THE ruthless deeds of this young offender almost rival those of the notorious Avershaw. Robert Hartley was convicted at the Maidstone Assizes, on the 16th of December, 1822, of wilfully stabbing Captain Owen, of the Bellerophon convict ship, lying at Sheerness, on the 29th of the preceding August, where Hartley was confined as a transport.
Some days before his execution he confessed to the Rev. Mr. Winter that he had been concerned in upwards of two hundred burglaries in Kent, Essex, Surrey, Middlesex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland, Durham, Lincoln, and Norfolk. He had been confined in sixteen different prisons, besides undergoing several examinations at the different police-offices; and had gone by the following names:-- Robt. Stainton, Alexander Rombollen, George Grimes, Robert Wood, William Smith, George Croggington, and Robert Hartley.
Hartley's father formerly kept an inn (the Sir John Falstaff) at Hull, in Yorkshire. He was put to school in that neighbourhood; but his conduct there was so marked with depravity, and so frequently did he play the truant, that he was dismissed as unmanageable. He then, although only nine years of age, began with pilfering and robbing gardens and orchards, till at length his friends were obliged to send him to sea. He soon contrived to run away from the vessel in which he had been placed, and, having regained the land, pursued his old habits, and got connected with many of the principal thieves in London, with whom he commenced business regularly as a housebreaker, which was almost always his line of robbery.
Hartley acknowledged that, from his earliest days, he was of a most vindictive and revengeful spirit. He had been punished when at school, and in revenge contrived to get from his bed in the night, and destroy the whole of the fruit trees, and every plant and shrub in his master's garden. At another time, having robbed a neighbour's garden, he was detected and punished, when, in order to wreak his vengeance, he set fire to the house in the night, which was nearly destroyed, together with its inmates. He had adopted a plan to escape from his father's house in the night time without detection, which was done by means of a rope ladder that he let down from his bed-room window; and, after effecting his robberies, he used to return to his room in the same way.
Hartley had once before received sentence of death, and was not respited till within a few hours of the usual time of execution; he was then sent to Botany Bay, from whence he contrived to make his escape, and afterwards entered on board one of his Majesty's ships in the East Indies. Whilst at this station he was removed to the hospital on shore at Bombay, on account of sickness; but even in this state he could not refrain from thieving. His practice was to scale the walls of the hospital in the evening, and waylay the natives, whom he contrived to rob by knocking them down with a short stick, and then seizing their turbans, in which their wealth was usually deposited.
While on this station a gentleman on board the ship missed a box of pearls, and suspicion falling on a native Indian, he was put on shore and dreadfully tortured, his fingers and toe-nails being torn out to make him confess. A few days before Hartley's execution he confessed that he stole the pearls and secreted them in a crevice in the ship's side, whence they had slipped to the bottom, and he could not recover them. He wrote an account of this circumstance to the commander of the ship, who came to Maidstone immediately, and recognised him as having been engaged as an officer's servant on board, and Hartley assured him that the pearls still remained in the place where he had secreted them.
Hartley acknowledged that he was an accomplice in the murder of Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich, for which murder Hussey was executed in 1818, but that neither himself nor Hussey were the actual murderers. Hartley obtained admission into the house by presenting a note at the door, when himself, with Hussey and another person, whom he named, rushed into the house and shut the door. Hartley instantly ran up stairs to plunder the drawers, and whilst there he heard a loud cry for mercy. He went to the top of the stairs, and saw Hussey pull Mr. Bird's housekeeper to the floor, whilst struck her repeatedly with a hammer. Hartley ran down stairs, and saw Mr. Bird lying dead on his back. The sight so affected him, that he immediately threw on the table two watches which he had secured, and ran out of the house, and never saw Hussey afterwards, nor had he any share in the plunder.
Happy would it have been had his hands always been as free from blood, as he confessed that he afterwards met a gentleman on the highway, and shot him dead; after which he took from his person a watch and seventy-five pounds.
Hartley was also witness to another scene of murder which occurred in one of his midnight robberies. Himself and a companion had entered the house of a gentleman, who, being alarmed, seized the poker, and made towards Hartley, who snapped a pistol, which missed fire. The gentleman seized him by the collar, and dragged him to the floor, when Hartley's companion plunged a knife into his heart, and he fell dead upon Hartley. Two ladies had followed the gentleman into the room, and, at the horrid sight, they instantly fainted, whilst Hartley and his companion made their escape. He has also frequently confessed that the murderer of Mrs. Donatty was the abovementioned ----, whom he represented to be a most blood-thirsty villain.
In one of his midnight excursions with two of his companions, he had a narrow escape of his life. They had packed up the principal part of the plate in the lower rooms, when one of his companions with horrid oaths, declared that he would proceed up stairs; in attempting which he was shot dead at the side of Hartley, who, with his other companion, made a hasty retreat. This circumstance only served to harden him in iniquity, as he acknowledged that he was totally devoid of fear or natural affection. Feelings of remorse were, however, awakened a few days before his trial, by an affectionate letter from his sister, imprisoned for debt, whom he had robbed of two hundred pounds, by forging a power of attorney; by which he obtained possession of a legacy of that amount, which had been bequeathed to her by a distant relation.
He looked forward to the time of his execution with astonishing coolness; and, in order that he might have the day continually before him, he had drawn a circle on paper, to form a kind of dial, with an index pointing to the number of days yet remaining; and this index he moved daily, as the days of life decreased. This monitor he fastened against the wall of his cell, where it was constantly in view. He was twenty-five years of age and about five feet six inches high.
On Thursday morning, January the 2d, 1823, this hardened offender underwent the awful sentence of the law, on Pennenden Heath, rear Maidstone. From the time of his condemnation to the evening preceding his execution he behaved in the most impenitent manner, stating his disbelief in a future state, and disregarding the pious exhortations of the chaplain. He was wont to speak of his wicked deeds with exultation, and appeared to be totally lost to all sense of moral rectitude and religious feeling.