NOTWITHSTANDING Jonathan Wild, in the early career of his villainy, had been active in bringing a number of thieves to condign punishment, yet London and its environs were never more infested with common depredators, than about this time.
Burnworth and his gang seem to have risen to notoriety on the downfall of Wild; for about the time of his apprehension, they were committing the most daring robberies; but they, however, did not survive him quite a single year. The captain of this gang was born in Moorfields, London. His father was a painter, and placed his son Edward apprentice to a buckle-maker in Grub-street; in which situation he did not remain long, having given himself up to the company of loose and disorderly young men. His initiation into vicious habits took place, at an infamous place of low diversion, called the Ring, near his father's place of residence, and where it appears he excelled in the vulgar art of cudgel-playing. He soon commenced pick-pocket, and through the gradations in villainy, which we have already described, became a general thief. As a pick-pocket, he frequented every public place in and near the city. He used to steal snuff-boxes, watches, handkerchiefs, pocket-books, &c. At length he was apprehended, and lodged in New Prison, from which he found means to escape, and renewed his former occupation, but with more circumspection, usually lounging about the fields near London during the day time, and returning to town at night in search of prey. He was a remarkably daring villain, and constantly carried pistols about hint, to aid him to make a readier escape in case of detection. Going into a public house in the Old Bailey, the landlord told him that Quilt Arnold, one of Jonathan Wild's men, who had been seeking him some days, was then in the house. Hereupon Burnworth went backwards to a room where Arnold was sitting alone; and presenting a pistol, upbraided him for endeavouring to injure his old acquaintance, Arnold having been a brother thief. Burnworth then called for a glass of brandy, and putting some gunpowder in it, compelled the other to drink it on his knees, and swear that he would never seek for him in future. He was once whipped at the cart's tail for a theft.
William Blewitt, another of this gang, was the son of poor parents near Cripplegate, who apprenticed him to a glover; but before he had served above three years of his time, he associated with ill company, and became a pickpocket and house-breaker. Having been apprehended and lodged in Newgate, he was tried for an offence, of which he was convicted, and sentenced to be transported for seven years; in consequence of which he was put on board a ship in the river, in company, with several other felons. Some of these had procured saws and files to be concealed in cakes of gingerbread, and by means of these instruments they hoped to effect their escape before the ship sailed to any distance. Blewitt having discovered their intention, disclosed it to the captain of the vessel, who seized the implements, and gave Blewitt his liberty, as a reward-for the information. [Note: This was assuming a power which was never given to any captain of any vessel]. But he was no sooner at large, than he returned to his old practices, in consequence of which he was apprehended, and committed to Newgate. At the following sessions he was indicted for returning from transportation, and being convicted, received sentence of death; but he pleaded the service he had done by preventing the escape of the prisoners in the river: on which he was reprieved till the return of the vessel from America; when his allegations being found to be true, he was pardoned, on the condition of transporting himself. This however he neglected to do; but got into the company of Burnworth, Berry, Legee, and Higgs, the three last having been thieves from their infancy.
At this time there was a gin-shop kept in the Mint, Southwark, by a man named Ball, whose character was similar to that of Jonathan Wild. Ball, who had been himself a thief, threatened that he would cause Burnworth to be taken into custody. The latter, hearing of this circumstance, resolved on the murder of Ball and engaged his accomplices in the execution of the plan. Previous to this, while they were drinking at Islington, Burnworth proposed to break open and rob the house of a magistrate in Clerkenwell, who had distinguished himself by his diligence in causing thieves to be apprehended; and this robbery was proposed more from motives of revenge than of gain. They soon executed their design, and robbed the house of what they thought a large quantity of plate, which they carried to Copenhagen-house, at that time a public-house of ill fame; but, on examining the supposed treasure, they discovered that it was only brass covered with silver, on which they threw it into the New River.
The following day, while they were carousing, one of their associates came and informed them that some peace officers were waiting for them in Chick-lane, a place they greatly frequented. Thus informed, they kept in a body, and concealed their pistols and cutlasses under their clothes. On the approach of evening they ventured towards London, and having got as far as Turnmill-street, the keeper of Clerkenwell Bridewell happening to see them, called to Burnworth, and said he wanted to speak with him. Burnworth hesitated; but the other assuring him that he intended no injury, and the thief being confident that his associates would not desert him, swore he did not regard the keeper, whom he advanced to meet with the pistol in his hand, the other rogues waiting on the opposite side of the street, armed with cutlasses and pistols. This singular spectacle attracting the attention of the populace, a considerable crowd soon gathered round them, on which Burnworth joined his companions, who kept together, and facing the people retired in a body, presenting their pistols, and swearing that they would fire on any one who should offer to molest them. Thus they retreated as far as Battle-bridge, and then making a circle round the fields, entered London by a different avenue, and going to Blackfriars, took a boat and crossed the Thames. Having landed at the Bankside, Southwark, they went to a place called the Music-house, which was at that time much frequented by people of dissolute characters. Here they continued drinking some time, and then went into St. George's-fields, where Burnworth re-proposed the murder of Ball, on account of the threat that he had issued. All the company readily agreed, except Higgs, who said he would have no concern in murder; however, the others forced him with them. It was dark when they arrived at Ball's house, and Higgs waited at the door, while the rest went in. Ball's wife told them he was at an alehouse in the neighbourhood, but she would go and call him, which she accordingly did; he no sooner got to the door of his own house, than Burnworth seized him and dragged him in, reproaching him with treachery, in intending to betray his old acquaintance. As these desperadoes were armed with pistols, Ball trembled with just apprehension for his life, and dropping on his knees, earnestly entreated that they would not murder him; but Burnworth, swearing that he should never obtain the reward for betraying him, shot him dead on the spot, while thus begging for his life. The murder was no sooner perpetrated, than they all sallied forth into the street; when Blewitt, supposing that the report of the pistol might alarm the neighbours, fired another into the air, saying, "We are now safe in town, and there is no fear of rogues;" thereby intimating that they had come out of the country, whither they had taken pistols for their protection. Higgs had left his companions as soon as the murder was committed; but on their way to the Falcon Stairs, where they intended to take a boat, they met with him again, when Burnworth proposed to murder him, as they had done Ball; but Marjoram, an old acquaintance, whom they had just met, interceded for his life, which was granted, on condition that, for the future, he should behave with greater courage. They now crossed the Thames, and went to the Boar's-head tavern, in Smithfield, where, not being known, they were under no apprehension of detection. Here they remained till ten at night, and then parted in different gangs, to commit separate robberies.
Some days after this, Dickenson, Berry, and Blewitt, having obtained a large booty, went to Harwich, and sailed in the packet-boat to Holland. In the mean time, Higgs went to Portsmouth, and entered on board the Monmouth man of war; but his brother happening to meet the mate of a ship in London, gave him a letter to deliver to him. The mate going accidentally into a public-house in Smithfield, heard the name of Higgs mentioned by some people who were talking of the murder, among whom was a watchman, whom the mate told that he had a letter to carry to one Higgs. On this the watchman went to the under secretary of state, and mentioned what he had heard and suspected. Hereupon the watchman, and two of the king's messengers, being dispatched to Portsmouth, Higgs was taken into custody, brought to London, and committed to Newgate. Still Burnworth, and the rest of his associates, continued to defy the laws, in the most open manner. Having stopped the Earl of Harborough's chair, during broad daylight, in Piccadilly, one of the chairmen pulled out a pole of the chair, and knocked down one of the villains, while the Earl came out, drew his sword, and put the rest to flight: but not before they had raised their wounded companion, whom they took off with them.
The number of daring robberies which were now daily committed were so alarming, that the king issued a proclamation for apprehending the offenders, and a pardon was offered to any one who would impeach his accomplices, except Burnworth, who was justly considered as the principal of the gang. Marjoram happened to be drinking at a public house in Whitecross-street one night, when a gentleman went in and read the royal proclamation. The company present knew nothing of Marjoram; but he apprehending that some of his accomplices would become an evidence, if he did not, applied to a constable in Smithfield, and desired him to take him before the Lord Mayor. By this time the evening was far advanced, on which Marjoram was lodged in the Compter for that night, and being taken to Guildhall the next day, he discovered all the circumstances that he knew; and informing the Lord Mayor that Legge lodged in Whitecross-street, he was almost immediately apprehended, and committed to Newgate the same day. The circumstance of Marjoram having turned evidence being now the public topic, John Barton, a fellow who had been sometime connected with Burnworth and, his gang, provided a loaded pistol, and placing himself near Goldsmith's-hall, took an opportunity, when the officers were conducting Marjoram before the Lord Mayor, to fire at him; but Marjoram observing him advancing, stooped down, so that the ball grazed his back only. The suddenness of this action, and the surprise it occasioned; gave Barton an opportunity of effecting his escape. About this time one Wilson, who had likewise belonged to the gang, quitted London, but being apprehended about two years afterwards, he was hanged at Kingston in Surrey.
In the mean time, Burnworth continued at large, committing depredations on the public, and appearing openly in the streets, notwithstanding the proclamation issued to apprehend him. He broke open the house of a distiller in Clare-market, and carried off a great number of banknotes; in consequence of which another proclamation was issued, and three hundred pounds were offered for taking him into custody; notwithstanding he still appeared at large, and gave the following among other proofs of his audacity. Sitting down at the door of a public-house, in Holborn, where he was well known, he called for a pint of beer and drank it, holding a pistol in his hand, by way of protection; he then paid for his beer, and went off with the greatest apparent unconcern. At this time he kept company with two infamous women, one of whom was the wife of a man named Leonard; who, having belonged to the gang, thought to recommend himself to mercy, by the apprehension of Burnworth. Having told his wife what he intended, she informed same magistrates of the proposed plan, and they sent six men to assist in carrying it into execution. Shrove Tuesday being the day appointed, the men waited at a public-house till they should receive a hint to proceed.. About six in the evening Burnworth went to the lodgings of the women, to which there was a back door that opened into a yard. It was proposed to have pancakes for supper, and while one of the women was frying them, the other went to the public house for some beer, and on her return pretended to bolt the door, but designedly missed the staple; at that moment six men rushed in, and seized Burnworth before he had time to make any resistance, though he had a pistol in the pocket of his great coat. Being carried before three magistrates he was committed to Newgate; but his accomplices were so infamously daring as to attempt the murder of the woman who had occasioned his apprehension; a pistol was fired at her as she was entering the door of her own house, which being communicated to the magistrates, constables were appointed to watch nightly for her protection, till the desperadoes gave over their attempts.
Burnworth, while in Newgate, projected the following scheme of escape: having been furnished with an iron crow, he engaged some of the prisoners, who assisted him in pulling stones out of the wall, while others sung psalms, that the keepers might not hear what they wore doing. On the day following this transaction, which was carried on during the night, five condemned criminals were to be executed; but when the gaolers came to take them out, there was such an immense quantity of stones and rubbish to remove, that it was two o'clock in the afternoon before the criminals could be got out of their cells. This scheme of Burnworth occasioned his closer confinement. He was removed into a room known by the name of the bilboes, and loaded with a pair of the heaviest irons in the prison: but he intended to have made his escape even from this place; and being furnished with files and saws from some of his acquaintance, he worked his way through a wall into a room in which were some women prisoners, one of whom .acquainting the keeper with what had happened, Burnworth was chained to the floor of the condemned hold. Application was made to the secretary of state, to take measures for the apprehension of Berry, Dickenson, and Blewitt, who had gone over to Holland; and here upon instructions were sent to the English Ambassador at the Hague, empowering him to request of the States General, that the offenders might be delivered up to justice, if found any where within their jurisdiction. The ambassador, on receiving the necessary instructions, made the application, and orders were issued accordingly; in consequence of which Blewitt was apprehended in Rotterdam, but Dickenson and Berry had taken refuge on board a ship at the Brill. Blewitt was lodged in the state-house prison, and then the officers who took him went immediately on board the ship, and seized his two accomplices, whom they brought to the same place of confinement. They were chained to the floor till the English ambassador requested permission to send them home, which being readily obtained, they were guarded to the packet-boat by a party of soldiers, and were chained together as soon as they were put on board. When they reached the Nore, they were met by two of the king's messengers, who conducted them up the river. On the arrival of the vessel, they were put into a boat opposite the Tower, which was guarded by three other boats, in each of which was a corporal and several soldiers. In this manner they were conducted to Westminster, where they were examined by two magistrates, who committed them to Newgate, to which they were escorted by a party of the foot-guards. On sight of Burnworth, they seemed to pity his situation, while he in a hardened manner, expressed his happiness at their safe arrival from Holland. On the approach of the ensuing assizes for the county of Surrey, they were handcuffed, put into a waggon, and in this manner a party of dragoons conducted them to Kingston. Their insolence on leaving Newgate was unparalleled -- they told the spectators that it would become them to treat gentlemen of their profession with respect, especially as they were going a journey; and likewise said to the dragoons, that they expected to be protected from injury on the road; and during their journey they behaved with great indifference, throwing money among the populace, and diverting themselves by seeing them scramble for it. A boy having picked up a halfpenny, one of a handful which Blewitt had thrown among the people, told him that he would keep that halfpenny, and have his name engraved on it, as sure as he would be hanged at Kingston, on which Blewitt gave him a shilling to pay the expense of engraving, and enjoined him to keep his promise, which it is affirmed, the boy actually did.
On their arrival at Kingston, they were put in the prison called the Stockhouse, where they were chained to the floor; and on the following day, bills of indictment were found against them, they were brought up for trial before Lord Chief Justice Raymond, and Judge Denton, but, some articles having been taken from Burnworth when he was apprehended, he refused to plead, unless they were restored to him. The judges made use of every argument to prevail on him to plead, but in vain; in consequence of which sentence was passed that he should be pressed to death. Hereupon he was taken back to the Stockhouse, where he bore the weight of one hundred, three quarters, and two pounds, on his breast. The high-sheriff who attended him on this occasion, used every argument to prevail on him to plead, to which he consented, after bearing the weight an hour and three minutes, during great part of which time he endeavoured to kill himself, by striking his head against the floor. Being brought into court, he was tried, and convicted with his companions, They were no sooner convicted, than orders were given for their being chained to the floor; but in this deplorable situation they diverted themselves, by recounting some particulars of their robberies, to such persons whose curiosity induced them to visit the gaol. Some people wished, they would leave an account of their robberies, but Burnworth said the particulars could not be contained in an hundred sheets of paper. On passing sentence the learned judge most earnestly entreated them to prepare for another world, as their time in the present must necessarily be short. They begged that their friends might visit them; and this being complied with, files and saws were conveyed to them, to assist them in their escape. Their plan was to have mixed opium in wine, to have made the keepers sleep; and if this had taken place, they then proposed to have set fire to some piles of wood near the prison, and in other parts of the town, and to get a considerable distance during the conflagration; but the keepers having listened to their discourse, they were more strictly guarded than before, and their whole scheme rendered abortive. A short time before their execution Burnworth told one of the keepers, that, "If he did not see him buried in a decent manner, he would meet him after death in a dark entry, and pull off his nose."
When the day of execution arrived, the prisoners were put into a cart, and a company of foot soldiers escorted them to the fatal tree. On their way Blewitt saw a gentleman named Warwick, and having obtained permission to speak to him, most earnestly entreated his pardon for having attempted to shoot him, in consequence of an information which Mr. Warwick had given against him. Dickenson and Blewitt appeared more penitent than any of the rest. They wept bitterly at the place of execution, and said, they hoped their untimely fate would teach young men to avoid such courses as had brought them to their fatal end. They suffered April 12, 1726. After execution, their bodies were brought to the new gaol in Southwark, to be fitted with chains. The bodies of Burnworth and Blewitt, were suspended on a gibbet in St. George's Fields, near where the murder was perpetrated. Legee and Higgs were hanged on Putney Common, and Berry and Dickenson on Kennington Common; but representation being made to the people in power, that Dickenson's father, when a lieutenant in the army, had died fighting for his country in Flanders, permission was given to his friends to take down and bury the body, after he had hung one day. Marjoram, the evidence, obtained his liberty, of course, when his accomplices were convicted: but in a few days afterwards he cut the string of a butcher's apron, and ran away with his steel. Being pursued, he was apprehended, committed, and being indicted for privately stealing, was convicted, and received sentence of death; but in consideration of his having been the means of bringing the above-mentioned atrocious offenders to justice, the sentence of death was changed to that of transportation.