LEWIS JEREMIAH AVERSHAW
Executed on Kennington Common, 3rd of August, 1795, for shooting a Peace Officer in the act of apprehending him
THE subject of this brief memoir was one of the most fierce, depraved, and infamous of the human race. From early life he exhibited in his disposition a combination of the worst feelings of our nature, which, as the period of manhood approached, settled into a sort of prerogative of plunder and depredation, by which he seemed to consider himself as entitled to prey on the property, and sport with the lives, of his fellow creatures, with the most heartless impunity.
He attached himself to gangs of the most notorious thieves and impostors, over whom, by a kind of supererogatory talent for all sorts of villainy, he very soon acquired unlimited influence and command, and by whose aid he committed such numerous and daring acts of highway-robbery, house-breaking, and plunder, as made him the dread and terror of the metropolis and its vicinity.
Kennington Common, Hounslow Heath, Bagshot Heath, and indeed all the commons and roads for several miles round London, were the scenes of the predatory depredations of Avershaw and his associates; and such a degree of tenor had his repeated acts of robbery and brutality inspired, that the post-boys, coachmen, and all whose duty compelled them frequently to travel over the theatre of his exploits, trembled at his name and dreaded his visitation.
Although the peculiar features of the criminal laws of our country for a long time operated to the impunity of this abandoned ruffian and desperado, the cup of his iniquities was gradually filling, and he at length fell under the weighty hand of outraged justice; but not till, unhappily, he had added a new act of murder to the long and black catalogue of his unatoned crimes: and it is lamentable to record that so base, so villainous, and so bloody a being, should have found creatures, bearing the form and name of men, so entirely forgetful of their duties to society and to God, as not only to become the admirers and apologists of what they misnamed the valour of Avershaw, but who absolutely affected to trace something prophetic in the fiendlike declarations he had too often made, that “he would murder the first who attempted to deliver him into the hands of justice,” because, in the spirit of his diabolical declarations, he did actually shed the blood of a fellow-creature, who, in the performance of his duty as a police-officer, essayed the arrest of this most notorious of culprits.
At length he was brought to trial before Mr Baron Perryn, at Croydon, in the county of Surrey, on the 30th of July, 1795. On his way to Croydon to take his trial, the cavalcade passed over Kennington Common, and on its arriving on the spot where the executions at that time took place, Avershaw put his head out of the coach window, and in the peculiar flash style which be ever exhibited, asked the officers attending whether they “did not think that he should be TWISTED on that pretty spot by the next Saturday?”
He was charged on two indictments: one for having, at the Three Brewers public-house, Southwark, feloniously shot at and murdered D. Price, an officer belonging to the police office held at Union Hall, in the Borough; the other for having, at the same time and place, fired a pistol at Bernard Turner, another officer attached to the office at Union Hall, with an intent to murder him.
Mr Garrow, the leading counsel for the prosecution, opened his case to the Court and jury by stating that the prisoner at the bar, being a person of ill fame, had been suspected of having perpetrated a number of felonies. A warrant had been issued for his arrest by the Southwark magistrates, and D. Price, and B. Turner, officers belonging to Union Hall, were intrusted with its execution. Having received information that he was smoking and drinking in a public house in Southwark called the Three Brewers, at that time notorious as the resort of thieves and vagabonds, they repaired thither, and found their information to be correct; but they also found that the object of their search was fully prepared to put in execution his diabolical threats. On their approach he placed himself at the entrance to the parlour with a loaded pistol in each hand, vowing the instant death of any one who should attempt to take him. The officers, more valiant than prudent, rushed forward, expecting to throw him off his guard by the suddenness and vigour of their attack; in this, however, they were unhappily deceived — the ruffian discharged both the weapons at the same moment, by one of which Turner was severely wounded in the head, while the fatal contents of the other lodged in the body of the unfortunate Price, who languished a few hours in great agony and then died.
The jury, after a consultation of about three minutes, pronounced the verdict of guilty. Through a flaw in the indictment for the murder an objection was taken by counsel. This was urged nearly two hours, when Mr Baron Perryn intimated a wish to take the opinion of the twelve judges of England, but the counsel for the prosecution, waiving the point for the present, insisted on the prisoner’s being tried on the second indictment, for feloniously shooting at Barnaby Windsor, which, the learned counsel said, would occupy no great portion of time, as it could be sufficiently supported by the testimony of a single witness. He was accordingly tried, and found guilty on a second capital indictment: The prisoner, who, contrary to general expectation, had in a great measure hitherto refrained from his usual audacity, began, with unparalleled insolence of expression and gesture, to ask his Lordship if he was to be murdered by the evidence of one witness. Several times he repeated the question, till the jury returned him guilty.
When the judge appeared in the black cap, the emblem assumed at the time of passing sentence on convicted felons, Avershaw, with the most unbridled insolence and bravado, clapped his hat upon his head, and pulled up his breeches with a vulgar swagger; and during the whole of the ceremony, which deeply affected all present except the senseless object himself, he stared full in the face of the judge with a malicious sneer and affected contempt, and continued this conduct till he was taken, bound hand and foot, from the dock, venting curses and insults on the judge and jury for having consigned him to “murder.”
This brutal conduct continued to the last. In the interval between receiving sentence of death and the execution, having got some black cherries, he amused himself with painting on the white walls of the cell in which he was confined, sketches of various robberies which he had committed; one representing him running up to the horses’ heads of a post-chaise, presenting a pistol at the driver, with the words, D–n your eyes, stop,” issuing out of his mouth; another where he was firing into the chaise; a third, where the parties had quitted the carriage; several, in which he was portrayed in the act of taking money from the passengers, and other scenes of a similar character.
He was executed on Kennington Common, on the 3rd of August, 1795, in the presence of an immense multitude of spectators, among whom he recognised many acquaintances and confederates, to whom he bowed, nodded, and laughed with the most unfeeling indifference. He had a flower in his mouth, and his waistcoat and shin were unbuttoned, leaving his bosom open in the true style of vulgar gaiety; and, talking to the mob, and venting curses on the officers, he died, as he had lived, a ruffian and a brute!
With Avershaw suffered John Little, who, having had employment at the laboratory of the palace at Kew, became acquainted with Mr Macevoy and Mrs King, persons of very advanced years, and who had been many years resident at Kew. Supposing they had some property at home, he watched an opportunity and murdered them both.
The infamy of Avershaw’s life, and the atrocity of his deeds, rendered him a fit object for the posthumous punishment of hanging in chains on the arena of his crimes, and (painful as is the record, the truth must be told,) while the disgusting carcass of this malefactor, devoured by the birds and withered by the elements, gradually disappeared, the spot on which he had been gibbeted was converted into a temple of infamy, to which the thieves and vagabonds of London resorted in a sort of pilgrimage; and while the leading ruffians of the flash school, of which Avershaw was the child and champion, procured from his decaying and piece-meal carcass the bones of his fingers and toes to convert into stoppers for their tobacco-pipes, the tyro villains contented themselves with tearing the buttons from his clothes, as mementos of the estimation in which they held their arch prototype.