The Life of THOMAS WILSON
a Notorious Footpad
It happens so commonly in the world, that I am persuaded that none of my readers but must have remarked that there is a certain settled and stupid obstinacy in some tempers which renders them capable of persevering in any act, how wicked and villainous soever, without either reluctancy at the time of its commission, or a capacity of humbling themselves so far as to acknowledge and ask pardon for their offences when detected or discovered. Of this rugged disposition was the criminal we are now to speak of.
Thomas Wilson was born of parents not in the worst of circumstances, in the neighbourhood of London. They educated him both in respect of learning and other things as well as their capacity would give them leave; but Thomas, far from making that use of it that they desired, addicted himself wholly to ill practices, that is to idleness, and those little crimes of spoiling others, and depriving them of their property, which an evil custom has made pass for trivial offences in England. But it seems the parents of Wilson did not think so, but both reprimanded him and corrected him severely whenever he robbed orchards, or any other such like feats as passed for instances of a quick spirit and ingenuity in children with less honest and religious parents.
But these restraints grew quickly so grievous to Thomas's temper, that he, observing that his parents, notwithstanding their correction, were really fond of him, bethought himself of a method of conquering their dislike to his recreations. Therefore stealing away from his home, he rambled for a considerable space in the world, subsisting wholly upon such methods as he had before used for his recreation. But this project was so far from taking effect, that his parents, finding him incorrigible, looked very coldly upon him, and instead of fondling him the more for this act of disobedience, treated him as one whom they foresaw would be a disgrace to their family and of whom they had now very little or no hope.
Wilson perceiving this, out of the natural sourness of his temper resolved to abandon them totally, which he did, and went to sea without their consent or notice. But men of his cast being very ill-suited to that employment, where the strictest obedience is required towards those who are in command, Wilson soon brought himself into very unhappy circumstances by his moroseness and ill-behaviour; for though he was but thirteen when he went to sea, and never made but one voyage to the Baltic, yet in that space he was fourteen times whipped and pickled and six times hung by the heels and lashed for the villainies he committed on the ship.
Upon this return into England, he was so thoroughly mortified by this treatment that he went home to his friends, and as far as his surly humour would give him leave, made his submission and promised more obedience and better behaviour for the future. They then took him in, and were in some hopes that they should now reclaim him. Accordingly they placed him with a sawyer, by Fleet Ditch, which at his first coming to the business seemed to him to be a much lighter work than that he had endured in the space of his being at sea. He served four years honestly, indeed, and with as much content as a person of his unsettled mind could enjoy in any state; but at the end of that space, good usage had so far spoiled him that he longed to be at liberty again, though at the expense of another sea voyage. Accordingly, leaving his master, he went away again on board of a merchantman bound for the Straits. During the time which the ship lay in port for her loading, he contracted some distemper from the heat of the country, and his immoderate love of its wine and the fruits that grow there. These brought him very low, and he falling at the same time into company of some bad women, made an addition to his former ails by adding one of the worst and most painful of all distempers to the miseries he before endured.
In this miserable condition, more like a ghost than a man, he shipped himself at last for England in a vessel, the captain of which out of charity gave him his passage home. The air of that climate in which he was born, recovered him to a miracle. Soon after which being, I suppose, cured also of those maladies which had attended the Spanish women's favours, he fell in love with a very honest industrious young woman, and quickly prevailed with her to marry him. But her friends discovering what a profligate life he led, resolved she should not share in the misfortunes such a measure would be sure to draw upon him, wherefore they took her away from him. How crabbed soever this malefactor might be towards others, yet so affectionately fond was he of his wife that the taking of her away made him not only uneasy and melancholy, but drove him also into distraction. To relieve his grief, at first he betook himself to those companies that afterwards led him to the courses which brought on his death, and in almost all the villainies he committed afterwards he was hardly ever sober, so much did the loss of his wife, and the remorse of his course of the life he led affect him, whenever he allowed himself coolly to reflect thereon.
The crew he had engaged himself in were the most notorious and the most cruel footpads which for many years had infested the road. The robberies they committed were numerous and continual, and the manner in which they perpetrated them base and inhuman. For, seldom going out with pistols (the sight of which serves often to terrify passengers out of their money, without offering them any other injury than what arises from their own apprehensions) these villains provided themselves with large sticks, loaded at the end with lead; with these, from behind a hedge, they were able to knock down passengers as they walked along the road, and then starting from their covert, easily plunder and bind them if they thought proper. They had carried on this detestable practice for a long space in almost all those roads which lead to the little villages whither people go for pleasure from the hurry and noise of London.
Amongst many other robberies which they committed, it happened that in the road to Bow they met a footman, whom without speaking to, they knocked down as soon as they had passed him. The fellow was so stunned with the fall, and so frighted with their approach, that be made not the least resistance while they took away his money and his watch, stripped him of his hat and wig, his waistcoat and a pair of silver buckles; but when one of them perceiving a ring of some value upon his finger, went to tear it off, he begged him in the most moving terms to leave it, because it had been given to him by his lady, who would never forgive the loss of it. However it happened, he who first went to take it off, seemed to relent at the fellow's repeated entreaties, but Wilson catching hold of the fellow's hand, dragged it off at once, saying at the same time, "Sirrah, I suppose you are your lady's stallion, and the ring comes as honestly to us as it did to you."
A few days after this adventure, Wilson being got very drunk, thought he would go out on the road himself, in hopes of acquiring a considerable booty without being obliged to share it with his companions. He had not walked above half an hour, before he overtook a man laden with several little glazed pots and other things, which being tied up in a cloth, he had hung upon the end of a stick and carried on his shoulder. Wilson coming behind him with one of those loaded sticks that I have mentioned, knocked him down by the side of the ditch, and immediately secured his bundle. But attempting to rifle him farther, his foot slipped, he being very full of liquor, and he tumbled backwards into the ditch. The poor man took that opportunity to get up and run away, and so soon as he could recover himself, Wilson retreated to one of those evil houses that entertain such people, in order to see what great purchase he had got; but upon opening the cloth, he was not a little out of humour at finding four pots, each filled with a pound of rappee snuff, and as many galley pots of scented pomatum.
Some nights after this expedition, he and one of his companions went out on the like errand, and had not been long in the fields before they perceived one Mr. Cowell, near Islington. Wilson's companion immediately resolved to attack him, but Wilson himself was struck with such a terror that he begged him to desist, from an apprehension that the man knew him; but that not prevailing with his associate, they robbed him of a hat and wig, and about a shilling in money. Wilson was quickly apprehended, but his companion having notice thereof, saved himself by a flight into Holland. At the ensuing sessions Wilson was indicted, not only for this fact, but for many others of a like nature, to all of which he immediately pleaded guilty, declaring that as he had done few favours to mankind, so he would never expect any.
After sentence of death was pronounced upon him, he laid aside much of his stubbornness, and not only applied himself to the duties of religion which are recommended to persons in his unhappy condition to practice, but also offered to make any discoveries he was able which might tend to satisfying the Justice of his country or the benefit of society. In pursuance of which he wrote a paper, which he delivered with much ceremony at the place of execution, and which though penned in none of the best styles, I have yet thought convenient to annex in his own words.
Being questioned with respect of several of his companions who are very well known, but whom, notwithstanding all the search had been made after them, no discovery could be made so as they might be apprehended and brought to justice, Wilson declared that as for three of the most notorious, they had made their escape into Holland some time before he was apprehended; two others were in Newgate for trivial offences, and another (whom he would not name) was retired into Warwickshire, had married there, and led a very honest and industrious life.
At the place of execution he seemed less daunted than any of the malefactors who suffered with him, showed himself several times by standing up to the spectators, before the rope was fastened about his neck, and told them that he hoped they would give no credit to any spurious accounts which might be published of him; because whatever he thought might be necessary for them to know, he had digested in a paper which he had delivered the Sunday before he died, in order to be communicated to the public. He added, that since he had been in the cart, he had been informed that one Phelps had been committed to Newgate for a robbery mentioned by him in his paper. He said, as he was a dying man, he knew nothing of Phelps, and that he was not in any manner whatsoever concerned in that robbery for which he had been apprehended. He then put the rope about his neck, and submitted to his death with great resolution, being then about twenty years of age, and the day he suffered the 26th of July, 1722.
The Paper delivered by the above mentioned criminal the day before his execution.
I, Thomas Wilson, desire it may be known that I was in a horse-way that lies between Highgate and Hornsey, where meeting a man and a woman, they enquired the way to Upper Holloway. We directed them across the fields; meantime we drank two pints of ale to hearten us, then followed them, and robbed them of two shillings and some half pence, the woman's apron, her hat and coloured handkerchief. We left them without misusing them, though there were thoughts of doing it. My companion that robbed with me is gone to Holland upon hearing I was taken up, though I should not have impeached him, but his friends lived in Holland. Another robbery we committed was by a barn in the footpath near Pancras Church of a hat and tie-wig, and cane, and some goods he was carrying, but we heard he had a considerable sum of money about him; but he ran away and I ran after him, but I being drunk he escaped, and I was glad to get off safe. We robbed two other men near Copenhagen House of a coat and waistcoat. I committed many street robberies about Lincoln's Inn. For these and for all other sins, I pray God and Man to pardon me, especially for shooting the pistol off before Justice Perry, at my friend's adversary, and am very glad I did not kill him.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals