The Lives of JOHN AUSTIN, a Footpad, JOHN FOSTER, a Housebreaker, and RICHARD SCURRIER, a Shoplifter
Amongst the number of those extraordinary events which may be remarked in the course of these melancholy memoirs of those who have fallen martyrs to sin, and victims to justice, there is scarce anything more remarkable than the finding a man who hath led an honest and reputable life, till he hath attained the summit of life, and then, without abandoning himself to any notorious vices that may be supposed to lead him into rapine and stealth in order to support him, to take himself on a sudden to robbing on the highway, and to finish a painful and industrious life by a violent and shameful death. Yet this is exactly the case before us.
The criminal of whom we are first to speak, viz., John Austin, was the son of very honest people, having not only been bred up in good principles, but seeming also to retain them. He was put out young to a gardener, in which employment being brought up, he became afterwards a master for himself, and lived, as all his neighbours report it, with as fair character as any man thereabout. On a sudden he was taken up for assaulting and knocking down a man in Stepney Fields, with a short, round, heavy club, and taking from him his coat, in the beginning of November, 1725, about seven o'clock in the morning. The evidence being very clear and direct, the jury, notwithstanding the persons he called to his character, found him guilty. He received sentence of death accordingly, and after a report had been made to his Majesty he was ordered for execution.
During the space he lay under conviction, he at first denied, then endeavoured to extenuate his crime, by saying he did indeed knock the man down, but that the man struck him first with an iron rod he had in his hand; and in this story for some time he firmly persisted. But when death made a nearer approach he acknowledged the falsity of these pretences, and owned the robbery in the manner in which he had been charged therewith. Being asked how a man in his circumstances, being under no necessities, but on the contrary, in a way very likely to do well, came to be guilty of so unaccountable an act as the knocking down a poor man and taking away his coat, he said that though he was in a fair way of living, and had a very careful and industrious wife, yet for some time past, he had been disturbed in his mind, and that the morning he committed the robbery he took the club out of his own house, being an instrument made use of by his wife in the trade of a silk-throwster, and from a sudden impulse of mind attacked the man in the manner which had been sworn against him.
He appeared to be a person of no vicious principles, had been guilty of very few enormous crimes, except drinking to excess sometimes, and that but seldom. The sin which most troubled him was (his ordinary practice) as a gardener, in spending the Lord's day mostly in hard work, viz., in packing up things for Monday's market. He was very penitent for the offence which he had committed; he attended the service of chapel daily, prayed constantly and fervently in the place of his confinement, and suffered death with much serenity and resolution; averring with his last breath, that it was the first and last act which he had ever committed, being at the time of death about thirty-seven years old.
The second of these malefactors, John Foster, was the son of a very poor man, who yet did his utmost to give his son all the education that was in his power; and finding he was resolved to do nothing else, sent him with a very honest gentleman to sea. He continued there about seven years, and as he met with no remarkable accidents in the voyages he made himself, my readers may perhaps not be displeased if I mention a very singular one which befell his master. His ship having the misfortune to fall into the hands of the French, they plundered it of everything that was in the least degree valuable, and then left him, with thirty-five men, to the mercy of the waves. In this distressed condition, he with much difficulty made the shore of Newfoundland, and had nothing to subsist on but biscuit and a little water. Knowing it was no purpose to ask those who were settled there for provisions without money or effects, he landed himself and eighteen men, and carried off a dozen sheep and eight pigs. They were scarce returned on board, before it sprung up a brisk gale, which driving them from their anchors, obliged them to be put to sea. It blew hard all that day and the next night; the morning following the wind abated and they discovered a little vessel before them which, by crowding all the sails she was able, endeavoured to bear away. The captain thereupon gave her chase, and coming at last up with her, perceived she was French, upon which he gave her a broadside, and the master knowing it was impossible to defend her, immediately struck. They found in her a large quantity of provisions and in the master's cabin a bag with seven hundred pistoles. No sooner had the English taken out the booty, but they gave the captain and his crew liberty to sail where they pleased, leaving them sufficient provisions for a subsistance, themselves standing in again for Newfoundland, where the captain paid the person who was owner of the sheep and hogs he had taken as much as he demanded, making him also a handsome present besides; thereby giving Foster a remarkable example of integrity and justice, if he had had grace enough to have followed it.
When the ship came home, and its crew were paid off, Foster betook himself to loose company, loved drinking and idling about, especially with ill women. At last he was drawn in by some of his companions to assist in breaking open the house of Captain Tolson, and stealing thence linen and other things to a very great value. For this offence being apprehended, some promises were made him in case of discoveries, which, as he said, he made accordingly, and therefore thought it a great hardship that they were not performed. But the gentleman, whoever he was, that made him those promises, took no further notice of him, so that Foster being tried thereupon, the evidence was very dear against him, and the jury, after a very short consideration, found him guilty.
Under sentence he behaved with very great sorrow for his offence; he wept whenever any exhortations were made to him, confessed himself one of the greatest of sinners, and with many heavy expressions of grief, seemed to doubt whether even from the mercy of God he could expect forgiveness. Those whose duty it was to instruct him how to prepare himself for death, did all they could to convince him that the greatest danger of not being forgiven arose from such doubtings, and persuaded him to allay the fears of death by a settled faith and hope in Jesus Christ. When he had a while reflected on the promises made in Scripture on the nature of repentance itself, and the relation there is between creatures and their Creator, he became at last better satisfied, and bore the approach of death with tolerable cheerfulness.
When the day of execution came, he received the Sacrament, as is usual for persons in his condition. He declared, then, that he heartily forgave him who had injured him, and particularly the person who, by giving him hopes of life, had endangered his eternal safety. He submitted cheerfully to the decrees of Providence and the Law of the land; being at the time he suffered about thirty-seven years of age.
Richard Scurrier was the son of a blacksmith of the same name, at Kingston-upon-Thames. He followed for a time his father's business, but growing totally weary of working honestly for his bread, he left his relations, and without any just motive or expectation came up to London. He here betook himself to driving a hackney-coach, which, as he himself acknowledged, was the first inlet into all his misfortunes, for thereby he got into loose and extravagant company, living in a continued series of vice, unenlightened by the grace of God, or any intervals of a virtuous practice.
Such a road of wickedness soon induced him to take illegal methods for money to support it. The papers which I have in my hands concerning him, do not say whether the fact he committed was done at the persuasion of others, or merely out of his own wicked inclinations; nay, I cannot be so much as positive whether he had any associates or no; but in the beginning of his thievish practices, he committed "petit" larceny, which was immediately discovered. He thereupon was apprehended and committed to Newgate. At the next sessions he was tried, and the fact being plain, he was convicted; but being very young, the Court, through its usual tenderness, determined to soften his punishment into a private whipping. But before that was done, he joined with some other desperate fellows, forced the outward door of the prison as the keeper was going in and escaped.
He was no sooner at liberty but he fell to his old trade, and was just as unlucky as he was before; for taking it into his head to rub off with a firkin of butter, which he saw standing in a cheesemonger's shop, he was again taken in the fact, and in the space of a few weeks recommitted to his old lodging. At first he apprehended the crime to be so trivial that he was not in the least afraid of death, and therefore his amazement was the greater when he was capitally convicted. During the first day after sentence had been pronounced, the extremity of grief and fear made him behave like one distracted; as he came a little to himself, and was instructed by those who charitably visited him, he owned the justice of his sentence, which had been passed upon him, and the notorious wickedness of his misspent life. He behaved with great decency at chapel, and as well as a mean capacity and a small education would give him leave, prayed in the place of his confinement.
As there is little remarkable in this malefactor's life, permit me to add an observation or two concerning the nature of crimes punished with death in England, and the reasonableness of any project which would answer the same end as death, viz., securing the public from any of their future rapines, without sending the poor wretches to the gallows, and pushing them headlong into the other world for every little offence. The galleys in other nations serve for this purpose and the punishment seems very well suited to the crime; for his life is preserved, and he, notwithstanding, effectually deprived of all means of doing further mischief. We have no galleys, it is true, in the service of the crown of Britain, but there are many other laborious works to which they might be put so as to be useful to their country. As to transportation, though it may at first sight seem intended for their purpose, yet if we look into it with ever so little attention, we shall see that it does not at all answer the end; for we find by experience that in a year's time, many of them are here again, and are ten times more dangerous rogues than they were before; and in the plantations they generally behave themselves so ill that many of them have refused to receive them, and have even laid penalties on the captains who shall land them within the bounds of their jurisdiction. It were certainly therefore, more advantageous to the public that they worked hard here, than either forced upon the planters abroad, or left in a capacity to return to their villainies at home, where the punishment being capital, serves only to make them less merciful and more resolute. This I propose only, and pretend not to dictate.
But it is now time we return to the last mentioned criminal, Richard Scurrier, and inform ye that at the time he suffered, he was scarce eighteen years of age, dying with the malefactors Hamp, Bird, Austin and Foster, before-mentioned, on the 22nd of December, 1725, at Tyburn.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals