The Life of JAMES HOW, alias HARRIS
a notorious Highwayman and Thief
Though, generally speaking, the old saying holds true that nobody becomes superlatively wicked at once, yet it may be also averred that a long and habitual course of vice at last so hardens the soul that no warnings are sufficient, no dangers so frightful, nor reflections so strong as to overcome lewd inclinations, when their strength has become increased by a long unrestrained indulgence.
The criminal of whom we are now to speak was a native of the town of Windsor, in the county of Berks. His parents were honest people in middling circumstances, who yet took such care of his education that he was fit for any business to which he would have applied himself. But he, on the contrary, continuing to lead a lazy and indolent course of life, sauntering from one place to another, and preferring want and idleness to industry and labour, at last became so burdensome to his relations that with much ado they sent him to sea. There being of a robust constitution and of a bold, daring spirit, he quickly gained some preferment in the ship on board of which he sailed and might possibly have done very well if he had continued at sea for any time, having the good luck to serve on board the admiral's vessel, and to be taken notice of as a sprightly young fellow, capable of coming to good.
But alas! James soon blasted this prospect of good fortune, for no sooner was he on shore than laying aside all the views he had formed of rising in the Navy, he associated himself with some of his old companions. They persuaded him to take a purse, as the shortest and easiest method of supporting those expenses into which his inclinations for sensual pleasures naturally plunged him. He too easily listened to their persuasions and from that time forward he left nothing unstolen upon which he could lay his fingers.
Punishment did not pursue his crimes with a leaden pace; on the contrary, he had scarce offended ere she made him sensible of the offences. Bridewells, prisons, duckings, lashings, and beatings of hemp were made familiar to him by his running through them several times in the space of a few years. At length, as he increased the guilt of his crimes, so he added to the weight of his sufferings; for after having been at Newgate several times for lesser offences, he was at last committed for a felony, and being convicted thereof, was ordered for transportation. Rightly conceiving that if he was carried into the Plantations he would be obliged to work very hard, which he most dreaded, in order to escape he forged a letter as from a certain man of quality directing that he should be set at liberty in order to serve as a good hand on board of one of his Majesty's ships. His old ill luck pursuing him, the forgery was detected and he was thereupon ordered to remain two years at hard labour in Bridewell; but when he was brought thither, the keeper absolutely refused to have anything to do with him. They knew him of old and said that he was a fellow only fit to make the other criminals who were there unruly, by projecting and putting them into way of making their escape. Upon this he was carried back to Newgate and remained a prisoner for that space of time.
How he came by his liberty again I cannot take upon me to say; all that appears from my papers is that he made a very ill use of it as soon as he obtained it, returning immediately to the commission of those crimes for which he had before forfeited it. At length turning housebreaker he was committed for feloniously stealing five pounds out of the house of John Spence, for which fact, at the sessions following, a bill of indictment was found against him, and he was thereupon arraigned.
At first he insisted that overtures had been made in order to procure discoveries from him, and therefore he desired that he might be admitted an evidence. The Court informed him that they would enter into no altercations with a prisoner at the bar; that he had heard the nature of the charge preferred against him; and that now they could hear nothing from him unless he pleaded guilty or not guilty. He persisted obstinately in his first demand, and in consequence thereof obstinately refused to plead. Whereupon he was told from the Bench that such behaviour was not a proper method to excite the mercy of the Court, that it was not in their power to comply in any degree with what he desired, but that on the contrary they should proceed to pass sentence upon him as a mute, by which be would be subjected to a much greater and more grievous punishment than if he were found guilty of the crime of which he was accused. All this made no impression upon the criminal; he said he could but die, and the manner in which he died was indifferent to him. And so sentence, as is usual in such cases, was pronounced upon him, and he was ordered to be carried back and put into the press. But when he had carried it so far, and found there was no avoiding that cruel fortune which was appointed for such obstinate persons as himself, he desired time till the next morning to consider his plea, which being permitted him, he that time pleaded guilty.
While under sentence of death something very extraordinary occurred in relation to this malefactor. It seems that one Mrs. Dawson had a parcel of plate, consisting of two silver tankards, two silver mugs, a silver cup and a punch ladle, seven pounds sixteen shillings in money, and a great quantity of papers of considerable value, stolen out of her house. She suspected one Eleanor Reddey, and caused her to be apprehended, who thereupon confessed that she opened the door of her mistress's house in the night-time and let in one William Read; that she saw him take away the plate and watched, in the meantime, to observe if anyone came. Upon this confession she herself was convicted, but no evidence appearing against William Read, who was tried with her, he was acquitted.
After she received sentence of death she declared herself absolutely innocent of the fact for which she was to die, affirming that as soon as she was taken up some neighbours persuaded her to make such a confession, and to charge William Read with stealing the things, assuring her that if she did so, she would preserve herself by coming a witness against him. Being a silly timorous creature in herself, and terrified by their suggesting that if she did not take the method they proposed, somebody would infallibly swear against her, she with much ado assented; and being carried before Justice Jackson, made and signed such a confession as is before mentioned.
But How, alias Harris, whose life we are now writing, declared that he, himself, robbed Mrs. Dawson, and that he had a considerable quantity of the plate and most of the papers in his power, offering to restore them if the said Mrs. Dawson had interest enough to procure a pardon either for himself or Eleanor Reddey. But the Ordinary assured him that Mrs. Dawson could do no such thing, and at the same time exhorted him to make what restitution was in his power, since otherwise his repentance would remain imperfect and small hope could be given him of his meeting with forgiveness from an offended God. At first this seemed to have little or no weight with the criminal; he expressed himself very civilly when spoken to on that head, but peremptorily refused to do anything towards making satisfaction to Mrs. Dawson, unless she could do something for him or the woman.
But when death approached nearer he began to relent, sent for the Ordinary and told him that, as for the plate, it was indeed out of his power, but for that the papers, he had caused them to be brought in a box which he delivered and desired they might be kept carefully, because he was sensible that they were of great value to their owner.
At the place of execution he seemed desirous only of clearing his wife from any imputation of being concerned with him in any of his villainies and then suffered with much resignation, on the 11th of September, 1728, being near thirty-eight years of age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals