A Highwayman who, dying Of the Plague as was thought, reappeared as his own Ghost, and was finally executed at York in 1684
WILLIAM NEVISON was born at Pomfret in Yorkshire, about the year 1639, of well-reputed, honest, and reasonably estated parents, who bred him up at school, where he made some progress as to his learning, and in the spring of his youth promised a better harvest than the summer of his life produced; for, to say truth, he was very forward and hopeful until he arrived at thirteen or fourteen years of age, when he began to be the ringleader of all his young companions to rudeness and debauchery. So early as this he also took to thieving, and stole a silver spoon from his father; for which being severely punished at school, the punishment was the subject of the next night's meditation, which issued into a resolution of revenge on his master, whatever fate he met with in the execution thereof. To which end, having hit on a project for his purpose, and lying in his father's chamber, he gets softly up before such time as the day appeared, and hearing that his father slept he put his hand into his pocket, where he found the key of his closet, which unperceived he drew hence, and down he creeps to the said closet, where he supplies himself with what cash he could readily find, which amounted to about ten pounds, and with this, knowing that his said master had a horse he had particular delight for, that then grazed behind his house, he gets a bridle and saddle from his father's stable, and an hour before morning arrays and mounts the said horse onwards for London, at which he arrives within four days; when, the evening coming upon him, he cuts the throat of the horse, within a mile or two of the town, for fear it should prove a means of his discovery if he should have carried it to an inn. When he came to London he changed his garb and name, and being a lusty well-looking lad put himself into the service of a brewer, where for two or three years he lived, not at all changed in mind, though opportunity was not, during that time, ripe to put his ill intentions into practice, though he watched all seasons to advance himself, by having several times attempted to rob his master, which at last he thus effected. Taking the advantage one night of the clerk's drunkenness, who was his master's cashier, he got up by stealth after him into the counting-house, where, the said clerk falling asleep, he rifled the same of all such cash as he could conveniently come at, which amounted to near two hundred pounds, and fled to Holland, where, running away with a burgher's daughter, who had robbed her father of a great deal of money and jewels, he was apprehended, had the booty taken from him, and clapped in jail; and had he not broken out, he had certainly made his exit beyond sea. Having thus made his escape, he got, after divers difficulties, into Flanders, and listed himself amongst the English volunteers, who were under the command of the Duke of York, who about the same time was made Lieutenant-General of the Spanish forces, under Don John of Austria, that were then designed to raise the siege of Dunkirk, which was besieged by the English and French armies, and behaved himself very well while he was in a military employment; but not greatly liking it, and having got some money whilst he was in the service, he came over to England, and bought himself a horse and arms, and resolved for the road, and perhaps a pleasant life, at the hazard of his neck, rather than toil out a long remainder of unhappy days in want and poverty, which he was always averse to. Being thus supplied, every day one booty or other enriched his stores, which he would never admit a sharer in, choosing to manage his designs alone, rather than trust his life into the hands of others, who by favour or misfortune might be drawn in to accuse him.
One day Nevison, who went otherwise by the name of Johnson, travelling on the road, and scouring about in search of prize, met two countrymen, who, coming up towards him, informed him that it was very dangerous travelling forwards, for that the way was set, and they had been robbed by three highwaymen, about half-a-mile off; and if he had any charge of money about him it were his safest course to turn back. Nevison asking them what they had lost, they told him forty pounds; whereupon he replied: "Turn back with me, and show me the way they took, and, my life to a farthing, I'll make them return you your money again." They rode along with him till they had sight of the highwaymen; when Nevison, ordering the countrymen to stay behind him at some distance, rode up and spoke to the foremost of them, saying: "Sir, by your garb, and the colour of your horse, you should be one of those I look after, and, if so, my business is to tell you that you borrowed of two friends of mine forty pounds, which they desired me to demand of you, and which before we part you must restore." "How!" quoth the highway- man. "Forty pounds! Damn you, sir, is the fellow mad?" "So mad," replied Nevison, "as that your life shall answer me if you do not give me better satisfaction." With that he draws his pistol and suddenly claps it to his breast, and finding then that Nevison had also his rein, and that he could not get his sword or pistols, he yielded, telling him his life was at his mercy. "No," says Nevison, "it is not that I seek for, but the money you robbed these two men of, who are riding up to me, which you must refund." The thief was forced to consent, and ready to deliver such part thereof as he had, saying his companions had the rest; so that Nevison having made him dismount, and taking away his pistols, which he gave to the countrymen, ordered them to secure him, and hold his own horse, whilst he took the thief's and pursued the other two, who he soon overtook; for they, thinking him their companion, stopped as soon as they saw him; so that he came up to them in the midst of a common. "How now, Jack," says one of them, "what made you engage with yon fellow?" "No, gentle- men," replies Nevison; "you are mistaken in your man. Thomas, by the token of your horse and arms, he hath sent me to you for the ransom of his life, which comes to no less than the prize of the day, which if you presently surrender you may go about your business; if not, I must have a little dispute with you at sword and pistol." At which one of them let fly at him, but missing his aim received Nevison's bullet into his right shoulder; and being thereby disabled, and Nevison about to discharge at the other, he called for quarter, and came to a parley, which, in short, was made up, with Nevison's promise to send their friend, and their delivering him all the ready money they had, which amounted to one hundred and fifty pounds, and silver. With this, Nevison rides back to the two countrymen, and releases their prisoner, giving them their whole forty pounds, with a caution for the future to look better after it, and not, like cowards, as they were, to surrender the same on such easy terms again.
In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber; he was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party. One time Nevison, meeting with an old sequestrator on the road, stopped the coach and demanded some of that money which he had thievishly extorted from poor widows and orphans, and ought to be returned. At which words the old man, in a fit of terror, and especially so when a pistol was clapped to his breast, began to expostulate for his life; offering whatsoever he had about him for his ransom, which he readily delivered, to the value of sixty broad-pieces of gold. But this not serving the turn, Nevison told him that he must come thence, and go with him about some other affairs he had to concert with him, and beg leave of three young gentlewomen who were also passengers in the coach with him that they would spare one of the coach-horses for an hour or two, which should certainly be returned that night for the next day's journey. So Nevison left them, and took his prize with him on the postilion, which he loosed from his coach, and carried him from them in a great fright, thinking he was now near his end. The gentlewomen pursued their journey. About two hours after they were got to their inn, in comes the old sequestrator on the postilion's horse before mentioned, and gave a lamentable relation of how he had been used; and forced to sign a bill under his hand of five hundred pounds for his redemption, payable by a scrivener in London on sight, which he doubted not but would be received before he could prevent the same; and indeed he did not doubt amiss, for Nevison made the best of his way all night, and the next day by noon received the money, to the no small vexation of him that owned it.
About the year 1661, having one day met a considerable prize, to the value of four hundred and fifty pounds, from a rich country grazier, with this he was resolved to settle down quietly and go back to Pomfret, where he was most joyfully received by his father, who, never hearing of him in his absence of seven or eight years, thought he had been really dead. He lived very honestly with his father till he died, and then returned to his old courses again, committing such robberies as rendered his name the terror of the road; insomuch that no carrier or drover who passed the same but was either forced to compound for their safety by a constant rent, which he usually received from them at such and such houses, where he appointed them to leave it, or they were sure to be rifled for the failure thereof.
Committing some robberies in Leicestershire, he was there taken, and committed to Leicester Jail, where he was so narrowly watched, and strongly ironed, that he could scarce stir; yet by a cunning stratagem he procured his enlargement before the assizes came. For one day, feigning himself extremely ill, he sent for two or three trusty friends, one of whom was a physician, who gave out that he was sick of a pestilential fever; and that unless he had the benefit of some open air, in some chamber, he would certainly infect the whole jail, and die of the said distemper. Hereupon the jailer takes off his fetters and removes him into another room, to lie by himself. In the meantime a nurse was provided him, and his physician came twice or thrice a day to visit him, who gave out there was no hopes of his life, and that his distemper was extremely contagious. On which report, the jailer's wife would not let her husband, nor any of the servants, go nearer than the door; which gave Nevison's confederates a full liberty to practise their intent, which they did thus. A painter was one day brought in, who made all over his breast blue spots, resembling those that are the forerunners of death in the disease commonly called the plague; as likewise several marks on his hands, face and body, which are usually on such that so die. All which being done, the physician prepared a dose whereby his spirits were confined for the space of an hour or two, and then immediately gave out that he was dead. Hereupon his friends demand his body, bringing a coffin to carry him away in. The jailer, as customary, orders a jury —- the nurse having formally laid him out —- to examine the cause of his death, who, fearing the contagion he was said to die of, stayed not long to consider thereon; but having viewed him, seeing the spots and marks of death about him, his eyes set, and his jaws close muffled, they brought in their verdict that he died of the plague; and thereupon he was put in the coffin and carried off.
Being thus discharged, he falls to his trade again, and meeting several of his old tenants the carriers, who used to pay him his rents as aforesaid, told them they must advance the same, for that his last imprisonment had cost him a great sum of money, which he expected to be reimbursed among them. They being strangely surprised at sight of Mr Nevison, after the reports of his death, brooked about that his ghost walked, and took upon him the employment it was wont when living, which was the more confirmed by the jailer at Leicester, who had brought in his verdict of the jury on oath, who had examined the body and had found it dead, as above mentioned; whereby he had been discharged by the Court, as to the warrant of his commitment. But afterwards, when the same came to be known, and the cheat detected, the said jailer was ordered to fetch him in, at his peril. Whereupon great search was made for him in all places, and a reward of twenty pounds set upon his head for any person who should apprehend him.
Nevison, after this, was determined to visit London. and the company he happened to fall in with upon the road was a crew of canting beggars, pilgrims of the earth, the offspring of Cain, vagabonds and wanderers over the whole world, fit companions for such as made a trade of idleness and roguery, and these were at this time fit companions for him, who, seeing the merry life they led, resolved to make one of their company. Whereupon, after he had a little more ingratiated himself amongst them, and taken two or three cups more of rum booze, he imparted his inventions to one of the chief of them, telling him he was an apprentice who had a cursed master, whose cruelties had caused him to run away from him; and that whatever fortune might betide him, yet should not the most necessitous conditions he could be plunged into ever make him to return to him again. And therefore, if he might be admitted into their society, he should faithfully observe and perform what rules and orders were imposed upon him. The chief beggar very much applauded him for his resolution, telling him that to be a beggar was to be a brave man, since it was then in fashion. "Do not we," said he, "come into the world like arrant beggars, without a rag upon us? And do not we all go out of the world like beggars, without a rag upon us? And do not we all go out of the world like beggars, without anything, saving only an old sheet over us? Shall we then be ashamed to walk up and down in the world like beggars, with old blankets pinned about us? No, no; that would be a shame to us indeed. Have we not the whole kingdom to walk, at our pleasure? Are we afraid of the approach of quarter day? Do we walk in fear of bailiffs, sergeants and catchpoles? Whoever knew an arrant beggar arrested for debt? Is not our meat dressed in every man's kitchen? Does not every man's cellar afford us beers? And the best men's purses keep a penny for us to spend?" Having these words, as he thought, fully fixed him in love with begging, he then acquainted the company with Nevison's desires, who were all of them very joyful thereat, being as glad to add one to their society as a Turk is to gain a proselyte to Mahomet. The first question they asked him was, if he had any loure in his bung. He stared at them, not knowing what they meant; till at last one told him it was money in his purse. He told them he had but eighteen pence, which he freely gave them. This, by a general vote, was condemned to be spent on booze for his initiation. Then they commanded him to kneel down, which being done, one of the chief of them took a gage of booze, which is a quart of drink, and poured the same on his head, saying: "I do by virtue of this sovereign liquor install thee in the roage, and make thee a free denizen of our ragged regiment. So that henceforth it shall be lawful for thee to cant, and to carry a doxy or mot along with thee, only observing these rules: First, that thou art not to wander up and down all countries, but to keep to that quarter that is allotted to thee. And, secondly, thou art to give way to any of us that have borne all the offices of the wallet before; and upon holding up a finger, to avoid any town or country village where thou seest we are foraging for victuals for our army that march along with us. Observing these two rules, we take thee into our protection, and adopt thee a brother of our numerous society."
Having ended his oration, Nevison rose up, and was congratulated by all the company's hanging about him like so many dogs about a bear, and leaping and shouting like so many madmen, making such a confused noise with their gabbling that the melody of a dozen of oyster-wives, the scolding at ten conduits, and the gossiping of fifteen bake-houses were not comparable unto it. At length he that installed him cried out for silence, bidding the French and English pox to light on their throats for making such a yelping. Then fixing their eyes upon Nevison, he read a lecture to him out of the devil's horn-book, as followeth.
"Now," saith he, "that thou art entered into our fraternity, thou must not scruple to act any villainies which thou shalt be able to perform, whether it be to nip a bung, bite the Peter Cloy, the lurries crash, either a bleating cheat, cackling cheat, grunting cheat, quacking cheat, Tib-oth-buttery, Margery Prater, or to cloy a mish from the crack man's —- that is, to cut a purse, steal a cloak-bag or portmanteau, convey all manner of things, whether a chicken, sucking-pig, duck, goose, hen, or steal a shirt from the hedge; for he that will be a quier cove, a professed rogue, must observe this rule, set down by an ancient pat Rico in these words:
' Wilt thou a-begging go. o per se-o, o per se-o.
Then must thou God forsake,
And to the devil thee be take.
o per se-o, etc.'
"And because thou art yet but a novice in begging, and understandest not the mysteries of the canting language, to principle thee the better thou shalt have a doxy to be thy companion, by whom thou mayst receive fit instructions for thy purpose." And thereupon he singled him out a girl of about fourteen years of age, which tickled his fancy very much, that he had gotten a young wanton to dally withal. But this was not all; he must presently be married to her, after the fashion of their pat Rico, who amongst beggars is their priest; which was done after this manner.
They got a hen, and having cut off the head of it, laid the dead body on the ground, placing him on the one side, and his doxy on the other; this being done, the pat Rico, standing by, with a loud voice bid them live together till death did them part. Then one of the company went into the yard and fetched a dry cow-turd, which was broken over his doxy's head, in imitation of a bride-cake; and so, shaking hands and kissing each other, the ceremony of the wedding was over, and for joy of the marriage they were all as drunk as beggars; belt then to hear the gabbling noise they made would have made anyone burst himself with laughing. Some were jabbering in the canting language, others in their own; some did nothing but weep, and profess love to their mots; others swore swords and daggers to cut the throats of their doxies if they found them tripping; one would drink a health to the bride till he slavered again; some were for singing bawdy songs, others were devising oaths for justices of peace, head-boroughs and constables. At last, night approaching, and all their money being spent, they betook themselves to a barn not far off, where they couched a hogshead in the dark man's, and went to sleep.
Nevison, having met with this odd piece of diversion in his journey, slipped out of the barn, when all were asleep, took horse and posted directly away. But coming to London, and finding his name too much noised about to induce him to stay there, he returned into the country, and fell to his own pranks again. Several who had been robbed by him happened to meet him, and could not help thinking but his ghost walked, considering the report of his pestilential death in Lincoln Jail. In short, his crimes became so notorious that a reward was offered to anyone who would apprehend him. This made many waylay him, especially two brothers named Fletcher, one of whom Nevison shooting dead, he got off; from whence going into a little village about thirteen miles from York, he was taken by Captain Hardcastle and sent to York Jail, where in a week's time he was tried, condemned, and executed, aged forty-five.