Sympathy for the Robber: Stories of Crime in Early Modern England

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Dr Lena Liapi, Keele University


While doing research for my book on rogue pamphlets (narratives of criminals in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), I came upon the case of James Turner. As a solicitor who had defrauded many of his clients, Turner was an unlikeable character. Even more egregiously, he betrayed a friend’s trust, by orchestrating the burglary of his friend’s house. Turner was arrested as a robber and his family was implicated in receiving the stolen goods. No one really liked Turner: the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that everyone was very glad to see him imprisoned ‘so very known a rogue he was’, and he later commented that ‘All [are] desirous of his being hanged’.

I have a lot of sympathy for robbers in the seventeenth century. The law stipulated that anyone stealing goods worth more than a shilling (£5.26 in today’s money) should receive the death penalty. Consequently, I cannot think that they deserved to die, and I tend to feel for them. Even I, however, found it difficult to root for Turner. He was oily and litigious, said to have destroyed people’s lives through the law. In his trial, he continually tried to evade questions and implausibly claimed that he had only stolen the goods as a prank. I was definitely not ‘desirous of his being hanged’ but I was not invested in the story, either. This was until I read his dying speech: in his final moments, Turner showed fear. He gave a very long speech, seeking to explain his actions, to exonerate his sons from any involvement in the robbery, and to delay the execution as much as possible, in the hope that he would get a last-minute pardon. This changed the way I viewed him: here was a man afraid to die, asking the hangman to wait a bit more, hoping against hope to avoid the death he could see in front of him. Here was also a father who loved his family and desperately tried to take all the blame for himself, to spare them. The spectacle warmed even Pepys’s heart, who had been so bloodthirsty earlier. In his diary, he noted that ‘I was sorry to see him [hanged]’.

The Triumph of truth in an exact and impartial relation of the life and conversation of Col. Iames Turner (1663)

This is the emotional impact that such events and publications could have. Rogue pamphlets range from the extremely moralistic (hammering home that crime does not pay) to the very flippant, narrating stories of criminals as tales of derring-do or funny anecdotes. We know that much of what was written was fictionalised; even though many of the criminals presented existed, their lives were embellished with fictional elements, borrowed from other genres of storytelling, such as romances, heroic narratives, satires, and collections of funny stories. This does not mean that such stories did not play an important role. Showing that criminals against property were parasites that fed off law-abiding citizens had a clear didactic purpose. Equally, presenting criminals as plucky underdogs going against a corrupt system is a powerful fiction of resistance. Both narratives are evident even today in movies and books about fictional criminals. All these are important functions of the rogue pamphlet, where the ‘truth’ of what actually happened matters less than what such stories signify. The way such stories were used is the main focus of my book.

Nonetheless, it is moments such as the end of James Turner’s life that offer us a glimpse into the ways in which people lived, struggled, and often died. It reminds us that even though some of the stories associated with such criminals are fictitious (and Turner’s narrated lives are no exception), real people faced the same challenges and pain. Such stories bring us closer to the past emotionally and allow us more sympathy even for the more selfish and back-stabbing of these criminals.

 

Roguery in Print: Crime and Culture in Early Modern London (2019) is published by Boydell & Brewer.

 

About the author: Lena Liapi is an Honorary Research Fellow in History at Keele University. She is interested in the intersection of history and literature and has published on narratives of criminality and on cultures of communication in early modern England. She is currently doing research on fame and the media in the long seventeenth century.

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