THEIR closest parallel is the notoriety which dogged them from the very day of their death. Each, for his own exploits, was the most famous man of his time, the favourite of broadsides, the prime hero of the ballad-mongers. And each owed his fame as much to good fortune as to merit, since both were excelled in their generation by more skilful scoundrels. If Gilderoy was unsurpassed in brutality, he fell immeasurably below Hind in artistry and wit, nor may he be compared to such accomplished highwaymen as Mull Sack or the Golden Farmer. His method was not elevated by a touch of the grand style. He stamped all the rules of the road beneath his contemptuous foot, and cared not what enormity he committed in his quest for gold. Yet, though he lived in the true Augustan age, he yielded to no one of his rivals in glorious recognition. So, too, Jack Rann, of the Sixteen Strings, was a near contemporary of George Barrington. While that nimble-fingered prig was making a brilliant appearance at Vauxhall, and emptying the pockets of his intimates, Rann was riding over Hounslow Heath, and flashing his pistol in the eye of the wayfarer. The very year in which Jack danced his last jig at Tyburn, Barrington had astonished London by a fruitless attempt to steal Prince Orloff's miraculous snuff- box. And not even Ellen Roach herself would have dared to assert that Rann was Barrington's equal in sleight of hand. But Rann holds his own against the best of his craft, with an imperishable name, while a host of more distinguished cracksmen are excluded even from the Newgate Calendar.
In truth, there is one quality which has naught to do with artistic supremacy; and in this quality both Rann and Gilderoy were rich beyond their fellows. They knew (none better) how to impose upon the world. Had their deserts been even less than they were, they would still have been bravely notorious. It is a common superstition that the talent for advertisement has but a transitory effect, that time sets all men in their proper places.
Nothing can be more false; for he who has once declared himself among the great ones of the earth, not only holds his position while he lives, but forces an unreasoning admiration upon the future. Though he declines from the lofty throne, whereon his own vanity and love of praise have set him, he still stands above the modest level which contents the genuinely great. Why does Euripides still throw a shadow upon the worthier poets of his time? Because he had the faculty of displacement, because he could compel the world to profess an interest not only in his work but in himself. Why is Michael Angelo a loftier figure in the history of art than Donatello, the supreme sculptor of his time? Because Donatello had not the temper which would bully a hundred popes, and extract a magnificent advertisement from each encounter. Why does Shelley still claim a larger share of the world's admiration than Keats, his indubitable superior? Because Shelley was blessed or cursed with the trick of interesting the world by the accidents of his life.
So by a similar faculty Gilderoy and Jack Rann have kept themselves and their achievements in the light of day. Had they lived in the nineteenth century they might have been the vendors of patent pills, or the chairmen of bubble companies. Whatever trade they had followed, their names would have been on every hoarding, their wares would have been puffed in every journal. They understood the art of publicity better than any of their contemporaries, and they are remembered not because they were the best thieves of their time, but because they were determined to interest the people in their misdeeds. Gilderoy's brutality, which was always theatrical, ensured a constant remembrance, and the lofty gallows added to his repute; while the brilliant inspiration of the strings, which decorated Rann's breeches, was sufficient to conquer death. How should a hero sink to oblivion who had chosen for himself so splendid a name as Sixteen- String Jack?
So far, then, their achievement is parallel. And parallel also is their taste for melodrama. Each employed means too great or too violent for the end in view. Gilderoy burnt houses and ravished women, when his sole object was the acquisition of money. Sixteen-String Jack terrified Bagnigge Wells with the dreadful announcement that he was a highwayman, when his kindly, stupid heart would have shrunk from the shedding of a drop of blood. So they both blustered through the world, the one in deed, the other in word; and both played their parts with so little refinement that they frightened the groundlings to a timid admiration. Here the resemblance is at an end. In the essentials of their trade Gilderoy was a professional, Rann a mere amateur. They both bullied; but, while Sixteen-String Jack was content to shout threats, and pick up half-a-crown, Gilderoy breathed murder, and demanded a vast ransom. Only once in his career did the `disgraceful Scotsman' become gay and debonair. Only once did he relax the tension of his frown, and pick pockets with the lightness and freedom of a gentleman. It was on his voyage to France that he forgot his old policy of arson and pillage, and truly the Court of the Great King was not the place for his rapacious cruelty. Jack Rann, on the other hand, would have taken life as a prolonged jest, if Sir John Fielding and the sheriffs had not checked his mirth. He was but a bungler on the road, with no more resource than he might have learned from the common chap-book, or from the dying speeches, hawked in Newgate Street. But he had a fine talent for merriment; he loved nothing so well as a smart coat and a pretty woman. Thieving was no passion with him, but a necessity. How could he dance at a masquerade or court his Ellen with an empty pocket? So he took to the road as the sole profession of an idle man, and he bullied his way from Hounslow to Epping in sheer lightness of heart. After all, to rob Dr. Bell of eighteenpence was the work of a simpleton. It was a very pretty taste which expressed itself in a pea-green coat and deathless strings; and Rann will keep posterity's respect rather for the accessories of his art than for the art itself. On the other hand, you cannot imagine Gilderoy habited otherwise than in black; you cannot imagine this monstrous matricide taking pleasure in the smaller elegancies of life. From first to last he was the stern and beetle-browed marauder, who would have despised the frippery of Sixteen-String Jack as vehemently as his sudden appearance would have frightened the foppish lover of Ellen Roach.
Their conduct with women is sufficient index of their character. Jack Rann was too general a lover for fidelity. But he was amiable, even in his unfaithfulness; he won the undying affection of his Ellen; he never stood in the dock without a nosegay tied up by fair and nimble fingers; he was attended to Tyburn by a bevy of distinguished admirers. Gilderoy, on the other hand, approached women in a spirit of violence. His Sadic temper drove him to kill those whom he affected to love. And his cruelty was amply repaid. While Ellen Roach perjured herself to save the lover, to whose memory she professed a lifelong loyalty, it was Peg Cunningham who wreaked her vengeance in the betrayal of Gilderoy. He remained true to his character, when he ripped up the belly of his betrayer. This was the closing act of his life.
Rann, also, was consistent, even to the gallows. The night before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and outlaughed them all. The contrast is not so violent as it appears. The one act is melodrama, the other farce. And what is farce, but melodrama in a happier shape?
THOMAS PURENEY, Archbishop among Ordinaries, lived and preached in the heyday of Newgate. His was the good fortune to witness Sheppard's encounter with the topsman, and to shrive the battered soul of Jonathan Wild. Nor did he fall one inch below his opportunity. Designed by Providence to administer a final consolation to the evil-doer, he permitted no false ambition to distract his talent. As some men are born for the gallows, so he was born to thump the cushion of a prison pulpit; and his peculiar aptitude was revealed to him before he had time to spend his strength in mistaken endeavour.