Joan Phillips was unassumingly born the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Northamptonshire.
Few details are recorded about her early life but, the status of women in the 18th century almost guaranteed that she was destined to unassumingly remain the daughter of a wealthy farmer until she was married off to another wealthy farmer. She would then live out her days as the unassuming wife of a wealthy farmer. She was, by all accounts, beautiful and full of cunning but, in a world where the rules worked against her, we likely would never have heard the name Joan Phillips. Luckily then, Joan decided to push against the rules that held her ambition hostage and, at the first opportunity, she begin to follow a life of crime. This path, in the 18th century, was one of the few paths where her talents and abilities would make her more successful than any man.
Joan was presented with her first opportunity to jump into a life of crime when she met Edward Bracey. Bracey planned to seduce her, marry her, and then skip town with the marriage portion. Edward, the Newgate Calendar reports, “was very agreeably deceived; for Joan was as good as he. She suffered herself to be first debauched by him, and then consented to rob her father, and go along with him on the pad; all which she accordingly accomplished.” While Newgate uses the word “suffered” Joan doesn’t seem to have suffered anything. She took to crime quickly and made use of her considerable intelligence to deftly pick up the tools of the trade. Newgate reports that “They now passed for husband and wife wheresoever they went, frequently robbed together on the highway, and as often united in picking of pockets and shoplifting at all the country fairs and markets round about.” Three narratives exist on the life of Joan. First is the Newgate Calendar by George Theodore Wilkinson, the second is A Complete History of the Dives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes by Captain Alexander Smith, and the third is The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen and Street Robbers by Charles Johnson. In all three narratives the story of Edward and Joan Bracey starts becoming the story of Joan Bracey after the first or second paragraph. Edward quickly fades into the background, completely outshone by the intelligent and beautiful girl who took his last name, but never married him.
All three transcripts of the day give most of the credit to Edward for corrupting Joan’s innocence and sending her into a life of crime. That view just doesn’t give Joan enough credit. Joan, by staying with Edward, had chosen crime, the one life in 18th century England she could be assured equality in. Crime, rather than the life of a farmers wife, ensured that her hard work would be directly tied to a reward, her beauty became hers to use instead of someone else’s to own, and her intelligence became an asset rather than a liability. She became the opposite of Mary Leapor’s words “Too soft for Business and too weak for / pow’r… And wisdom only serves to make her know / The keen Sensation of superior Woe.” Her life on the highway and in the streets made her hard, strong, and rich instead of sad.
When Joan and Edward had amassed a significant fortune from criminal activities they decided it would be best to “quit their vocation and take to some creditable business, in which they might spend the remainder of their days in quiet, and live comfortably upon what they had acquired by their industry.” They bought an inn near Bristol and Joan quickly made the business a huge success. All accounts of Joan’s life say that it was her beauty, wit, and skill as a hostess that drove men to her bar in flocks. In the words of Charles Johnson, “The beauty and accomplishments of Joan drew many customers to their house, and she was not so indifferent to her own interest as to treat their kindness with indifference.” Johnson politely dances around the fact that Joan’s criminal life allowed her to efficiently use her beauty and intelligence to separate men from their money while remaining completely out of their reach. Captain Smith puts it more accurately when he says, “Joan Bracey being a very handsome woman, her beauty brought her a great many guests, who spent a great deal of money to obtain her favour. But all to no purpose, for though she seemed to give them encouragement…. she gulled them all in the end.”
Crime also gave her great power to shame men who angered her – something she would lack in other 18th century walks of life. One of these men, Mr. Day, a wealthy Bristol merchant, was so bold as to suggest that as soon as Edward was out of town he would happily spend the night with Joan. His arrogance at almost assuming that Joan, a girl in a lower class, would love to be his helpless plaything is astonishing. This attitude, a stark reflection of the male dominated culture in 18th century, is exactly what Joan was avoiding when she made crime her career. Joan, being the opposite of a helpless plaything, surprisingly consented to Mr. Day’s overnight visit and set up a time when Edward would be out of town. At the appointed time Mr. Day arrived and was led upstairs by a maid. Here Joan’s wit and cunning took over,
“[The maid] led him to the room appointed, put out the candle on account of mere modesty, and stayed at the door while Mr Day undressed himself… our tractable maid conducted the gallant to a door, which she told him opened into her mistress’s chamber, bid him enter softly, and immediately turned the key upon him. Here Mr Day wandered about to find the bed, and pronounced the name of Mrs Bracey as loud as he dared, that she might give him directions; but no Mrs Bracey answered. He was sufficiently amazed at the oddness of the scene, but was yet more surprised when he tumbled down a pair of stairs against the back door of the house. The contrivance was now plain; he saw that mistress and maid were agreed not only to balk his passion, but to strip him of his clothes also. It was in vain to call and make protestations; he received no other answer than that the back door was only bolted, and he might open if he pleased, and go about his business. This door opened into a narrow dirty lane, down which the common sewer ran….. Mr Day knew [this] but the terrible pinching cold, and the shame of being discovered if he stayed till broad daylight, made him go out, wade through the mud, and make the best of his way home, where he was heartily laughed at by those friends to whom he told the story.”
The Newgate Calendar shows Mr. Day as more of a sympathetic character unduly cheated by a criminal. Charles Johnston’s work takes a more favorable approach by saying “were every nightly intruder served in the same manner, the sacred property of husbands would be more secure.”
Joan’s intelligence and wit were matched only by her ambition. When an extravagant young landowner came to stay at the inn and got himself in debt to the Bracey’s, Joan masterminded a cunning scheme to entrap the young man and wrestle his massive 1400 pound inheritance (4.2 million in todays Canadian dollars) away from him. Captain Smith’s work removes all doubt as to Joan’s leadership in the plan:
“‘A pretty spark indeed,’ added [Edward], ‘what should we do with him? He has no money.’ ‘No,’ said [Joan], ‘but he had £100 a year in good land yet left, which I hope to steal from him with your assistance, in a month’s time.’ ‘A very project indeed,’ said [Edward], ‘but how can you compass it?’ ‘Let him,’ said [Joan], ‘be called up, and see if I effect not that in the round of two or three bottles, whereon I build the whole design.’”
This plan, deftly executed by Joan, came off without a hitch and the two quickly sold the inn and went back to life on the highway.
Eventually, fate caught up with Joan and she was arrested in April of 1685 while robbing a coach. Crime, even when it finally let her down, still offered her the equality she had always demanded. She was tried under the name Joan Bracey, a name she had chosen for herself, and although no record of her trial was found, it is easy to see her defiantly gazing around the courtroom or charming the jurors with her wit. Accounts of her life all agree that she was found guilty and executed but, diverge on her age at the time of death. Newgate records that she was twenty-nine while Charles Johnson claims that she was just twenty-one. Edward escaped capture at the time but became reckless and died not long after from a shotgun wound.
Joan became a criminal, not because she was pushed into it or corrupted, but because living outside the rules of a society that put her at a disadvantage offered her a life that wasn’t available anywhere else. It offered her the chance to be completely equal to her partner, to reach as far as she wanted, and to use her abilities to better herself. As a more memorable figure then her partner, a successful businesswomen, and an accomplished criminal, Joan lived her short life as anything but unassuming.