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Archive for the ‘Historical Events’ Category

James Boswell, by George Willison (1765)

James Boswell (1740-1795) kept a journal of his daily doings when he lived in London during 1762 and 1763. He had been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was the son of Alexander Boswell, the laird of the Auchinleck estate in Ayrshire. This was his second trip to London, at the age of twenty-two, and was much against his parent’s wishes, though he did have their permission. In his journal, he recounts a trip he made to view an execution at Tyburn.

In the eighteenth century, Tyburn Tree was the location of most of the executions in London. The “Tree” was a triangular scaffold located in the middle of the road, just west of the junction of Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street) and Tyburn Lane (now Park Lane). It was designed to enable large numbers of hangings to occur at once.

The Tyburn tree, from John Rocque’s Map of London (1746)

These executions were such popular entertainment with the viewing public that a permanent gallery or spectator stand was built to enable people to get a better view. In June 1771 it collapsed and The Gentleman’s Magazine reported a number of injuries to spectators. The crowds were often quite large and unruly, and had even been known to take off with the dead body “in triumph” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1758).

The criminals were usually transported to the gallows by cart from Newgate Prison, where they had been held for execution. Prisoners were also frequently visited in Newgate, which is where James Boswell first meets the condemned man, Paul Lewis, who is destined to die for robbery. Once the criminals had arrived at the gallows, they were sometimes allowed speak their last words, which were dutifully reported in the papers in the course of the next week.

James Boswell’s account begins on Tuesday 3rd May, 1763, when he writes:

I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr Wilkes come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see Prisoners of one kind or another; So went to Newgate. I step’d into a sort of court before the Cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron Windows and within these strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in; but stood in the court where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. […] In the Cells were Paul Lewis for Robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to Chapel. The Woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul who had been in the sea service and was called Captain was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was drest in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver with his hair neatly queued and a silver lac’d hat smartly cock’d. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said very well; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I realy took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the Chapel.

The Gentleman’s Magazine (May 1763) states that Paul Lewis was the son of a clergyman, who had run away to sea after having run up debts with his tailor. After being sometime in the navy, and being known for his various attempts of cheating money from people, he returned to England where he was caught “committing robbery on the highway”. According to The Magazine, even in the face of death Paul Lewis was shrewd:

Such was the baseness and unfeeling profligacy of this wretch, that when his father visited him the last time in Newgate, and put twelve guineas into his hand as a present supply, he immediately slipt one into the cuff of his sleeve by a dextrous slight, and then opening his hand, shewed the venerable and unfortunate old man that there was but eleven, upon which he took out another, and gave it to make up the number he intended. As soon as he was gone, “there, says Paul, I slung the old fellow out of another guinea.” To this state of obdurate and habitual wickedness he had arrived before he was 24 years old, when the gallows put an end to his power of disgracing his friends and injuring society.

On Wednesday 4th May, Boswell writes about the execution:

My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it; altho’ I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn, that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsom fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me; and He and I got up on a Scaffold, very near the fatal tree; so that we could clearly see all the dismal Scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of Spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.

This scene quite significantly affected Boswell, who was known for his sensitive and emotional temperament. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that Hannah Dageo “was a strong masculine woman, had been an old offender, and once stabbed a man in Newgate, who was evidence against her. At the place of execution, getting her hands loose, she struggled with the executioner, and gave him such a blow on the breast, as almost beat him down. She disposed of her hat, cloaths and cardinal in spite of him; and as soon as the rope was fixed about her neck, pulling a handkerchief over her eyes, she threw herself out of the cart with such violence, that she broke her neck, and died instantly.”

Boswell writes later that night:

But gloomy terrors came upon me so much, as Night approachd, that I durst not stay by myself; so I went and had a bed or rather half a one from honest Erskine, which he most kindly gave me.

These emotional affects continued in the coming days. On Friday 6th May:

When I went home at night I was tired and went to bed and thought to sleep. But I was still so haunted with frightfull imaginations, that I durst not lie by myself, but rose and sallied straight to Erskine, who realy had compassion on me, and as before shared his bed with me. I am too easily affected. It is a weakness of mind. I own it.

The effects finally seem to ease on Saturday 7th May:

My mind was recovering it’s tone. I went home at night, after sauntering with Dempster up and down fleet-market, and I went to bed quietly, and slept soundly.

It is easy to imagine that the eighteenth century was filled with people quite callous to the deaths of others, and I suppose that – compared to today – this may be quite true. However, I was touched to read an account of a person who was as horrified as I might be to watch the public hanging of a man and woman for the crimes of robbery and theft!

Related Posts

James Macleane: The Gentleman Highwayman

Sources and Relevant Links

Boswell’s London Journal (1762-1763) – buy on Amazon

Dr Johnson’s London, by Liza Picard (2000)

John Rocque’s Map of London (1746) – view online

Online archives for The Gentleman’s Magazine

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Highwaymen were one of the scourges of the eighteenth century. They would often lie in wait in Hounslow Heath waiting for a carriage of some description to pass by, and then their voice would be heard, gruff and unabashed, “Stand and deliver!” If the driver had not had the forethought to fire his blunderbuss to scare off the robber, he would have to pull up the equipage. The highwayman, usually with by an accomplice, would then take any jewels, money or other valuables from the occupants of the carriage. The fate of a highwayman, once captured, was usually Tyburn – hung by the neck until dead.

The Blunderbuss

James Macleane was one of these highwaymen. What distinguished him from the majority of the others of his kind was that he was known as “The Gentleman Highwayman”, due to his polite manner of speaking and his wearing a Venetian mask during robberies.

James Macleane was born in Ireland in 1724, and was the son of a Scottish minister. At the age of 18 he took his modest inheritance to Dublin where he squandered it all on clothes, prostitutes, and luxury living. He moved to London with the intention of entering into military service, but instead married a tradesman’s daughter and opened a grocery shop near Cavendish Square. His wife died shortly after and he sold the stock of his business, hoping to recoup enough money to follow his initial plan of entering into the military. Some of his friends helped him gather some funds to enable him to ship himself off for Jamaica, but he gambled it away. Macleane then paired up with an apothecary, Plunkett, whose business had also failed, and began his career as a highwayman. By day he passed himself off as a gentleman of some means, purporting to earn 700l. a year and living in St James’s Street, in the hopes of attracting and marrying a rich heiress.

An excerpt from The Gentleman’s Magazine, Sept 1750

During his career, he managed to hold up several people of notoriety. One of these was Horace Walpole, whose carriage he stopped in Hyde Park one night, stealing his gold watch. On this occasion, his pistol accidentally discharged, grazing Mr Walpole’s cheek before going through the roof of the carriage.

The crime that led to his arrest was committed on June 26th, 1750, when he held up the Salisbury Coach, near Turnham Green, and stole some items of value from Mr Higden. That same day he also robbed Lord Eglington, stealing his blunderbluss and coat. Macleane was caught the following day when he tried to sell the clothes and lace from one of the coats he had stolen to a pawnbroker. The clothes had been advertised as stolen, and the pawnbroker, recognising them and suspecting foul play, alerted the authorities. Plunkett somehow managed to remain hidden and was never apprehended.

After a few days in the Westminster gatehouse, Macleane was taken before the Judge and gave a confession, which he later retracted in his statement of defence at his trial. The Gentleman’s Magazine reports that women were weeping during his statement, when they saw the accused “appeared so concerned”.

“James Macleane, the Gentleman Highwayman at the Bar. Printed for T. Fox in the Old Baily.” Print from The British Museum

His trial was conducted in the Old Bailey, and was the subject of much interest, with the courtroom being unusually full. Indeed, he was reported to receive a massive 3000 visitors in Newgate prison while he was there!

A print was published depicting Macleane’s trial (see left), where the panel of judges sits at the left and Macleane on the right. The judge says: “What has your Lady to say in favour of the Prisoner at the Bar?” To which the woman standing at the back replies: “My Lord, I have had the Pleasure to know him well, he has often been about my Home. I never lost any thing.” The text, printed in three columns below the picture, contains a description of Macleane’s response to his guilty verdict, his statement of defence, a description of the case against him, and outlines some aspects of his confession.

During his defence, he asserted that his supposed accomplice, Plunkett, gave him the clothes to sell on account of there being some money that he owed to Macleane. He discounted the evidence he gave in his earlier confession by saying that it was one that sprung from a confused and disordered mind. Macleane then called nine men to the stand to give evidence to say he was of reputable character. Despite this, the jury – without even having to leave the courtroom – found him guilty.

In the week after his trial – and before his death – he confessed that his defence “was by the advice of an attorney, that he thought it a just defence in law; and that, if it had preserved his life, it would have prevented the disgrace, which his death would bring up on his family, and would have afforded him an opportunity of making some reparation to society, by becoming a useful member of it, and of proving the sincerity of his repentance by his reformation” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Oct 1750).

The Gentleman’s Magazine, through a Dr Allen’s account, describes his sorrows and the anxiety of waiting for his death. Macleane seemed to show all the true signs of repentance and remorse, bursting into tears and praying earnestly for forgiveness. In essence, he appeared to be the sort of man who, for want of occupation, fell into gambling and idleness, which added to his troubles. He spent more than he could earn, until the only way to maintain his standard of living was to resort to robbery.

He was hung at Tyburn Tree on 3rd October, 1750, where a crowd of 110,000 gathered to watch. There had even been a small stadium built so the viewers could watch executions in comfort, and often fast food vendors were present to feed anyone feeling the least bit hungry during the entertainment.

The final caution: “Let those therefore who are yet innocent make no approaches to the precipice from which this man fell, and let those whose crimes have not yet been detected hasten from the brink” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, Oct 1750).

Capital punishment for relatively minor crimes, as was the fashion in the 1700’s, is not really my cup of tea, but interesting none-the-less!

Sources and Relevant Links

Newgate Calendar – James Maclane

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Sept 1750.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Oct 1750.

Plunkett and Macleane, The movie (1999)

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