Isaac Atkinsonís unusual speciality was robbing lawyers. He was born in 1614, the only son of a wealthy Berkshire landowner who provided him with a thorough education, including Oxford University. He never treated his studies seriously and led a degenerate life. His disappointed father removed him from Oxford to work on his estate, but Isaac ran away to London to mingle with low life. Desperate for money, he returned home to rob his father, who promptly disinherited him. Back in London, Isaac drifted deeper into crime and became a highwayman. After robbing Charles Iís Attorney-General, Atkinson set his sights at lawyers. In a period of six months he stopped and robbed well over a hundred of them as they travelled around the countryís law circuits.
He finally met his match when he changed his tactics to rob a lady near Turnham Green. When ordered to ístand and deliverí, she threw her purse over a hedge and galloped away on her mare. Isaac dismounted and walked over to retrieve the purse. Unfortunately for him, his horse was more interested in the ladyís mare and galloped off in pursuit, catching up with her at Brentford in Middlesex. Realising what had happened, she raised the alarm and a party of men set off to the spot where the robbery had occurred. They found the stranded Isaac Atkinson in a nearby field but he fought fiercely to avoid arrest, killing four of the men and mortally wounding another. He was eventually overcome, tried and condemned to be hanged. In 1640, aged twenty-six, on the way to the gallows at Tyburn, he showed his contempt for the chaplain by stabbing him. Before he was hanged, he is said to have remarked philosophically: ĎGentlemen, thereís nothing like a merry life and a short one!í
A highwayman who had an exceptionally long career of over forty years on the road was William Davis, born in 1627 in Wrexham, Wales. He married the daughter of a wealthy inn-keeper and it is recorded they raised a large family of eighteen children. They successfully turned their hands to farming in the Bagshot region of Surrey and William took to the road in various disguises to supplement their income. He paid most of his debts in gold and so acquired the nickname of the ĎGolden Farmerí, reputedly keeping his criminal activities from the knowledge of his wife and family. Not even his neighbours suspected him over all these years. Davis mainly operated on Bagshot Heath but he also travelled and intercepted coaches as far afield as Salisbury Plain. His downfall eventually came when he attempted to rob a coach near London. He was wounded by a shot from a passenger, unmasked when he fell from his horse, and recognised. He was tried, convicted and hanged in 1690 at the age of sixty-four. Afterwards, the authorities hung his body in chains on Bagshot Heath.
One of the most famous English highwaymen of the seventeenth century was a Frenchman named Claude Duval, born in 1643 at Domfront in Normandy where his father worked as a miller. The village once had a strange reputation, for although the local parish priest baptised many children, he conducted few funerals. It seems most were executed at Rouen! Claude Duval left home when he was about fourteen years old and entered into service. At about seventeen, he was employed by the Duke of Richmond, an Englishman in exile, as a footman. After Charles II returned to the English throne in 1660, the duke, together with other Restoration exiles, including the Duke of Buckingham, returned to England. Duval, who accompanied the party soon succumbed to an expensive lifestyle of wining, dining and gaming. Inevitably he ran short of money, so he took to the road, his favourite hunting grounds being Hampstead Heath and the roads to the north of London.
Claude Duval gained the reputation of a gentleman highwayman by being impeccably polite to his victims, always raising his hat to ladies. According to Macaulay in his History of England, he demonstrated his manners in an incident near Hampstead Heath. Together with four companions, he stopped a coach containing a lady, her William Davis, alias the ĎGolden Farmerí, holding up a tinker on a deserted heath.
Husband and a servant, having received prior information that the gentleman was carrying £400. In order to prove she was not scared, the lady started to play a flageolet, whereupon Duval invited her to step down and dance with him. This she did, with her husband powerless to intervene. After the dance, Duval chivalrously handed the lady back into the coach and coolly asked her husband to pay a fee for the entertainment. When he handed over £100, Duval thanked him for his generosity and told him to keep the other £300. As a consequence, stories of the dashing young foreign highwayman quickly spread through the drawing-rooms of London. On another occasion, Claude Duval and his confederates halted a coach on Blackheath, robbing a lady of most of her valuables, including a silver feeding bottle with which she was nursing her baby. The infant began to cry and the bottle was returned immediately. Later, briefly revisiting his native France, Duval continued to commit various crimes, including a confidence trick. He pretended he had realised the alchemistís dream of discovering a substance that could turn base metals into gold. He used the ruse to gain access to a rich merchantís house to rob him of his real gold.
Back in London, on an early January night in 1670 he carried out a hold-up that was to lead to his downfall. Celebrating his success too freely at the Hole-in-the-Wall tavern in Chandos Street, Covent Garden, he was recognised as a Ďwanted maní and although armed, he was too intoxicated to offer resistance. He was taken to Newgate Prison, later charged with six indictments and condemned to death. While awaiting execution, many ladies visited him in the condemned cell and a few of high rank pleaded with Charles II to pardon him. No pardon was granted and Claude Duval was hanged, aged twenty-seven, at Tyburn on Friday 21 January 1670. He declined to address the many sorrowful ladies who attended his execution, although the text of such a speech was later found on his body, in which he made many references to his high regard of the fair sex.
After execution, his admirers conveyed his body in a coach to the Tangier Tavern in St Giles-in-the-Fields, where he was laid in state. The room was draped in black and eight candles were lit around his bier, guarded silently by a group of men in black cloaks, while a host of people filed in and out to pay their last respects. The following day, Duvalís coffin was taken to St Paulís Church, Covent Garden, the. funeral being attended by a huge crowd, with many tearful lady mourners. He was buried under the central aisle of the church and an inscribed white marble stone was placed on top. Although no trace of the stone or inscription remained after the church was burned down in 1759, it was recorded that the epitaph read as follows:
Here lies Du Vail, reader, if male thou art, Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart Much havoc hath he made of both; for all Men he made stand, and women he made fall. The second conqueror of the Norman race, Knights to his arms did yield, and ladies to his face Old Tyburnís Glory, Englandís bravest thief, Du Vail, the Ladiesí joy! Du Vail, the Ladiesí grief.
Another gentleman-highwayman of repute was James Whitney, who promoted himself to the rank ofíCaptainí. He was born in 1660 in Stevenage, Hertfordshire of poor parents, later working in a butcherís shop and then becoming landlord of an inn in his native county. Here he encountered many highwaymen who tried to persuade him to join their ranks. Tempted by the prospect of wealth and the lure of adventure, he eventually decided to try his luck, working both in groups and on his own. Because of his courage and intelligence, the ĎCaptainí was voted leader of his gang, which operated over a wide area, but insisted that no violence should be used during their robberies. Every so often he would disband them to deceive the authorities, then resume operations.
After an encounter with a party of dragoons sent out to suppress his band of highway robbers, Whitney was betrayed by a female acquaintance. He was captured, sent to Newgate and placed in heavy irons to prevent escape. Shortly afterwards, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. For his execution, he ordered from his tailor a new, richly embroidered suit, hat and peruke, worth £100, as he wished to die as a gentleman, but his gaoler refused to let him wear it. He tried to purchase a pardon but this was also refused and he was sent on the journey to the gallows at Tyburn. At the last moment, he was taken back to Newgate for additional questioning, as he had earlier indicated he possessed information on a Jacobite plot to kill the King. His story was not believed and he was hanged at the age of thirty-four on 19 December 1694 at Porterís Block, near Cowcross Street, Smithfield, instead of Tyburn.
- American Western Outlaws
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- 17th-Century English Highwaymen
- 18th-Century English Highwaymen
- European Banditry
- Hide-outs and Disguises
- Punishments and Prisons
- The Law Enforcers
- The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen
- The Victims and the Booty