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18th century pamphlet shows deathbed confession of highwayman

By February 16, 2021Culture, News

A pamphlet containing a deathbed confession from an 18th-century highwayman has been discovered.

The “incredibly rare” confession written just before the accused robber was “hung in chains” has been obtained by Horsham Museum.

The Life of Thomas Munn, alias, the Gentleman Brick-Maker, alias, Tom the Smuggler printed in 1750, is a 24- page long pamphlet from the genre of deathbed confessions. The short autobiography was reportedly handed to a Yarmouth gaoler on the morning of Munn’s execution on 6th of April 1750.

The pamphlet showed why he went from a bricklayer like his father, to a life of crime as a highwayman and robber. Munn had travelled to Sussex to teach morris dancing, writing how he “got a set of Young Fellows as undiscerning as myself … to go with me Morris-dancing, as it is called in that County”. Horsham Museum says this is one of the earliest references to morris dancing ever documented. The dancing was short-lived, however, and Munn was soon back working as a bricklayer three years later, with hopes of also finding a wife.

Horsham Museum explains that what sets this confessional pamphlet apart from the rest “is the degree to which Thomas was self-aware and reflective on his life”. One of the more enlightening passages describes an incident at a Southampton inn, when the son of the innkeeper crept into Munn’s bed, telling him that “I love to lie with a naked man”.

“He had not been long in Bed but began to act a Part so Contradictory to Nature that I started up in Bed, wanted Words to express my Confusion, Surprise and Passion, at his Propositions,” Munn wrote, explaining that the “chap” eventually leaves after Munn brandishes a penknife, with “many Excuses” for his behaviour the day after.

“It was what I never met with before, nor since, but had Philosophy enough in me, to think it a pity to expose a young Man, tho’ he pointed at a very heinous Sin; and certainly we that commit Crimes beyond what is common, ought to be pitied, for no Man is certain if he comes under the same Temptation, that he shall be able to withstand it.”

Horsham Museum curator Jeremy Knight pointed out that Munn’s reaction was rather interesting, especially that he had also chosen to write the account down.

“To give it space in his confession – the only space he had to give a public account of himself – is really interesting,” he said. “The printer also could have taken offence and not included it – after all the author wouldn’t have any recourse … Yet both thought it important enough to recount. And what Munn states is although it is seen as a sin, his immediate reaction was conditioned by his upbringing and social norms. He is not so sure as he was aroused by the lad, and who are we to judge when we ourselves have that reaction? A desire for toleration and acceptance – it’s human nature.”

Justin Croft, a British book dealer who bought the pamphlet initially thought it “an interesting reflection on queerness.”

“In some respects, it’s a very typical criminal deathbed confession – there were hundreds of them at the time,” he said. “But this sort of queer episode is unusual. It’s not something I’ve noticed in one of these before. It is equivocal – he’s saying this happened, I did what I did, but don’t blame me because would you be able to resist in the same circumstances?”

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