who form a subculture are the subject of this study of the criminal underworld. The crucial focus throughout this book will be not upon crime and punishment, but upon criminal networks. In 1752, the surgeon who attended a man who had been very badly beaten by a robber, held a meeting in a brew house which was attended by six local 'thief-catchers'. After some discussion of the modus operandi of the robbers, one thief-catcher recognized that one of the gang must have been Spanish Jack. Within just a few days, Spanish Jack was taken, and he gave evidence against the others, who transpired to be the gang of Randolph Branch, and the robbers were apprehended and tried and sentenced to death. The point to be made from this case is the ease with which thief-catchers were summoned, and how quickly they found the suspects – which was achievable because the networks of the criminal underworld and its leading characters were so well known to them.

Just as in Hogarth's famous series of prints The Rake's Progress and The Harlot's Progress, so the criminal in Georgian England was perceived as travelling along a fixed progression towards the gallows. Contemporary criminologists were quite clear about the characteristic features at the outset of that progress. Most of the men whose lives are recounted in Johnson's A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. (1734) were born in the country to honest but poor parents, broke off their apprenticeships after a few years, came up to London, fell into bad company, were corrupted by prostitutes, drank heavily, got into debt, and launched into their careers as footpads or highwaymen to support the extravagant demands of their doxies. As Johnson observes in his life of the Irishman William MacQueen: 'Coming to England, and not readily falling into any business, was the occasion of his first taking to ill courses, he being exposed, as most idle fellows are, to bad company; which, as we have often remark'd in this work, is the most common introduction to thieving, and as it were the first step towards Tyburn. Every one who reads the Sessions-Papers and dying-speeches of malefactors, must have observed this as well as we.'

There are many truths behind these stereotypes. Jonathan Wild kept a lookout for young men up from the country whom he could train as thieves, as he was himself trained as a thief by Mary Milliner. The author of The Complete Modern London Spy (1781) converses with an old man at a public house in Rag Fair, and asks him about the group of young men hanging around the house, busy swearing at one another. The old man explains that they are in a house of ill resort, whose honest landlady hasn't the energy to change the character of the house, and that the young men who frequent it are 'apprentices, others journeymen; most of them have trades, but few follow them; bad company, idleness, gaming, and the frequent attendance on trials at the Old Bailey and executions at Tyburn, have made them what they are; and having learned the language of thieves and thief-takers, they are become companions for those respectable persons.'

Disorderly houses – thieves' dens and flash houses – were not only safe houses where criminals could find protection, but also prisons which entrapped men into a criminal life. As Bernard Fink, who was hanged in 1731, acknowledged: 'The chief cause of my coming to this untimely end, and several more unhappy creatures' ruin, is owing to a publick-house in St Lawrence Lane, St Giles's in the Fields; who countenances us in all our robberies, and likewise harbours us, whenever we have committed any: For in the back part of the house, they have a place where there is several beds for us; and we come in at any hour of the night; and what we get we spend there upon vile women; when all is gone, they encourage us to turn out again; and in this unhappy way of life we live, till we are brought to this ignominious death.' For better and for worse, the criminal underworld was a self-sufficient subculture.



Poverty


Poverty is unarguably a major factor in directing one's course towards crime. However, we should be careful not to conclude that we have understood the nature of crime once we identify poverty as its 'underlying cause'. It is clear that many criminals are immigrants and that many of them are unemployed – but not all unemployed immigrants became criminals. The thousands of French Protestant refugees who flowed into London at the beginning of the century experienced serious economic problems, which were partly relieved by private charities collecting money for them and by Government measures to aid them (and eventually many of them were transported to North Carolina, where they were given land and livestock to begin a new life), but the only public nuisance was the large numbers of them who begged from door to door: few of them took to crime, nor did they become part of the underworld. The unemployed weavers in the southwest during the late 1720s destroyed much property through their riots, and attacked women who wore imported printed cotton, but they, likewise, did not become members of the criminal underworld. Their 'criminal' activities were part of a political-economic protest, rather than the result of personal greed.

The importance of poverty to crime can be over-exaggerated. When Thomas Bird persuaded William Bray to go out robbing with him in March 1746, he said to Bray, 'It was fit for boys to starve, and not men.' However, Bray then went on to commit a great number of robberies, many more than were necessary to keep a man from starving. The view that poor people are driven into crime out of necessity is only partly true. John Davis, who was hanged at the age of 29 in 1731, never served an apprenticeship, but began as an errand boy, then sawed stones for a mason, then married and had three children, and then served brewers, and learned to brew small-beer. In a drunken fit he enlisted in the Guards, repented it, absconded, went into hiding. He again took up the trade of brewing small-beer, until his neighbour Richard Jones advised him 'to give over that slavish nasty trade and to go and buy pistols, for raising of contribution on the highway', which he did. Jones told him 'that there was no such great danger, that it was needless for them to work so hard for their bread, when they might get money enough for being at the pains to walk out a little, that . . . they could go finer and live easier than their master or chief clerk.' The two men robbed on the highway for three or four years, living solely upon their takings, until they were convicted for several robberies (and Jones was additionally convicted for murdering one of their victims). In a similar fashion, John Levee, alias Junks, one day fell in with bad company at an alehouse in Holborn, one of whom said 'any brisk young fellow might easily make his fortune, and live like a gentleman, by going upon the highway'. His accomplice Richard Oakey fell into a company of housebreakers who said their lay was safer than picking pockets: 'We slum a ken when all's boman [break a house when all's safe], and get more in one night, than you do in a month.' Levee and Oakey were both hanged in 1723.

A few men – but only a few – were established tradesmen before some untoward event caused their ruin. Ned Bonnet was married with two children and had set himself up as a country grocer in Cambridge worth £600 when he was suddenly 'ruined by a fire, which burnt all his goods and house to the ground; and not being in a condition to retrieve his loss, he came up to London, to avoid the importunate duns of creditors, where lighting into a gang of highwaymen, he took to their courses, to raise himself, if possible, once more.' He was hanged in 1713. Like Bonnet, Richard Keele was born to very good and reputable parents in Hampshire; he married the daughter of the barber and periwig maker to whom he was apprenticed and lived with her for seven or eight years; then he came to London and married a woman who received £50 per annum. He was well enough established, but 'His sole delight and pleasure was ever in keeping company with the greatest rogues, whores, and thieves, from whom he had learnt so much of their bad manners, that he exceeded them all in villainy; especially when he came to be a bailiff, the general character of which office is, that the beginning is detestable, the course desperate, and the end damnable.' Involved mostly in petty larceny to supplement a meagre income as bailiff, he was hanged in 1713 for assisting in an attempted prison breakout during which a turnkey was killed.

Some men were positively attracted to the excitement and glamour of crime, and emigrated to London not to find employment, but to practise robbery. Harvey Hutchens, caught pilfering one time too many from his master, a silversmith, was sent to Shrewsbury Gaol at the age of 14. There he met a gang of thieves from London, 'and hearing them tell of the several notable and ingenious robberies that were committed in and about London, by some of the chief masters of their profession, he was resolved to make the best of his way thither after he obtained his liberty'. He came up to Islington, where 'his mind still ran upon the ingenuity of the topping thieves in London, particularly one Constantine, who, for the fine stories he had heard told of him, he admired above the rest'. With the help of some young pickpockets, he tracked down Constantine, and after passing several trials of his skill at theft, Constantine bound him for a three-year apprenticeship. 'In fine, Harvey very truly and honestly served out his time with his master, when setting up for himself, he had very pretty business in house-breaking, and liv'd very creditably and handsomly among those of his profession, for about nine years' before being apprehended for a burglary and hanged in 1704, aged 26.

Some men seem to have been born with a halter around their necks, just as others were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. James Dalton was called 'a Thief from the Cradle'. Some criminals seem to have been bad seeds. As Captain Johnson says in his life of Jonathan Simpson: 'we can find no other reason for his turning highwayman than the bent of his mind'. Some criminals were perceived to have had 'vicious inclinations' from the outset, and to have been stubborn and violently tempered as children. Tom Kelsey 'was from his infancy a stubborn untoward brat, and this temper encreased as he grew up'. As a child, Stephen Bounce stole coal from the charcoal-man who was the father of one of his playfellows, and would exchange it for codlings from an old apple-woman. Once he asked her to give him codlings in advance of receipt of coal, but she refused. In revenge, the next batch of coals he brought her he had hollowed out in the centres and filled with gunpowder. The rest of his progress was the usual one, and he confessed at his trial that 'for the maintenance of lewd women, he cared not what hazards he underwent'. Before being hanged in 1707, he declared that 'a strumpet was the highway to the Devil'.

Captain Johnson recognized that for women, the path to Tyburn was often sexual. Ann Harris was born to poor but honest parents in the parish of St Giles; 'but being debauch'd by one James Wadsworth, she soon abandoned all manner of goodness'. After Wadsworth, alias Jemmy the Mouth, was hanged for felony and burglary in 1702, age 24, Ann lived next with William Pulman, alias Norwich Will, who was hanged for highway robbery in 1705, age 26. 'Now Nan being twice left a hempen widow in less than three years, she had learn'd in that time to be as vicious as the very worst of her sex, and was so absolutely enslav'd to all manner of wickedness thro' custom and opportunity, that good admonitions could work no good effects upon her.' She became a notorious shoplifter and was hanged at the age of 20.

Another Nan, Ann Holland, when she first appeared in town was very personable, pretty and clear-complexioned, and the lewd fellows flocked about her 'like so many ravens about a piece of carrion' until they had their will. Despite falling into debauchery, she nevertheless managed to marry a respectable comb-maker, but he threw her out of the house when she gave birth to a girl only six months after the marriage. 'Nan Holland being thus metamorphos'd from a house-keeper to a vagabond, she was oblig'd to shift among the wicked for a livelihood; and to give her what was her due, tho' she was but young, yet could she cant tolerably well, wheedle most cunningly, lie confoundedly, swear desperately, pick a pocket dexterously, dissemble undiscernably, drink and smoke everlastingly, whore insatiably, and brazen out all her actions impudently.' Her second marriage, to a highwayman, did not last long before she was left a 'hempen widow' after he was hanged. She then took up with Tristram Savage (whom she met in Newgate, where he had been imprisoned for his scurrilous pamphlet The Black List), and together they robbed a famous astrologer in Moorfields, for which she was hanged in 1705.

Margaret Green, an Irish woman hanged for privately stealing on 4 May 1705, was prompted to steal by her common-law husband and by a woman who received stolen goods. At the place of execution she addressed the crowd and 'warned all young women and old, not to keep company with idle and wicked fellows, and maintain them by thieving, which was the thing that had brought her to this her sad shameful, and untimely end.'

Not all women owed their fall into a life of crime to the seduction of men. Jane Bowman came from Scotland to London and fell in with ill company, and was often convicted and branded as a thief. In her Confession and Dying Words she condemned her friend Elizabeth Tetherington alias Smith as being 'the prime cause of her falling into gross sins'. Elizabeth Tetherington, for her part, said that she had worked selling oysters at Billingsgate but had fallen into bad female company who were receivers of stolen goods and who enticed her to steal, and she had since committed many robberies. Both women were hanged on 21 July 1703.



'Crimes Against Property'


The law is often described in terms of class conflict, bourgeois versus working class, élite versus plebian. But this caricature is inaccurate: the criminal justice system did not consist solely of the Rich prosecuting the Poor. The courts dealt primarily with the working class not because the laws were specifically designed to single out the working class, but because middle-class people did not generally pick pockets, or get into drunken street brawls, or murder their newborn infants in order to retain their place as a servant in the household. If the upper classes did occasionally commit the vulgar sorts of crimes – such as shoplifting – the law directed its attention to them as well, though allowances were sometimes made. Sir Charles Burton was convicted of stealing a cornelian seal set in gold from a shop in 1722; he was ordered to be transported, but the judgment was reversed and the Court ordered him to be privately whipped.

The law protected not just the property of the upper classes, but the property of the entire community. Wealthy aristocrats living on their country estates in Suffolk rarely exploited the laws to protect their property from theft (though of course they exploited various contractual laws and regulations). The victims of theft were overwhelmingly the lower and lower-middle classes living in central London. Poor thieves stole from poor labourers and from small-time tradesmen in their own neighbourhood. In a very typical case, in January 1773 a woman who got her living by selling tripe, neats feet, and so on around Clapton and Hackney, was robbed of what money she had by a footpad. Poor people suffered the most from crimes against property, and poor people benefited the most from the enforcement of laws against property crimes. Even in cases where property is stolen from the home or shops of small-time shopkeepers, or even the middling sort, the crime is more than just a 'crime against property', and even today burglary is one of the crimes most feared by ordinary people. Modern sociological theory notwithstanding, crimes against property are crimes against people. We cannot cold-heartedly dismiss the despair of Mrs Wheeler in December 1723, from whose house the lodger had stolen 14 broad pieces of gold, 26 guineas, and 10l. in silver, a silver porringer, six silver spoons, and other goods: 'when we return'd, I found my doors broke open, my box, and my drawers were broke too, and thrown about the room, and all that we had been working for all our lives, to keep us when we were grown old, was taken away.' People like Mrs Wheeler are technically members of the propertied class, but their property is relatively small, and the threat of housebreakers is not to be dismissed. Elizabeth Bromfield kept a house in Bell Yard in King's Street, Westminster, where she sold greens and fruit. She kept the lower part for her own use and let all the rest. Her complaint after being robbed of her money and goods in January 1734 is typical: 'This woman robb'd me of all that I had in the world, and did not leave me so much as an apron or a cap to put on.'

Of course it is true that there are important social and political factors that situate poverty, bad health and crime within the working class. But we have to resist the Marxist sentimentalizing of uniform class interests in the class war, because within the working class itself there was a sharp division between those working-class people who respected the law and whose livelihoods were protected by the law, and those working-class people who brutally destroyed other working-class people's lives, property and livelihoods. Virtually the only instance in which there is clear evidence of the landed gentry systematically using the law to maintain their rule, was in the use of game laws against poaching. But large numbers of tradesmen and artisans, and also labourers, used laws to protect the very small property they owned, which might consist only of the product of their own hands or nothing more than their clothes. The loss of property is more devastating for the poor than for the rich. Satisfaction at law was open to all social classes, and every Sessions has instances in which the poor prosecuted the poor, or at least in which the victim and defendant came from the same modest social background. During the single Session of February 1790, for example, in amongst the usual range of 'property offences' – mainly servants stealing from masters, customers stealing from public houses, men stripping lead from houses, shoplifters stealing cloth from drapers and pickpockets stealing silk handkerchiefs from gentlemen – can be found examples of non-propertied prosecutors: a lamplighter prosecuted a man for stealing his tin oil-kettle and three quarts of lamp oil; a plasterer prosecuted a man for stealing his two wooden birdcages containing five canaries; a girl whose mother took in washing prosecuted two street robbers for stealing a linen shirt from her; an itinerant Jewish clothes seller prosecuted a woman who sold old clothes for stealing two shillings from him (and throwing a chamber pot over his head); the wife of a carpenter prosecuted a man for stealing two gowns she had hung up to dry; a brick maker prosecuted his helper for stealing money from him; a lodger at a public house prosecuted another lodger for stealing some of his belongings; a common labouring man prosecuted another for stealing his breeches, linen shirt and a pair of worsted stockings; a drayman prosecuted a man for stealing his horse tackle; a Covent Garden market stall-holder prosecuted a man for stealing some children's clothes from her stall; a tin-plate worker prosecuted a man for stealing three tin jugs; the wife of a potter prosecuted two highway robbers; the daughter of a locksmith and bell hanger prosecuted a highway robber; and among the prosecutors who technically were 'propertied' were a shoemaker, a cheesemonger, a stable keeper, a pig-keeper, two women who jointly ran a grocery shop, a woman who kept a small milliner's shop, a nursery gardener, and so on. Fewer than half a dozen merchants of sufficient wealth to own warehouses or well-stocked premises brought cases in this Sessions. This kind of data does not support the claim that the process of justice was primarily a tool by which the élite propertied class protected themselves against the depredations of the plebeian class, or a tool by which the governing classes maintained their dominance over the working classes. It is especially foolish to claim that the principle aim of English law was to compel the deference of the lower orders. It was not only the élite who had an interest in controlling criminal acts, but society as a whole, which is why only genuine crimes like murder and armed street robbery consistently attracted the death sentence, rather than crimes against property.

It is misleading for historians to insist that most crimes were 'crimes against property'. The threat – and often the use – of violence underlay most crimes. Highwaymen were always armed with pistols, and footpads were usually armed with knives, and often pistols. Victims of street robbery frequently testified that 'a pistol was clapped to my breast'. Highwaymen and footpads regularly beat, stripped nearly naked, and hog-tied their victims and left them in the cold, perhaps to be discovered by another traveller, perhaps not. As two highwayman stood over Cornelius Donover in August 1749 debating what to do with him after they had robbed him, 'I said to them, pray don't make surgeon's work on me.' He was lucky, as they let him walk away unharmed. But people who had their watches and rings stolen were often slashed across the face or, in the case of women, sexually abused. Victims of robbery on the highway regularly exhibited their scars in court.

Almost all condemned highway robbers and footpads and housebreakers confessed to numerous robberies preceding the one for which they were capitally convicted. Socialist historians such as Peter Linebaugh often fail to mention the abundant data from newspapers reporting highway robbery that was successful and for which no one was ever captured, often because the victim was murdered and there were no witnesses. In November 1763 a higler at Exeter market was found on the road 'with his brains dashed out, and his money all taken away'. People were well advised to remain in their beds pretending to be asleep if they were awoken by a noise caused by an intruder. The Gentleman's Magazine during 1763 reported many cases of people having their throats cut by housebreakers. These are the kinds of cases that never come to court. Dead men tell no tales. Men's eyes were sometimes beaten out by footpads, done deliberately to avoid detection. In the summer of 1773 many persons, especially women, were found dead in the fields with their heads cracked open, or drowned in rivers or ponds, with evidence of having been robbed and then murdered. In the autumn a well-dressed man was discovered in a field in Deptford with his throat cut from ear to ear, who had obviously been robbed and then killed. Such reports could be multiplied a thousand-fold. William Jackson, Postmaster at Staines, was attacked and killed by two highwaymen in June 1773. The London Evening Post on 9–11 March 1773 reported scores of 'shocking instances of savage barbarity' for which no one was ever prosecuted. For instance, in late February, in Bridgewater, Somerset, the town's master tailor David Webber was returning home with his daughter when they were assaulted by three ruffians, who robbed them, then raped the daughter in front of her father, then 'flashed, cut, and mangled the unhappy old man in a most indecent and horrid manner', from which he was not expected to recover. John alias Richard Jones, hanged for robbery in 1721, confessed 'I acknowledge it with grief, that I was generally cruel to those I robb'd.'


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