The Lives of JAMES O'BRYAN, HUGH MORRIS and ROBERT JOHNSON
Highwaymen and Street-Robbers
Amongst the many flagrant vices of the present age, there is none more remarkable than the strange property we see in young people to commit the most notorious crimes, provided they may thereby furnish themselves with money enough to support their lavish expenses in vices which in former times were scarce heard of by lads of that age, at which our boldest highwaymen begin to exert themselves now.
The first of these unfortunate lads, James O'Bryan, was born at Dublin, was brought over hither young, and had a good education given him which he had very little inclination to make a proper use of. Nothing could persuade him to go out to a trade; on the contrary, he pretended he would apply himself to his father's employment, which was that of a plasterer. But as working was required, he soon grew out of humour with it, and addicted himself wholly to strolling about the streets with such wicked lads as himself, and so was easily drawn in to think of supplying himself with money by the plunder of honest people, in order to carry on those debaucheries in which, though a lad, he was already deeply immersed.
Women, forsooth, drew this spark away from the paths of virtue and goodness at about sixteen years old, after which time he lost all sense of duty to his parents, respect of laws divine or human, and even care of himself. It seems he found certain houses in Chick Lane, where they met abundance of loose young men and women, accustomed themselves to every kind of debauchery which it was possible for wicked people to commit or the most fruitful genius to invent. Here he fell into the company of his two companions, Morris and Johnson.
The first of these was the son of an unfortunate tradesman who had once kept a great shop, and lived in good reputation in the Strand, but through the common calamities of life, he was so unfortunate as to break, and laying it too much to heart, died soon after it, happy, however, in one thing, that he did not live to see the deplorable end of his son by the hand of justice.
Robert Johnson was the son of honest parents, and had a very good education, but put it to a very ill use; for having all his life time been addicted to pilfering and thieving, at last he fell into the company of these unfortunate young men who led him a directer way to the gallows than perhaps he might have found himself. One of his chief inducements to forfeit reputation and hazard life by engaging in street robberies, was his commencing an amour with his father's servant-maid, and not long after falling into a multitude of such like adventures, the ready road to inevitable ruin.
These three sparks, together with Bernard Fink, and another person who turned evidence against them, came all at the same time to a resolution of attacking people in the streets; and having provided themselves with pistols and whatever else they thought necessary for putting their design in execution, they immediately set about it, and though but boys, committed bolder and more numerous robberies than had ever hitherto been heard of. It may, indeed, seem surprising that lads of their age should be able to intimidate passengers, but when it is considered that having less precaution than older rogues, they were more ready at firing pistols or otherwise injuring those whom they attacked, than any set of fellows who had hitherto disturbed the crown, this wonder will wear off.
It was not above two months that they continued their depredations, but in that time they had been exceedingly busy, and had committed a multitude of facts. One gentleman whom they attacked in Lincoln's Inn Fields, refused to surrender, and drew his sword upon Morris. That young robber immediately fired his pistol, and the rest coming to his assistance, the gentleman thought it but prudent to retire, the noise they made having alarmed the watch and so prevented his losing anything.
After this it became a very common practice with them, as soon as they stopped anybody, to clap a pistol under their nose, and bid them smell at it, while one of their companions, with a thousand execrations, threatened to blow their brains out if they made the least resistance. As soon as the business of the night was over, they immediately adjourned to their places of rendezvous at Chick Lane, or to other houses of the same stamp elsewhere, and without the least consideration of the hazards they had run, squandered the wages of their villainies upon such impudent strumpets as for the lucre of a few shillings prostituted themselves to them in these debaucheries.
Mr. O'Bryan was the hero of this troop of infant robbers; he valued himself much on never meddling with small matters or committing any meaner crime than that of the highway. It happened he had a mistress coming out of the country and he would needs have his companions take each of them a doxy and go with him as far as Windsor to receive her. They readily complied, and at Windsor they were all seized and from thence brought to town, two of their own gang turning evidence, so that on the clearest proof, they were all three convicted.
Under sentence of death they behaved with great audacity, seemed to value themselves on the crimes they had committed, caused several disturbances at chapel and discovered little or no sense of that miserable condition in which they were. O'Bryan died a Papist, and in the cart read with great earnestness a book of devotions in that way. He wrote a letter to his father the day before he died, and also something which he called verses to his sister, both of which I have subjoined "verbatim" that my readers may have the better idea of the capacity of those poor creatures.
To Mr. Terrance O'Bryan, living in Burleigh Street in the Strand. Honoured Father and Mother,
The uneasiness I give you is more terror to me than the thoughts of death, but pray make yourselves as easy as you can, for I hope I am going to a better place; for God is my refuge and my strength, and my helper in time of tribulation, and pray take care of my brother now whilst he is young, and make him serve God, and keep him out of bad company. If I had served God as I ought to have done, and kept out of bad company, I had not come to this unhappy misfortune, but I hope it is for the good of my soul, it is good I hope what God has at present ordained for me, for there is mercy in the foresight of death, and in the time God has given me to prepare for it. A natural death might have had less terror, for in that I might have wanted many advantages which are now granted me. My trust is in God, and I hope he won't reward me according to my deserts. All that I can suffer here must have an end, for this life is short, so are all the sufferings of it, but the next life is Eternal. Pray give my love to my sister, and desire her not to neglect her duty to God. I hope you are all well, as I am at present, I thank God. So no more at present.
From your unhappy and undutiful son, James O'Bryan.
The verses sent by James O'Bryan to his sister two days before his execution:
My loving tender sister dear, From you I soon must part I fear. Think not on my wretched state, Nor grieve for my unhappy fate, But serve the Lord with all your heart, And from you He'll never part. When I am dead and in my tomb, For my poor soul I hope there's room, In Heaven with God above on high, I hope to live eternally.
At the time of their execution James O'Bryan was about twenty, Hugh Morris seventeen, and Robert Johnson not full twenty years of age, which was on the 16th of November, 1730.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals