The Life of EDWARD REYNOLDS
a Thief, etc.
Notwithstanding the present age is so much celebrated for its excellency in knowledge and politeness, yet I am persuaded both these qualities, if they are really greater, are yet more restrained than they have been any time herefore whatsoever. The common people are totally ignorant, almost even of the first principles of religion. They give themselves up to debauchery without restraint, and what is yet more extraordinary, they fancy their vices are great qualifications, and look on all sorts of wickedness as merit.
This poor wretch who is the subject of our present page was put to school by his parents, who were in circumstances mean enough; but from a natural aversion to all goodness he absolutely declined making any proficiency therein. Whether he was educated to any business I cannot take upon me to say, but he worked at mop-making and carried them about to the country fairs for sale, by which he got a competency at least, and therefore had not by any means that ordinary excuse to plead that necessity had forced him upon thieving. On the contrary, he was drawn to the greatest part of those evils which he committed, and which consequently brought of those which he suffered, by frequenting the ring at Moorfields--a place which since it occurs so often in these memoirs, put me under a kind of necessity to describe it, and the customs of those who frequent it.
It lies between Upper and Middle Moorfields, and as people of rank, when they turn vicious, frequent some places where, under pretence of seeing one diversion in which perhaps there is no moral evil, they either make assignations for lewdness, or parties for gaming or drinking, and so by degrees ruin their estates, and leave the character of debauchees behind them, so those of meaner rank come thither to partake of the diversions of cudgel-playing, wrestlings, quoits, and other robust exercises which are now softened by a game of toss-up, hustle-cap, or nine-holes, which quickly brings on want; and the desire continuing, naturally inclines them to look for some means to recruit. And so, when the evening is spent in gaming, the night induces them to thieve under its cover, that they may have wherewith to supply the expenses of the ensuing day. Hence it comes to pass that this place and these practices hath ruined more young people, such as apprentices, journeymen, errand-boys, etc., than any other seminary of vice in town. But it is time that we should now return to the affairs of him who hath occasioned this digression.
In the neighbourhood of this place Reynolds found out a little alehouse to which he every night resorted. There were abundance of wicked persons who used to meet there, in order to go upon their several villainous ways of getting money; Reynolds (whose head was always full of discovering a method by which he might live more at ease than he did by working) listened very attentively to what passed amongst them. One Barnham, who had formerly been a waterman, was highly distinguished at these meetings for his consummate knowledge in every branch of the art and mystery of cheating. He had followed such practices for near twenty years, and commonly when they came there at night they formed a ring about the place where he sat and listened with the greatest delight to those relations of evil deeds, which his memory recorded.
It happened one evening, when these worthy persons were assembled together, that their orator took it in his head to harangue them on the several alterations which the science of stealing had gone through from the time of his becoming acquainted with its professors. In former days, said he, knights of the road were a kind of military order into which none but decayed gentlemen presumed to intrude themselves. If a younger brother ran out of his allowance, or if a young heir spent his estate before he had bought a tolerable understanding, if an under-courtier lived above his income, or a subaltern officer laid out twice his pay in rich suits and fine laces, this was the way they took to recruit; and if they had but money enough left to procure a good horse and a case of pistols, there was no fear of their keeping up their figure a year or two, till their faces were known. And then, upon a discovery, they generally had friends good enough to prevent their swinging, and who, ten to one, provided handsomely for them afterwards, for fear of their meeting with a second mischance, and thereby bringing a stain upon their family. But nowadays a petty alehouse-keeper, if he gives too much credit, a cheesemonger whose credit grows rotten, or a mechanic that is weary of living by his fingers-ends, makes no more ado, when he finds his circumstances uneasy, but whips into a saddle and thinks to get all things retrieved by the magic of those two formidable words, "Stand and Deliver." Hence the profession is grown scandalous, since all the world knows that the same methods now makes an highwayman, that some years ago would have got a commission.
"But hark ye", says one of the company, "in the days of those gentlemen highwaymen, was there no way left for a poor man to get his living out of the road of honesty? Puh! Ay", replied Barnham, "a hundred men were more ingenious then than they are now, and the fellows were so dexterous that it was dangerous for a man to laugh who had a good set of teeth, for fear of having them stole. They made nothing of whipping hats and wigs off at noon-day; whipping swords from folks' sides when it grew dusk; or making a midnight visit, in spite of locks, bolts, bars, and such like other little impediments to old misers, who kept their gold molding in chests till such honest fellows, at the hazard of their lives, came to set at liberty. For my part", continued he, "I believe Queen Anne's war swept away the last remains of these brave spirits; for since the Peace of Utrac (as I think they call it) we have had a wondrous growth of blockheads, even in our business. And if it were not for Shephard and Frazier, a hundred years hence, they would not think that in our times there were fellows bold enough to get sixpence out of a legal road, or dare to do anything without a quirk of the law to screen them."
All his auditors were wonderfully pleased with such discourses as these, and when the liquor had a little warmed them, would each in their turn tell a multitude of stories they had heard of the boldness, cunning, and dexterity of the thieves who lived before them. In all cases whatever, evil is much sooner learnt than good, and a night debauch makes a ten times greater impression on the spirits than the most eloquent sermon. Between the liquor and the tales people begin to form new ideas to themselves of things, and instead of looking on robbery as rapine and stealing as a villainous method of defrauding another, they, on the contrary, take the first for a gallant action, and the latter for a dexterous piece of cunning; by either of which they acquire the means of indulging themselves in what best suits their inclinations, without the fatigue of business or the drudgery of hard labour.
Reynolds, though a very stupid fellow, soon became a convert to these notions, and lost no time in putting them in execution, for the next night he took from a person (who it seems knew him and his haunts well enough) a coat and a shilling, which when he came to be indicted for the fact, he pretended they were given him to prevent his charging the prosecutor with an attempt to commit sodomy--an excuse which of late years is grown as common with the men, as it has long been with the women to pretend money was given them for flogging folks, when they have been brought to the bar for picking it out of their pockets; hoping by this reverberation of ignominy to blacken each other so that the jury may believe neither. However, in this case, it must be acknowledged that Reynolds went to death with the assertion that he received the coat and the shilling on the before-mentioned account, and that he did not take it by violence, which was the crime whereof he was convicted.
He had married a poor woman, who lived in very good reputation both before and after; by her he had three children, and though he had long associated himself with other women, and left her to provide for the poor infants, yet he was extremely offended because she did not send him as much money as he wanted under his confinement, and he could not forbear treating her with very ill language when she came to see him under his misfortunes. As he was a fellow of little parts and no education, so his behaviour under condemnation was confused and unequal, as it is reasonable to suppose it should be, since he had nothing to support his hopes or to comfort him against those fears of death which are inseparable from human nature. However, he sometimes showed an inclination to learn somewhat of religion, would listen attentively while Smith was reading, and as well as his gross capacity would give him leave, would pray for mercy and forgiveness. At chapel he behaved himself decently, if not devoutly, and being by his misfortunes removed from the company of those who first seduced him into his vices, he began to have some ideas of the use of life when he was going to leave it; and his thoughts had received certain ideas (though very imperfect ones) of death and a future state, when the punishment appointed by Law sent him to experience them. He died on the 23rd of August, 1726, being then upwards of twenty-six years of age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals