The Life of JOHN BARTON
a Robber, Highwayman and Housebreaker
Education is often thought a trouble by persons in their junior years, who heartily repent of their neglect of it in the more advanced seasons of their lives. This person, John Barton, who is to be the subject of our discourse, was born at London, of parents capable enough of affording him tolerable education, which they were also willing to bestow upon him, if he had been just enough to have applied himself while at school. But he, instead of that, raked about with boys of his own age, without the least consideration of the expense his parents were at, idled away his time, and forgot what little he learned almost as soon as he had acquired it.
It is a long time before parents perceive that in their children which is evident to everyone else; however, Barton's father soon saw no good was to be done with him at school; upon which he took him away, and placed him apprentice with a butcher. There he continued for some time, behaving to the well-liking of his master; yet even then he was so much out of humour with work that he associated himself with some idle young fellows who afterwards drew him into those illegal acts which proved fatal to his reputation and his life. However, he did make a shift to pass through the time of his apprenticeship with a tolerable character, and was afterwards, through the kindness of his friends, set up as a butcher; in which business he succeeded so well as to acquire money enough thereby to have kept his family very well, if he could have been contented with the fruits of his honest labour. But his old companions, who by this time were become perfectly versed in those felonious arts by which money is seemingly so easy to be attained, were continually soliciting him to take their method of life, assuring him that there was not half so much danger as was generally apprehended, and that if he had but resolution enough to behave gallantly, he need not fear any adventure whatsoever.
Barton was a fellow rather of too much than too little courage. He wanted no encouragements of this sort to egg him to such proceedings; the hopes of living idly and in the enjoyment of such lewd pleasures as he had addicted himself to, were sufficient to carry him into an affair of this sort. He therefore soon yielded to their suggestions, and went into such measures as they had before followed, especially housebreaking, which was the particular branch of villainy to which he had addicted himself. At this he became a very dextrous fellow, and thereby much in favour with his wicked associates, amongst whom to be impious argues a great spirit, and to be ingenious in mischief is the highest character to which persons in their miserable state can ever attain.
Amongst the rest of Barton's acquaintance there was one Yorkshire Bob, who was reckoned the most adroit housebreaker in town. This fellow one day invited Barton to his house, which at that time was not far from Red Lion Fields, and proposed to him two or three schemes by which some houses in the neighbourhood might be broke open. Barton thought all the attempts too hazardous to be made, but Bob, to convince him of the possibility with which such things might be done, undertook to rob without assistance a widow lady's house of some plate, which stood in the butler's room at noon-day.
Accordingly thither he went dressed in the habit of a footman belonging to a family which were well acquainted there; the servants conversed with him very freely, as my Lady Such-a-one's new man, while he entertained them with abundance of merry stories, until dinner was upon the table. Then taking advantage of that clutter in which they were, he slily lighted a fire-ball at the fire-side, clapped it into a closet on the side of the stairs in which the foul clothes were kept, and then perceiving the smoke, cried out with the utmost vehemence, "Fire, fire." This naturally drew everybody downstairs, and created such a confusion that he found little or no difficulty in laying hold of the silver plate which he aimed at. He carried it away publicly, while the smoke confounded all the spectators, and until the next morning nobody had the least suspicion of him; but upon sending to the lady for the plate which her new servant carried away the night before, and she denying that she had any servant in the house that had not lived with her a twelvemonth, they then discovered the cheat, though at a time too late to mend it.
Barton, however, did not like his master's method entirely, choosing rather to strike out a new one of his own, which he fancied might as little mischief him as that audacious impudence of the other did in his several adventures. For which reason, he was very cautious of associating with this fellow who was very dextrous in his art, but was more ready in undertaking dangerous exploits than any of the crew at that time about town. John's way was by a certain nack of shifting the shutters, whereby he opened a speedy entrance for himself; and as he knew in how great danger his life was from each of these attempts, so he never made them but upon shops or houses where so large a booty might be expected as might prevent his being under necessity of thieving again in a week or two's time. Yet when he had in this manner got money, he was so ready to throw it away on women and at play, that in a short space his pocket was at as low an ebb as ever. When his cash was quite gone, he associated himself sometimes with a crew of footpads, and in that method got sufficient plunder to subsist until something offered in his own way, to which he would willingly have kept.
At last, hearing of a goldsmith's not far from where he lodged, who had a very considerable stock of fine snuff-boxes, gold chains, rings, etc., he fancied he had now an opportunity of getting provision for his extravagancies for at least a twelvemonth. The thoughts of this encouraged him so far that he immediately went about it, and succeeded to his wish, obtaining two gold chains, five gold necklaces, seventy-two silver spoons, and a numberless cargo of little things of value.
Yet this did not satisfy him. He ventured a few days afterwards having a proper opportunity, on the house and shop of one Mrs. Higgs, from whence he took an hundred pair of stockings, and other things to a large value. But as is common with such persons, his imprudence betrayed him in the disposing of them, and by the diligence of a constable employed for that purpose, he was caught and committed to Newgate. At the next sessions he was convicted for these facts, and as he had no friends, so it was not in any degree probable that he should escape execution; and therefore it is highly possible he might be the projector of that resistance which he and the rest under sentence with him made in the condemned hold, and which we shall give an exact account under the next life.
The peculiar humour of Barton was to appear equally gay and cheerful, though in these sad circumstances, as he had ever done in the most dissolute part of his foregoing life. In consequence of which foolish notion he smiled on a person's telling him his name was included in the death-warrant, and at chapel behaved in a manner very unbecoming one who was so soon to answer at the Bar of the Almighty for a life led in open defiance both of the laws of God and man. Yet that surprise which people naturally express at behaviour of such a kind on such an occasion seemed in the eyes of this poor wretch so high a testimony in favour of his gallantry, that he could not be prevailed on, either by the advice of the ministers, or the entreaties of his relations, to abate anything of that levity which he put on when he attended at Divine Service. Though he saw it disturbed some of his fellow sufferers at first, who were inclined to apply themselves strictly to their duties, so fatal is evil communication, even in the latest moments of our life, that his ludicrous carriage corrupted the rest, and instead of reproving him as they had formerly done, they now seemed careful only of imitating his example; and in this disposition he continued, even to the last minute of his life, which ended at Tyburn, on the 14th of March, 1725, he being then hardly twenty-three years of age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals