This malefactor was the son of honest people, in indigent circumstances, residing at Newmarket, in the county of Cambridge; who, when he had nearly completed his seventh year, put him to a day-school, which he continued to attend till he was about thirteen years old, when he was engaged as an assistant to the grooms in the service of the Duke of Somerset. Having remained in this situation six years, he was hired by Lord John Cavendish, whose horses he attended about three years, and then entered into the service of Colonel Lumley, brother to the Earl of Scarborough. He was sent by this gentleman three times with horses to France, and was considered as an honest and industrious servant. Being of a temper that delighted in a change of situation, he entered on board a trading ship belonging to Bristol; and he discovered no inclination to vicious courses till he had made several voyages to the West Indies and North America.
The ship to which he belonged being paid off on the conclusion of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, he connected himself with Mary Brown and Mary Davis, women of abandoned characters; and they, in conjunction with John Brown, persuaded him to join them in committing depredations on the public. They directed their course towards Litchfield, and, upon their arrival there, went into a public house for refreshment. Being introduced to a parlour, Mary Brown observed a chest; and, the lid not being close, she put in her hand, and stole a sum of money, and several other articles of value. Having obtained the above booty, the gang proceeded to Chester, where Poulter stole some plush, and sent for a tailor to make it into a suit of clothes. While the tailor was measuring him a pistol that was in his pocket accidentally went off, but fortunately no damage was done by the ball. The tailor carried the plush home, and then went to the mayor, to whom he communicated his suspicions. Officers were dispatched to examine Poulter and his companions; but, being apprized of their approach, they embarked on board a packet-boat, which conveyed them to Dublin.
Soon after his arrival in Dublin Poulter hired a public house, where be sold on an average five barrels of ale weekly, and other liquors in proportion. His great success in business induced him to make a resolution of entirely declining illegal pursuits; and to this he would, in all probability, have strictly adhered, had he not been unluckily compelled to renew his acquaintance with abandoned people. General Sinclair had his pocket picked of a valuable gold watch, either in going into or departing from Leicester House; and two men, named Harper and Tobin, were suspected to be guilty of the fact, and committed to the Gate-house. A desperate gang of twenty-four Irishmen rescued Harper; in consequence of which a proclamation, offering a reward for apprehending them, was issued; but they all escaped to Ireland. One of the above gang, named James Field, who had been acquainted with Poulter, went up to him while he was standing at his door; and, after some conversation, they drank together. On the following day Field took the whole gang to Poulter's house. He requested them to depart, and at other times endeavoured to dissuade them from frequenting his house, urging that their visits might be productive of very disagreeable consequences to him; but they disregarded what he said, and continued their meetings as usual. At length they were observed in the house by a messenger that had been dispatched in search of them from London, and taken into custody. In consequence of the above affair Poulter absconded from his house in the night, and his stock of liquors and other effects were seized by the magistrates.
Poulter now intended to reside at Cork; but, not being able to get a house there that he thought would answer his purpose, he went to Waterford, and took a public house, which he kept about three months. His brewer in Dublin wrote him word that he might return without the least danger of molestation; and therefore he departed from Waterford, and took a house about two miles from the city, at a place called the Shades of Clontarf. His house being adjacent to the sea, he purchased a boat, and applied himself with so much industry to the business of a fisherman, that his weekly profits seldom amounted to less than three pounds. Thomas Tobin being acquitted of the charge of stealing General Sinclair's watch, through defect of evidence, and learning that Poulter had struck into an advantageous line of life, he determined to visit him. In pursuance of this design, Tobin and a woman with whom he cohabited travelled to Holyhead, and there embarked in the packet for Dublin. Poulter received them with great kindness, and entertained them with equal generosity; but entreated, in the most earnest manner, that they would not repeat their visits too frequently, nor make his place of residence known to their accomplices. Though they had faithfully promised to comply with his request, they in a few days introduced several of their associates to Poulter's house, which, before many weeks had elapsed, became the receptacle for thieves of every denomination, by whom Dublin and its environs were infested. Poulter still adhered to his resolution of gaining a livelihood by honest labour, and informed his unwelcome guests that he would permit them no longer to frequent his house.
In revenge for this they concerted and put in practice a plan for effecting the ruin of Poulter. Six pounds of smuggled tea being procured, one of the gang privately conveyed it into Poulter's boat, and then lodged an information against him; in consequence of which the boat was seized and condemned; and Poulter, though innocent, judged it expedient to abscond. He embarked for Bristol, and on his arrival there was entirely destitute of money. From Bristol he proceeded to Bath, where, he met with his former acquaintances, Richard Branning and John Roberts, who prevailed upon him to join them in committing depredations on the highway. They mentioned a man of property who lived at Towbridge, and frequently came to Bath to change bills; and it was resolved to attempt robbing him. They met at Roberts's house, where the plan of the intended robbery was concerted, and then they repaired to the public house which was frequented by the gentleman of Towbridge; and observing him counting money, they concluded that they could not fail obtaining a considerable booty. However, they were disappointed; for the gentleman, suspecting their design, returned by a road which he had not been accustomed to travel, and by that measure luckily preserved his property.
They now proceeded into Yorkshire, and in their way committed several robberies. At the inn where they alighted at Halifax they were joined by a clergyman, whom they seduced to prick in the belt, by which stratagem they defrauded him of twenty-five guineas. They now went to Stockport, in Cheshire, where they lay one night, and then travelled to Chester.—putting up at a house kept by one James Roberts, who had formerly belonged to the gang, he informed them that the pack-horses with Manchester goods would pass in the evening; and it was resolved to steal one of the horses and the goods he carried. As the horses passed, Roberts pointed to that loaded with the most valuable effects, and advised his companions to go about a mile from the town, and drive the beast into the fields, adding that he would scarcely be missed by the carrier in less than two hours, in which time they might secure the goods and escape. The horse they seized was not that pointed out by Roberts; and their booty consisted only of callimancoes. Finding himself separated from his companions, the horse neighed so loud and frequent, that they judged it necessary to gag him, lest the noise should lead to a discovery. They reached Whitchurch, in Shropshire, the same night; and, after refreshing themselves at a house notorious for the reception of robbers, cut the marks from the goods, and exposed them for sale in the market. Having sold the callimancoes, they proceeded to Grantham, in Lincolnshire, and defrauded a farmer of that place of near sixteen pounds by pricking in the belt; immediately after which they set out for Nottingham, where they stole a silver tankard, and, after selling it to a shopkeeper in the town, proceeded to York. Having stolen some plate from the inn where they put up, and committed several robberies in different parts of Yorkshire, they deemed it prudent to remove from that part of the country, lest they should be apprehended, and came to the resolution of joining their former associates at Bath.
Soon after their arrival at Bath the whole gang set out for Sandford Peverel, in Devonshire, in order to be present at a great fair for cattle; and during their residence there they obtained considerable sums by pricking in the belt, and other infamous practices. They next went to Great Torrington, where they defrauded a farmer of twenty pounds. Enraged by the imposition that had been practised upon him, the farmer took every opportunity of relating the particulars of the fraud; so that the whole neighborhood was alarmed, and in pursuit of the sharpers; and they were therefore under the necessity of dispersing. Poulter and Brown directed their course to Exeter; and, having defrauded an inhabitant of that town of five pounds, proceeded to Crookhorn, in expectation of meeting their associates: but on their arrival they learnt that two of them were in confinement, charged with fraudulent practices. This information occasioned the rest of the gang to make a precipitate retreat; and in their way to the north of England they obtained several sums by a variety of infamous stratagems. They remained some months at York, Durham, and Newcastle; and, after defrauding a number of farmers, and some other persons, of money, they went to Bath, where they assumed the character of smugglers. They had not been long at Bath before they determined to go to the next Blandford races in search of adventures. During the races one party attended the cock-pit each morning; some were upon the course in the afternoon; and others were employed in cheating the keepers of the booths. They were so successful in their respective departments of villainy as to amass a very considerable sum; and, on the conclusion of the races, they ordered an elegant dinner at the Crown tavern, in Blandford, whence they stole a portmanteau, containing eighteen guineas, four broad pieces, a large sum in Portugal pieces, some silver coin, a gold repeating watch, with superb appendages, several necklaces set with diamonds and other jewels, a great quantity of rich clothes, a pair of gold shoe-buckles, a gold girdle-buckle, a gold coral, and many other articles of value. Immediately after the above robbery Poulter and Brown set out for London, and, having sold the effects to some Jews in Duke's Place, they joined their accomplices at Roberts's house at Bath, where the produce of their booty was divided.
The next expedition was to a fair held at Corsham, where Poulter stole a silver tankard, which he carried to Roberts's house. They now went to Farringdon, in Berkshire, in order to wait there for the Coventry carrier, whom they had determined to rob. After waiting two days the carrier arrived; and when he left the town in the morning they followed him, and robbed him of effects to a considerable value. They next rode to Newbury, where they fraudulently obtained four guineas, his horse, and watch, from an unsuspecting countryman; and then returned to their rendezvous at Bath. They endeavoured to force open a house at Bath; but being observed by a man in a state of intoxication, who was casually passing, he exerted the utmost strength of his voice to alarm the neighborhood, which occasioned the villains to decamp without effecting the intended burglary. On the following morning Coulter and some of his companions went to Bristol, where they joined company with a countryman, and defrauded him out of twenty guineas, which he had borrowed of an acquaintance, who kept a shop in the neighborhood.
Their villainies had now rendered their characters so notorious, and their persons so well known, throughout the west of England, that they determined to decline their former practices, and adopt that of horse-stealing. To avoid detection, they were careful not to offer horses to sale in that part of the kingdom where they had stolen them; and they still continued to travel occasionally to Bath, where they spent a great part of their money in Roberts's house. A customer to Roberts showed him twenty pounds, saying he had just received it; and Roberts immediately pointed out the man to Poulter, informing him at the same time of the booty he might acquire by robbing him. Towards night the countryman mounted his horse, and was followed by Poulter, who, holding a tinder-box to him instead of a pistol, demanded his money, which was delivered. Soon after the above robbery the gang went again to Bristol, and, watching an opportunity of lifting up the parlour sash of a gentleman's house, they stole several silver spoons, and some other articles. One of the gang got unperceived into a watchmaker's house in the same city, while his accomplices waited without, in order to rescue him if he should be detected. He brought from the upper apartments many articles of value, besides a quantity of wearing apparel; and it was some hours before the robbery was discovered. On the following night Brown secreted himself in a shed adjoining to a barber's house, into which he made a forcible entry about midnight, and was carrying off some wearing apparel, when he was heard by the barber and his apprentice. Upon the family being alarmed Brown got through the garret window to the roof of the house, and remained three hours concealed behind a stack of chimneys. Unable to escape by any other way, he at length resolved to attempt passing through the house; but, while upon the stairs, he was heard by the boy, who ran towards him with a knife in his hand, crying 'Thieves!' Alarmed by the boy, the barber's wife came; and, upon Brown assuring her that he had taken shelter in the house in order to avoid the pursuit of bailiffs, she informed him that he might remain there till he could go home in safety; but he deemed it prudent to seize the opportunity of making an immediate retreat. During the ensuing fair at Bristol they robbed and defrauded several clothiers, and other dealers, of property to a very considerable amount. The produce of these effects being expended in Roberts's house, the gang determined upon an expedition into Staffordshire. While they remained in Staffordshire they stole several horses, which were taken to Roberts, who sold them at different fairs held at places adjacent to Bath.
An Irishman, named Bush, an intrepid and desperate fellow, who had acted as hostler to Roberts, was at length admitted to the gang; and soon afterwards he set out in company with Poulter towards Towbridge, in Wiltshire, with a determination of committing robberies. Meeting a chaise, Bush declared he would rob the passengers; but Poulter objected, thinking his companion inclined to commit murder. At length he consented to rob the chaise, after it had been agreed that no cruelty should be exercised. It being nearly dark, Poulter thrust his hand through the glass of the chaise, not knowing that it was drawn up, and, it being terribly cut, he hastily withdrew it, and his pistol went off by accident. Bush, supposing the fire to proceed from the gentleman in the carriage, discharged his pistol, but without any particular aim. Poulter now called to his companion to desist; and, after taking out of the chaise a child, which he kissed, and carefully set upon the ground, he robbed Dr. Hancock, of Salisbury, of a guinea and a half, six shillings, a gold watch, some child-bed linen, and wearing apparel belonging to his lady. After the above robbery the villains adjourned to a public house, that had been long frequented by the gang, and produced the stolen effects to the landlord and his wife; and the latter supplied them with a bag for packing the clothes in. The landlord then drew the charge from a fowling-piece, to furnish them with powder; after which they melted a pewter spoon, and cast two bullets. Bush asking the woman if she was not terrified at seeing them load their pistols, she said that many pistols had been loaded in her kitchen, without giving her the least alarm; adding, that they would do right to travel as far as they could before break of day, and, if they would inform her where they put up, she would transmit them news from Bath. Leaving this house, they stole a horse at an adjacent farm, and proceeded to Exeter, where they sold the stolen effects to a man who had long carried on an illegal traffic with the whole gang.
In a short time after the above Poulter was apprehended in a public house on suspicion of having robbed Doctor Hancock; and, being taken before a magistrate, he gave information against his accomplices, mentioning the several places to which they resorted, and recommending the most effectual measures for taking them into custody; particularizing those who had been sentenced to transportation, and returned before the expiration of the term of their exile. While he was under examination he advised that the discoveries he had made might be kept profoundly secret, observing that many persons connected with the gang lived in a reputable manner; and he particularly requested that the messenger who was ordered to make inquiries at Bath might carefully conceal his business from every person excepting the mayor. Notwithstanding this precaution, the messenger had not been at Bath more than an hour before the names of all the villains were universally known; and, on the following morning, printed lists of them were hawked about the streets. In consequence of this imprudent conduct Poulter's accomplices escaped, and the good effects which the public might have derived from his discoveries were, in a great measure, defeated. Great part of the property stolen from Doctor Hancock was restored to that gentleman, who visited Poulter in prison, and assured him that he would not be a severe prosecutor; and told him that, if he should be convicted, he would, in all probability, be deemed an object deserving the royal clemency. Notwithstanding the doctor's promise, he used his utmost endeavours to procure the conviction of Poulter; and even waited upon the judge, to prevent the time of his execution being prolonged. However, he was respited for six weeks. During his confinement he wrote accounts of a great number of robberies in which he had been concerned in divers parts of the kingdom. His discoveries were judged to be of such public importance, that the corporations of Bristol, Bath, Exeter, and Taunton, and many private gentlemen, exerted their utmost interest in his behalf; and it was generally expected that he would receive a pardon, or that the sentence of death would, at least, be mitigated to that of transportation. He was examined by a gentleman of the law, to whom he related the particulars of the robberies committed by himself and his accomplices, with but very trifling variations from his confession before the magistrate, and what was recited in the papers written by him after his commitment.
Poulter behaved with a decency and moderation becoming his unhappy circumstances; but he was, notwithstanding, an object of the implacable enmity of the gaoler. Though he had paid an extraordinary price for the use of a bed, this inhuman villain would allow him only straw to lie upon, even in the most rigorous season of the year, when he was in a state of health that threatened his speedy dissolution. The cruelty of the gaoler's treatment occasioned some gentlemen to write to him, desiring he would allow the prisoner a bed. It was imagined that the malicious representations of the gaoler induced a gentleman of great interest at court to intercept the royal mercy, which, it was generally believed, would be extended to Poulter. A report being circulated that Poulter was to be executed on the 1st of March, he wrote to a gentleman from whom he had experienced many instances of humanity, requesting to be informed whether it was founded in truth, and complaining that the gaoler added to his distress by perpetually reminding him that he must inevitably fall a victim to the law.
Poulter's dread of being executed daily increasing, he determined to attempt breaking out of prison; and, having communicated his design to one of the debtors, on Sunday, the 17th of February, they forced an iron bar out of one of the windows, and escaped. Poulter travelled as far as Glastonbury with one of his irons on; and, after disengaging himself from that incumbrance, he continued walking all night, although he was extremely weak through long illness, and his legs were galled and swelled in a terrible manner. In the day they concealed themselves in a hayrick, and agreed to direct their course towards Wales; but, being ignorant of the road, they on Tuesday morning found themselves at Wookey, near Wells. Poulter was so excessively fatigued as to be unable to pursue his journey, and it was therefore agreed that they should take some repose. They went into an alehouse, where they slept till two o'clock; and they were preparing to depart, when a mason, who lived in the neighborhood, came to the house for some liquor, and, recollecting the person of Poultcr, called to his journeymen to assist in apprehending him. He was secured till the next day, and then conducted back to Ivelchester gaol.
When he was lodged again in prison nine days of the time for which he was respited remained unexpired; but an express was dispatched to a member of parliament, requesting him to use his interest to obtain an order for his immediate execution. In consequence of this an order was issued, commanding the high sheriff to cause the sentence of the law to be inflicted on Poulter within twenty-four hours after the receipt of the express. Poulter was greatly shocked up on learning that the warrant was received for his sudden execution; but he soon recovered his spirits, and endeavoured to atone for past offences by a sincere repentance. After receiving the sacrament in a very devout manner, he prayed with an appearance of great fervency, and expressed strong hopes of obtaining pardon from the Almighty, whose displeasure he had not incurred (however great his offences in other respects) by the spilling of innocent blood. He behaved in a very penitent manner, but still preserved a decent fortitude, at the place of execution. He solemnly declared to the truth of all he had related respecting his accomplices; and, after warning the surrounding multitude to avoid such practices as had proved the cause of his destruction, he prayed some time in a composed and fervent manner, and was then turned off. John Poulter was hanged at Ivelchester on the 25th of February, 1755.
It is to be lamented that Poulter, through the villainy of his former accomplices, was deprived of the advantage that would have necessarily resulted from a reformation of conduct. Denied the opportunity of supporting himself by honest means, he was, in a manner, compelled to join in the iniquitous practices of his former associates; for he was conscious that, had he been hardy enough to oppose their designs, they would have effected his destruction. Though this man's offences were great, we cannot but regret his being subjected to the utmost rigour of the law; since, to that public he had so highly injured, he made no inconsiderable reparation, by causing the most dangerous set of villains that ever infested these kingdoms to be dispersed. Doctor Hancock visited the prisoner, and gave him hopes of life; but afterwards used every possible endeavour to hasten his execution. Thus he seduced the unhappy man to neglect a preparation for eternity, to which he labored to precipitate him ' with all his imperfections on his head.
The conduct of the gaoler cannot be mentioned in terms of sufficient abhorrence. What character can more provoke our hatred than the man who, instead of alleviating, insults distress; instead of calming a perturbed spirit, adds to the poignancy of affliction; and in capacitates a miserable wretch, tottering on the verge of eternity, for appealing to the Almighty with that steady and fervent zeal by which alone he can obtain forgiveness? As a contrast to this inhuman villain of a gaoler, we shall mention Mr. Dagg, who was keeper of Bristol prison during the confinement of the unfortunate Richard Savage, Esq. He was a man of strict integrity and universal benevolence; and his behaviour to Savage gave the ingenious biographer of that unhappy poet occasion for the following reflections: 'Virtue is undoubtedly most laudable in that state which makes it most difficult; and therefore the humanity of a gaoler certainly deserves this public attestation; and the man whose heart has not been hardened by such an employment may justly be proposed as a pattern of benevolence. If an inscription was once engraved to the honest toll-gatherer, less honours ought not to be paid to the tender gaoler.' We shall here conclude with observing that guilt must ever be attended by wretchedness: perpetual fears and alarms will destroy the hope of future happiness; and we no longer consider life as valuable than while we are able to cherish the expectation that permanent felicity will reward the toils of the present hour.