WILLIAM PARSONS, ESQ.
Eldest Son of a Baronet, who became a Swindler and Highway Robber, and was executed for returning from Transportation, 11th of February, 1751
The unhappy subject of this narrative was born in London, in the year 1717, the eldest son and heir to Sir William Parsons, Bart. of the county of Nottingham. He was placed under the care of a pious and learned divine at Pepper-harrow, in Surrey, where he received the first rudiments of education. In a little more than three years, he was removed to Eton college, where it was intended that he should qualify himself for one of the universities.
While he was a scholar at Eton, he was detected in stealing a volume of Pope's Homer in the shop of a bookseller named Pate. Being charged with the fact, he confessed that he had stolen many other books at different times. The case being represented to the master, Parsons underwent very severe discipline.
Though he remained at Eton nine years, his progress in learning was very inconsiderable. The youth was of so unpromising a disposition, that Sir William determined to send him to sea, as the most probable means to prevent his destruction, and soon procured him the appointment of midshipman on board a man of war, then lying at Spithead, under sailing orders for Jamaica, there to be stationed for three years.
Some accident detained the ship beyond the time when it was expected she would sail. Parsons applied for leave of absence, and went on shore; but having no intention to return, he immediately directed his course towards a small town about ten miles from Portsmouth, called Bishop's Waltham, where he soon ingratiated himself into the favour of the principal inhabitants.
His figure being pleasing, and his manner of address easy and polite, he found but little difficulty in recommending himself to the ladies.
He became greatly enamoured of a beautiful and accomplished young lady, the daughter of a physician of considerable practice, and prevailed upon her to promise she would yield her hand in marriage.
News of the intended marriage coming to the knowledge of his father sir William, and his uncle, the latter hastened to Waltham to prevent a union which he apprehended would inevitably produce the ruin of the contracting parties.
With much difficulty the uncle prevailed upon Parsons to return to the ship, which in a few days afterwards proceeded on her voyage.
The ship had not been long arrived at the place of destination, when Parsons resolved to desert, and return to England, and soon found an opportunity of shipping himself on board the Sheerness man of war, then preparing to sail on her return home.
Immediately after his arrival in England, he set out for Waltham, in order to visit the object of his desires; but his uncle being apprised of his motions, repaired to the same place, and represented his character in so unfavourable, but at the same time in so just a manner, that he prevented the renewal of his addresses to the physician's daughter.
He went home with his uncle, who observed his conduct with a most scrupulous attention, and confined him, as much as possible, within doors. This generous relation at length exerted his interest to get the youth appointed midshipman on board his majesty's ship the Romney, which was under orders for the Newfoundland station.
Upon his return from Newfoundland, Parsons learnt, with infinite mortification, that the duchess of Northumberland, to whom he was related, had revoked a will made in his favour, and bequeathed to his sister a very considerable legacy, which he had expected to enjoy. He was repulsed by his friends and acquaintance, who would not in the least countenance his visits at their houses; and his circumstances now became exceedingly distressed.
Thus situated he applied to a gentleman named Bailey, with whom he had formerly lived on terms of intimacy; and his humanity induced him to invite Parsons to reside in his house, and to furnish him with the means of supporting the character of a gentleman. Mr Bailey also was indefatigable in his endeavours to effect a reconciliation between young Parsons and his father, in which he at length succeeded.
Sir William having prevailed upon his son to go abroad again, and procured him an appointment under the governor of James Fort, on the river Gambia, he embarked on board a vessel in the service of the Royal African company.
Parsons had resided at James Fort about six months, when a disagreement took place between him and governor Aufleur; in consequence of which the former signified a resolution of returning to England. Hereupon the governor informed him that he was commissioned to engage him as an indented ser vant for five years. Parsons warmly expostulated with the governor, declaring that his behaviour was neither that of a man of probity or a gentleman, and requested permission to return. But so far from complying, the governor issued orders to the sentinels to be particularly careful lest he should effect an escape.
Notwithstanding every precaution, Parsons found means to get on board a homeward-bound vessel, and being followed by Mr Aufleur, he was commanded to return, but cocking a pistol, and presenting it to the governor, he declared he would fire upon any man who should presume to molest him. Here upon the governor departed, and in a short time the ship sailed for England.
Soon after his arrival in his native country, he received an invitation to visit an uncle who lived at Epsom, which he gladly accepted, and experienced a most cordial and friendly reception.
He resided with his uncle about three months, and was treated with all imaginable kindness and respect. At length one of the female servants in the family swore herself to be pregnant by him, which so incensed the old gentleman, that he dismissed Parsons from his house.
Reduced to the most deplorable state of poverty, he directed his course towards the metropolis; and three half-pence being his whole stock of money, he subsisted four days upon the bread purchased with that small sum, quenching his thirst at the pumps he casually met with in the streets. He lay four nights in a hay-loft in Chancery-lane, belonging to the master of the rolls, by permission of the coachman, who pitied his truly deplorable case.
At length he determined to apply for redress to an ancient gentlewoman with whom he had been acquainted in his more youthful days, when she was in the capacity of companion to the duchess of Northumberland. Weak and emaciated through want of food, his appearance was rendered still more miserable by the uncleanliness and disorder of his apparel; and when he appeared before the old lady, she tenderly compassionated his unfortunate situation, and recommended him to a decent family in Cambridge Street, with whom be resided some time in a very comfortable manner, the old gentlewoman defraying the charge of his lodging and board; and a humane gentleman, to whom she had communicated his case, supplying him with money for common expenses.
Sir William came to town at the beginning of the winter, and received an unexpected visit from his son, who dropped upon his knees, and supplicated forgiveness with the utmost humility and respect. His mother-in-law was greatly enraged at his appearance, and upbraided her husband with being foolishly indulgent to so graceless a youth, at the same time declaring, that she would not live in the house where he was permitted to enter.
Sir William asked him what mode of life he meant to adopt? and his answer was, that he was unable to determine; but would cheerfully pursue such measures as so indulgent a parent should think proper to recommend. The old gentleman then advised him to enter as a private man in the horse-guards; which he approved of, saying, he would immediately offer himself as a volunteer.
Upon mentioning his intention to the adjutant, he was in formed that he must pay seventy guineas for his admission into the corps. This news proved exceedingly afflicting, as he had but little hope that his father would advance the necessary sum. Upon returning to his father's lodgings, he learnt that he had set out for the country, and left him a present of only five shillings.
Driven now nearly to a state of distraction, he formed the desperate resolution of putting an end to his life, and repaired to St. James's Park, intending to throw himself into Rosamond's pond. While he stood on the brink of the water, waiting for an opportunity of carrying his impious design into effect, it occurred to him, that a letter he had received, mentioning the death of an aunt, and that she had bequeathed a legacy to his brother, might be made use of to his own advantage; and he immediately declined the thoughts of destroying himself.
He produced the letter to several persons, assuring them that the writer had been misinformed respecting the legacy, which in reality was left to himself; and under the pretext of being entitled to it, he obtained money and effects from different people to a considerable amount. Among those who were deceived by this stratagem was a tailor in Devereux court in the Strand, who gave him credit for several genteel suits of clothes.
The money and other articles thus fraudulently obtained, enabled him to engage in scenes of gaiety and dissipation; and he seemed to entertain no idea that his happiness would be but of short duration.
Accidentally meeting the brother of the young lady to whom he had made professions of love at Waltham, he intended to renew his acquaintance with him, and his addresses to his sister; but the young gentleman informed Parsons that his sister died suddenly a short time after his departure from Waltham.
Parsons endeavoured, as much as possible, to cultivate the friendship of the above young gentleman, and represented his case in so plausible a manner, as to obtain money from him, at different times, to a considerable amount.
Parsons' creditors now became exceedingly importunate, and he thought there was no probability of relieving himself from his difficulties, but by connecting himself in marriage with a woman of fortune.
Being eminently qualified in those accomplishments which are known to have a great influence over the female world, Parsons soon ingratiated himself into the esteem of a young lady possessed of a handsome independency bequeathed her by her lately deceased father. He informed his creditors that he had a prospect of an advantageous marriage; and as they were satisfied that the lady had a good fortune, they supplied him with every thing necessary for prosecuting the amour, being persuaded that, if the expected union took place, they should have no difficulty in recovering theirS respective demands.
The marriage was solemnized on the 10th of February, 1740, in the 23d year of his age. On this event, the uncle, who lived at Epsom, visited him in London, and gave him the strongest assurances that he would exert every possible endeavour to promote his interest and happiness, on condition that be would avoid such proceedings as would render him unworthy of friendship and protection. His relations in general were perfectly satisfied with the connexion he had made, and hoped that his irregular and volatile disposition would be corrected by the prudent conduct of his bride, who was justly esteemed a young lady of great sweetness of temper, virtue, and discretion.
A few weeks after his marriage, his uncle interceded in his behalf with the right honourable Arthur Onslow; and through the interest of that gentleman he was appointed an ensign in the thirty- fourth regiment of foot.
He now discharged all his debts, which proved highly satisfactory to all his relations; and this conduct was the means of his obtaining further credit in times of future distress.
He hired a very handsome house in Poland Street, where he resided two years, in which time he had two children, one of whom died very young. From Poland Street, he removed to Panton- square, and the utmost harmony substituted between him and his wife, who were much respected by their relations and acquaintances.
But it must be observed, that though his conduct in other respects had been irreproachable from the time of his mar riage, be was guilty of unpardonable indiscretion as to his manner of living; for he kept three saddle-horses, a chaise and pair, several unnecessary servants, and engaged in many other superfluous expences that his income could not afford.
Unfortunately Parsons became acquainted with an infamous gambler, who seduced him to frequent gaming-houses, and to engage in play. He lost considerable sums, which were shared between the pretended friend of Parsons, and his wicked accomplices.
Parsons was now promoted to a lieutenancy in a regiment that was ordered into Flanders, and was accompanied to that country by the abandoned gamester, whom he considered as his most valuable friend. The money he lost in gaming, and the extravagant manner in which he lived, in a short time involved him in such difficulties that he was under the necessity of selling his commission, in order to discharge his debts contracted in Flanders. The commission being sold, Parsons and his treacherous companion returned to England.
His arrival was no sooner known, than his creditors were extremely urgent for the immediate discharge of their respective claims; which induced him to take a private lodging in Gough- square, where he passed under the denomination of captain Brown. He pretended to be an unmarried man; and saw his wife only when appointments were made to meet at a public-house. While he lodged in Gough-square, he seduced his landlord's daughter, who became pregnant by him; and her imprudence in yielding to the persuasions of Parsons, proved the means of involving her in extreme distress.
His creditors having discovered the place of his retreat, he deemed it prudent to remove; and at this juncture an opportunity offered by which he hoped to retrieve his fortune; and he therefore embarked as captain of marines on board the Dursley privateer.
Soon after the arrival of the ship at Deal, Parsons went on shore, provided with pistols, being determined not to submit to an arrest, which he supposed would be attempted. He had no sooner landed on the beach, than he was approached by five or six men, one of whom attempted to seize him; but Parsons, stepping aside, discharged one of the pistols, and lodged a ball in the man's thigh. He then said, he was well provided with weapons, and would fire upon them if they presumed to give him further molestation. Hereupon the officers retreated; and Parsons returned to the ship, which sailed from Deal the following morning.
They bad been in the channel about a week, when they made prize of a French privateer, which they carried into the port of Cork. Parsons being now afflicted with a disorder that prevailed among the French prisoners, was sent on shore for the recovery of his health. During his illness, the vessel sailed on another cruise, and he was no sooner in a condition to permit him to leave his apartment, than he became anxious to partake of the fashionable amusements.
In order to recruit his finances, which were nearly exhausted, he drew bills of exchange on three merchants in London, on which he raised 60L.; and before advice could be transmitted to Cork, that he had no effects in the hands of the persons on whom he had drawn the bills, he embarked on board a vessel bound for England.
He landed at Plymouth, where he resided some time under a military character, to support his claim to which he was provided with a counterfeit commission. He frequented all places of public resort, and particularly where gaming was permitted. His money being nearly expended, he obtained a hundred pounds from a merchant of Plymouth, by means of a false draft upon an alderman of London. Some time after the discovery of the fraud, the injured party saw Parsons a transport prisoner on board a ship bound to Virginia, lying in Catwater bay, where he assured him of an entire forgiveness, and made him a present of a guinea.
From Plymouth, Parsons repaired to London, and his money being nearly spent, he committed the following fraud, in conjunction with a woman of the town: taking his accomplice to a tavern in the Strand (where he was known), he represented her as an heiress, who had consented to a private marriage and requested the landlord to send immediately for a clergyman. The parson being arrived, and about to begin the ceremony, Parsons pretending to recollect that he had forgotten to provide a ring, and ordered the waiter to tell some shop-keeper to the neighbourhood to bring some plain gold rings. Upon this the clergyman begged to recommend a very worthy man, who kept a jeweller's shop in the neighbourhood: and Parsons said it was a matter of indifference with whom he laid out his money; adding, that as he wished to compliment his bride with some small present, the tradesman might also bring some diamond rings.
The rings being brought, and one of each chosen, Parsons produced a counterfeit draft, saying, the jeweller might either give him change then, or call for payment after the ceremony; on which the jeweller retired, saying, he would attend again in the afternoon. In a little time, the woman formed a pretence for leaving the room, and upon her not returning soon, our hero affected great impatience, and, without taking his hat, quitted the apartment, saying, he would enquire for the people of the house whether his bride had not been detained by some unforeseen accident.
After waiting a considerable time, the clergyman called the landlord; and as neither Parsons nor the woman could be found, it was rightly concluded, that their whole intention was to perpetrate a fraud. In the mean time, our hero and his accomplice met at an appointed place, and divided their booty.
In the year 1745, he counterfeited a draft upon one of the collectors of the excise, in the name of the duke of Cumberland, for five hundred pounds. He carried the draft to the collector, who paid him fifty pounds in part, being all the cash that remained in his hands.
He went to a tailor, saying, he meant to employ him, on the recommendation of a gentleman of the army, whom he had long supplied with clothes; adding, that a captain's commission was preparing for him at the war-office. The tailor furnished him with several suits of clothes; but not being paid according to agreement, he entertained some suspicion as to the responsibility of his new customer; and therefore enquired at the war-office respecting captain Brown, and learnt that a commission was making out for a gentleman of that name. Unable to get any part of the money due to him, and determined to be no longer trifled with, he instituted a suit at common-law, but was non-suited, having laid his action in the fictitious name of Brown, and it appearing that Parsons was the defendant's real name.
Parsons sent a porter from the Ram Inn, in Smithfield, with a counterfeit draft upon Sir Joseph Hankey and Co. for five hundred pounds. Parsons followed the man, imagining that if he came out of Sir Joseph's house alone, he would have received the money; and that if he was accompanied by any person, it would be a strong proof of the forgery being dis covered; and as he observed sir Joseph and the porter get into a hackney-coach, he resolved not to return to the inn.
He next went to a widow named Bottomley, who lived near St. George's church, and saying that he had contracted to supply the regiment to which he belonged with hats, gave her an order to the amount of a hundred and sixty pounds. He had no sooner got possession of the hats, than he sold them to a Jew for one half of the sum he had agreed to pay for them.
Being strongly apprehensive that he could not long avoid being arrested by some of his numerous and highly exasperated creditors, by means of counterfeit letters, he procured himself to be taken into custody, as a person disaffected to the king and government; and was supported without expense, in the house of one of the king's messengers, for the space of eighteen months.
Being released from the messenger's house, he resolved in his mind a variety of schemes for eluding the importunity of his creditors and at length determined to embark for Holland. He remained in Holland a few months, and when his money was nearly expended he returned to England. A few days after his arrival in London, he went to a masquerade, where he engaged in play to the hazard of every shilling he possessed, and was so fortunate as to obtain a sufficient sum for his maintenance for several months.
His circumstances being again distressed, he wrote in pressing terms to his brother-in-law, who was an East-India director, intreating that he would procure him a commission in the company's service, either by land or sea. The purport of the answer was, that a gentleman in the Temple was authorised to give the supplicant a guinea, but that it would be fruitless for him to expect any further favours.
Having written a counterfeit draft, he went to Ranelagh on a masquerade night, where he passed it to a gentleman who had won some small sums of him. The party who received the draft offered it for payment in a day or two afterwards, when it was proved to be a counterfeit; in consequence of which Parsons was apprehended, and committed to Wood Street compter.
As no prosecutor appeared, Parsons was necessarily acquitted; but a detainer being lodged, charging him with an offence similar to the above, he was removed to Maidstone gaol, in order for trial at the Lent assizes at Rochester.
Mr Carey, the keeper of the prison, treated Parsons with great humanity, allowing him to board in his family, and indulging him in every privilege that he could grant, without a manifest breach of the duties of his office. But such was the ingratitude of Parsons, that he formed a plan, which, had it taken effect, would have utterly ruined the man to whom he was indebted in such great obligations. His intention was, privately to take the keys from Mr Carey's apartment; and not only to escape himself, but even to give liberty to every prisoner in the gaol: and this scheme he communicated to a man accused of being a smuggler, who reported the matter to Mr Carey, desiring him to listen at an appointed hour at night, when he would hear a conversation that would prove his intelligence to be authentic. Mr Carey attended at the appointed time, and being convinced of the ingratitude and perfidy of Parsons, he abridged him of the indulgences he had before enjoyed, and caused him to be closely confined.
Being convicted at the assizes at Rochester, he was sentenced to transportation for seven years; and in the following September be was put on board the Thames, captain Dobbins, bound for Maryland, in company with upwards of one hundred and seventy other convicts, fifty of whom died in the voyage. In November, 1749, Parsons was landed at Annapolis, in Maryland; and having remained in a state of slavery about seven weeks, a gentleman of considerable property and in fluence, who was not wholly unacquainted with his family, compassionating his unfortunate situation, obtained his freedom, and received him at his house in a most kind and hospitable manner.
Parsons had not been in the gentleman's family many days before he rode off with a horse which was lent him by his benefactor, and proceeded towards Virginia; on the borders of which country he stopped a gentleman on horseback, and robbed him of five pistoles, a moidore, and ten dollars.
A few days after, he stopped a lady and gentleman in a chaise, attended by a negro servant, and robbed them of eleven guineas and some silver: after which he directed his course to the Potomack river, where finding a ship nearly ready to sail for England, he embarked, and after a passage of twenty-five days landed at Whitehaven.
He now produced a forged letter, in the name of one of his relations, to a capital merchant of Whitehaven, signifying that he was entitled to the family estate, in consequence of his father's decease, and prevailed upon him to discount a false draft upon a banker in London for seventy-five pounds.
Upon his arrival in the metropolis, he hired a handsome lodging at the west end of the town; but he almost constantly resided in houses of ill fame, where the money he had so un justly obtained was soon dissipated.
Having hired a horse, he rode to Hounslow-heath, where, between ten and eleven o'clock at night, he stopped a postchaise, in whicb were two gentlemen, whom he robbed of five guineas, some silver, and a watch.
A short time afterwards he stopped a gentleman near Turnham-green, about twelve o'clock at night, and robbed him of thirty shillings, and a gold ring. He requested that the ring might be returned, as it was his wife's wedding ring. Parsons compiled with the gentleman's request, and voluntarily returned the gentleman five shillings, telling him, at the same time, that nothing but the most pressing necessity could have urged him to the robbery: after which the gentleman shook hands with the robber, assuring him that, on account of the civility of his behaviour, he would not appear to prosecute, if he should hear of his being apprehended.
Returning to his lodgings near Hyde-park-corner one evening, he overtook a footman in Piccadilly, and joining company with him, a familiar conversation took place, in the course of which Parsons learnt that the other was to set out early on the following Sunday with a portmanteau, containing cash and notes to a considerable value, the property of his master, who was then at Windsor.
On the Sunday morning he rode towards Windsor, intending to rob the footman. Soon after he had passed Turnham- green, he overtook two gentlemen, one of whom was Mr Fuller, who had prosecuted him at Rochester, and who perfectly recollecting his person, warned him not to approach. He however paid no attention to what Mr Fuller said, but still continued sometimes behind and sometimes before them, though at a very inconsiderable distance.
Upon coming into the town of Hounslow, the gentlemen alighted, and commanded Parsons to surrender, adding that if he did not instantly comply, they would alarm the town. He now dismounted, and earnestly entreated that the gentlemen would permit him to speak to them in private which they consented to; and the parties being introduced to a room at an inn, Parsons surrendered his pistols, which were loaded and primed, and supplicated for mercy in the most pathetic terms.
In all probability he would have been permitted to escape,had not Mr Day, landlord of the Rose and Crown at Houns low, come into the room, and advised that be might be detained as he conceived him very nearly to answer the description of a highwayman by whom the roads in that part of the country had been long infested. He was secured at the inn till the next day, and then examined by a magistrate, who committed him to Newgate.
Parsons was now arraigned for returning from transportation before the expiration of the term of his sentence: nothing therefore was necessary to convict him but the identifying of his person. This being done, he received sentence of death. His distressed father and wife used all their interest to obtain a pardon for him, but in vain: he was an old offender, and judged by no means a fit object for mercy.
While Parsons remained in Newgate, his behaviour was such that it could not be determined whether be entertained a proper idea of his dreadful situation. There is indeed but too much reason to fear that the hopes of a reprieve (in which he deceived himself even to the last moments of his life) induced him to neglect the necessary preparation for eternity.
His taking leave of his wife afforded a scene extremely affecting: he recommended to her parental protection his only child, and regretted that his misconduct had put it in the power of a censorious world to reflect upon both the mother and son.
He suffered at Tyburn, on the 11th of February, 1751. At the place of execution he joined in the devotional exercises with a zeal that proved him to be convinced of the necessity of obtaining the pardon of his creator.
In tracing the depraved and melancholy course of this ill- fated man, the humane reader cannot but be struck with the apparent hollow-heartedness and apathy of his father. It is, no doubt, difficult to tell the precise degree of provocation Sir William had received; but we see that young Parsons was befriended, long after his natural protector had abandoned him, by an uncle, and several other more distant connexions; and it should be recollected that, if the child owes affection and patient forbearance towards its parent, the latter is no less bound to exercise similar duties towards the being whom he has been instrumental in bringing into the world. Nothing but the most hopeless and resolute depravity (if even that) should extinguish a father's tenderness; and it certainly does not appear to us that the wretched subject of the preceding narrative had reached that point at the period of his utter desertion by the baronet. If, at their last recorded interview, instead of advising his penitent son to enter the horse-guards as a private (for which purpose, too, he left him altogether unprovided), Sir William Parsons had extended to him the feelings of real kindness and reconciliation, it is possible that his own name might have been saved from ignominy, and the youthful prodigal (who was then at an age, perhaps, the most susceptible of moral improvement) restored to his family, to himself, and to his God.