Murder and mayhem in Georgian Britain: the scandalous work of Johnson's General History
In 1734, an extraordinary book recounted – even celebrated – the lives of highwaymen, pirates and murderers. Sam Willis explores what this compendium reveals about attitudes to crime in the 18th century
In the collections of the British Library is a first edition of, what is for me, one of the most remarkable books ever published: A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. To Which Is Added, a Genuine Account of the Voyages and Plunders of the Most Notorious Pyrates.
It was written by one Captain Charles Johnson and published in 1734. On the surface, this is a collection of fascinating stories about various bloodthirsty rogues.
But scratch a little deeper, reading carefully its narratives of murder and mayhem, and you’ll discover that this book actually raises questions that go to the very heart of what we know about the past – and the present.
Who was Captain Charles Johnson?
Johnson was a literary phenomenon in the early part of the 18th century. He first roared onto the London publishing scene in 1724, in a cacophony of swearing and violence, with a book recounting the “true” lives of pirates, building on a tradition of criminal biographies that can be traced back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A decade later, he saw the opportunity to bring together the stories of diverse criminals in one book – the literary equivalent of Newgate Prison, each villain occupying his own cell-like chapter.
Charles Johnson’s identity remains a mystery (that name presumably being a pseudonym), but one thing is certain: he was a masterful storyteller and historian. He weaves fact with fiction and glorifies in his own trickery, celebrating his role as a historical fraudster. At the same time, he often tells the truth – or at least the truth as he wishes it to be remembered.
To read his book is not only to be educated and entertained by a rich cast of criminals going back over a number of centuries, but also to be educated and entertained by life in Britain in the mid 1730s, and by the anonymous author’s beliefs and understanding of his world. In particular, it provides fascinating insights into attitudes towards criminals and wider society in the early Georgian era.
Why did he focus on highwaymen?
As Johnson’s book makes abundantly clear, criminals could strike anywhere. But nowhere were people more vulnerable to crime’s depredations than when they were on the move. For centuries before the Industrial Revolution – with its gates, turnpikes and road patrols – roads were a source of intense anxiety, presenting numerous hazards. Settlements were spread out, dislocated from one another. To travel was to become isolated for long periods of time.
The landscape was more awkward than it is today, with thick forests here, unwadeable streams there, and bogs and thickets regularly blocking the way. Watchmen provided a degree of security in some towns and cities, but there was no formal police force until the Metropolitan Police was established in London in 1829. Roads, even on the outskirts of major cities, were dangerous.
Johnson explores danger on the roads in his chapter on a highwayman called Sir Gosselin Denville, who plied his trade not in the author’s own time but back in the 14th century. Among other exploits, this rogue robbed two cardinals sent to England from Rome to negotiate with Edward II. Johnson gleefully describes his predations:
“The continual preys he and his men made on all travellers, put the whole country into a terrible pannic; for there was no such thing as travelling with any safety; and the great number of persons, of whom his gang was composed, plainly shewed, that they defied the laws, and every thing else. What they could not obtain on the highway, they sought for in houses, monasteries, churches, and nunneries, which were rifled without any distinction; and the most valuable and sacred things carried off.”
Did he present the criminals in a positive light?
One of the most eye-catching aspects of Johnson’s book is that he reserves some of his most stinging criticism not for highwaymen themselves, but their victims. He is keenly aware of the deficiencies of the criminals we meet in the book, describing one such rogue, Thomas Dun, as a man of “very mean extraction” who “had contracted thieving so much from his childhood, that every thing he touch’d stuck to his fingers like birdlime”.
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Yet the victims of criminal acts are, in Johnson’s estimation, often as culpable as those who commit them. Throughout his book we encounter sly lawyers, grasping politicians, crooked tradesmen and quack doctors, each presented as a parasite on society. The author also notes the villainy of those in power, arguing that “A Great Villain may commit more Depredations in a short time, than a hundred little ones can in a long Course of Years,” and claiming that: “It is not unprecedented for a very great knight to be a very great robber.”
Victims of criminal acts are, in Johnson’s estimation, often as culpable as those who commit them. Throughout his book we encounter sly lawyers, grasping politicians, crooked tradesmen and quack doctors, each presented as a parasite on society
Johnson takes great glee in scolding hypocrites. It is telling that he quotes at length a passage in the Bible in an early chapter from the gospel of Luke in which everyday criminals are named:
“Servants when they embezzle the Goods of their Masters: Nay, Apothecaries, and Taylors, when they make unconscionable Bills; Butchers, when they blow their Veil; Millers, for taking double Toll; Shoemakers, for stretching their Leather larger than their Consciences; Surgeons, for prolonging a Cure; Physicians, for taking away the Lives of their Patients; and Lawyers, for taking Bribes on both Sides: I say, that all these are no better than Thieves, and such as they, nor Covetous, nor Drunkards, nor Revilers, nor Extortioners, shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”
In his life of Ned Wicks, a highwayman executed in Warwick in 1713, Johnson reserves particular ire for a miserly landlord who relentlessly demanded rent from a poor widow, driving her to ruin. In Johnson’s account, Wicks comes across the weeping widow, discovers her story and hunts down the landlord on the road, whereupon “he did not only bid him stand and deliver, but presenting him also with a whole volley of first-rate oaths, he so frightened him out of his wits, that he delivered all the money he had lately received, and as much more to it.”
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How interested were Georgians in tales of criminals?
Johnson’s book demonstrates that true crime sold well in the 18th century, just as it does today. Many of his subjects were not just criminals plucked from obscurity but well-known personalities – celebrities, even.
In 1724, the year Johnson published his first book – a compendium of the lives of pirates – four criminal biographies were printed about the notorious thief Jack Sheppard. He had been hanged that winter at Tyburn in London; almost immediately, chapbooks, ballads and plays appeared telling his story. Meanwhile, the previous year had seen the publication of biographies of the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy and John Stanley, a murderous early 15th-century knight-errant.
Johnson’s writings give glimpses into the private lives of criminal “celebrities” in a period when the public were quite happy not to draw a line between fame and infamy. The most flamboyant stories were preserved and retold time and again, to the great joy of listeners and readers all over the country. There is perhaps no finer example than that of Claude Du Vall, the very essence of a 17th-century gentleman thief.
When he stopped “a knight and his lady” travelling with £400 in their coach – a fortune at the time – the lady began to play a flageolet, a type of early flute. Inspired, Du Vall whipped out his own flageolet and responded with a tune of his own. “'Sir,' says he to the knight, 'your lady plays excellently, and I make no doubt but she dances as well: will you please to step out of the coach, and let me have the honour to dance one courant with her on the heath?'
“'I dare not deny any thing, Sir,' the knight readily replied, 'to a gentleman of your quality, and good behaviour…' It was surprizing to see how gracefully [Du Vall] moved upon the grass; scarce a dancing master in London, but would have been proud to have shewn such agility in a pair of pumps, as Du Vall shewed in a great pair of French riding boots. As soon as the dance was over, he waits on the lady back to the coach, without offering her the least affront; but just as the knight was step ping in, 'Sir,' says he, 'you have forgot to pay the music.'
“His Worship replied, that he never forgot such things; and instantly put his hand under the seat of the coach, and pulled out a hundred pound in a bag, which he delivered to Du Vall, who received it with a very good grace.”
How did Johnson write about more serious crimes?
Claude Du Vall may have been a rogue, but he was dashing one. That wasn’t the case for all of Johnson’s protagonists. There was a darker side to his General History, most especially when it was recounting acts of shocking violence against women. The most powerful example of this was an episode in the life of Patrick O’Bryan. This criminal, we are told, was born in Galway and served in the army under Charles II. He ran up debts, borrowing “with the common defence of his countrymen, a front that would brazen out anything, and even laugh at the persons whom he had imposed on, to their very faces”.
Johnson’s attitude is a reminder of the power of anti-Irish sentiment in the 18th century. So it comes as no surprise when he accuses his subject of an act that, you sense, Johnson sees as the worst crimes imaginable. Having described how O’Bryan shot and dismembered one of his victims, Johnson then ascribes to him a gang rape and mass murder.
We know that Patrick O’Bryan was a historical figure who committed terrible crimes because he hanged for them in 1689. Yet readers have to take some of Johnson’s other accounts with a pinch of salt
With four accomplices “as bad as himself”, O’Bryan heads to the home of Lancelot Wilmot in Wiltshire, an isolated house known to contain substantial wealth. Having broken in at night, they set to work:
“... they ty’d and gagg’d the three servants, and then proceeded to the old gentleman’s room, where he was in bed with his lady. They served both these in the same manner, and then went in the daughter’s chamber. This young lady they severally forced after one another to their brutal pleasure, and when they had done, most inhumanly stabb’d her, because she endeavoured to get from their arms. They next acted the same tragedy on the father and mother, which they told them, 'was because they did not breed up their daughter to better manners'.
“Then they rifled the house of every thing valuable which they could find in it, that was fit to be carried off, to the value in all of 2500 [pounds]. After which they set the building on fire, and left it to consume with the unhappy servants that was in it.”
We know that O’Bryan was a historical figure who committed terrible crimes because he hanged for them in 1689. Yet readers have to take some of Johnson’s other accounts with a pinch of salt. He tells us that we can “depend” on the “authenticity” of his tale, but then he peppers it with episodes that are implausible or outright fictional.
For the implausible, look no further than Sawney Bean, whom Johnson introduces thus: “The following account, though as well attested as any historical fact can be… is almost incredible.” The author then urges us to believe the story of a cannibal tribe, a near-50-strong family born of incest, living in a cave on a headland in the Firth of Clyde in the 16th century. This clan survived, he writes, by ambushing people on the road near their cave and then eating them, pickling the leftovers in barrels.
Less dramatic, but entirely fictional nonetheless, is Johnson’s chapter on the life of John Falstaff, a character invented by William Shakespeare. We are told that he was born in Bedfordshire, and “flourished in the reigns of Henry IV and V”. Johnson also includes Robin Hood among his cast, recounting splendid stories of the outlaw hoodwinking traveller after traveller in the guise of “a very honest and worthy person”.
There is no doubt that Johnson wrote this book with his tongue firmly in his cheek. In our modern world, beset with fake news, to avoid falling prey to credulity we must all learn the skills of the historian. So it is with Johnson’s magnificent book: a reader must be willing to be entertained, but also be sceptical. The moment you open the cover, you have placed yourself in the open palm of a master manipulator. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but one to savour – because it summons the past as does no other book I have ever read.
Sam Willis is a historian, archaeologist and broadcaster. He wrote the introduction to the recent reissue of Johnson’s General History (British Library Publishing, 2020)
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Sam Willis is a historian, archaeologist and broadcaster. He has made more than ten major TV series for the BBC and National Geographic including The Silk Road, Invasion! And Castles. He has also written more than ten critically acclaimed and award-winning books.