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A far cry from Robin Hood; Highwaymen And Outlaws. By Michael Billett (Arms and Armour, pounds 12.99). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds.

Outlaws, highwaymen and desperadoes of all kinds have always been marginalised by society as wrongdoers, yet covertly lionised as an intrinsic part of the romantic social myth of the 'free man', living in forests, doing as he wishes, outside the law, yet , of course, possessing a conscience.

Robin Hood, Claude Duval, Jack Sheppard and William Page are just a few of the personalities mentioned in Michael Billett's entertaining account of these types, and we might add Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Doc Holliday and the Sundance Kid, men whose li ves became a godsend to Hollywood anxious to soft soap its desperadoes with the use of technicolor and a fanciful version of history.

The truth was quite different of course, as it always is, the real highwaymen (and women) were ruthless types, killing or maiming innocent people in cold blood. They were frequently uncouth illiterates beneath their theatrical feathers and lace, satisfyi ng a complex sadistic tendency by murdering whoever fell into their clutches. "They had little regard for their victims and contempt for the law", as Billett says.

The threat of hanging or deportation to Africa or Australia did little to inhibit them. By 1770 1,000 felons a year were being transported to the British Colonies but it made little difference. Charles Dickens knew about these severe punishments and crea ted the convict Magwitch in Great Expectations thus providing to the Victorian conscience a picture of the filthy 'hulks', the prison ships which carried the convicts to hell or death.

Most of them - many taken for petty theft - were locked up for the whole voyage and abandoned to the filth in which they lay, all of it due to an indifferent crew who saw their callousness as part of the punishment. Conditions below decks were appalling, as they were in the loathsome slave ships and many convicts died on the voyage in excruciating pain, riddled with disease.

A few robbers escaped by claiming 'benefit of clergy' at their trial. Introduced in the 12th century, this perfectly legal process entitled an ordained person to be tried solely by an ecclesiastical court instead of a secular one - ecclesiastical courts could not inflict capital punishment.

During the middle ages literacy began to be accepted in lieu of ordination, and so a century later an educated highwayman (and some of them came from decent families) could escape the death penalty.

By the start of the 17th century, all you had to do if you were caught was prove to the judge that you possessed the ability to read or recite the first verse from Psalm 51 of the bible. 'Neck verse' meant learning the words by heart, reciting them in co urt and thus escaping the noose. Oddly enough gullible legal lords did not abolish this terrible con trick until the 19th century.

Execution days drew the crowds. To see someone hung was great fun and it was all treated as a holiday. I still have a memory of James Mason hauled to the gallows (and escaping if my memory serves me correctly) in the 1940s movie The Wicked Lady with Marg aret Lockwood as the bosomy and indisputably wicked lady Skelton. But movies are romantic twaddle - the truth of the matter was hideous.

The victim was hanged for six minutes, then castrated, disembowelled (his intestines burned before him) then beheaded. The severed torso in its four parts was then pickled before being displayed on prominent sites such as the city gates or the spikes on a fortress. Some felons were hung up alive in an iron cage on a gibbet and left to the birds and the wind. Generally the gibbets were on a public highway and served as a deterrent.

But even if you lived in the centre of London you did not escape the attention of the gentlemen of the road. George II was robbed after a thief gained access to the King walking in the royal garden by simply scaling the wall. And it was said during his t rial in 1730 at the Old Bailey, that William Gordon actually sat on horse-back in the kitchen of an inn in Knightsbridge waiting like a spider for his victims to pass.

You could, of course, hide your money in the strong smelling ointment carried by many people to treat the multiplicity of skin diseases which flourished in the 18th century. Or you could sew them in the lining of your coat, muff or foot warmer. If you we re sensible you would already have secreted a small loaded pistol in your muff to begin with.

Astonishingly enough, young highwaymen - trainees in villainy if you like - were also at risk from their own kind. After the scam a gang might pool its resources gained from a night shooting and killing. But after the guineas and the silver and the watch es were divided a respectable looking highwayman would approach the police and shop his young confrere, thus adding to his share of the spoils with a little bounty money. Little romance there - just pure greed, even Margaret Lockwood didn't do things lik e that!

Lynching of outlaws continued in America until 1884 and miscarriages of kangaroo court justice were not unknown. At a cemetery on Boot Hill near Tombstone, the following was scrawled:

'HERE LIES GEORGE JOHNSON, HANGED BY MISTAKE 1882. HE WAS RIGHT, WE WAS WRONG. WE STRUNG HIM UP AND NOW HE'S GONE.'

Another graveyard sign denotes further violent death: 'HERE LIES LESTER MORE. FOUR SLUGS FROM A .44. NO LESS NO MORE.'
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Author:Edmonds, Richard
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 8, 1998
Words:925
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