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


Footpad and Highwayman

There is not anything more extraordinary in the circumstances of those who from a life of rapine and plunder come to its natural catastrophe, a violent and ignominious death, than that some of them from a life of piety and religion, have on a sudden fallen into so opposite a behaviour, and without any stumbles in the road of virtue take, as it were, a leap from the precipice at once.

This malefactor, William Sperry, was born of parents in very low circumstances, who afforded him and his brother scarce any education, until having reached the age of fourteen years, he and his younger brother before mentioned, were both decoyed by one of the agents for the plantations, to consent to their being transported to America, where they were sold for about seven years.[1] After the expiration of the term, William Sperry went to live at Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, one of the best plantations the English have in America, which receives its name from William Penn, the famous Quaker who first planted it. Here, being chiefly instigated thereto by the great piety and unaffected purity of morals in which the inhabitants of that colony excel the greater part of the world, Sperry began with the utmost industry to endeavour at retrieving his reading; and the master with whom he lived favouring his inclinations, was at great pains and some expense to have him taught writing. Yet he did not swerve in his religion, nor fall into Quakerism, the predominant sect here, but went constantly to the Church belonging to the religion by Law established in England, read several good books, and addicted himself with much zeal to the service of God. Removing from the house of his kind master to that of another planter, he abated nothing in his zeal for devotion, but went constantly from his master's house to church at West Chester, which was near five miles from his home.

Happening, not long after, to have the advantage of going in a trading vessel to several ports in America, he addicted himself with great pleasure to this new life. But his happiness therein, like all other species of human bliss, very shortly faded, for one morning just as the day began to dawn, the vessel in which he sailed was clapped on board, and after a very short struggle taken by Low, the famous pirate.[2] Sperry, being a brisk young lad, Low would very fain have taken him into his crew, but the lad having still virtuous principles remaining, earnestly entreated that he might be excused. On the score of his having discovered to Low a mutinous conspiracy of his crew, the generosity of that pirate was so great that, finding no offer he could make made any impression, he caused him to be set safe on shore in the night, on one of the Leeward Islands.

Notwithstanding that Sperry did not at that time comply with the instigations of the pirate, yet his mind was so much poisoned by the sight of what passed on board, that from that time he had an itching towards plunder and the desire of getting money at an easier rate than by the sweat of his brow. While these thoughts were floating in his head, he was entertained on board one of his Majesty's men-of-war, and while he continued in the Service, saw a pirate vessel taken; and the men being tried before a Court of Admiralty in New England, every one of them was executed except five, who manifestly appeared to have been forced into the pirates' service. One would have thought this would have totally eradicated all liking for that sort of practice, but it seems it did not. For as soon as Sperry came home into England and had married a wife, by which his inclinations were chained, though he had no ability to support her, and falling into very great necessities, he either tempted others or associated himself with certain loose and abandoned young men, for as he himself constantly declared, he was not led into evil practices by the persuasions of any. However it were, the deeds he committed were many, and he became the pest of most of the roads out to the little villages about London, particularly towards Hampstead, Islington and Marylebone, of some of which as our papers serve we shall inform you.

Sperry and four more of his associates hearing that gaming was very public at Hampstead,[3] and that considerable sums were won and lost there every night, resolved to share part of the winnings, let them light where they would. In order to this, they planted themselves in a dry ditch on one side of the foot-road just as evening came on, intending when it was darker to venture into the coach road. They had hardly been at their posts a quarter of an hour before two officers came by. Some were for attacking them, but Sperry was of a contrary opinion. In the meanwhile they heard one of the gentlemen say to the other, "There's D---- M----, the Gamester, behind us, he has won at least sixty guineas to-night." Sperry and his crew had no further dispute whether they should rob the gentlemen in red or no, but resolved to wait the coming of so rich a prize.

It was but a few minutes before M---- appeared in sight. They immediately stepped into the path, two before him, and two behind, and watching him to the corner of a hedge, the two who were behind him caught him by the shoulders, turned him round, and hurrying him about ten yards, pushed him into a dry ditch. This they had no sooner done, but they all four leaped down upon him and began to examine his pockets, M---- thought to have talked them out of a stricter search by pretending he had lost a great deal of money at play, and had but fifty shillings about him, which with a silver watch and a crystal ring he deemed very ready to deliver; and it very probably would have been accepted if they had not had better intelligence, but one of the oldest of the gang, perceiving after turning out all his pockets that they could discover nothing of value, began to exert the style of a highwayman upon an examination, and addressed the gamester in these terms.

"Nobody but such a rogue as you would have given gentlemen of our faculty so much trouble. Sir, we have received advice by good hands from Belsize that you won sixty guineas to-day at play. Produce them immediately, or we shall take it for granted you have swallowed them; and in such a case, Sir, I have an instrument ready to give us an immediate account of the contents of your stomach."

M----, in a dreadful fright, put his hand under his arm, and from thence produced a green purse with a fifty pound bank-note and eighteen guineas. This they had no sooner taken than, tying him fast to a hedge stake, they ran across the fields in search of another booty. They spun out the time, being a moonlight night, until past eleven, there being so much company on the road that they found it impossible to attack without danger.

As they were returning home, they heard the noise of a coach driving very hard, and upon turning about saw it was that of Sir W---- B----, himself on the box, two ladies of pleasure in the coach, and his servants a great way behind. One of them seized the horse on one side, and another on the other, but Sir W---- drove so very hard that the pull of the horses brought them both to the ground, and he at the same time encouraging them with his voice and the smack of his whip. So he drove safe off without any hurt, though they fired two pistols after him.

About three weeks after this they were passing down Drury Lane, and observing a gentleman going with one of the fine ladies of the Hundreds into a tavern thereabouts, one of the gang who knew him, and that he had married a lady with a great fortune to whom his father was guardian, and that they lived altogether in a great house near Lincoln's Inn Fields, immediately thought on a project. They slipped into an alehouse, where he wrote an epistle to the old gentleman, informing him that they had a warrant to apprehend a lewd woman who was with child by his son, but that she had made her escape, and was now actually with him at a certain tavern in Drury Lane, wherefore being apprehensive of disturbance, and being unwilling to disgrace his family, rather than take rougher methods, they had informed him, in order that by his interposition the affair might be made up.

As soon as they had written this letter, they dispatched one of their number to carry it and deliver it, as if by mistake, to the young gentleman's wife. This had the desired effect, for in less than half an hour came the father, the wife, and another of her trustees, who happened to be paying a visit there when the letter came. They no sooner entered the tavern but hearing the voice of the gentleman they asked for, without ceremony they opened the door, and finding a woman there, all was believed, and there followed a mighty uproar. Two of the rogues who were best dressed, had slipped into the next room and called for half a pint. As if by accident they came out at the noise, and under pretence of enquiring the occasion, took the opportunity of picking the gentleman's pockets of twenty-five guineas, one gold watch, and two silver snuff-boxes, which it is to be presumed were never missed until the hurry of the affair was over.

The last robbery Sperry committed was upon one Thomas Golding, not far from Bromley, who not having any money about him, Sperry endeavoured to make it up by taking all his clothes. Being apprehended for this, at the next sessions at the Old Bailey he was convicted for this offence, and having no friends, could not entertain the least hopes of pardon. From the time that he was convicted, and, indeed, from that of his commitment, he behaved like a person on the brink of another world, ingenuously confessing all his guilt, and acknowledging readily the justice of that sentence by which he was doomed to death. His behaviour was perfectly uniform, and as he never put on an air of contempt towards death, so, at its nearest approach he did not seem exceedingly terrified therewith, but with great calmness of mind prepared for his dissolution.

On the day of his execution his countenance seemed rather more cheerful than ordinarily, and he left this world with all exterior signs of true penitence and contrition, on Monday, the 24th of May, 1725, at Tyburn, being then about twenty-three years of age.


[1] There was great competition to secure white labour in the American plantations. Infamous touts circulated amongst the poor, and any who were starving or wished for personal reasons to emigrate engaged themselves with a ship-master or an office-keeper to allow themselves to be sold for a term of years in return for their passage money. On arrival at their destination these poor wretches were sent to the plantations and lived as slaves until the term for which they had contracted had expired. In Virginia and Maryland, where most of them went, they were driven to work on the tobacco fields with the negroes, and were worse treated than the blacks, as being only leasehold property whereas the negroes were freehold.

[2] Captain Edward Low was one of the bloodied of the pirates. He served under Lowther until 1722, when he smarted on his own account. After many atrocities he was taken by the French and hanged, some time in 1724. A full account of him is given in my edition of Johnson's "History of the Pirates", issued in the same series as the present volume.

[3] Belsize House was opened as a place of amusement, about 1720, by a certain Howell, who called himself the Welsh Ambassador. At first it was a fashionable resort, but it soon became the haunt of gamblers and harpies of both sexes.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals