The Life of JOHN CLAXTON, alias JOHNSTON
a Thief, etc.
This unhappy malefactor was amongst the number of those who, through want of education, was the more easily drawn into the prosecution of such practices as became fatal to him. His father was a common sailor belonging to the town of Sunderland, who had it not in his power to breed him in a very extraordinary manner; and what little he was able to do was frustrated by the evil inclinations of his son, who instead of applying himself closely while he remained at school, loitered away his time, and made little or no proficiency there. His head, as those of most seamen's children do, ran continually on voyages and seeing foreign countries, with which roving temper the father too readily complied, and while yet a boy, unacquainted with any kind of learning and unsettled in the principles of religion, he was sent forth into the world to pick up either as he could.
The first voyage he made was up the Straits, where he touched at Gibraltar, and went soon after to Leghorn, the port to which they were bound. Being a young sprightly lad the mate carried him on shore with him, and being a man of intrigue, made use of him to go between him and an Irish woman, who was married to an Italian captain of a ship. The lady's husband was in Sicily, and they therefore apprehended themselves to be secure; she proposed to the mate the carrying off of jewels and other things, to the amount of some thousand crowns, and then flying with him from Italy. The project had certainly succeeded if it had not been for their imprudence; for the mate, who passed for her cousin, being continually in the house for three days before the ship went away, a suspicion entered into some of the neighbours (as they often do amongst Italians) that there was something more than ordinary concealed under the frequency of his visits. They therefore dispatched a messenger to Signor Stefano di Calvo, the captain's brother, with the account of their surmises. He came immediately to Leghorn, and going directly to his brother's house, found his sister had packed up all his valuable effects, and having loaded the boy with as much as he could carry, was on the point of setting out with him for the vessel. Stefano dragged her back into an inner apartment, where he locked her in, and afterwards fastened the doors of the outward apartment, through which they passed thither. But Jack, seeing how things went, laid down his burden and fled as hard as he could drive to the port, where he gave notice to the master of their disappointment, and caused the vessel immediately to weigh anchor and stand to sea, as fearing the consequences of the affair, which he knew would make a great noise, and might possibly turn to the detriment of his owners.
Claxton had hitherto done nothing that was criminal within the eye of the Law, though while at sea he was continually employed in some mischievous trick or other. When he came into England the ship happened to go to Yarmouth, and as all places were alike to him, so short a stay there engaged him to marry a young woman who had some little matter of money, with which he proposed to do for himself some little matter at sea, and taking the greatest part of it with him, came up to London in order to see after a good voyage.
But this was the most fatal journey he ever made, for falling unfortunately into the hands of bad women and their companions, they quickly drew him to be as bad as themselves; so that forgetting the poor woman he had married, and regardless of the business which brought him up to town, he gave himself up entirely to the pursuit of such villainies as they taught him, and in a short space became as expert a proficient as any in the gang.
Some of them had consulted together to rob a woodmonger's house of a considerable quantity of plate, but there was one difficulty to be encountered, without overcoming which there was no hopes of success. The woodmonger's maid carried up the keys every night to her master (the outer court having a gate to it), and unless they could call upon some stratagem either to prevent the gate being shut, or to gain the means of unlocking it, their attempt was certainly in vain. In order to bring this to pass, they put Jack, who was a neat little fellow, into a very good habit, and found means to introduce him to the acquaintance of the wench at a neighbouring chandler's shop, where he took lodgings. In a fortnight's time he prevailed upon Mrs. Anne to come out at twelve of the clock to meet him, which she could not do without leaving the great gate ajar, having first carried up the key to her master, though for her own conveniency she had thus left it upon a single lock. While she and her sweetheart were drinking punch and making merry together, the rest of the confederates got into the house and carried away silver plate to the value of L80, leaving everything behind them in so good order that the maid, who was a little tipsy into the bargain, discovered nothing that night. Going to acquaint her lover with the accident as soon as it was found out, to her great surprise she was informed that he was removed, having carried away all the things before his landlord and landlady were up. The girl carefully concealed the passage, knowing how fatal it would be to her if it should reach her master's ears; but for her spark, she heard no more of him until his commitment to Newgate for another fact, for which he was ordered for transportation.
Being on board the vessel with the rest of the convicts, he soon procured the favour of the master to be let to go out upon deck, and being a strong able sailor, he ingratiated himself so far as to meet no worse usage than any other sailor in the ship. On their arrival at the Canaries, where by stress of weather they were obliged to put in, a quarrel happened between the master of their vessel and the captain of a Jamaicaman homeward bound. It ended in a duel with sword and pistol, and the captain of the transport having carried John with him, he behaved so well upon this occasion that he promised him his liberty as soon as they arrived in America, which he honorably performed; and Jack was so indefatigable in his endeavours to get home that he arrived at London six weeks before the captain came back.
He herded again with his old crew, though before he was able to do much mischief amongst them he was apprehended for returning from transportation, and was at the next sessions tried and convicted. By this time the captain who had carried him was arrived, and hearing of John's misfortune, he made such interest as procured the sentence of death to be changed into a second transportation.
Such narrow escapes, one would have imagined, might have taught him how dangerous a thing it was to dally with the laws of the nation in any respect whatsoever; and yet, when he was on shore in New England, where the master took care to provide him with as easy a service as a man could have wished, as soon as the captain's back was turned, he found means to give the planter the slip, and in nine months' time revisited London a second time. Whether he intended to have gone on in the old trade or no is impossible for us to determine, but this we are certain, that he had not been in England many weeks ere a person who made it his business to detect such as returned from transportation clapped him up in his old lodging at Newgate, brought him to his trial, and convicted him the third time. As soon as he had received sentence, he relinquished all hopes of life, and as in all this time he had never made any enquiry after his wife at Yarmouth, so he would not now bring an odium upon her and her family by sending to them, and making his misfortune public in the place where they lived.
The man seemed to be of an easy, tractable disposition, readily yielding to whatever those who conversed with them desired to bring him to, whether it were good or evil. He attended with great seeming piety and devotion to the books which Thomas Smith read to his fellow prisoners, and gained thereby a tolerable notion of the duty of repentance, and that faith which men ought to have in Jesus Christ. Thus by degrees he brought himself to a perfect indifference as to life or death, and at the place of execution showed neither by change of colour, or any other symptom any extraordinary fear of his approaching dissolution; and having conformed very devoutly to the prayers said by the Ordinary, after a short private devotion, he submitted to his fate with the afore-mentioned malefactors Smith and Reynolds, being then about twenty-eight years old or thereabouts.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals