In eighteenth century England, strict social conventions of dress and comportment reinforced a rigid social hierarchy. Except for the occasional pamphlet, mass media was not available to democratize the exploits of the upper classes, and a good hanging was an afternoon’s entertainment. The few court reports gave some availability of trials to the masses, and it is through these reports – and two posthumously published pamphlets – that we know of John Rann. Few broke out of the circumstances into which they found themselves born; John Rann, an ordinary pickpocket turned highwayman, was one who did. Born into a lower class family, Rann created an image of affluence and gentility and gained a reputation for thievery and womanizing. Known as Sixteen String Jack for the eight coloured strings he tied on each knee of his breeches, Rann was more spectacle than man. He captured the imagination of the lower classes by robbing his way up the social ladder and narrowly avoiding conviction; his fancy clothing, flair for the dramatic, and pretense to gentility were enough to gain the loyalty of the crowd, but his extravagance eventually caught up with him in the form of the Old Bailey as he took increasing risks by flaunting his notoriety and refusing to cover his face while robbing his victims. Rann proved a danger to the social fabric in two ways: he broke the law with (temporary) impunity and in dress and behaviour took on the role of someone above his station in life.
It is difficult to distinguish John Rann’s life from the often fictional exploits of Sixteen String Jack. One pamphlet published after his death claims that he was born a few miles from Bath, to “poor, but honest and industrious parents” who could not afford any kind of education for him, while others would have it that he was born in London itself, and his parents chose not to educate him. Regardless of his birthplace, it is acknowledged that Rann became a coachman to a wealthy Londoner in 1770 who, being quite fond of him, allowed him to dress “far above his rank.” It was Rann’s womanizing that led him to a life of crime: he simply was not able to maintain his habits of seducing women and accompanying them to the parties and balls of the upper class on a coachman’s pay. Two of the women he was involved with, Catherine Smith and Eleanor Roache, would become essential to his life as a criminal, as well as to his eventual death.
John Rann started as a simple pickpocket and was exceptionally talented at it, as evidenced by the fact that he was never brought to trial because of it. After a few years, he sought greater fortune, probably to take on the trappings of wealth, and began his career as a highway robber. It was on December 8, 1773 that Rann first made an appearance at the Old Bailey on charges of highway robbery. Along with three other men, he robbed one Robert Simmonds, “putting him in corporal fear and danger of his life, and stealing from his person a guinea, and three shillings and sixpence in money.”1 Eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence, Rann’s attitude throughout the trial caught the attention of many. Facing death if found guilty, he remained nonchalant throughout the proceeding and offered only “I know no more of the matter than the child unborn”1 as a defence, while his partners in crime brought several character witnesses each. Rann and his partners were acquitted because it was too dark to definitively identify him. His demeanor and actions during the trial showed that he no longer saw himself as belonging with the crude commoners he was being tried with: described by Simmonds and Shed, his coachman, as “exceedingly civil,”1 it was clear that Rann now thought of himself as a gentleman in fact as well as attire.
A few months later, on July 6, 1774, Rann was again brought to trial on charges of highway robbery. The circumstances were similar: Rann and his partner approached a lone traveller on the road at night and demanded his valuables. What he stole was, as before, relatively valueless compared to the risk of acquiring it; he stole only “a watch with the inside case made of silver … and seven guineas.”2 Rann’s devotion to his womanizing lifestyle would turn out to be a threat in this case. Eleanor Roach, who had fenced goods for him in the past, was apparently unhappy that he had taken up with a Catherine Smith, who was also on trial. Roach testified that Rann “was gone out upon the road to get [Smith] some money,”2 and accused him of highway robbery. Rann’s defence was that Roach acted “out of malice; she has often applied to me to take her”2 and told the court that her testimony “is all out of revenge because I would not keep her”2. The unreliability generally accorded to testimony of women in the eighteenth century probably gave Rann an advantage. He is described as having appeared in court “adorned with blue ribbons, with an enormous bouquet of flowers underneath his coat” and acted with “an air of gaiety and affection, ill becoming his situation.” Once again, he was acquitted because the victim was unable to make a positive identification; luckily for Rann, although he wore garish and increasingly recognizable attire, the victim “could not distinguish even the colour of their clothes.”2
Indeed, Rann was becoming more and more famous to the public, who were entranced by this common man’s success and ability to deceive both the upper classes and the law. According to the Newgate Calendar, he appeared at horse races in London wearing a gaudy blue velvet coat lined with silver, and “he was followed by hundreds of people, who were eager to gratify their curiosity by the sight of a man who had been so much the subject of public conversation.” Not everyone was so taken with the arrogant highwayman though. Mere weeks after his second acquittal at the Old Bailey, he was involved in several physical quarrels that ended with him being thrown out a window. After finding himself uninjured, “he complained bitterly against those who could so affront a gentleman of his character.” Accompanying Rann’s claims of gentility were an increasing number of outrageous stories that bolstered his reputation. One tale recounted by a pamphlet published after his death claims that after paying his debts to some officers of the sheriff, he convinced them to buy him some drinks, after which he “simply rode up the road and robbed a nobleman to replace the lost sum.” Another contemporary pamphlet has Rann predicting his own death before Christmastime of 1774. This final claim was one of the few made by him that turned out to be true.
On October 19, 1774, Sixteen String Jack made his final appearance at the Old Bailey alongside Roach after robbing Dr. William Bell of a watch and eighteen pence in money in broad daylight. True to his now infamous reputation, Rann arrived in court wearing a pea-green suit, ruffled shirt, and a hat lined in silver to his trial but, in the end, it was a combination of hard evidence and the testimony of several key witnesses that ensured that both he and Roach would be found guilty. One witness claimed, “I know Rann by sight very well,”3 and it was clear that his infamy was his downfall. Rann began his defence the same way he always did, saying “I knows no more of it than a child does unborn”3 but, perhaps sensing the inevitability of his conviction, he took one last moment in the spotlight and gave his longest speech recorded in his many trials at the Old Bailey. Referencing his impending death, he remained defiant until the end, claiming “they have said false things to you; I know no more of it if I was to suffer death to-morrow.”3 It’s important to note that Rann’s defence was recorded “verbatim et literatim,”3 an honour only given to the most popular and famous criminals but, despite his verbosity and reputation, Rann was sentenced to death and his accomplice, Eleanor Roach, was transported to a prison colony for fourteen years. Rann maintained his genteel theatricality until his final moments, and “when he came near the gallows he turned round, and looked at it as an object which he had long expected to see, but not as one that he dreaded, as might reasonably have been expected.”
It’s difficult to say whether Rann truly believed that he would never be convicted or if he simply did not care. It would be easy to claim that he did believe in his own immortality: his prediction of his own death and his habit of robbing people with his face uncovered suggests that he didn’t believe he could ever be caught. What’s more, according to the Newgate Calendar, before his final trial, “Rann was so confident of being acquitted that he had ordered a genteel supper to be provided for the entertainment of his particular friends and associates on the joyful occasion.” But in truth, it seems that ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’ was exactly the way Rann wanted to go. He had managed to become infamous thanks to his habit of upending social norms; he enchanted the public with his opulent attire and pauper-to-prince past. In many ways, he was the anti-Robin Hood. He robbed the rich to give to himself and his women, and flouted the law at every turn. But that didn’t matter to the masses: all they saw was one of their own who managed to rise above his social standing by getting the better of those that oppressed them. The fact that he was hanged at Tyburn at the age of 24, on November 30, 1774, just before Christmas as he predicted, cemented his status as a hero of the people. Rann had been removed as a threat to society, and his only lasting contribution was a legend that may have given some comfort to those on the lower rung of eighteenth century society.