Friday, September 6, 2013

Left Naked and Barefoot: A Case of Violent Theft & Highway Robbery, 1684

Old Bailey Session, 10 October 1684

Traveling along St. John’s Street to his Islington home, Mr. Richard Pearson became the unfortunate victim of a highway robbery and what was known in early modern England as a “violent theft." Pearson was assaulted by two soldiers, James Leonard (with an alias of “London”) and James Elliot, and their confederate Elizabeth Bullen (alias “Middleton”), who “presented Pistols, gag’d him, and then, stript him naked.” He was relieved of his personal property, including “his hat (value: 12s), wastecoat [sic] (value: 8s), a pair of Breeches (10s), shirts, and cravet.” Naturally, the ruffians even took his shoes! Imagine being in such a state, naked and barefoot, late in the dark evening – between 10:00 and 11:00pm.
Not only had he been lightened of purse, he would also face the humiliation of seeking refuge and assistance from a neighbor or passerby. In an example of truly “dumb” luck, the next morning, he met one of the two thieves actually wearing his shoes. Mr. Pearson seized James Elliot as he walked along Holbourn near Rose-Alley with his ill-gotten property. Shortly thereafter, he “took” the other two at the Sign of the Leper in Picadilly. Ultimately, he recovered most of his stolen goods.

Cases such as this one were frequently heard before the bench of London’s Old Bailey ( During the 17th and 18th century the image of the “highway robber” brandishing pistols and usually masked or disguised, found much support among the populous. With high unemployment and the ever present chasm between the nobility and the lower born, many of these thieves were glorified. Their exploits were recorded and reported and repeated with jubilation, awe and titillating details. When they were eventually caught and brought to justice, hundreds and even thousands would come to watch the hangings at Tyburn tree. The sentence of death also extended to horse stealing, and many a highwayman was executed for the crime.
A verdict of guilty was pronounced on these particular rogues and, for the two soldiers, ended in their hanging at Tyburn. Their female accomplice was acquitted of the crime. As was frequently the case, the woman of the team served as the “fence” for the stolen goods that routinely ended up at Rag Fair or in back room dealings with characters of questionable reputation.

Author's note: 
Although we do not know what Mr. Pearson's clothing looked like, given the values of his garments, one suspects they were of a reasonable fashion and had some distinction. Two pairs of shoes from the Victoria and Albert Museum (, late 17th and very early 18th century, can stand in as prospective candidates: one of leather and one of leather & textile. Although they are women's shoes (top one of pigskin) men's and women's footwear in the late 17th century had much the same profile and frequently, similar detail and ornament.
Another possibility would be these low-heeled leather shoes (Italian?) made c. 1650-1700 from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
History Department
University of New Hampshire
Durham, USA

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