ENGL 3003
Rakes & Libertines

Criminal Biographies

The Life of Mary Robinson, a Shoplifter

    THE indiscretions of youth are always pitied, and often excused even by those who suffer most by them; but when persons grown up to years of discretion continue to pursue with eagerness the most flagitious courses, and grow in wickedness as they grow in age, pity naturally forsakes us, and they appear in so execrable a light that instead of having compassion for their misfortunes we congratulate our country on being rid of such monsters, whom nothing could tame, nor the approach even of death in a natural way hinder them from anticipating it by drawing on a violent one through their crimes.
    I am drawn to this observation from the fate of the miserable woman of whom we are now speaking. What her parents were, or what her education it is impossible to say, since she was shy of relating them herself; and being seventy years old at the time of her execution, there was nobody then living who could give an account about her. She was indicted for stealing a silver cup, in company with Jane Holmes, and also stealing eighty yards of cherry-coloured mantua silk, value five pounds, in company with the aforesaid Jane Holmes, the property of Joseph Brown and Mary Harper, on the 24th of December.  On these fasts she was convicted as the rest were, in the evidence of Burton, whom, as is usual in such cases, they represented as a woman worse than themselves, and who had drawn many of them into the commission of what she now deposed against them.
    As to this old woman Mary Robinson, she said she had been a widow fourteen years, and had both children and grandchildren living at the time of her execution ; she said she had worked as hard for her living as any woman in London. Yet when pressed thereupon to speak the truth and not wrong her conscience in her last moments, she did then declare she had been guilty of thieving tricks ; but persisted in it that the evidence Burton had not been exactly right in what she had sworn against her. It was a melancholy thing to see a woman of her years, and who really wanted not capacity, brought into those lamentable circumstances, and going to a violent and ignominious death, when at a time when she could not expect it would be any long term before she submitted to a natural one.
    Possibly my readers may wonder how such large quantities of silk were conveyed away.  I thought, therefore, proper to inform them that the evidence Burton said they had a contrivance under their petticoats, not unlike two large hooks, upon which they laid a whole roll of silk, and so conveyed it away at once, while one of their confederates amused the people of the shop in some manner or other until they got out of reach; and by this means they had for many years together carried on their trade with great success and as much safety, until the losses of the tradesmen ran so high as to induce them to take the method before-mentioned, which quickly produced a discovery, not only of the persons of the offenders, but of the place also where they had deposited the goods. By this means a good part of them were recovered, and those who had so long lived by this infamous practice were either detected or destroyed; so that shoplifting has been thereby kept under ever since, or at leaft the offenders have not ventured in so large a way as before.
    But to return to the criminal of whom we are to treat.  She said she was not afraid of death at all, though she confessed herself troubled as to the manner in which she was to die, and reflected severely upon Burton, who had given evidence against her. By degrees she grew calmer, and on the day of her execution appeared more composed and cheerful than she had done during all her troubles. She suffered at the same time with the malefactors before mentioned, and in her years looked as if she had been the mother of those with whom she died.

The Life of Jane Martin. alias Lloyd, a Cheat and a Thief, etc.

    THIS woman was the daughter of parents in very good reputation, about an hundred miles off in the country. While they lived they took care to breed her to understand everything as became a gentlewoman of a small fortune, and in her younger years she was tractable enough but her parents dying while Jane was but a girl, she came into the hand of guardians who were not altogether so careful as they ought. Before she was of age she married a young gentleman who had a pretty little fortune, which he and she quickly confounded; insomuch that he became a prisoner in the King's Bench for debt. Being thus destitute, and in great want of money, she set her wits to work to consider ways and means of cheating people for her support, in which she became as dexterous as any who ever followed that infamous trade. Yet her husband (as she herself owned) was a man of strict honour, and so much offended at these villainies that he used her with great severity thereupon, but that had no effect, for she still continued the old trade, putting on the saint until people trusted her, and pulling off the mask as soon as she found there was no more to be got by keeping it on.
    Amongst the rest of her adventures in this way she once took it in her head that it was possible for her to set up a great shop, entirely upon credit, for except some good clothes she had nothing else to go to market with. Accordingly she first took a shop not far from Somerset House, and having caused some bales of brick-bats to be made up, sent them thither in a cart with one of her confederates, which was safely deposited in that which was to pass for the warehouse. A carpenter was sent for, who was employed in making shelves, drawers, and other utensils for a haberdasher's shop.  Then going to the wholesale people in that way, she found means to draw them in to six or seven hundred pounds worth of goods to the house which she had taken. All of this stuff the Saturday night following, she caused to be carried over into the Mint, a practice very common with the infamous shelterers there who preserve their pretended privileges.
    Mrs. Martin having got some acquaintance in a tolerable family, and having a very fair tongue, she quickly wheedled them into a belief of her being able to do great matters by her interest with some person of distinction, whose name she made use of on this occasion, and thereby got several presents and small sums of money, and (if she herself were to be believed) among the rest a silver cup.  Whether her failing in her promises really provoked the people to swearing a theft upon her, or whether (which is more probable) she took an opportunity of conveying it secretly away, certain it is that for this she was prosecuted, and the fact appearing clear enough to the jury, was thereupon convicted and ordered for transportation.  This afflicted her at least as much as if she had been condemned to instant death, and therefore she applied herself continually to thinking which way it might be eluded, and she might escape.  Soon after her going abroad, she effected what she so earnestly desired, and unhappily for her returned again into England.
The numerous frauds she had committed had exasperated many people against her, who as soon as it was rumoured that she was come back again, never left searching for her until they found her out, and got her committed to Newgate; and on the record of her conviction being produced the next sessions, and the prosecutor swearing positively that she was the same person, the jury, after a short consultation, brought her in guilty, and she received sentence of death, from which, as she had no friends, she could not hope to escape.  When she found death was inevitable, she fell into excessive agonies and well-nigh into despair. The reflection on the many people she had injured gave her so great grief and anxiety of mind that she could scarce be persuaded to get down a sufficient quantity of food to preserve her life until the time of her execution. But the minister at Newgate having demonstrated to her the wickedness and the folly of such a course, she by degrees came to have a better sense of things; her mind grew calmer, and though her repentance was accompanied with sighs and tears, yet she did not burst out into those lamentable outcries by which she before disturbed both herself and those poor creatures who were under sentence with her.  In this disposition of mind she continued until the day of her death, which was on the 12th of September, 1726, being between twenty-seven-and-eight years of age, in the company of the before-mentioned malefactors, Cartwright, Blackett, Holmes, Fitzpatrick, Robinson, and William Allison, a poor country lad of about twenty-five, apparently of an easy gentle temper who had been induced into the fact, partly through covetousness, and partly through want.

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This page by Stephen Bending
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