Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: John Lewis

The Life of JOHN LEWIS, alias LAURENCE

a Thief, Highwayman, etc.

One great cause of that degeneracy we observe amongst the lower part of the human species arises from a mistake which has generally prevailed in the education of young people throughout all ages. Parents are sometimes exceedingly assiduous that their children should read well and write a good hand, but they are seldom solicitous about their making a due use of their reason, and hardly ever enquire into the opinions which, while children, they entertain of happiness or misery, and the paths which lead to either of them. This is the true and natural intent of all education whatsoever, which can never tend to anything but teaching persons how to live easily and seducing their affections to the bounds prescribed them by the law of God and their country.

John Lewis, alias Laurence, had doubtless parents who bred him somewhere, though the papers I have do not afford me light enough to say where. This indeed, I find, that he was bred apprentice to a butcher, took up his freedom in the City, and worked for a considerable space as a journeyman. For his honesty we have no vouchers for any part of that time, for in his apprenticeship he fell into the use of profligate company, who taught him all those vices which were destructive to his future life. He grew fond of everything which looked like lewdness and debauchery, drank hard, was continually idling about; above all, strumpets the most abandoned, both in their manner and discourse, were the very ultimate end of his wishes, insomuch that he would often say he had nothing to answer for in debauching modest women, for they were a set of creatures he could never so much as endure to converse with.

His usual method of living with his mistresses was this: as soon as the impudence and lewdness of a woman had made her infamous, even amongst the hackney coachmen, pickpockets, footpads and such others of his polite acquaintance, then Lewis thought her a fit person for his turn, and used to live with her for the space of perhaps a month; then growing tired of her, he went to look for another.

This practice of his grew at last so well known that he found it a little difficult to get women who would take up with him upon his terms; but there was one Moll Davis, who for her dexterity in picking of pockets amongst those of her own tribe went by the name of Diver, who was so great a scandal to her sex that the most abandoned of that low crew with whom he conversed, hated and despised her. With her Lewis went to live after his usual manner, and was very fond of her after his way, for about a fortnight; at the end of which he grew fractious, and in about nine weeks' time more he beat her. Moll wept and took on at a sad rate for his unkindness and told him that if would but promise faithfully never to live with any other woman, she should fairly present him with a brace of hundred pounds, which she had lodged in the hands of an uncle who knew nothing of her way of life, but lived reputably at such a place.

This was the right way of touching Lewis's temper. He began to put on as many good looks as his face was capable of wearing, and made use of as many kind expressions as he could remember out of the "Academy of Compliments", until the day came that she was to meet her uncle at Smithfield Market. They then went very lovingly together to an inn upon the paven stones, where Moll asked very readily at the bar if Mr. Tompkins (which was the name of her uncle) was there. The woman of the house made her a low curtsy and said he was only stepped over the way to be shaved, and she would call him. She went accordingly and brought the grave old man, who as soon as he came into the room said, "Well, Mary, is this thy husband? Yes, sir", answered she, "this is the person I have promised to bring you." Upon which the old man thrust out his hand and said, "Come, friend, as you have married my niece, you and I must be better acquainted." Lewis scraped him a good bow as he could, and giving his hand in return, the old fellow laid hold on him somewhat above the wrist, stamped with his right foot, and then closing with him got him down.

In the meanwhile, half a dozen fellows broke into the room and one of them seizing him by the arms another pulled out a small twine, and bound him; then shoving him downstairs, they had no sooner got into Smithfield, then the mob cried out, "Here's the rogue! Here's the dog that held a penknife to the old grazier's throat, while a woman and another man robbed him." It seems the story was true of Moll, who by thus taking and then swearing it upon Lewis, who had never so much as heard of it, escaped with impunity, and besides that got five guineas for her pains from the brother of the old man, who upon this occasion played the part of her uncle. If the grazier had been a hasty, rash man, Lewis had certainly hanged for the fact, but looking hard upon him at his trial, he told the Court he was sure that Lewis was not the man, for though his eyes were not very good, he could easily distinguish his voice, and added that the man who robbed him was taller than himself, whereas Lewis was much shorter. By which means he had the good luck to come off, though not without lying two sessions in Newgate.

As soon as be came abroad be threatened Moll Davis hard for what she had done, and swore as soon as he could find her to cut her ears off; but she made light of that, and dared him to come and look for her at the brandy-shop where she frequented. Lewis hearing that resolved to go thither and beat her, and knowing the usual time of her coming thither to be about eleven o'clock at night, he chose that time to come also. But Moll, the day before, had made one of her crew who had turned evidence, put him into his information, and the constables and their assistants being ready planted, they seized him directly and carried him to his old lodgings in Newgate.

He was acquitted upon this next sessions, there being no evidence against him but the informer, but the Court ordered him to find security for his good behaviour. That proved two months' work, so that in all it was a quarter of a year before he got out of Newgate for the second time. Then, hearing Davis had picked a gentleman's pockets of a considerable sum, and kept out of the way upon it, he resolved to be even with her for the trouble she had cost him, and for that purpose hunted through all her old places of resort, in order to find out how to have her apprehended. Moll hearing of it, got her sister, who followed the same trade with herself, to waylay him at the brandy-shop in Fleet Street. There Susan was very sweet upon him, and being as impudent as her sister, Lewis resolved to take up with her, at least for a night; but she pretended reasons why he could not go home with her, and he complaining that he did not know where to get a lodging, she gave him half a crown and a large silver medal, which she said would pawn for five shillings, and appointed to meet him the next night at the same place. In the morning Lewis goes with the silver piece to a pawnbroker at Houndsditch; the broker said he would take it into the next room and weigh it, and about ten minutes after returned with a constable and two assistants, the medal having been advertised in the papers as taken with eleven guineas in a green purse out of a gentleman's pocket, and was the very robbery for which Moll Davis kept out of the way.

When he got over this, he went down into the country, and having been so often in prison for naught, he resolved to merit it now for something. So on the Gravesend Road he went upon the highway, and having been, as I told you, bred up a butcher, the weapon he made use of to rob with was his knife. The first robbery he attempted was upon an old officer who was retired into that part of the country to live quiet. Lewis bolted out upon him from behind the corner of a hedge, and clapping a sharp pointed knife to his breast, with a volley of oaths commanded him to deliver. This was new language to the gentleman to whom it was offered, yet seeing how great an advantage the villain had of him, he thought it the most prudent method to comply, and gave him therefore a few shillings which were in his coat-pocket. Lewis very highly resented this, and told him he did not use him like a gentleman; that he would search him himself. In order to do this, clapping his knife into his mouth as he used to do when preparing a sheep for the shambles, he fell to ransacking the gentleman's pockets. He had hardly got his hand into one of them, but the gentleman snatched the knife out of his mouth and in the wrench almost broke his jaw. Lewis hereupon took to his heels, but the country being raised upon him, he was apprehended just as he was going to take water at Gravesend. But his pride in refusing the gentleman's silver happened very luckily for him here, for on his trial at the next assizes, the indictment being laid for a robbery, the jury acquitted him and he was once more put into a road of doing well, which according to his usual method he made lead towards the gallows.

The first week he was out, he broke open a house in Ratcliff Highway, from whence he took but a small quantity of things, and those of small value, because there happened to be nothing better in the way. In a few days after this, he snatched off a woman's pocket in the open street, for which fact being immediately apprehended, he was at the next sessions at the Old Bailey, tried and convicted, but by the favour of the Court ordered for transportation.

A woman whom at this time he called his wife, happened to be under the like sentence at the same time. They went therefore together, and were each of them such turbulent dispositions that the captain of the transport thought fit to promise them their liberty in a most solemn manner, as soon as they came on shore in Carolina, provided they would be but quiet. To this they agreed, and they kept their words so well, that the captain performed his promise and released them at their arrival in South Carolina, upon which they made no long stay there, but found a method to come back in the same ship. Upon arrival in England they were actually married, but they did not live long together, Lewis finding that she conversed with other men, and being in fear, lest in hopes of favour, she should discover his return from transportation, and by convicting him save herself.

Upon these apprehensions, he thought fit to go again to sea, in a ship bound for the Straits; but falling violently sick at Genoa, they left him there. And though he might afterwards have gone to his vessel, his old thought and wishes returned and he took the advantage of the first ship to return to England. Here he found many of his old acquaintances, carrying on the business of plunder in every shape. He joined with them, and in their company broke open with much difficulty an alehouse in Fore Street, at the sign of the King of Hearts, where they took a dozen of tankards, which they apprehended to be of silver; but finding upon examination they were no better than pewter well scoured, they judged there would be more danger in selling them than they were worth. Therefore having first melted them, they threw them away; but being a little fearful of robbing in company, he took to his old method of robbing by himself in the streets. But the first attempt he made to do this was in the old Artillery Ground,[1] where he snatched a woman's pocket; and she crying out raised the neighbourhood. They pursued him, and after wounding two or three persons desperately, he was taken and committed to his old mansions in Newgate, and being tried at the next sessions was found guilty and from that time could not enjoy the least hopes of life. But he continued still very obdurate, being so hardened by a continual series of villainous actions that he seemed to have no idea whatsoever of religion, penitence or atoning by prayers, for the numerous villainies he had committed.

At the place of execution he said nothing to the people, only that he was sorry he had not stayed in Carolina, because if he had, he should never have come to be hanged, and so finished his life in the same stupid manner in which he had lived. He was near forty years of age at the time he suffered, which was on the 27th of June, 1720.


[1] This was the exercising ground of the Train Bands and the Honourable Artillery Company. It was on the west side of Finsbury Square.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals