The Life of JOHN MEFF, alias MERTH
a Housebreaker and a Highwayman
The rigid execution of felons who return from transportation has been found so necessary that few or none who have been tried for such illegal returning have escaped, though 'tis very hard to convince those who suffer for that offence that there is any real crime in their evading their sentence. It was this which brought John Meff, alias Merth, of whom we are now to speak, to an ignominious death, after he had once before escaped it in a very extraordinary manner, as in the process of his story shall be related.
This unhappy man was born in London of French parents, who retired into England for the sake of their religion, when Louis XIV began his furious persecution against the Protestants in his dominions. This John Meff was educated with great care, especially as to the principles of religion, by a father who had very just notions of that faith for which in banishment he suffered. When his son John grew up, he put him out apprentice to a weaver, whom he served with great fidelity, and after he came out of his time, married; but finding himself incapable to maintain his family by his labour, he unfortunately addicted himself to ill-courses. In this he was yet more unlucky, for having almost at his first setting out broke open a house, he was discovered, apprehended, tried, convicted, and put in the cart, in order to go to execution within the fortnight; but the hangman being arrested as he was going to Tyburn, he and the rest who were to have suffered with him were transported through the clemency of the Government.
On this narrow escape from death, Meff was full of many penitent resolutions, and determined with himself to follow for the future an honest course of life, however hard and laborious, as persons are generally inclined to believe all works in the plantations are. Yet no sooner was he at liberty (that is, on board the transport vessel, where he found means to make the master his friend) than much of these honest intentions were dissolved and laid aside, to which perhaps the behaviour of his companions and of the seamen on board the ship, did not a little contribute. At first their passage was easy, the wind fair and prosperous. They began to comfort one another with the hopes of living easily in the Plantations, greedily enquiring of the seamen how persons in their unhappy condition were treated by their masters, and whether all the terrible relations they had had in England were really facts, or invented only to terrify those who were to undergo that punishment.
But while these unhappy persons were thus amusing themselves a new and unlooked for misfortune fell upon them, for in the height of Bermuda they were surprised by two pirate sloops, who though they found no considerable booty on board, were very well satisfied by the great addition they made to their force, from most of those felons joining with them in their piratical undertakings. Meff, however, and eight others, absolutely refused to sign the paper which contained the pirate's engagement and articles for better pursuing their designs. These nine were, according to the barbarous practice of those kind of people, marooned, that is, set on shore on an uninhabited island. According to the custom of the people in such distress, they were obliged to rub two dry sticks together till they took fire, and with great difficulty gathered as many other sticks as made a fire large enough to yield them some relief from the inclemency of the weather. They caught some fowls with springes made of an old horsehair wig, which were very tough and of a fishy taste, but after three or four days, they became acquainted with the springes and were never afterwards to be taken by that means. Their next resource for food was an animal which burrowed in the ground like our rabbits, but the flesh of these proving unwholesome, threw them into such dangerous fluxes that five out of the nine were scarce able to go. They were then forced to take up with such fish as they were able to catch, and even these were not only very rank and unpleasant, but very small also, and no great plenty of them either.
At last, when they almost despaired of ever getting off that inhospitable island, they espied early one morning an Indian canoe come on shore with seven persons. They hid themselves behind the rocks as carefully as they could, and the Indians being gone up into the heart of the island, they went down and finding much salt provisions in the boat, they trusted themselves to the mercy of the waves.
By the providence of God they were driven in two days into an English settlement, where Meff, instead of betaking himself to any settled course, resolved to turn sailor, and in that capacity made several voyages, not only to Barbadoes, Jamaica, and the rest of the British Islands, but also to New England, Virginia, South Carolina, and other plantations. On the main, there is no doubt but he led a life of no great satisfaction in this occupation, which probably was the reason he resolved to return home to England at all hazards. He did so, and had hardly been a month in this kingdom before he fell to his old practices, in which he was attended with the same ill-fortune as formerly; that is to say, he was apprehended for one of his first acts, and committed to Newgate. Out of this prison he escaped by the assistance of a certain bricklayer, and went down to Hatfield in Hertfordshire to remain in hiding, but as he affirmed and was generally believed, being betrayed by the same bricklayer he was retaken, conveyed again to Newgate and confined the utmost severity.
At his trial there arose a doubt whether the fact he had committed was not pardoned by the Act of Indemnity then lately granted. However, the record of his former conviction being produced, the Court ordered he should be indicted for returning without lawful cause, on which indictment he was convicted upon full proof, condemned and shortly after ordered for execution.
During the space he lay under sentence he expressed much penitence for his former ill-spent life, and together with James Reading, who was in the same unhappy state with himself, read and prayed with the rest of the prisoners. This Reading had been concerned in abundance of robberies, and, as he himself owned, in some which were attended with murder; he acknowledged he knew of the killing of Mr. Philpot, the surveyor of the window-lights, at the perpetration of which fact Reading said there were three persons present, two of which he knew, but as to the third he could say nothing. This malefactor, though but thirty-five years of age, was a very old offender, and had in his life-time been concerned with most of the notorious gangs that at that time were in England, some of whom he had impeached and hanged for his own preservation; but he was at last convicted for robbing (in company with two others) George Brownsworth of a watch and other things of a considerable value, between Islington and the turnpike, and for it was executed at Tyburn, the 11th of September, 1721, together with John Meff aforesaid, then in the fortieth year of his age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals