Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: Peter Curtis


a Housebreaker, etc.

Peter Curtis, alias Friend, was born of honest but industrious parents in the country, at a very great distance from London. Finding a method to get him put apprentice to a ship's carpenter, they were very much pleased therewith, hoping that they had settled him in a trade in which he might live well, and much beyond anything they could have expected to have done for him.

But Peter himself was of a very different opinion, for from the hour he came to it he greatly disliked his profession, and though he went to sea with his master once or twice, yet he failed not to take hold of the first opportunity to set himself at liberty by running away from him. From that time he devoted himself to live a life of pleasure, having contracted an obstinate aversion to business and to everything which looked like labour; though, as be acknowledged, the hand of Providence hindered him from accomplishing his wish, making this life that he chose a greater burden and hardship to him than that which he had relinquished.

He found means to get into gentlemen's service, and lived in them with tolerable reputation and credit for the space of several years. At last he was resolved to go to sea again, but he had so unconquerable an aversion to his own trade that he chose rather going in the capacity of a trumpeter, having learnt how to play on that instrument at one of his services. He sailed on board the "Salisbury", in that expedition Sir George Byng made to the Straits of Messina, when he attacked and destroyed the Spanish Fleet. There Peter had the good luck to escape without any hurt, though there were many killed and wounded on board that ship. He afterwards served in a regiment of dragoons, where by prudent management he saved no less than fourscore pounds. With this he certainly had it in his power to have put himself in some way of doing well, but he omitted it, and falling into the company of a lewd woman, she persuaded him to take lodgings with her, and they lived together for some space as man and wife.

During this time he made a shift to be bound for one of his companions, for a very considerable sum, which the other had the honesty to leave him to pay. The creditor, upon information that Curtis was packing up his awls[1] to go to sea, resolved to secure him for his debt. But not being able to catch him upon a writ, he made up a felonious charge against him, and having thereupon got him committed to the Poultry Compter, as soon as the Justice had discharged him, he got him taken for the debt, and recommitted to the same place. Here he was soon reduced to a very melancholy condition, having neither necessaries of life not any prospect of a release. The wretched company with which such prisons are always full, corrupted him as to his honesty, and taught him first to think of making himself rich by taking away the properties of others.

When he came out of prison, upon an agreement with his creditor, he soon got into service with Mr. Fluellen Aspley, a very eminent chinaman by Stocks Market.[2] When he was there, the bad woman with whom he still conversed, was continually dunning his ears with how easy a matter it was for him to make himself and her rich and easy by pilfering from his master, telling him that she and her friends in the country would help him off with a thousand pounds worth of china, if need were, and baiting him continually, not to lose such an opportunity of enriching them. The fellow himself was averse to such practices, and nothing but her continual teasing could have induced him ever to have entertained a design of so base a nature.

At last he condescended so far as to enquire how it might be done with safety. "For that", replied the woman, "trust to my management. I'll put you in a way to bring off the most valuable things in the house, and yet get a good character, and be trusted and valued by the family for having robbed them." At that Curtis stared, and said, if she'd but put him to such a road he did not know but he might comply with her request. She thereupon opened her scheme to him this: "Here's my son, you shall lift him into the house, and after you have given him plate and what you think proper and my boy, who is a very dexterous lad, is got off with them, you have nothing to do but to put an end of a candle under the Indian cabinet in the counting-house, and leave things to themselves. The neighbourhood will soon be alarmed by the fire, and if you are apparently honest in what you take away publicly, there will be no suspicion upon you for what went before, which will be either thought to be destroyed in the fire, or to be taken away by some other means."

This appeared so shocking a project to Curtis that he absolutely refused to comply with the burning, though with much ado he was brought to stealing a large quantity of plate, which he brought to this woman, but in attempting to sell it she was stopped, and the robbery discovered. However, there being no direct evidence at first against Curtis, he was released from his confinement on suspicion, even by the intercession of Mr. Aspley himself. But a little time discovering the mistake, and that he was really the principal in the robbery, he was thereupon again apprehended, and at the next sessions tried and convicted.

While he lay under sentence of death, he behaved himself as if he had totally resigned all thoughts of the world, or of continuing in it, praying with great fervency and devotion, making full and large confession, and doing every other act which might induce men to believe that he was a real penitent, and sincerely sorry and affected for the crime he had committed.

But it seems that this was all put on, for the true source of his easiness and resignation was the assurance he had in himself of escaping death either by pardon, or by an escape; for which purpose, he and those who were under sentence with him had provided all necessaries, loosened their irons and intended to have effected it at the expense of the lives of their keepers. But their design being discovered the Saturday before their deaths, and Curtis perceiving that his hopes of pardon were ill-founded, began to apply himself to repenting in earnest. Yet there was very little time left for so great a work, especially considering that nothing but the necessity of the thing inclined him thereto, and that he had spent that respite allowed him by the clemency of the Law to prepare for death in contriving to fly from justice at the expense of the blood of others. How he performed this it is impossible for us to know, and must be left to be decided by the Great Judge to whom the secrets of all hearts are open. However, at his death he appeared tolerably composed and cheerful, and turning to the people said, "You see, they who contrived to burn the house and the people in it escaped, but I, who never consented to any such thing, die as you see." Some discourse there was of his having buried a portmanteau and about fourteen hundred pounds; he was spoke to about it, and did not deny he had it. He said he hid it upon Finchley Common and that by the arms, which was the Spread Eagle, he took to be an ambassador's. As to the diamond ring he had been seen to wear, he did not affirm he came very honestly by it, but would not give any direct answer concerning it, and seemed uneasy that he should have such questions put to him at the very point of death. He suffered the 15th of June, 1724, about thirty years of age.


[1] An old-fashioned play on the words "awl" and "all," and means, of course, packing up all his possessions.

[2] A busy market for fish and vegetables, which occupied the site on which the present Mansion House stands. The market was moved, in 1737, to Farringdon Street.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals