03 August 2007

Leslie Stephen on the prince of burglars

From Leslie Stephen, “The State Trials”, in Hours in a Library (a most unjustly forgotten jewel of Victorian minor literature), new edn. (New York and London: Putnam, 1904), iv. 281-326, quotation at pp. 293-7:
Another hero of that time, unfortunately a principal instead of a mere spectator in the recorded tragedy, is so full of exuberant vitality that we can scarcely reconcile ourselves to the belief that the poor man was hanged two centuries ago. The gallant Colonel Turner had served in the royal army, and, if we may believe his dying words, was specially valued by his Majesty. The colonel, however, got into difficulties: he made acquaintance with a rich old merchant named Tryon, and tried to get a will forged in his favour by one of Tryon’s clerks; failing in this, he decided upon speedier measures. He tied down poor old Tryon in his bed one night, and then carried off jewels to the value of 3000l. An energetic alderman suspected the colonel, clutched him a day or two afterwards, and forced him to disgorge. When put upon his defence, he could only tell one of those familiar fictions common to pickpockets; how he had accidentally collared the thief, who had transferred the stolen goods to him, and how he was thus entitled to gratitude instead of punishment. It is not surprising that the jury declined to believe him; but we are almost surprised that any judge had the courage to sentence him. For Colonel Turner is a splendid scoundrel. There is something truly heroic in his magnificent self-complacency; the fine placid glow of conscious virtue diffused over his speeches. He is a link between Dugald Dalgetty, Captain Bobadil, and the audacious promoter of some modern financiering scheme. Had he lived in days when old merchants invested their savings in shares instead of diamonds, he would have been an invaluable director of a bubble company. There is a dash of the Pecksniff about him; but he has far too much pith and courage to be dashed like that miserable creature by a single exposure. Old Chuzzlewit would never have broken loose from his bonds. It is delightful to see, in days when most criminals prostrated themselves in abject humiliation, how this splendid colonel takes the Lord Chief Justice into his confidence, verbally buttonholes “my dear lord” with a pleasant assumption that, though for form’s sake some inquiry might be necessary, every reasonable man must see the humour of an accusation directed against so innocent a patriot. The whole thing is manifestly absurd. And then the colonel gracefully slides in little compliments to his own domestic virtues. Part of his story had to be that he had sent his wife (who was accused as an accomplice) on an embassy to recover the stolen goods.
“I sent my poor wife away,” he says, "and saving your lordship’s presence, she did all bedirt herself—a thing she did not use to do, poor soul. She found this Nagshead, she sat down, being somewhat fat and weary, poor heart! I have had twenty-seven children by her, fifteen sons and twelve daughters.” “Seven or eight times this fellow did round her.” “Let me give that relation,” interrupts the wife. “You cannot,” replies the colonel, “it is as well. Prythee, sit down, dear Moll; sit thee down, good child, all will be well.”
And so the colonel proceeds with amazing volubility, and we sympathise with this admirable father of twenty-seven children under so cruel a hardship. But—not to follow the trial—the colonel culminated under the most trying circumstances. His dying speech is superb. He is honourably confessing his sins, but his natural instinct asserts itself. He cannot but admit, in common honesty, that he is a model character, and speaks under his gallows as if he were the good apprentice just arrived at the mayoralty. He admits, indeed, that he occasionally gave way to swearing, though he “hated and loathed” the sin when he observed it; but he was—it was the source of all his troubles—of a “hasty nature.” But he was brought up in an honest family in the good old times, and laments the bad times that have since come in. He has been a devoted loyalist; he has lived civilly and honestly at the upper end of Cheapside as became a freeman of the Company of Drapers; he was never known to be “disguised in drink;” a small cup of cider in the morning, and two little glasses of sack and one of claret at dinner, were enough for him; he was a constant church-goer, and of such delicate propriety of behaviour that he never “saw a man in church with his hat on but it troubled him very much” (a phrase which reminds us of Johnson’s famous friend); “there must be,” he is sure, when he thinks of all his virtues, “a thousand sorrowful souls and weeping eyes” for him this day. The attendant clergy are a little scandalised at this peculiar kind of penitence; and he is good enough to declare that he “disclaims any desert of his own”—a sentiment which we feel to be a graceful concession, but not to be too strictly interpreted. The hangman is obliged to put the rope round his neck. “Dost thou mean to choke me, fellow?” exclaims the indignant colonel. “What a simple fellow is this! how long have you been executioner that you know not how to put the knot?” He then utters some pious ejaculations, and as he is assuming the fatal cap, sees a lady at a window; he kisses his hand to her, and says, “Your servant, Mistress;” and so pulling down the cap, the brave colonel vanishes, as the reporter tells us, with a very undaunted carriage to his last breath.

Sir Thomas More with his flashes of playfulness, and Charles with his solemn “Remember,” could scarcely play their parts more gallantly than Colonel Turner, and they had the advantage of a belief in the goodness of their cause. Perhaps it is illogical to sympathise all the more with poor Colonel Turner, because we know that his courage had not the adventitious aid of a good conscience. But surely he was a very prince of burglars!

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