A Notorious Highwayman who hated and maltreated Women. Executed 30th of April, 1670
THOMAS WILMOT, the unfortunate subject of the few following pages, was the eldest son of John Wilmot, Esq., in the county of Suffolk. He was born at Ipswich, a noted seaport, and the capital town of all the county. When his father died he came immediately into the possession of an estate of six hundred pounds a year, entirely free from all encumbrances; which any reasonable person would think was sufficient to support a gentleman very handsomely.
It was but a few years, however, before the whole was mortgaged, and soon after sold, to maintain him in his ex pensive way of living, which was only a course of intrigues and debauchery. Not a beautiful woman in the country round but he was in pursuit of, without any regard to her degree or circumstances; yet was he almost always unsuccessful in his amours, for he was very deficient in that fine manner of address which recommends a man to the regards of the fair sex, who are generally prevailed upon with splendid appearances.
When our adventurer had very much reduced his estate by attempts upon the honour of women of character, he spent the last remains of it upon those who are always to be won with gold, and who also slighted him when they perceived he had no more of that shining metal.
Tom had an education suitable to his degree. He could write several hands very finely, and speak the French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian tongues tolerably well. Nevertheless, when he found himself ruined by his extravagances, he could think of no other way to support himself but the highway, supposing it below a gentleman to follow any honest profession. In this vocation he was so intrepid and desperate as frequently to attack two or three passengers together, without any assistance, and his fortune, for a long time, was equal to his courage.
One time, meeting a gentleman between Chelmsford and Colchester, and saluting him with the unwelcome words, "Stand and deliver," the person assaulted positively alleged that he had not any money about him. As it was contrary to Tom's interest, as well as to reason, for him to think a well-dressed man would travel on horseback without money, he proceeded to search his pockets, when he found the gentleman's asseveration true, or so nearly true that there was nothing worth taking. However, as his own coat was but indifferent, and the gentleman's very good, he made an exchange to keep his hands in exercise, and so took his leave. But Tom had this time better luck than he expected, for as he rode along he heard something jingle in his pockets, which made him examine them. It was no disagreeable surprise to find eighteen guineas and a crown-piece in an old steel tobacco-box. Another time, as he lay perdu in a thicket between Dorking in Surrey and Petworth in Sussex, he saw three gentlewomen riding along the road. He immediately rushed out upon them in a violent manner and demanded what they had. They gave him about eight pounds, which was their whole stock of money; but one of them had a large diamond ring on her finger, which Tom ordered her to deliver instantly. The poor woman could not easily get it off; upon which our inhuman villain pulled out a sharp knife and barbarously cut off finger and all, swearing at the same time that as he was now compelled to rob on the highway through his former extravagances, which had been occasioned by his fondness for their sex, he was resolved in all his actions to show a woman the least favour.
Wilmot's principal places of haunt for a great many years were about the western roads, where at last there was scarce a stage-coach or wagon could travel in safety long together; but he became in time so very noted, and so much sought after, that he was obliged to fly into the north of England, where he fell into the same way of living. Here he also continued some time to rob by himself, till he fell in company with several others of the same profession. It was agreed among these, for their mutual safety, to form themselves into a society; and as Tom was a gentleman, besides his being the most experienced among them, it was unanimously agreed that he should be their captain. As soon as he was entered into his commission he called for pen, ink and paper, and drew up the following articles to be observed by their community; obliging them all to swear to them, and subscribe their names at the bottom of the paper: —-
WE WHOSE NAMES ARE UNDERWRITTEN, HAVING BY MUTUAL AGREEMENT FORMED OURSELVES INTO A SOCIETY FOR THE SUPPORT OF EACH OTHER, WE DO ALL SOLEMNLY ENGAGE OURSELVES TO OBSERVE THESE PARTICULARS
I. To be obedient to our captain in all his commands, and faithful to our companions in all their designs and attempts.
II. To be always present at such meetings as the captain by his sole authority shall appoint, except we have his leave for the contrary.
III. To stand by one another in any danger to the last breath, and never to fly from an equal number of opposers.
IV. To help one another when taken and imprisoned, in sickness, and in any distress whatsoever.
V. Never to leave, if possibly we can help it, the body of any companion behind us, whether dead or only wounded.
VI. To confess nothing, if taken, to the damage of our accomplices, though punished even with death itself for our faithfulness.
This our compact, when any one of us shall break, in any one article, may the greatest plagues fall on him in this world, and eternal damnation seize him hereafter.
The oath at the time of subscribing was in these words:
"I, A.B., do swear, by the head and soul of our captain, to perform, to the utmost of my ability, everything agreed to in this writing. So help me honour."
It is a pity that those who have furnished us with the preceding articles have not also obliged us with some of Wilmot's adventures in concert with his companions; but .as we meet with nothing of this nature in any account which we have seen, the reader must content himself with being told that the gang held together till the captain's exit, which was some years after the first institution. In such a series of time, there is no doubt but their robberies were very numerous. There are, however, two or three stories more of our hero himself, which are very well worth rehearsing.
He one day met with the Lincoln stage-coach, in which was only the wife of Mr Blood, who stole the Crown of England out of the Tower in the reign of King Charles II. and conveyed it away under a parson's gown. Wilmot knew her very well, and so made bold to stop the horses and demand her money. Mrs Blood seemed to be much frightened, and begged of him to use her civilly, as she was a poor defenceless woman, and he appeared like a gentleman. "Madam," says Tom, "the falsehood of women has been the only cause of my misfortunes, the only thing that has reduced me to the wretched necessity of seeing a livelihood in this manner. The whole sex are alike. You are all false, perfidious and perjured, at least all of you that ever received any tenders of love. As you are a woman, madam, you must expect no favour from my hands, who am a professed enemy to the whole species. Therefore, dear Mrs Blood, be pleased to deliver your money this moment, or I'm afraid blood will come of it the next." The gentlewoman, finding he was in earnest, and that there was no way of coming off but by satisfying his demands, offered him half-a-crown, telling him she had no more about her. "You saucy b —-ch," quoth Wilmot, "do you think I will be put off with half-a- crown, when nothing less than a whole one would satisfy your husband when he robbed the King? No, no, pray let us see what you have got." Upon this he searched her, and found about fifteen guineas in her pockets, besides a silver thimble, and several things of value.
A little while after this he met with another adventure upon the road between Abingdon and Oxford. Mr Molloy, a famous counsel for thieves and pickpockets, was riding from one of these places to the other, it being the assize time. Wilmot knew him very well, and consulted with himself some time before he could resolve to meddle with a man so useful to his profession. At last he considered that Mr Molloy was an advocate only for the sake of a fee; and that, as he had got so much money by this means, it was just that he should refund a little to supply the necessities of one who might soon be a client. With this thought he rode up and commanded him to contribute. Mr Molloy thought to have escaped by telling him who he was, but Wilmot replied with, "Every man to his trade, sir. Another time, it is very possible, you may be the receiver, and then you must make the best market you can, as I intend to do at present." The poor counsellor saw there was no evading question, and he was very sensible how dangerous it would be to oppose a brace of pistols, vi et armis; so without any more words he surrendered three pounds odd money, and Tom, to prevent his doing any mischief, shot his horse, and then rode off on his own, quite across the country, until he thought himself pretty well out of danger.
Another of his adventures was on Newmarket Heath, where he stopped a gentleman in his coach-and-six, notwithstanding he had several servants on horseback to attend him. The gentleman was obliged to order all his men to let him alone, for fear of his own life, which Tom threatened very hard, if one of them offered to stir. The booty he now met with was very large, though we have no certain account of the sum. It may be imagined that the gentleman was sufficiently irritated at being robbed in this manner. He cursed his servants that they could not see the highwayman coming, and cursed himself that he did not suffer them to fire at him afterwards; but all was now too late. The only method to be revenged on him was to pursue him with a hue and cry, of which Wilmot being aware, he got off by a byway to Chester.
Here he consumed a considerable time, without doing anything worthy of notice, gaming and living high, till he had wasted all his ready cash. After this his clothes, his horse, and everything he had valuable were sold or lost, till he was reduced to extreme necessity, and obliged to leave the place and seek his fortune.
As he wandered about the country in a miserable poor condition he saw, one evening, a house at a distance, to which he made. It was the seat of an ancient family in Shropshire. As he came near, his ears were saluted with music and merry songs, which gave him great hopes of meeting with good entertainment. In this confidence he went to the door and knocked, demanding if the master of the house was within. He was answered Yes by the master himself, who was within hearing, and desired to know his business. Wilmot readily told him that, being a stranger in those parts, and destitute of friends and money, he made bold to entreat that he would favour him with a lodging for one night. The gentleman answered him in a very civil manner, but said he feared he could not grant his request; for it was the anniversary of his birthday, and he had a great many friends within, most of whom must be obliged to stay all night. Tom continued to press his suit in very moving terms; upon which the good man told him that he had one room in his house that he could spare. "But," continued he, "if you venture to lie there, you may chance to repent it; for it is ten to one but you fall into some misfortune much greater than being all night in the fields. To tell you the truth, sir, it is haunted with a spirit ever since my grandfather's barber cut his throat in it, for the love of a coy chambermaid. The spirit appears at usual times with a razor in one hand, and a basin and light in the other, crying in a hoarse tone, 'Will you be shaved?' We have ventured to put several to bed there who knew nothing of the matter, but they have been all thrown violently out of their beds, and bruised in a strange manner for refusing to let him shave them."
Tom Wilmot heard the gentleman's relation very attentively; but as he had more wit than to believe the reality of apparitions, which he looked upon to be only delusions —- either the fancies of whimsical brains, or the invention of crafty men for some sinister purposes —- he told the gentleman in very obliging language that, if he pleased, he would accept of the proffer, notwithstanding the dreadful report he had made. "For I know not," says he, "but by the learning I have attained I may be able to give rest to this poor distressed ghost, and confine him to the lower shades, from whence he shall never return to wander about the world any more."
The gentleman, upon Tom's discovering such a willingness to run all hazards rather than want a lodging, invited him into the parlour, and desired him to sit down and make merry with the rest of the company, telling all that were present what the stranger had undertaken. They all wondered that he should venture upon such a dreadful thing, and looked upon him to be something more than a common man. Some dissuaded him from engaging in an affair so full of danger, telling him that they could not help thinking there was presumption in the very attempt. Others laughed in their sleeves to think what sport they should have in the morning when he related his night's adventure, not at all doubting but they should find him half-dead, with all his hair standing on end. Tom answered but little to either of them, yet what he did say was with such a solemn air that they all began to think him either a parson or a conjurer, who travelled in disguise.
Supper being ended, the company adjourned into a large old-fashioned hall, and fell to cards and dice. As soon as Tom saw them set, and the stakes thrown down pretty briskly upon the table, a merry crotchet came into his head, which he thus executed.
He retired into one side of the hall, and desired a servant to show him up into his appointed lodging, because he was very weary with hard travelling. The fellow gave him a candle, and such directions as were necessary, bidding him good-night at the stair-foot; for, though he was a lusty lubber, he was so terrified with what our hero had undertaken that he could not have ventured himself any farther for the world. Tom expected the goblin in vain at least for two hours, and then resolved to personate him, that such an ancient member of the family might not be wanting at a time of general joy. Thus concluding, he rubbed over his face with the white off the wall, and then tying a knot at one end, to place directly upon his head, he covered himself with a sheet. He had a razor in his pocket, and the pewter chamber-pot, he concluded, would serve by the glimmering of the candles for a basin. Thus accoutred he softly descended the stairs.
By the noise they made, he perceived that the wine had pretty well got into the noddles of all the company, which made him proceed in his ghostly expedition with the more courage. They were so busy at gaming that he was almost upon them before he was seen; at last a servant who attended, looking up, started several yards backwards, and cried out, "The ghost! The ghost!" running out of the room in an instant. This alarmed the whole company, who turned round. Tom advanced with his chamber-pot and razor (which he had made all bloody by cutting his finger), and in a hoarse and dreadful tone repeated the words he had been taught: "Will you be shaved?" Immediately they all rose from their seats, without any regard to the money upon the table, and endeavoured to make the best of their way off the ground. It was now everyone for himself and God for us all, with a witness! They tumbled over each other, and happy was he who could get before his companion by treading on him. Tom pursued them, repeating the same terrible words, till he had cleared the hall of every soul of them. Some got into the cellars, others into the stables and outhouses; everyone keeping his castle till morning, so strongly had their fears enchanted them. When our ghost perceived all still, he went and lined his visionary pockets with the material money, and then departed to bed, and put out his candle.
The next morning, as soon as he heard anybody stirring below, Tom came downstairs, and gave a woeful relation of what he had suffered in the night. "The ghost," says he, "came to me exactly in the manner you told me he used to appear, and upon my refusing to let him shave me he attempted to cut my throat; but, as Providence would have it, I so defended myself with my hands that he only cut one of my fingers." Then he showed them the finger which he had cut on purpose to make the razor bloody. "Afterwards," continued he, "he went downstairs, and in about five minutes returned, rattling something in his hands." "Pox on him!" says one of the company," then that was our money, which he stole off the table, I suppose." Upon this they fell into a dispute about a spirit taking money; some of them, who were well read in the history of apparitions, affirming that a ghost never meddled with anything, but often discovered hidden treasures for the advantage of others. To this Tom smartly replied: "It may be, gentlemen, that some of your forefathers owed him money for trimming, and he took this opportunity to come and collect his quarterage." At this they all smiled, and so the matter passed off without further inquiry.
The collection which Wilmot made in his ghostly capacity set him up for a highwayman again. He bought a horse and a pair of pistols, and went on after his old manner, robbing everyone who came in his way.
Tom again followed his trade so closely that he found himself in great danger, from the many descriptions of his person that were sent all over the kingdom, and the large rewards that were offered daily for apprehending him. He skulked about from place to place, but was in continual fear, till at last he concluded that it was no longer safe for him to continue in England. In this opinion he gathered together all his substance and took shipping for France, from whence he proceeded to Switzerland, as a country more likely to conceal him.
Here he committed an action which, from the general account we have of it, appears to be the most bloody of his whole life. We are told that he broke into the house of an honest country gentleman and murdered him, his wife, three children, and a maidservant, carrying off everything that was valuable, and getting it privately conveyed out of the country before the tragedy was discovered. What makes this story appear yet more horrible is that he stayed in the same province long enough to see two innocent persons executed for this inhuman fact.
Wilmot's reign, after he returned into England, was but very short. One of the first persons he attempted to rob was George Villiers, late Duke of Buckingham, a nobleman who made himself sufficiently famous by his extravagances in the last age. He succeeded in that bold adventure so far as to get off for the present with above two hundred guineas, but the action made so much noise, that it was not many days before he was taken, in the county of Northampton, where the robbery was committed. At the next assizes he was condemned, and on Saturday, the 30th of April, 1670, was hanged, being thirty-eight years of age.
The following speech was taken in shorthand from his own mouth at the place of execution: —-
FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN, —- I am come, by the appointment of the law, to suffer a shameful death for the crimes of which I stand convicted. The laws are just, and I acquiesce in the sentence passed upon me.
As the vices of my youth were the immediate springs of all my irregular actions since, and the unhappy causes of my present misfortune, I shall address a few words to the young who are as yet under the care of parents or masters, and have never been trusted with the direction of their own actions.
The time of your entrance into the world is the most important part of your lives. Look round you before you begin to give a loose to your inclinations, and take a view of virtue and vice in their proper colours. Your appetites are now very strong, and must be put under the restraint of reason, or they will certainly plunge you into destruction.
Love, in particular, of the fair sex, is now very powerful, and if it be not properly directed, will carry you headlong into such circumstances as you will never disengage your self from. I speak this by experience. It was to gratify this inclination that I spent a good estate, and reduced myself to such a necessity as tempted me to the way of life for which I am going to suffer.
It is not now a proper time to make a long discourse. The few moments I have to live must be spent in suitable exercises of devotion. A word or two from a dying man, it is to be hoped, will have more effect than a tedious harangue from one who may be suspected of pursuing the interest of this life. Pray earnestly for my departing soul, and remember to follow my advice, but not my example.