Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: James Shaw

The Life of JAMES SHAW, alias SMITH

a Highwayman and Murderer

James Shaw, otherwise Smith (for by both these names he went, nor am I able to say which was his true one) was the son of parents both of circumstances and inclination to have given him a very good education if he would have received it. The unsettledness of his temper was heightened by that indulgence with which he was treated by his relations, who permitted him to make trial of several trades, though he could not be brought to like any. Indeed, he stayed so long with a forger of gun-locks, as to learn something of his art, which sometimes he practised and thereby got money; but generally speaking he chose rather to acquire it by easier means.

I cannot take upon me to say at what time he began to rob upon the road, or take to any other villainy of that sort, but 'tis certain that if he himself were to be believed, it was in a great measure owing to a bad wife; for when he, by his labour, got nine shillings a week, and used to return home very weary in the evening, he generally found nobody there to receive him, or to get ready his supper, but everything in the greatest confusion, without any person to take care of what little he had. This, as he would have had it believed, was the source of his misfortunes and necessities, as it was also the occasion of his taking such fatal methods to relieve them.

The Hampstead Road was that in which he chiefly robbed, and he could not be persuaded that there was any great crime in taking away the superfluous cash of those who lavish it in vanity and luxury, or from those who procure it by cheating and gaming; and under these two classes Shaw pretended to rank all who frequented the Wells or Belsize, and it is to be much feared that in this respect he was not very far out. Amongst the many adventures which befell him in his expeditions on the road, there are one or two which it may not be improper to take notice of.

One evening, as he was patrolling thereabouts, he came up to a chariot in which there was a certain famous justice, who happened to have won about four hundred pounds at play, and Count Ui----n, a famous foreign gamester, that has made many different figures about this town. No sooner was the coach stopped by Shaw and another person on horseback, but the Squire slipped the money he had won behind the seat of the coach, and the Count having little to lose, seemed not very uneasy at the accident. The highwaymen no sooner had demanded their money, but the Count gave two or three pieces of foreign gold, and the gentleman, in hopes by this means of getting rid of them, presented them with twenty guineas.

"Why, really, sir", said Shaw, on the receipt of the gold, "this were a handsome compliment from another person, but methinks you might have spared a little more out of the long bag you brought from the gaming table. Come, gentlemen, get out, get out, we must examine the nest a little, I fancy the goldfinches are not yet flown." Upon this, they both got out of the chariot, and Shaw shaking the cushion that covered the seat hastily, the long bag fell out with its mouth open, and all its bright contents were scattered on the ground. The two knights of the road began to pick them up as fast as they could, and while the justice cursed this unlucky accident which had nicked him, after he had nicked all the gamesters at the Wells, the Count, who thought swearing an unprofitable exercise, began to gather as fast as they. A good deal of company coming in sight just as they had finished, and while they were calling upon the Count to refund, they were glad to gallop away. But returning to London they were taken, and about three hours after committing the fact, they, together with the witnesses against them, were brought before a Middlesex magistrate, who committed them.

"But, pray, Sir", says Shaw, before he was taken out of the room; "Why should not that French fellow suffer as well as we? He shared the booty, and please your Worship, 'tis but reasonable he should share the punishment. Well, what say you, Sir?" quoth the Justice to his brother magistrate. "What is this outlandish man they talk of? He is a count, Sir", replied he, "returned from Naples, whither he went on some affairs of importance. He makes a very good figure here sometimes, though I do not know what his income is. I do not apprehend your Worship has anything to do with that, since I do not complain. However", replied this dispenser of justice, "I have had but a very sorry account of you, yet as you are in company with my brother here, I shall take no further notice of what these men say."[1]

Shaw being after this got out of prison and having no money to purchase a horse, he endeavoured to carry on his old profession of a footpad. In this shape he robbed also several coaches and single passengers, and that with very great inhumanity, which was natural, he said, from that method of attacking, for it was impossible for a footpad to get off, unless he either maimed the man, or wounded his horse.

Meeting by chance, as he was walking across Hampstead Road, an old grave-looking man, he thought there was no danger in making up to him, and seizing him, since he himself was well armed. The old gentleman immediately begged that he would be civil and told him that if he would be so, he would give him an old pair of breeches which were filled with money and effects worth money, and, as he said, lay buried by such a tree, pointing at the same time to it with his hand. Shaw went thither directly, in hopes of gaining the miser's great prize, for the old fellow made him believe he had buried it out of covetousness, and came there to brood over it. But no sooner were they come to the place, and Shaw looping down, began to look for three pieces of tobacco pipe, which the old man pretended to have stack where they were buried, but the gentleman whipped out his sword, and made two or three passes at Shaw, wounding him in the neck, side and breast.

As the number of his robberies were very great, so it is not to be expected that we should have a very exact account of them, yet as Shaw was not shy in revealing any circumstance that related to them, we may not perhaps have been as particular in the relation of his crimes as our readers would desire, and therefore it will be necessary to mention some other of his expeditions.

At his usual time and place, viz., Hampstead Road, in the evening, he overtook a dapper fellow, who was formerly a peruke-maker but now a gamester. This man taking Shaw for a bubble, began to talk of play, and mentioned All Fours and Cribbage, and asked him whether he would play a game for a bottle or so at the Flask. Shaw pretended to be very willing, but said he had made a terrible oath against playing for anything in any house; but if to avoid it, the gentleman would tie his horse to a tree and had any cards in his pocket, he'd sit down on the green bank in yonder close, and hazard a shilling or two. The gamester, who always carried his implements in his pocket, readily accepted of the offer, and tying their horses to a post of a little alehouse on the road, over they whipped into the fields. But no sooner were they set down, and the sharper began to shuffle the cards, but Shaw starting up, caught him by the throat, and after shaking out three guineas and a half from his breeches' pocket, broke to pieces two peep boxes, split as many pair of false dice, and kicked the cards all about the ground. He left him tied hand and foot to consider ways and means to recruit his stock by methods just as honest as those by which he lost it.

The soldiers that at that time were placed on the road, passed for a great security amongst people in town, but those who had occasion to pass that way found no great benefit from their protection, for robberies were as frequent as ever, and the ill-usage of persons when robbed more so, because the rogues thought themselves in greater danger of being taken, and therefore bound or disabled those they plundered, for fear of their pursuing them.

For a fact of this kind it was that Shaw came to his death, for one Philip Pots, being robbed on horseback by several footpads and knocked off his horse near the tile kilns by Pancras, and wounded in several places of his body with his own sword, which one of the villains had taken from him, some persons who passed by soon after took him up, and carried him to the Pinder of Wakefield.[2] There, on the Monday following (this accident happening on Saturday night) he in great agonies expired. For this murder and another robbery between Highgate and Kentish Town, Shaw was taken up and soon after convicted. At first he denied all knowledge of the murder, but when his death grew near, he did acknowledge being privy to it, though he persisted in saying he had no hand in its commission.

At the time he was under condemnation, the afore-mentioned John Smith, William Colthouse, and Jonah Burgess were in the same condition. They formed a conspiracy for breaking out of the place where they were confined and to force an escape against all those who should oppose them. For this purpose they had procured pistols, but their plot being discovered, Burgess in great rage, cut his own throat and pretended that Shaw designed to have dispatched himself with one of the pistols. But Shaw, himself, absolutely denied this, and affirmed on the contrary that when Burgess said his enemies should never have the satisfaction (as they had bragged they would have) of placing themselves upon Holborn Bridge, to see him go by Tyburn, he (Shaw) exhorted him never to think of self-murder, and by that means give his enemies a double revenge in destroying both body and soul.

As Shaw had formerly declared his wife's ill-conduct had been the first occasion of his falling into those courses which had proved so fatal to him, he still retained so great an antipathy to her on that account, as not to be able to pardon her, even in the last moments of his life, in which he would neither confess, nor positively deny the murder for which he died. He was then about twenty-eight years of age, and died the same day with the last-mentioned malefactor, Smith.


[1] This discourse between the magistrates is obscure. I have been unable to clear it.

[2] This was the public-house at the Battle Bridge (King's Cross) end of Gray's Inn Road.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals