The Life of JOHN TURNER, alias CIVIL JOHN
One of the most dangerous passions which can enter the breasts of young people, though at the same time it be one of the most common, is the love of finery and a mean and foolish ambition to appear better dressed than becomes their station, in hopes of imposing upon the world as persons of much higher rank than they really are. This inconsiderate, ridiculous pride brings along with it such a numerous train of bad consequences that of necessity it makes the person inflamed by it unhappy and often miserable for life. In the case now before us a was still more fatal by adding a violent and ignominious death.
John Turner was the son of a person in tolerable circumstances, in the county of Cornwall, where he received an education proper for that condition of life in which he was likely to pass through the world. His father was a man of good sense, and of a behaviour much more courteous and genteel than is usual among persons of ordinary condition in a county so remote from London. He was extremely desirous that his son should be like him in this respect, and therefore he continually cautioned him against falling into that rough boorish manner of behaving which is natural to uneducated clowns, and makes them shocking to everybody but themselves. In this respect John was very compliant with his father's temper, and being put out apprentice to a peruke-maker, his obliging carriage endeared him so much, not only to his master and the family but also to the gentlemen on whom, as customers to the shop, he sometimes waited, that they took a peculiar liking to the boy and were continually giving him money as a reward for his diligence and assiduity.
But John's obliging temper took a turn very fatal to himself, as well as very little suspected by his friends and relations. For having been made use of by some young sparks at Exeter (the place where he served his time) to carry messages to their mistresses, he from thence conceived so strong an inclination to become a beau and a gallant that, in order to it, he broke open his master's escritoire and took away a considerable sum of money. With this he came up to London and went to live as a journeyman with an eminent peruke-maker at the Court end of the town. There his easy and obsequious temper made him very agreeable to everybody, and his behaviour was so just and open that nobody in the neighbourhood had a better character than himself. Yet he was far from giving over those extravagancies the earnest desire of committing which had brought him to town; for nobody in his station made so handsome a figure as Mr. Turner.
His amours with the wenches in the neighbourhood were very numerous, though out of a point of honour he was careful enough in endeavouring to conceal them. But as they naturally led him into an expensive way of living, which what he got by his trade could in no degree support, he quickly found himself obliged to take to new methods, and thought none so concise and convenient as going upon the road. This he did for some time without arousing the least suspicion, behaving himself towards those whom he robbed with such gentleness and good manners, putting his hat into the coach and taking what money they thought fit to give him, nay, sometimes returning a part of that, if the dress or aspect of the person gave him room to suspect that their wants were as great as his. From this extraordinary conduct he obtained the name of Civil John, by which he was very well known to the stage coachmen, wagoners, and other such persons who travelled the Western road.
Common fame, which ordinarily multiplies the adventures of men of his profession, circulated a multitude of stories about him which had not the least foundation in fact, and served only to make the poor man more remarkable, and consequently the more easy to be taken; which was, accordingly, the effect of those foolish encomiums which the vulgar bestowed upon so genteel a robber. About six weeks after he had taken to this unfortunate course of life; and while he yet preserved an unstained reputation in the neighbourhood in which he lived, he was apprehended for a robbery committed on Mr. Air, from whom he took but an inconsiderable sum; yet the fact being clearly proved against him at the next session at the Old Bailey, he was convicted, and having no relations capable of making interest sufficient to obtain a reprieve, he lost all hopes of life. Under sentence he conducted himself with much calmness, penitence, and resignation, confessing the truth of that charge which had been laid against him, acknowledging the justice of the Law in this sentence, and disposing himself to submit to it with much cheerfulness and alacrity.
This great change in his circumstance and manner of living, added to his own uneasy reflections upon those misfortunes into which vanity and ostentation had brought him, soon reduced him by sickness to so weak a state that he was incapable, almost, of coming to chapel alone. Notwithstanding this, he continued to frequent it, some of the people about the prison being so kind as to help him upstairs. As his vices arose rather from the imitation of those fine gentlemen on whom he had waited while a lad, so he did not carry them to that height which most of these unhappy persons are wont to do; on the contrary he was very sober, little addicted to gambling, and never followed the common women of the town. But dress, dancing bouts, and the necessary entertainments for carrying on his amours were the follies which involved him in these expenses, for the supply of which he thus hazarded his soul and forfeited his life.
When the death warrant came down his sickness had brought him so low that Nature seemed inclined to supersede the severity of the Law; but too short a time which intervened between it and its execution, and so he came to suffer a violent death at Tyburn a day or two before, perhaps, he would otherwise have yielded up his breath in his bed. Little could be expected of a person in his weak condition, at the place of execution, where, when he arrived he was utterly unable to stand up. However, with a faint voice he desired the prayers both of the minister who attended them and of the spectators of his execution, which happened on the 20th of November, 1727, in the twenty-sixth year of his age.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals