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

The Life of JOHN SMITH

a Murderer

As idleness is fatal to youth, so it and ill-company become not seldom so even to persons in years. John Smith, of whose extraction we can say nothing, had served with a very good character in a regiment of foot, during Queen Anne's wars in Flanders. His captain took a particular liking to him, and from his boldness and fierce courage, to which he himself was also greatly inclined, they did abundance of odd actions during the War, some of which may not be unentertaining to the reader, if I mention.

The army lying encamped almost over against that of the French king, foraging was become very dangerous, and hardly a party went out without a skirmish. John's master, the captain, having been out with a party, and being over powered by the French, were obliged to leave their trusses behind them. When they returned to the camp, Smith was ordered to lead his master's horse out into the field between the two camps, that the poor creature might be able to pick up a little pasture. John had not attended his horse long before, at the distance of about half a mile, he saw a boy leading two others, at the foot of a hill which joined to the French fortification. As John's livery was yellow, and he spoke Walloon bad enough to be taken for a Frenchman, he ventured to stake the Captain's horse down where it was feeding, and without the least apprehension of the risk he ran, went across to the fellow who was feeding his horses under the French lines. He proceeded with so much caution that he was within a stone's throw of the boy, before he perceived him. From the colour of his clothes, and the place where they were, immediately under the French camp, the lad took him for one of their own people, and therefore answered him very civilly when he asked what o'clock it was, and whom he belonged to. But John no sooner observed from the boy's turning his horses, that the hill lay again between them and the French soldiers, than clapping his hand suddenly upon the boy's throat and tripping up his heels, he clapped a gag in his mouth, which he had cut for that purpose; and leaving him with his hands tied behind him upon the ground, he rode clear off with the best of the horses, notwithstanding that the boy had alarmed the French camp, and he had some hundred shot sent after him.

The captain and Smith were out one day a-foraging, and one of the officers of their party who was known to have a hundred pistoles about him, was killed in a skirmish, and neither party dared to bring off the body for fear of the other, it being just dark, each expected a reinforcement from the camp. Smith told his captain that if he'd give him one half of the gold for fetching, he would venture; and his offer being gladly accepted, he accordingly crept two hundred yards upon his belly, and after he had picked the purse out of the dead man's pockets, returned without being either seen or suspected.

When the army was disbanded, Smith betook himself to the sea, and served under Admiral Byng,[1] in the fight at Messina; but on the return of that fleet from the Mediterranean, being discharged he came up to London, where having squandered his money, he did some petty thefts to get more. To this he was induced chiefly by the company of one Woolford, who was executed, and at whose execution Smith was present, and soon after cohabited with his wife. But not long after this, Smith meeting with one Sarah Thompson, an old acquaintance of his, who had it seems left him to live with another fellow, he took it into his head thereupon to use her very roughly, and clapping a pistol to her breast, threatened with abundance of ill-language to shoot her. This occasioned a great fray in the place where it happened, which was near the Hermitage towards Wapping, and several persons running to take the woman away, and to seize him, in order to prevent murder, Smith fired his pistol, and unhappily killed one Matthew Walden, who was amongst the number. The mob immediately crowded upon him and seized him, and the fact appearing very clear on his trial, he was convicted at the next sessions at the Old Bailey.

He behaved himself with great resolution, professed himself extremely sorry, as well for the many vices he had been guilty of as for that last bloody act which brought him to his shameful end. He especially recommended to all who spoke to him, to avoid the snares and delusions of lewd women; and at the place of execution delivered the following paper. He was about forty years of age when he died, being the 8th day of February, 1722, at Tyburn.

The paper delivered by John Smith at the place of execution

I was born of honest parents, bred to the sea, and lived honest, 'till I was led aside by lewd women. I then robbed on ships, and never robbed on shore. I had no design to kill the woman who jilted me, and left me for another man, but only to terrify her, for I could have shot her when the loaded pistol was at her breast, but I curbed my passion, and only threw a candle-stick at her. I confess my cruelty towards my wife, who is a woman too good for me, but I was at first forced to forsake her for debt, and go to sea. I hope in God none will reflect on her, or my poor innocent children, who could not help my sad passion, and more sad death. Written by me,

John Smith


[1] George Byng, later created Viscount Torrington, was sent with a fleet for the protection of Sicily against the Spaniards. He found them besieging Messina, whereupon he gave their fleet battle and gained a smashing victory at Cape Passaro, 31 July, 1718.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals