The Life of WILLIAM DUCE
a Notorious Highwayman and Footpad
However hardened some men may appear during the time they are acting their crimes and while hopes of safety of life remains, yet when these are totally lost and death, attended with ignominy and reproach, stares them in the face, they seldom fail to lay aside their obstinacy; or, if they do not, it is through a stupid want of consideration, either of themselves or of their condition.
William Duce, of whom we are now to speak, was one of the most cruel and abandoned wretches that ever went on the road. He was born at Wolverhampton, but of what parents, or in what manner he lived until his coming up to London, I am not able to say. He had not been long here before he got in debt with one Allom, who arrested him and threw him into Newgate, where he remained a prisoner upwards of fifteen months; here it was that he learnt those principles of villainy which he afterwards put in practice.
His companions were Dyer, Butler, Rice and some others whom I shall have occasion to mention. The first of December, 1722, he and one of his associates crossing Chelsea Fields, overtook a well-dressed gentleman, a tall strong-limbed man, who having a sword by his side and a good cane in his hand they were at first in some doubt whether they should attack him. At last one went on one side and the other on the other, and clapping at once fast hold of each arm, they thereby totally disabled him from making a resistance. They took from him four guineas, and tying his wrists and ankles together, left him bound behind the hedge.
Not long after he, with two others, planned to rob in St. James's Park. Accordingly they seized a woman who was walking on the grass near the wall towards Petty France, and after they had robbed her got over the wall and made their escape. About this time his first acquaintance began with Dyer, who was the great occasion of this poor fellow's ruin, whom he continually plagued to go out a-robbing, and sometimes threatened him if he did not. In Tottenham Court Road, they attacked a gentleman, who being intoxicated with wine, either fell from his horse, or was thrown off by them, from whom they took only a gold watch. Then Butler and Dyer being in his company, they robbed Mr. Holmes of Chelsea, of a guinea and twopence, the fact for which he and Butler died.
Thinking the town dangerous after all these robberies, and finding the country round about too hot to hold them, they went into Hampshire and there committed several robberies, attended with such cruelties as have not for many years been heard of in England; and though these actions made a great noise, yet it was some weeks before any of them were apprehended.
On the Portsmouth Road it happened they fell upon one Mr. Bunch, near a wood side, where they robbed and stripped him naked; yet not thinking themselves secure, Duce turned and fired at his head. He took his aim so true that the bullet entered the man's cheek, upon which he fell with the agony of pain, turning his head downwards that the bullet might drop out of his mouth. Seeing that, Butler turned back and began to charge his pistol. The man fell down on his knees and humbly besought his life. Perceiving the villain was implacable, he took the advantage before the pistol was charged to take to his heels, and being better acquainted with the way than they, escaped to a neighbouring village which he raised, and soon after it the whole country; upon which they were apprehended. Mead, Wade and Barking, were condemned at Winchester assizes, but this malefactor and Butler were removed by an "Habeas Corpus" to Newgate.
While under sentence of death, Duce laid aside all that barbarity and stubbornness with which he had formerly behaved, with great frankness confessed all the villainies he had been guilty of, and at the place of execution delivered the following letter for the evidence Dyer, who as he said, had often cheated them of their shares of the money they took from passengers, and had now sworn away their lives.
The Letter of William Duce to John Dyer
It is unnecessary for me to remind you of the many wicked and barbarous actions which in your company and mostly by your advice, have been practised upon innocent persons. Before you receive this, I shall have suffered all that the law of man can inflict for my offences. You will do well to reflect thereon, and make use of that mercy which you have purchased at the expense of our blood, to procure by a sincere repentance the pardon also of God; without which, the lengthening of your days will be but a misfortune, and however late, your crimes if you pursue them, will certainly bring you after us to this ignominious place.
You ought especially to think of the death of poor Rice, who fell in the midst of his sins, without having so much as time to say, "Lord have mercy on me." God who has been so gracious as to permit it to you, will expect a severe account of it, and even this warning, if neglected, shall be remembered against you. Do not however think that I die in any wrath or anger with you, for what you swore at my trial. I own myself guilty of that for which I suffer, and I as heartily and freely forgive you, as I hope forgiveness for myself, from that infinitely merciful Being, to whose goodness and providence I recommend you.
He also wrote another letter to one Mr. R. W., who had been guilty of some offences of the like nature in his company, but who for some time had retired and lived honestly and privately, was no longer addicted to such courses, nor as he hoped would relapse into them again. At the time of his execution he was about twenty-five years of age, and suffered at Tyburn on the 5th of August, 1723.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals