Filled with curiosities, rare books, and commodities from Port Royal to Peking, Hans Sloane’s Bloomsbury Square residence was the perfect target for a break and enter (which I discuss here). The eight men–twice the number reported by witnesses–who attempted such a feat on 5 April 1700, however, seem to have had no idea the house they set aflame possessed so many wonders. Indeed, Sloane and his family were endangered by a group of men “who having consum’d their Substance with riotous Living” seem to have chosen their target at random.
The youngest of the perpetrators, John Hatchman, was only 15 years old and confessed to the crime, citing his inebriated state as the motive. John Titt, 24 years of age, had given Hatchman alcohol, was drunk the night of the offense, and confessed that he was an alcoholic.
Joseph Fisher, nearly 50, refused to admit that he participated in the acts. The fact he served in the Royal Navy, and was therefore prone to debauchery, was enough to secure a conviction. Conversely, Thomas Hixon expelled a “flood of Tea[r]s”, regretted his actions, and promised not to reoffend if he was released. This did nothing to mitigate his punishment.
The apparent ringleaders were more somber and dejected. John David (real name John Shirley), Phillip Wake, and James Walters understood what they had done in committing arson and attempting to burgle Sloane’s house. They regretted their crimes and, as Walters reportedly stated, undertook “the great Work of Repentance, and making… Peace with Almighty God”.
Regardless, the eight men were taken to Tyburn on 24 May 1700. After the men had been prepared for execution, all their resolve disappeared. Davis (Shirley) blamed Wake for the entire affair: “Fear and trembling, said he, have seiz’d upon me, and an horrible Dread hath overwhelm’d me.” The reporter of the events poetically recounts Wake’s acceptance of his death as a logical consequence of his failure “not [to] forsake his evil Courses”. James Walters added it was “bad Company [that] had such Influence on him” and led to a life of crime. The others are said to have cried, prayed, and begged for reprieve, but to no avail.
No matter their words of regret or confessions of guilt, “the Cart drew away, [and] they were turned off.” The tale, as recounted in the court publication, reeks of a morality tale and state attempts to dissuade readers from vice. The Devil may have whispered in their ears, but it seems more likely a mixture of poverty, poor prospects, alcohol, and peer pressure motivated the men’s actions. Sloane and his family were the victims of an arbitrary crime. The consequences were a best-case scenario as far as the Sloane family was concerned: the plot failed, the men ran away, they were quickly apprehended, and eighteenth century justice was meted out on the scaffold.