A Highwayman who specialised in robbing Lawyers. Hanged at Tyburn in 1640
ISAAC ATKINSON was the only son of a gentleman of a good estate at Faringdon in Berkshire. His father took care to put him to the most celebrated schools in the country, where, with the doctrines, he imbibed the vices which are too apt to prevail in large seminaries. At sixteen years of age he was sent to Brazen Nose College in Oxford, together with others of his school-fellows, where he soon learned to rail at the statutes of the university and lampoon the rulers, to wear his clothes after the mode, to curse his tutor, and sell his books. In a word, he forgot in the second year after his admittance what, for form's sake, he had condescended to learn in the first, concluding still that he had knowledge enough for himself and his posterity after him for ever.
Everyone may imagine the grief which the good old gentleman went through. There were no hopes, after such a discovery as this, that his son would ever get any advantage by being at school; so that, though he would have given half his estate to make young Isaac what in reality he once took him to be, he thought it was better to take him home and employ him in the management of his rural affairs, than suffer him to spend such a large income to no purpose. Accordingly he sent to the heads of the college, and procured his discharge, taking him now into his own care, and constituting him steward in ordinary.
Had there been the least spark of grace left in young Atkinson, his father's indulgence in not punishing his neglect at the university more severely must have had some effect on him, and have made him at least more dutiful for the future; but he had hardened himself, before he was aware, against every tender sentiment, as is frequently the case with young extravagants; so that this removal from the academy was but the forerunner of greater misfortunes to this unhappy youth. In the country he gave himself up to all manner of sports and diversions, to the entire neglect of his father's affairs. Nor did he only pursue pastimes in themselves innocent to excess, but abandoned himself to all manner of lawless delights. Not a maidservant could live with the old gentleman for the son's importunities, unless she gave up her honour to his desires. Not a handsome wife or daughter in the neighbourhood but either submitted to his pleasure or complained of him to his father. The scandal of these things was not all; for the old gentleman perceived (what with bastard children, and paying for other mischievous actions, besides a continual round of expenses) he should let his son spend all the substance of the family before his eyes, unless he found some way to put a stop to these unwarrantable courses.
The last resource of an injured, abused father was the only one left for poor old Atkinson, which was to turn his only son out of doors, and disinherit him. This, to be sure, was hard work to a parent who hardly knew till lately what it was to be angry with his child. However, after frequent unsuccessful remonstrances, rather than be entirely ruined, he put the first part of this sentence in execution upon him, and threatened him very hardly with the other; though in his mind he was determined to defer it till he saw what effect his exile would have upon Isaac's behaviour.
Now was our young hero turned into the wide world, with but a very small matter of money in his pocket, and not a friend to apply to; such was the character which his extravagances had procured him amongst his relations. These desperate circumstances determined him, when the little he had was gone, to get possessed of more by any means whatsoever, whether lawful or unlawful. Atkinson came up to London, where the vices of the place soon drained him of all his money. Now was he so put to his shifts again, that he was obliged to return into the country, where he committed several petty robberies to support him till he came to his father's house. He had been long sensible that he must never expect to re-enter those once hospitable doors with his father's consent, at least till he had given manifest proof of a thorough reformation.
To enter the windows therefore, without asking any leave at all, was now his resolution. In order to this, he skulked about unobserved till the family was gone to bed, and then very easily got into the kitchen, as there were no shutters to oppose him. He found means here to get possessed of about fifty pounds in silver, and one hundred and twenty broad-pieces of gold; five of the latter he wrapped up in a copy of verses, which were ready written in his pocket, and put them into his father's clasped Bible. The verses were:
Sir, you your son did often bully,
Because he never read in Tully;
What parents teach they ought to practise,
And I confess your test exact is
'Tis just to turn it on yourself
Your Bible stands upon the shelf;
The gold is yours, if you unclose it;
Else I shall find the dear deposit
Safe in a place by all forgotten,
When you, good man, are dead and rotten."
What a graceless, hopeless young heir was here! —- first to rob his father, and then to banter him in this ludicrous manner. Anyone may imagine what was the consequence of all this, as soon as the old gentleman discovered the writing. A lawyer was sent for, and the estate was given, after old Atkinson's demise, to a near kinsman, who had a very large income before, and knew how to make use of it to his own advantage as well as any man in England. Shortly after this the old gentleman died with grief, and Isaac had the mortification to see another in possession of what he had forfeited by his extravagances.
Besides the money, he took the best horse in his father's stable to bring him to London. It happened to be Sunday when he came through Uxbridge, and a whim came into his head that he would put up his horse and go to church. The parson took for his text these words of the Apostle Paul: "For ye know that the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night" (i Thes. V. 2). The sermon was full of zealous and pious exhortations to a timely preparation for the great and terrible day; so that any man less hardened in impiety than Atkinson was, must have gone away deeply affected. But he, instead of that, made it his business to dog the parson home after church was done; and was very well pleased when he saw him go across the fields alone. About half-a-mile out of town Isaac stops the reverend priest and demands his money. The good man was sufficiently surprised, and desired to know his meaning. "I mean," says Isaac, "to let you know that all thieves do not come in the night; so the next time you preach, you may tell the people that the day of the Lord cometh like a thief at noon, which, in my opinion, is a much better simile. For at night we are apt to expect thieves; but who the devil ever feared being robbed at noonday so near a town?" The parson, notwithstanding his logic, was obliged to concede both to his argument and demand. A good silver watch and about one pound eighteen shillings were delivered. After which Atkinson carried his reverence as far as he could out of the path, and there bound him, and left him, while he got off towards London unsuspected.
Another time he met with the famous Noy, Attorney-General to King Charles I., on horseback. As he knew him very well, he was resolved to accost him in his own language: "Sir," says he, "I have a writ of Capias ad Computandum against you, which requires an account of all the money in your pocket." Noy was a merry man naturally, and he was sure it would do him little service to be sour upon this occasion, so he pleasantly asked our desperado by what authority he acted. Isaac, upon this, pulled out a brace of pistols, and told him that those weapons had as much authority in them as any tipstaff in England, which he should be convinced of, if he made any delays. The Attorney-General had no more to say, but very contentedly gave him a purse well lined, and then they parted with mutual compliments.
Atkinson was in general the greatest plague to the lawyers of any highwayman that ever was in England. He had the impudence to follow the circuits, and rob all of that profession that ever came in his way. It is reported that once in less than eight months he stopped above one hundred and sixty attorneys only in the county of Norfolk, and took from them upwards of three thousand pounds. He was so intrepid as frequently to assault three, four or five men himself, and so successful as always to escape, till the unfortunate action that brought him to Tyburn. But almost all our celebrated robbers have been taken in a very silly manner.
He met a market-woman upon Turnham Green, with a bag of halfpence in her lap. He eyed the bag as he passed by her, and supposing it to be a larger booty than it really was, returned and bid her deliver. The woman, being of a bold daring spirit, immediately tossed the bag over a hedge on the roadside, and made the best of her way towards Brentford. Atkinson thought it much better to secure the money than to be revenged on the woman; so alighting, and hanging his horse's bridle to a stump, he went over the hedge. It seems his horse had taken a fancy to the poor woman's mare, for he instantly got loose and ran after her, neighing and snuffing up the wind. The market-woman looked back, and observed the particulars, which she related as soon as she came into Brentford. Half-a-score of men immediately went out after poor Isaac, and it was not long before they found him in a field, unable to make his escape by reason of a great pair of jack-boots which he could not get off; nor had he any knife to cut them down. When he saw himself surrounded he pulled out several pocket-pistols and discharged them; so that he killed four of the men on the spot, and afterwards mortally wounded another with a hanger, which he wore by his side. But there were still enough left to secure him, which at last they did.
Being carried before a magistrate, he was committed to Newgate, where, and at the Old Bailey, he behaved with intolerable insolence. After condemnation he continued to scoff at the ordinary, and turn all his wholesome admonitions into ridicule.
When the day for his execution was come, he desperately stabbed himself with a pen-knife; but the wound not proving mortal he was afterwards carried to Tyburn, and hanged, in the year 1640, being twenty-six years of age.
As he was such a noted highwayman, and was besides known to be a gentleman and a scholar, it was generally expected he would at least have left a speech behind him in writing; but instead of that, he only stood up at the gallows and said: "Gentlemen, there's nothing like a merry life, and a short one."