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A highwayman's woes, 1753 [part 2]
How the crime spree came to an undignified end
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In drawing my hand out of the window, I pulled the cock of [the] pistol, for it went off through both windows unexpectedly…
Last week I introduced the 18th century horse groom-turned-highwayman John Poulter, who left his respectable career working for the gentry in order to travel the world, then fell in with bad company on his return. His own narrative, published as The Discoveries of John Poulter,1 consists of his confession while he was still in prison, naming names of other crooks and the details of the ‘thieves’ cant’ argot they spoke and the network of ‘flash houses’ (usually inns) that facilitated criminal intel and fencing stolen goods.
We read of a robbery he planned on Claverton Down (then called Clarken Down) near Bath which didn’t go as planned because his mark changed his plans at the last minute after a completely unrelated violent crime in the area.
Claverton Down proved to be a pivotal place for John Poulter, and it’s where we now meet him again. This time, in March 1753, he was with another accomplice, Irishman Thomas Burk[e], described elsewhere as “much pitted with the Small-Pox, about Twenty-five Years of Age”, and the crime was much more spur-of-the-moment…
…going down the hill at the watering place, we met a post chaise, which Burk swore he would go and rob: I denied to go with him, but he still swore he would: I asked him, as we followed the chaise, if he thought I was mad, to do such a thing so near Bath, and just as I came out of a house I was so well known in: but he again swore he would do it himself, if I would not go with him: then I thought with myself that if he was taken, I should be in as much danger as he, for being with him just before; so I consented to go with him. I desired him not to be guilty of any mischief, or hurt any person, for that four men were as easily robbed as one, and that the sight of a pistol unawares, is a great terror to any man, and without they fire at me, don’t fire at them; he told me he would not.
Then I rode up to the chaise, and bid the boy stand, but I believe he did not hear me, for he kept on. The world may think it is false, but I assure them it is true, as I am not sure whether I am for life or death [Poulter of course was imprisoned at the time of writing this]: it being dark before I got up with the chaise, I did not know whether the window was up or down, but I ran my hand through the glass, and cut my fingers all across, and I believe in drawing my hand out of the window, pulled the cock of [the] pistol, for it went off through both windows unexpectedly; but I thought at first the fire came from the chaise, till I put my hand on the cock and felt it down; and Burk (he being behind the chaise) also thought the fire came from the chaise at me, as he told me afterwards, which was the occasion of his firing.
Then we had no pistol loaded, for we had but a brace loaded when we attacked the chaise, having discharged a brace just before at a mark on the Down. The world hath said that I threatened the child’s life, but I declare I had not such a thought; for Mr. Hancock gave her to me, desiring me not to hurt her, and I took her in my arms and kissed her, and then set her down: I do not deny but there was very bad opprobrious language passed at first; but at last, if any body had come by, they would not have known what we were at. It was reported we got above thirty pounds from Mr. Hancock, but I do assure the world we got no more than one guinea and a half in gold, and above six shillings and sixpence in silver, his gold watch, and a great quantity of his lady’s wearing apparel and child’s linen.
Poulter then narrates how they went to Gea’s flash house, reloaded their pistols and headed for Devon, selling some of the spoils. But this robbery, of Dr Hancock, a well-known Bath physician, and his daughter, was the crime that led to Poulter’s capture and arrest, and he was brought before the Somerset assizes in Wells. He was described by a newspaper as “a lusty well-set Man, about five Feet ten Inches high, dress’d in a light colour’d Great Coat, and a Scar on each Cheek”.
Unusually, he pleaded guilty, it seems in the hope of a pardon, which was indeed supported by some of Bath’s notables, including the celebrated dandy Beau Nash. He was condemned to death, but this was then delayed until, after further examination in Ilchester, it was reaffirmed in early 1754. On 16th February Poulter managed to escape and fled west to Wales but was spotted in Wookey (still in Somerset) having got lost. Poulter was hanged in Ilchester on 25th February 1754.
The Bath Journal of 4th March 1754 gives us this forlorn description of his final moments:
He then went and looked into his Coffin, and afterwards gave Directions to tie the Rope shorter, it hanging down too long; then having spent a short Time in private Prayer, he let his Book drop, and calling aloud upon God to have Mercy his Soul, the Cart was drawn away. It was observed, that he never struggled once after he was turned off, but hung quite motionless from the first Moment.