Newgate Calendar - JOHN STRETTON


Executed for Robbing the Mail, 1st August, 1770

            This unhappy man was descended of respectable parents, who gave him a liberal education; nor did any circumstance arise to throw blame on his character till the discovery of the crime which cost him his life. He was apprenticed to a grocer in London, and served his time with a degree of fidelity that would have done credit to any servant; and he appeared to gain the general good opinion of those who were acquainted with him. At the expiration of his apprenticeship be went to live as a journeyman to a grocer in Bishopsgate Street, where he still maintained a fair character, and continued in this station several years, during which he married, and had a daughter; but his wife died a considerable time before the perpetration of the fact which rendered him a fatal victim to the violated laws of his country.

            Mr. Stretton, having by his frugality accumulated a sum of money, opened a shop in. Bishopsgate Street on his own account, and had every reasonable prospect of success; for so regular had been his conduct, and so irreproachable was his character, that not any person in his own way of business refused to give him credit to any reasonable amount. Unhappily, however, he had not long embarked in trade before his ruin ensued, from a cause which one would have thought very unlikely to produce it. Having conceived a design of advancing himself in life by a second marriage, and a butcher in the neighbourhood being reputed worth a considerable sum of money, he paid his addresses to his daughter, who was so well pleased with him, that she did not hesitate to make a declaration in his favour; but the father, unwilling to part with any money, as a portion for his daughter, resolved not to give his consent, because Mr. Stretton was not in circumstances of independence. In the meantime the lovers contrived frequent opportunities of seeing each other, and the young woman repeatedly informed Mr. Stretton with the determination of her father. Chagrined by this circumstance, and resolved to remove the objection which seemed to arise from his presumed poverty, he made the dreadful resolution of robbing the mail.

            He had not, however, for some time an opportunity of carrying his intention into execution; for he was seized with a severe fit of illness, which confined him to his bed for some weeks, during which time he was frequently visited by the girl whom he had courted, and also by her mother, who was a warm friend to the proposed marriage. At length he recovered his health in a very considerable degree; on which he resolved to complete, if possible, the plan which had so long agitated his mind. In pursuance hereof he took an opportunity, when his shopman was in bed, one Saturday night, to quit the house, and go as far as the City Road, between Islington and London, where he awaited the arrival of the northern mail, which came opposite Peerless Pool about two o'clock in the morning. Stretton, observing the postboy coming up, stopped the mail, and took out such bags as he thought proper; after which he went into Moorfields, where he examined the contents of the bags, and, selecting such bills and notes as he considered most valuable, left the bags behind him, and retired to his own house.

            As soon as the robbery was made known at the post-office, the Post master-General offered by advertisement, as is usual on such occasions, a reward of two hundred pounds for the apprehension of the robber: but nothing transpired in the course of several weeks; and it is probable that the offender might have remained much longer undetected but for the following circumstance. Stretton still continued to pay his addresses to the butcher's daughter; but her father, unwilling that she should marry a man in low or doubtful circumstances, was continually talking to Stretton on the subject of money matters; till at length the latter was so imprudent as to show him the drafts in his possession, and even to send a porter to Mr. Boldero's, the banker, for the acceptance of one of them, that no doubt might remain of their being good notes: but the porter had no sooner presented the bill than he was detained, and a peace-officer, and other persons, were sent in search of Mr. Stretton, whom they found at his own house. They inquired how he came to be possessed of the note in question; to which he replied that he had taken it in the course of business from a person in Bond Street, who was in his debt. This story did not seem to be credited: however, a coach was called, and the parties went together to Bond Street, in search of the person who was said to have paid the bill: but no such man could be found; on which the suspicions against Stretton being greatly strengthened, he was conveyed to the house of Sir John Fielding, who committed him to Newgate, to abide the event of a trial.

            Objections being made by counsel to the putting him on his trial at the first and second sessions after his commitment, it was accordingly brought on at the third. [Note: It ought to be mentioned, to the credit of our courts of justice, that the slightest argument, which has but the appearance of reason, is sufficient to influence the Bench in favour of the prisoner.]

            When Mr. Stretton was put on his trial, full proof arose that the drafts and notes which had been taken out of the mail were found in his house; and, as he could give no probable account how they came into his possession, there was a strong presumptive, amounting almost to positive, proof that he had himself committed the robbery; for it appeared evident to the jury that a tradesman, who had taken these bills and notes in the common course of business, could have accounted for the manner in which he became possessed of them, or at least the greater part of them. After a full deliberation on the case, the jury did not hesitate to pronounce him guilty, the consequence of which was that he received sentence of death.

            After conviction he was regular in his attendance on the offices of divine worship; but no arguments that were made use of could prevail on him to acknowledge his guilt, and he steadily persisted in a denial of the justice of his sentence. Notwithstanding this, he appeared exceedingly penitent for all the faults which he had ever committed; and declared that he expected salvation only through the merits of the Redeemer of mankind: but, with regard to robbing the mail, he insisted that he had never been guilty of it; and that he detested the thought of such an execrable baseness, and was totally innocent of the crime alleged against him. These declarations he repeatedly made; and on the morning of execution, when he was called down to the Press-yard, to have his irons knocked off, he was urged by the Ordinary of Newgate to make an explicit confession of the crime; but, far from doing so, he still avowed his perfect innocence. He was attended to the place of execution by immense crowds of people, who wished to hear the dying words of a man to be executed for so capital a crime, for which he would never acknowledge the justice of that verdict by which he had been condemned. This unhappy man suffered at Tyburn on the 1st of August, 1770.

            Many people have thought it impossible, and indeed humanity would suppose it so, for any man to die with a lie in his month; but in the case of Stretton it will be very hard to form an opinion in his favour; for, if he did not obtain the notes and drafts by robbing the mail, how did he procure them?—If he could have given an honest account how he became possessed of them—if he could, as Shakspeare emphatically phrases it, have delivered 'a round unvarnished tale'—it would have been almost impossible that he should have been convicted; for the jurymen of this country (to their honour be it recorded) are exceedingly tender of the lives of their fellow-citizens. The presumption then, in this particular case, is very strong that the malefactor must have denied his crime from a species of pride altogether unwarrantable. We would not wish to be thought severe or uncharitable in our conjectures; but it is improbable that any man could have been possessed of the contents of a mail, which had been robbed, without knowing how they came into his possession. His sending the draft to the banker's for acceptance is a proof of the most egregious folly; for he must have been morally certain that his messenger would be stopped, and that his own detection would inevitably ensue. If we suppose that his love induced him to take this dangerous step, we should recollect that he had been married before, and was therefore the less likely to have been involved in a passion so violent as to tempt him to so dangerous an experiment. Upon the whole, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, the presumption is very strong that this man was in distressed circumstances, which he sought to repair by marriage; but, finding his hopes at least postponed, he took the most dangerous method imaginable to repair his shattered fortunes. It is astonishing that, during his sickness, he should not have had recollection enough to induce him to desist from carrying into execution the dangerous plan he had formed. In general sickness is productive of thoughts more serious than those which attend us in perfect health; but the whole of this unhappy man's conduct should teach us to pray continually for the assisting grace of God, that we may not be led into temptation, but delivered from all the evils that surround us; so that, after a short passage through this troublesome world, we may be received into the arms of eternal mercy!


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