The case of John Rann walks a wavering, drunken line between fact and fiction. Even in his own time, it was hard to separate the person from the persona as pamphleteers circulated conflicting accounts of his life and crimes and Rann himself performed many an attention-grabbing public spectacle. It’s all in the name: John Rann, also known as Sixteen-String Jack, a man and a mask. The outside, a painted promise of adventure, distracts from what is broken and absent on the inside. His persona, Sixteen-String Jack, is a charismatic rogue who cheats rich men of their worldly possessions with words rather than violence, outwits the law with brilliant disguises, makes the most hardened prostitutes fall in love with him before seducing them into fencing his ill-gotten goods and entertains the London public with his sensational exploits. He’s in the same club as Robin Hood (minus the philanthropy), Jack Sparrow and Milton’s Satan, the fascinating anti-hero who gets you on his side even when you know he’s in the wrong.
The details, however, reveal a far less appealing character. Jealous and covetous of his wealthy employers’ luxurious lifestyle, John Rann developed the expensive habits of extravagant dress and paid female company, which he was unable to support on his servant’s salary. He turned to pickpocketing and then, finding the results insufficient, to highway robbery. An overconfident narcissist and a loud, messy drunk, he incited frequent brawls and held parties to celebrate his own arrests and acquittals. His actions suggest a desperate need to assuage cravings for attention. I find his duality a discomforting metaphor for eighteenth-century society as a whole: weighed down and bitter from a gaping class divide, self-medicating with alcohol and cheap thrills, obsessed with the perceptions of others, yet enticing, irresistible and easily romanticized. The parallel conjures up a gritty, uncomfortable image that feels very real and achingly, fundamentally human. John Rann, or Sixteen-String Jack, was both the charming rascal and the obnoxious egotist, and neither. The truth is, he was human: young, vulnerable, insecure and angry, a victim of his circumstances and of a broken social hierarchy. The reality is a suspension of contradictions that’s lot harder to digest than the fiction.
The trial that condemned Rann wasn’t his first appearance at the Old Bailey but his third. His first two appearances resulted in acquittal, and it’s easy to see how his confidence grew from one trial to the next, as his statements became increasingly elaborate and the caution with which he committed his crimes decreased.
The first time he was brought to the Old Bailey, on December 8th, 1773, he was tried alongside three other men (William Davis, David Monro and John Saunders) for holding up a coach on the king’s highway and stealing from the three passengers one guinea, three shillings and sixpence. The evidence against Rann and his accomplices was substantial, and the trial makes the high stakes involved in highway robbery obvious. The band of robbers was betrayed by one of their own, Mr. John Scott, probably in hopes that he’d save his own skin by doing so, given that his testimony could not be used against him in court. Nevertheless, the victims of the robbery were unable to positively identify their assailants and the four suspects were acquitted.
Two things stand out in the trial. First, though one of defendants apparently threatened to “blow [the] brains out” of the driver if he did not stop, when the driver asked that he put down the pistol, his attacker complied, and “behaved exceeding civil” after that. According to Robert Simmonds, one of the passengers of the coach, the highwaymen “rather begged for the money than used any violent means.” This is a defining characteristic of Rann’s crimes. Though he was certainly a thief, he never used physical violence against his victims. The second point of interest is Rann’s defence. His statement to the court was “I know no more of the matter than the child unborn,” a statement of ignorance he would reuse in future incidents where he found himself on the wrong side of the law, both in and out of court. In contrast with his accomplices, who all called on character witnesses (Saunders provided no less than seven), Rann did not call on anyone to vouch for him. This is the first evidence of Rann’s disdain for social order, his naiveté, and his self-destructive tendencies.
Round two of John Rann’s documented visits to the Old Bailey took place on July 6th, 1774. It introduced the enigmatic Eleanor Roache, who later appeared alongside him in his third and final court appearance, here a witness testifying against Rann and his accomplice du jour, Catherine Smith. This time the victim was John Deval, from whom Rann, in the company of an unnamed man, allegedly stole a watch and seven guineas. Catherine Smith was accused of receiving the stolen trinket. Roache told the court that she had witnessed John Rann give it to Smith, along with five guineas, on the 21st of May. When Roache paid a second visit to Smith’s house two days later, Sir John Fielding’s men, who had apprehended Rann, searched the home. Catherine passed the watch to Eleanor, who claimed she hid it under a chair cushion, then reported the incident at the watchmaker’s shop.
The various witnesses’ testimony was inconsistent and inconclusive, and both Rann and Smith were acquitted. The crime itself is of less interest in this trial than Rann’s womanizing character, which takes centre stage as Rann and the two women, both prostitutes, act out a sordid love triangle. Although Rann again insists he “[knew] nothing in the world of this robbery,” this time his defence is more elaborate. He casts Roache as the scorned lover, saying her deposition was “all out of revenge because [he] would not keep her.” Meanwhile, Roache’s testimony suggests Smith and Rann’s relationship was emotional, rather than purely sexual. She reports that when she confronted Smith for giving her the watch while the house was being searched, Smith became flustered, saying “O, as you do not live with him, if I had given you fifty watches you could come to no harm,” betraying that her relationship with Rann was not strictly business. Smith joins Rann in casting doubt on Roache’s character, accusing Roache of having “extorted [the watch] from [her] maid.” The dynamic between the three shows Rann’s seedy yet seductive side and opens a window onto London’s underground criminal community, where robbery, prostitution and fencing stolen goods come together.
By the time Rann made his third court appearance alongside William Collier, Eleanor Roache and Christian Stewart, his methods had changed noticeably and his notoriety had grown considerably in a short time. It was October 19th, 1774 when the Reverend Dr. William Bell provided the acutely observant, detailed and assertive evidence Rann’s previous victims could not. Rann’s robbery of the reverend was more foolhardy but also more lucrative than any of his previous offences. He and his associate Mr. William Collier committed the act in broad daylight on September 26th, 1774, just after 3:15 in the afternoon. Given the difficulty his previous victims had experienced identifying him, Rann felt assured of another easy acquittal. If it ever occurred to him that the contrast between his dirty, unkempt appearance and mourning jacket at the crime scene and his handsome curls, “genteel carriage,” and pea-green suit at the trial might be insufficient disguise to ensure his safety, he hid it well.
Dr. Bell provided an in-depth account of the robbery. He observed two men on horseback as he passed through the town of Ealing, noticing that one was mounted on a black horse, wearing very dirty short boots, light coloured stockings and a “frock mourning coat,” with his hair “loose about his head” and the flaps of his hat, on which he wore a red handkerchief, let down. The second man was mounted on a brown horse, wearing a “lightish coat,” had a sallow, sickly complexion and also wore his thick, black hair loose and his hat “flapped round.” A short ride down the road, the two men caught up with Dr. Bell and while the man on the brown horse hung back slightly, the man on the black horse came up beside the reverend and asked for his money, threatening to “blow [his] brains out” if he did not comply, then reached into his coat but never drew the pistol Dr. Bell assumed was there. While Dr. Bell gathered his 18 shillings, his watch and a gilt key, he looked the man on the black horse in the face, and the man commanded him to “take no notice.” Revered Bell asserted four times to the court that John Rann was the man on the black horse, while Collier’s distinctive appearance left little doubt in the doctor’s mind that he was the man on the brown horse.
A subsequent witness was able to place Rann near the scene of the crime shortly before it took place. John Cordy, a pawnbroker, became suspicious when, five days after the robbery, Eleanor Roache and Christian Stewart tried to sell him Dr. Bell’s watch. He refused to buy it from them and reported the incident to Sir John Fielding’s Bow Street Runners. Two of Sir John Fielding’s men went to Eleanor Roache’s home, searched it, and reported finding two very wet and dirty pairs of boots, one pair of which was noticeably shorter than average. They waited there for Rann and Collier, who soon returned and were taken into custody. Hannah Craggs, who lived in the same house as Roache, reported meeting Collier and seeing Rann and the two horses there the morning before the two men were caught.
Although his statement did little to refute the evidence against him, Rann spoke so earnestly and emotively in his own defence that his words were taken down verbatim et literatum.
I knows no more of it than a child does unborn, nor I never seed Mr. Bell before he came to Sir John’s, which Mr. Bell must be certain of, for to think for me, for to come to him in the middle of the day, for to rob him, which I was never guilty of; I know no more of the affair what these gentlemen, that belongs to Sir John, that wants to do things to swear my life away, for I don’t know what. They have said false things to you; I know no more of it if I was to suffer death to-morrow. This woman wants to swear my life away for an affair I know nothing of, no more than this candle, and I am innocent of the fact if I was to suffer for it to-morrow; if I had been guilty I would not have trusted her with the affair.
Rann’s statement, printed exactly as it was spoken, turns the established perception of the case and his character on its head. This is not the speech of a gentleman, nor that of a quick-witted and ruthless criminal. It is the speech of a young and poorly educated man, lacking both the intellectual and actual means to defend himself. His tone is resentful but scared and the visceral desperation of his need to deny everything and play the victim shows how his hopes of acquittal had been shattered. When John Rann swaggered into the courtroom, he was Sixteen-String Jack, but the trial violently stripped him of the illusion that he would escape the now looming and all too real noose, leaving him exposed for the wretch he was.
John Rann, also known as “Sixteen String Jack,” died at Tyburn on the 30th of November, 1774 after hanging by the neck for “the usual time.” He was 24 years old and a charming degenerate. He took his eighteenth-century London audience for a wild vicarious ride and garnered what seems like enough attention to satisfy the most egomaniacal bastard. Once, he announced to all and sundry in a drunken fervour that he would die for his crimes, and sure enough, he did. But no one dances the Tyburn jig with a smile on their face. John Rann never killed anyone, never even injured those he robbed, and was doomed to drudgery by his social class and lack of education. Surrounded by the easy indulgence of wealth but barred from that world by the conditions of his birth, John Rann took what he hadn’t been given by the only means possible and paid for subverting the social order with his life.