Lecture: Science and Sentiment
Crime That Paid
The 18th century saw enormous wealth change hands, particularly in international trade. This wealth led to an increase in crimes of theft.
Rare picture of actual 18th century highwayman in action. Just kidding. A movie still from 1951. Even the horse is wrong, but you get the idea, right?
Highwaymen (and women)
House parties were common among elites. Guests would come from miles away in their fancy coaches, bringing all the jewelry necessary to establish their status at the party, plus gold for tips and betting. Coachmen were sometimes armed against robbery. Masked highwaymen would lie in wait for coaches, most often as they returned exhausted from the multi-day party. At gunpoint, they'd take jewelry and money.
Some highwaymen were poor farmers dispossessed by enclosure and other economic changes, but those captured indicate that highway robbery was also a recreational activity for bored elites. It was dangerous and exciting; the punishment if caught was hanging. Unmaskings sometimes revealed women, doing it for the same reasons as men: money or excitement.
The Golden Age of international trade meant the golden age of piracy. They became a source of romantic culture and legend. You may have heard of Blackbeard and such. But two of the most interesting pirates were women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Anne Bonny was born in Charleston, South Carolina. She stabbed a servant, beat an attempted rapist, and ran off with the pirate Calico Jack Rackham. On board his ship, she fell in love with the cabin boy, who turned out to be Mary Read in disguise. They became close friends and fought together with Jack. In 1720 their ship was surprised by a British navy vessel while the men of the crew, including Jack, were drunk. Anne and Mary tried to fight them off alone, Mary at one point stabbing a drunken crewmate and yelling, "come up and fight like men!" They were captured and put on trial in Jamaica. Both women "pled their bellies", meaning they were both pregant and thus by law could not be hanged. Upon hearing that Calico Jack had been hanged, Anne said he should have fought like a man. No record shows her death, so she may have bought her way out of prison, but Mary died of fever in prison.
These kind of stories led to centuries of pirate legends,
theme park rides, and movies.