Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: William Barton


a Highwayman

This William Barton was born in Thames Street, London, and seemed to have inherited a sort of hereditary wildness and inconstancy, his father having been always of a restless temper and addicted to every species of wickedness, except such as are punished by temporal laws. While this son William was a child, he left him, without any provision, to the care of his mother, and accompanied by a concubine whom he had long convened with, shipped himself for the island of Jamaica, carrying with him a good quantity of goods proper for that climate, intending to live there as pleasantly as the place would give him leave. His head being well turned, both for trading and planting, it was, indeed, probable enough he should succeed.

Now, no sooner was his father gone on this unaccountable voyage, but William was taken home and into favour by his grandfather, who kept a great eating-house in Covent Garden. Here Will, if he would, might certainly have done well. His grandfather bound him to himself, treated him with the utmost tenderness and indulgence, and the gentlemen who frequented the house were continually making him little presents, which by their number were considerable, and might have contented a youth like him.

But William, whose imagination was full of roving as his father's, far from sitting down pleased and satisfied with that easy condition into which Fortune had thrown him, began to dream of nothing but travels and adventures. In short, in spite of all the poor old man, his grandfather, could say to prevent it, to sea he went, and to Jamaica in quest of his father, who he fancied must have grown extravagantly rich by this time, the common sentiments of fools, who think none poor who have the good luck to dwell in the West Indies.

On Barton's arrival at Jamaica he found all things in a very different condition from what he had flattered himself with. His father was dead and the woman who went over with him settled in a good plantation, 'tis true, but so settled that Will was unable to remove her; so he betook himself to sea again, and rubbed on the best way he was able. But as if the vengeance of Heaven had pursued him, or rather as if Providence, by punishments, designed to make him lay aside his vices, Barton had no sooner scraped a little money together, but the vessel in which he sailed was (under the usual pretence of contraband goods) seized by the Spaniards, who not long after they were taken, sent the men they made prisoners into Spain. The natural moroseness of those people's temper, makes them harsh masters. Poor Barton found it so, and with the rest of his unfortunate companions, suffered all the inconveniences of hard usage and low diet, though as they drew nearer the coast of Spain that severity was a little softened.

When they were safely landed, they were hurried to a prison where it was difficult to determine which was worst, their treatment or their food. Above all the rest Barton was uneasy, and his head ever turned towards contriving an escape. When he and some other intriguing heads had meditated long in vain, an accident put it in their power to do that with ease which all their prudence could not render probable in the attempt, a thing common with men under misfortune, who have reason, therefore, never to part with hope.

Finding an old wall in the outer court of the prison weak, and ready to fall down, the keeper caused the English prisoners, amongst others, to be sent to repair it. The work was exceedingly laborious, but Barton and one of his companions soon thought of a way to ease it. They had no sooner broke up a small part of the foundation which was to be new laid, but stealing the Spanish soldiers' pouches, they crowded the powder into a small bag, placing it underneath as far as they could reach, and then gave it fire. This threw up two yards of the wall, and while the Spaniards stood amazed at the report, Barton and his associates marched off through the breach, without finding the slightest resistance from any of the keeper's people, though he had another party in the street.

But this would have signified very little, if Providence had not also directed them to a place of safety by bringing them as soon as they broke out of the door to a monastery. Thither they fled for shelter, and the religious of the place treated them with much humanity. They succoured them with all necessary provision, protected them when reclaimed by the gaoler, and taking them into their service, showed them in all respects the same care and favour they did to the rest of their domestics.

Yet honest labour, however recompensed, was grating to these restless people, who longed for nothing but debauchery, and struggled for liberty only as a preparative to the indulging of their vices; and so they began to contrive how they should free themselves from hence. Barton and his fellow engineer were not long before they fell on a method to effect it, by wrenching open the outer doors in the night, and getting to an English vessel that lay in the harbour ready to sail.

They had not been aboard long ere they found that the charitable friars had agreed with the captain for their passage, and so all they gained by breaking out was the danger of being reclaimed, or at least going naked and without any assistance, which to be sure they would have met with from their masters, if they could but have had a little patience. But the passion of returning home, or rather a vehement lust after the basest pleasures, hurried them to whatever appeared conducive to that end, however fatal in its consequence it might be.

When they were got safe into their native country again, each took such a course for a livelihood as he liked best. Whether Barton then fell into thievery, or whether he learned not that mystery before he had served an apprenticeship thereto in the Army I cannot say, but in some short space after his being at home 'tis certain that he listed himself a soldier, and served several campaigns in Flanders, during the last War. Being a very gallant fellow, he gained the love of his officers, and there was great probability of his doing well there, having gained at least some principle of honour in the service, which would have prevented him doing such base things as those for which he afterwards died. But, unhappily for him, the War ended just as he was on the point of becoming paymaster-sergeant, and his regiment being disbanded, poor Will became broke in every acceptation of the word. He retained always a strong tincture of his military education, and was peculiarly fond of telling such adventures as he gained the knowledge of, while in the Army.

Amongst other stories that he told were one or two which may appear perhaps not unentertaining to my readers. When Brussels came towards the latter end of the War to be pretty well settled under the Imperialists, abundance of persons of distinction came to reside there and in the neighborhood from the advantage natural to so fine a situation. Amongst these was the Baron De Casteja, a nobleman of a Spanish family, who except for his being addicted excessively to gaming, was in every way a fine gentlemen. He had married a lady of one of the best families in Flanders, by whom he had a son of the greatest hopes. The baron's passion for play had so far lessened their fortune that they lived but obscurely at a village three leagues from Brussels, where having now nothing to support his gaming expenses, he grew reformed, and his behaviour gained so high and general esteem that the most potent lord in the country met not with higher reverence on any occasion. The great prudence and economy of the baroness made her the theme of general praise, while the young Chevalier de Casteja did not a little add to the honours of the family.

It happened the baron had a younger brother in the Emperor's service, whose merit having raised him to a considerable rank in his armies, he had acquired a very considerable estate, to the amount of upwards of one hundred thousand crowns, which on his death he bequeathed him. Upon this accession of fortune, the Baron Casteja, as is but too frequent, fell to his old habit, and became as fond of gaming as ever. The poor lady saw this with the utmost concern, and dreaded the confounding this legacy, as all the baron's former fortune had been consumed by his being the dupe of gamesters. In deep affliction at the consideration of what might in future times become the Chevalier's fortune, she therefore entreated the baron to lay out part of the sum in somewhat which might be a provision for his son. The baron promised both readily and faithfully that he would out of the first remittance. A few weeks later he received forty thousand crowns and the baroness and he set out for Brussels, under pretence of enquiring for something proper for his purpose, carrying with him twenty thousand crowns for the purchase. But he forgot the errand upon the road, and no sooner arrived at Brussels, but going to a famous marquis's entertainment, in a very few hours lost the last penny of his money. Returning home after this misfortune, he was a little out of humour for a week, but at the end of that space, making up the other twenty thousand privately he intended to set out next day.

The poor lady, at her wit's end for fear this large sum should go the same way as the other, bethought herself of a method of securing both the cash and her son's place. She communicated her design to her major domo, who readily came into it, and having taken three of the servants and the baroness's page into the secret, he sent for Barton and another Englishman quartered near them, and easily prevailed on them for a very small sum, to become accomplices in the undertaking. In a word, the lady having provided disguises for them, and a man's suit for herself, caused the touch-holes of the arms which the baron and two servants carried with him to be nailed up, and then towards evening sallying at the head of her little troop from a wood, as he passed on the road, the baron being rendered incapable of resistance, was robbed of the whole twenty thousand crowns. With this she settled her son, and the baron was so far touched at the loss of such a provision for his family, that he made a real and thorough reformation, and Barton from this exploit fell in love with robbing ever after.

Another adventure he related was this. Being taken prisoner by the French, and carried to one of their frontier garrisons, a treaty shortly being expected to be settled, to relieve the miseries he endured, Barton got into the service of a Gascon officer who proved at bottom almost as poor as himself. However, after Barton's coming he quickly found a way to live as well as anybody in the garrison, which he accomplished thus. All play at games of chance was, in the score of some unlucky accidents proceeding from quarrels which it had occasioned, absolutely forbidden, and the provosts were enjoined to visit all quarters, in order to bring the offenders to shameful punishments. The Gascon captain took advantage of the severity of this order, and having concerted the matter with a countryman and comrade of his, a known gamester, plundered all the rest who were addicted to that destructive passion; for gaining intelligence of the private places where they met, from his friend, he putting himself, Barton and another person into proper habits, attacked these houses suddenly almost every night with a crowd of the populace at his heels, and raised swinging contributions on those who being less wicked than himself never had any suspicion of his actions, but took him and his comrades for the proper officer and his attendants.

Barton's greatest unhappiness was his marriage. He was too uxorious, and too solicitous for what concerned his wife, how well so ever she deserved of him; for not enduring to see her work honestly for her bread he would needs support her in an easy state of life, though at the hazard of the gallows. There is, however, little question to be made but that he had learned much in his travels to enable him to carry on his wicked designs with more ease and dexterity, for no thief, perhaps, in any age, managed his undertakings with greater prudence and economy. And having somewhere picked up the story of the Pirate and Alexander the Great, it became one of Will's standing maxims that the only difference between a robber and a conqueror was the value of the prize.

Being one day on the road with a comrade of his, who had served also with him abroad in the Army, and observing a stage coach at a distance, in right of the seniority of his commission as a Knight of the Pad, Barton commanded the other to ride forward in order to reconnoitre. The young fellow obeyed him as submissively as if he had been an aide de camp, and returning, brought him word that the force of the enemy consisted of four beau laden with blunderbusses, two ladies and a footman. "Then", quoth Will, "we may e'en venture to attack them. Let us make our necessary disposition. I will ride slowly up to them, while you gallop round that hill, and as soon as you come behind the coach, be sure to fire a pistol over it, and leave the rest to me."

Things thus adjusted, each advanced on his attack. Barton no sooner stopped the coach and presented his pistol at one window, than his companion, after firing a brace of balls over the coachman's head, did the like at the other, which so surprised the fine gentlemen within, that without the least resistance they surrendered all they had about them, which amounted to about one hundred pounds, which Barton put up. "Come, gentlemen", says he, "let us make bold with your fire-arms too, for you see we make more use of them than you." So, seizing a brace of pistols inlaid with silver, and two fine brass blunderbusses, Will and his subaltern rode off.

But alas, Will's luck would not last (as his rogueship used to express it). For, attempting a robbery in Covent Garden, where he was too well known, he was surprised, committed to Newgate and on his conviction ordered to be transported for seven years to his Majesty's Plantations, whither he was accordingly carried.

When he was landed, a planter bought him after the manner of that country, and paid eighteen pounds for him. Barton wanting neither understanding nor address, he soon became the darling of his master, who far from employing him in those laborious works which are usually talked of here, put upon him nothing more than merely supervising his slaves and taking care of them, when business obliged him to be absent.

One would have thought that so easy a state of life, after the toil and miseries such a man as him of whom we are speaking must have run through, would have been pleasing, and that it might have become a means of reclaiming him from those vices so heinous in the sight of God, and for which he had barely escaped the greatest punishment that can be inflicted by man. At first, it indeed made some impressions not very different from these; Barton owning that his master's treatment was such that if a man had not absolutely bent his mind on such courses as necessarily must make him unhappy, he might have enjoyed all he could have hoped for there. Of which he became so sensible that for some time he remained fully satisfied with his condition.

But alas! Content, when its basis rests not upon virtue, like a house founded on a sandy soil is incapable of continuing long. No sooner had Barton leisure and opportunity to recollect home, his friends, and above all his wife, but it soon shocked his repose, and having awhile disturbed and troubled him, it pushed him at last on the unhappy resolution or returning to England, before the expiration of his time for which he was banished. This project rolled for a very considerable space in the fellow's head. Sometimes the desire of seeing his companions, and above all things his wife, made him eager to undertake it; at others, the fear of running upon inevitable death in case of a discovery, and the consideration of the felicity he now had in his power made him timorous, at least, if not unwilling to return.

At last, as is ordinary amongst these unhappy people, the worst opinion prevailed, and finding a method to free himself from his master, and to get aboard a ship, he came back to his dearly beloved London, and to those measures which had already occasioned so great a misfortune, and at last brought him to an ignominious death. On his return, his first care was to seek out his wife, for whom he had a warm and never ceasing affection, and having found her, he went to live with her, taking his old methods of supporting them, though he constantly denied that she was either a partner in the commission, or even so much as in the knowledge of his guilt. But this quickly brought him to Newgate again, and to that fatal end to which he, like some other flagitious creatures of this stamp, seem impatient to arrive; since no warning, no admonition, no escape is sufficient to deter them from those crimes, which they are sensible the laws of their country with Justice have rendered capital.

Barton's return from transportation was sufficient to have brought him to death had he committed nothing besides; but he, whether through necessity, as having no way left of living honestly, or from his own evil inclinations, ventured upon his old trade, and robbing amongst others the Lord Viscount Lisbourn, of the Kingdom of Ireland, and a lady who was with him in the coach, of a silver hilted sword, a snuff-box and about twelve shillings in money, he was for this fact taken, tried and convicted at the Old Bailey.

He immediately laid by all hopes of life as soon as he had received sentence, and with great earnestness set himself to secure that peace in the world to come, which his own vices had hindered him from in this. He got some good books which he read with continual devotion and attention, submitted with the utmost patience to the miseries of his sad condition, and finding his relations would take care of his daughter and that his wife, for whom he never lost the most tender concern, would be in no danger of want, he laid aside the thoughts of temporal matters altogether expressing a readiness to die, and never showing any weakness or impatience of the nearest approach of death.

Much of that firmness with which he behaved in these last moments of his life might probably be owing to natural courage, of which certainly Barton had a very large share. But the remains of virtue and religion, to which the man had always a propensity, notwithstanding that he gave way to passions which brought him to all the sorrows he knew, yet the return he made, when in the shadow of death, to piety and devotion, enabled him to suffer with great calmness, on Friday the 12th of May, 1721, aged about thirty-one years.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals