The Life of WILLIAM SWIFT
a Thief, etc.
Amongst the multitude of other reasons which ought to incline men to an honest life, there is one very strong motive which hitherto has not, I think, been touched upon at all, and that is the danger a man runs from being known to be of ill-life and fame, of having himself accused from his character, only of crimes which he, though guiltless of, in such a case might find it difficult to get his innocence either proved or credited if any unlucky circumstance should give the least weight to the accusation.
The criminal whose life exercises our present care was a fellow of this case. He was born of but mean parents, had little or no education, and when he grew strong enough to labour, would apply himself to no way of getting his bread but by driving a wheelbarrow with fruit about the streets. This led him to the knowledge of abundance of wicked, disorderly people, whose manners agreeing best with his own, he spent most of his time in sotting with them at their haunts, when by bawling about the streets, he had got just as much as would suffice to sot with. There is no doubt, but that he now and then shared with them in what amongst such folks, at least, pass for trivial offences, but that he engaged in the great exploits of the road did not appear to any other case than that for which he died, viz., taking four table cloths, eight napkins, two shirts and other things, from Mary Cassell. The woman swore positively to him upon his trial, and his course of life being such as I have represented it, nobody appeared to his reputation so as to bring the thing in to the least suspense with the jury; whereupon he was convicted and received sentence of death.
The concern Swift was under when he found not the least hopes of life remaining, he having no friends who were capable (had they been willing) to have solicited a pardon or reprieve, shocked him so much that he scarce appeared to have his senses; however, he persisted obstinately in denying that he had the least hand in the robbery which was sworn against him. And as he made no scruple of acknowledging a multitude of other crimes, his denial of this gained some belief, more especially when Barton confessed that himself with two or three others were the persons who committed the robbery on the woman who swore against this criminal. It must be acknowledged that there was no appearance of any sinister motive, at least in Barton, to take upon himself a crime of which otherwise he would never have been accused; and the behaviour of Swift was at first of such a nature that it is not easy to conceive why, when all hopes of safety were lost, and he was full of acknowledgment as to the justice of his sentence for the many other evil deeds he had done, he should yet obdurately persist in denying this, if there had been no truth at all in his allegations.
As this fellow had neither natural courage, nor had acquired any religious principles from his education, there is no wonder to be made that he behaved himself so poorly in the last moments of his life; in which terror, confusion, and self-condemnation wrought so strongly as to make the ignominy of the halter the least dreadful part of his execution.
The day on which the three last-mentioned persons, together with Yates or Gates, alias Vulcan, a deer-stealer, and Benjamin Jones (for house breaking) were to have been executed, these miserable persons framed to themselves the most absurd project of preserving their lives that could possibly have entered into the heads of men; for getting, by some means or other, an iron crow into the hold, they therewith dug out a prodigious quantity of rubbish and some stones, which it is hardly credible could have been removed with so small assistance as they had. With these they blocked up the door of the condemned hold so effectually that there was no possibility of getting it open by any force whatsoever on the outside. The keepers endeavoured to make them sensible of the folly of their undertaking, in hopes they would thereby be induced to prevent any firing upon them; which was all that those who had the custody of them were now capable of doing, to bring them to submission. The Ordinary also joined in dissuading them from thus misspending the last moments of their lives, which were through the mercy of the Law extended to them for a better purpose. But they were inexorable, and as they knew their surrender would bring them immediately to a shameful death, so they declared positively they were determined to kill or to be killed in the position in which they were.
Sir Jeremiah Murden, one of the sheriffs for the time being, was so good as to go down upon this occasion to Newgate. The keepers had opened a sort of trap-door in the room over the hold, and from thence discharged several pistols loaded with small shot, but to no purpose, the criminals retiring to the farther end of the room, continuing there safe and out of reach; though Barton and Yates received each of them a slight wound in crowding backwards. Sir Jeremy went himself to this place, and talked to them for a considerable space, and one of the fellows insisting to see his gold chain, that they might be sure they were treating with the sheriffs themselves, his condescension was so great as to put down part of it through the hole, upon which they consulted together, and at last agreed to surrender. Whereupon they began immediately to remove the stones, and as soon as the door was at liberty, one of the keepers entered. Just as he was within it, Barton snapped a steel tobacco-box in his face, the noise of which resembling a pistol, made him start back, upon which Barton said, "D----n you, you was afraid."
When they were brought out, Sir Jeremy ordered the Ordinary to be sent for, and prayers to be said in the chapel, where he attended himself. But whether the hurry of this affair, or that stench which is natural to so filthy a place as the condemned hold, affected the sheriff's constitution, is hard to say, but upon his return home, he was seized with a violent fever, which in a very short space took away his life.
But to return to Swift. When they came to Tyburn, and the minister had performed his last office towards them, this criminal made a shift in a faint tone to cry out, "Good People, I die as innocent of the crime for which I suffer, as the child unborn"; which Barton, with a loud voice, confirmed saying, "I am the man who robbed the person for which this man dies; he was not concerned with me, but one Capell and another were companions with me therein." Swift, at the time of his execution, was about twenty-seven years of age, or a little over.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals