There were some highwaymen who epitomised the devilish rogue of fiction and who captured the hearts and curiosity of the public. Such was the highway robber James MacLaine, who lived by day as a respectable gentleman in London’s St James’s. His criminal accomplice, William Plunkett lived in nearby Jermyn Street and was also wrongly presumed to be a gentleman.
James MacLaine was born in 1724, the youngest of a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the north of Ireland. Maclaine had been educated for a career as a merchant, but instead took his fathers inheritance to Dublin where, at the tender age of 18, he blew the lot on foppish clothing, gambling and whores. Shunned by his family, he moved to England, where he married an innkeeper’s daughter and set up store as a grocer. When his gambling ruined the business and his wife died, he struck up the famed criminal partnership with the bankrupt apothecary owner William Plunkett. With stolen pistols and horses, and their faces hidden by Venetian masks, the pair had a short but highly successful career as highwayman.
Despite a rather rickety beginning to their career (MacLaine lost his nerve and fled from their first robbery), the pair committed around 20 hold-ups during 6 months, often in the wilds of Hyde park. As a highwayman MacLaine listed such illustrious dignitaries as as Horace Walpole, Lord Elgington and Sir Thomas Robinson among his many wealthy victims. The robberies were always conducted in a restrained and courteous fashion, earning MacLaine the tag of gentleman highwayman and giving him enough money to finally live the society lifestyle he’d always craved.
MacLaine was eventually arrested when he tried to pawn Lord Elgington’s distinctive coat (ripped off during a hold-up on Hounslow Heath). Such was his position among the fashionable glitterati that following his capture in 1750, his trial at the Old Bailey court was a social occasion, while he reputedly received nearly 3,000 guests during his imprisonment in Newgate prison. Reputedly a great many high-society ladies, such as Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, clamoured for an audience with him in his cell. Despite calls for MacLaine to be saved from the gallows, it was thought that to have spared him could have been viewed as “setting a bad example” and he was hanged at Tyburn on 3rd October of 1750. At his hanging he simply said “May god forgive my enemies and receive my soul”.
MacLaine is widely accepted as the original model for Macheath the Knife, the charming bigamist hero of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”.
MacLaine’s accomplice William Plunkett was smart enough to escape with both his money and his life and was never tried in connection with the robberies . In his History of Wyoming in a Series of Letters (1845) Charles Miner claimed that Plunkett emigrated to America, and was supposedly the Col. William Plunkett who commanded one of the two earliest battalions of the Northumberland Militia in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. However, the reported age and date of death for Col. Plunkett – said to have died in 1791 at the age of 100 – casts serious doubt if it was the same man.