Called “The Gentleman Highwayman.” Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery
THE subject of this memoir was descended from a reputable family in the north of Scotland. His father, after being liberally educated in the University of Glasgow, went to settle at Monaghan, in the north of Ireland, as preacher to a congregation of Dissenters. He married and had two sons, the elder of whom was bred to the Church, and preached many years to the English congregation at The Hague, and was equally remarkable for his learning and the goodness of his heart. The younger son was the unfortunate subject of this narrative.
As a young man James was very extravagant, and after dissipating a fortune left by his father he came to London, and married the daughter of Mr Macglegno, a horse-dealer, with whom he received five hundred pounds, with which he commenced business as a grocer in Welbeck Street, Cavendish Square, and supported his family with some degree of credit till the expiration of three years, when his wife died, bequeathing two infant daughters to the care of her parents, who kindly undertook to provide for them; and both these children were living at the time of their father’s ignominious death.
Hitherto Maclane’s character among his neighbours was unimpeached; but soon after the death of his wife he sold off his stock-in-trade and furniture and assumed the character of a fine gentleman, in the hope of engaging the attention of some lady of fortune, to which he thought himself entitled by the gracefulness of his person and the elegance of his appearance.
At the end of about six months he had expended all his money, and became greatly dejected in mind from reflecting on that change of fortune that would probably reduce him to his former state of servitude. While in this state of dejection an Irish apothecary, named Plunkett, visited him and inquired into the cause of his despondency. Maclane acknowledged the exhausted state of his finances, candidly confessing that he had no money left, nor knew any way of raising a shilling but by the disposal of his wearing apparel; in answer to which Plunkett addressed him as follows:–
“I thought that Maclane had spirit and resolution, with some knowledge of the world. A brave man cannot want; he has a right to live, and not want the conveniences of life while the dull, plodding, busy knaves carry cash in their pockets. We must draw upon them to supply our wants; there needs only impudence and getting the better of a few idle scruples; there is scarce any courage necessary. All whom we have to deal with are mere poltroons.”
These arguments, equally ill founded and ridiculous, co-operated so forcibly with the poverty of Maclane that he entered into conversation with Plunkett on the subject of going on the highway; and at length they entered into a solemn agreement to abide by each other in all adventures, and to share the profit of their depredations to the last shilling.
The first robbery these men committed was on Hounslow Heath, where they stopped a grazier, on his return from Smithfield, and took from him about sixty pounds.
This money being soon spent in extravagance, they were induced to take a ride on the St Albans Road, and seeing a stage-coach coming forward they agreed to ride up on the opposite sides of the carriage. Maclane’s fears induced him to hesitate; and, when at length Plunkett ordered the driver to stop, it was with the utmost trepidation that the other demanded the money of the passengers.
On their return to London at night Plunkett censured him as a coward, and told him that he was unfit for his business. This had such an effect on him that he soon afterwards went out alone, and unknown to Plunkett; and, having robbed a gentleman of a large sum, he returned and shared it with his companion.
A short time only had elapsed after this expedition when he stopped and robbed the Honourable Horace Walpole, and his pistol accidentally went off during the attack. For some time he continued this irregular mode of life, during which he paid two guineas a week for his lodgings and lived in a style of elegance, which he accounted for by asserting that he had an estate in Ireland which produced seven hundred pounds a year.
The speciousness of his behaviour, the gracefulness of his person and the elegance of his appearance combined to make him a welcome visitor, even at the houses of women of character; and he had so far ingratiated himself into the affections of a young lady that her ruin would probably have been the consequence of their connection but that a gentleman, casually hearing of this affair, and knowing Maclane to be a sharper, interposed his timely advice and saved her from destruction.
On the 26th of June, 1750, Plunkett and Maclane, riding out together, met the Earl of Eglinton in a post-chaise, beyond Hounslow, when Maclane, advancing to the post-boy, commanded him to stop, but placed himself in a direct line before the driver, lest his lordship should shoot him with a blunderbuss, with which he always travelled, for he was certain that the peer would not fire so as to endanger the life of the post-boy. In the interim Plunkett forced a pistol through the glass at the back of the chaise, and threatened instant destruction unless his lordship threw away the blunderbuss.
The danger of his situation rendered compliance necessary, and his lordship was robbed of his money and a surtout coat. After the carriage drove forward, Maclane took up the coat and blunderbuss, both of which were found in his lodgings when he was apprehended; but when he was afterwards tried for the offence which cost him his life, Lord Eglinton did not appear against him.
Notice of their next robbery — of a stage-coach — was given in the newspapers, and the articles stolen were described; yet Maclane was so much off his guard that he stripped the lace from a waistcoat, the property of one of the gentlemen who had been robbed, and happened to carry it for sale to the laceman of whom it had been purchased. He also went to a salesman in Monmouth Street, named Loader, who attended him to his lodgings, but had no sooner seen what clothes he had to sell than he knew them to be those which had been advertised; and pretending enough to purchase them said he that he had not money would go home for more; instead of which he procured a constable, apprehended Maclane, and took him before a magistrate.
Many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.
Being committed to the Gatehouse, he requested a second examination before the magistrate, when he confessed all that was alleged against him. At his trial the jury brought him in guilty without going out of court. A youth who had been condemned, but was afterwards ordered to be transported for life, chose to continue in the cell with Maclane; and, as they had opportunity, they went among the other prisoners who were ordered for execution, to instruct them, pray with them, and assist them in their preparation for death. But Maclane was greatly shocked at the insensibility and profaneness of some, and pitied the souls which were going into eternity in so hopeless a state.
Arrived at Tyburn, he looked sadly up at the gallows, and with a heartfelt sigh exclaimed: “O Jesus!”