Never underestimate the power of a well-timed book deal. Witness the case of David Haggart, alias John Wilson, alias John Morrison, alias Barney McCoul, alias John McColgan alias Daniel O’Brien, alias The Switcher. In life, he was a worthless nuisance and failed example of what Horace Rumpole would call “a minor villain.” In death, the self-penned story of his life transformed him into a best-selling author, a charming rogue, a figure of myth and romance.
It even got him into the Dictionary of National Biography.
Haggart certainly led an active life, although his particular brand of criminality takes on a rather monotonously unimaginative quality. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1801. By his own account, his childhood was perfectly normal, until a game-cock belonging to a townswoman caught his eye. Haggart dealt with this lady’s refusal to sell the bird by stealing it.
This exquisitely simple method of acquiring goods one wanted soon became a habit with young David. (“It was all,” he shrugged, “just Fate.”) His next step was to rob the till of a local shop. He then turned horse thief, but the legitimate owner, a butter-and-egg salesman, managed to recover the animal. The local housewives, who were fond of the young scamp, mollified him out of his justifiable outage by buying up his entire stock—a notably misplaced act of charity.
At the age of twelve, while attending the races in Leith, he got precociously drunk and, while in that condition, enlisted as a drummer in the West Norfolk Militia. The year he spent with the battalion was the only semi-productive, respectable period of his life. Naturally, it couldn’t last. The regiment was disbanded in 1814, and David was discharged. His father sent him back to school—he was at least an intelligent little wastrel—and later was apprenticed to local mill wrights. Unfortunately, the firm went bankrupt, leaving Haggart to follow his own wayward impulses.
He drifted into Edinburgh’s sleazier societies. In the words of the distinguished author himself: “Everything I saw, or heard, or did, was wicked; my nights and my days were evil.” He became the apprentice of an Irishman named Barney McGuire: “a darling of a boy, and a most skillful pickpocket”—so darling and skillful that he once proudly robbed his own brother.
In 1817, Haggart and McGuire went to the Portobello races, where young David saw his grand premiere as a professional pickpocket. His debut was a hit, as first crack out of the box he joyfully robbed a horseplayer of eleven pounds.
The next stop was a tour of the various markets held along the Borders, where they continued to earn a handsome living via the pockets and purses of others.
Next came a romantic interlude. In Newcastle, the pair found lodgings in the house of a Mrs. Anderson. Their landlady had “three pleasant” daughters, and spent “a jolly Christmas” with the ladies. While posing as respectable traveling gentlemen, the duo escorted the girls to balls and theaters, thus adding pleasure to business—while attending these festivities, they managed to relieve the other revelers of a total of about seventy pounds.
After the Christmas season was over, our wandering lads moved on. They attempted to branch out by robbing a house in Durham. This was overambitious of them. The pair was soon recognized, arrested, convicted, and duly sentenced to death.
Undaunted, they set about planning a breakout. Haggart was able to make his escape, but McGuire was recaptured. However, Haggart was able to smuggle a “fiddlestick” [saw] to his mentor, and McGuire managed to cut through the bars and gain his freedom.
This period of liberty did not last long. At the Kelso market, McGuire was caught in the act of robbing a farmer, and a great “mivadering” [fight] broke out. Haggart made a successful dash from the scene, but his felonious friend received three months in jail.
Haggart evidently felt a bit lost when left to his own devices. He took a holiday with the Andersons, remaining in their congenial company for several months and picking the odd pocket whenever convenient.
“Never will I forget the kindness, and even friendship, of these good people to me,” Haggart wrote, and one has little reason to doubt his sincerity. However, a man’s career cannot be neglected forever. He bade a warm farewell to the ladies and returned to Edinburgh to pursue in earnest his chosen profession of “snibbing.” He encountered a former apprentice of his father’s, who persuaded him to return home. A severe illness kept him in bed for a month, but upon his recovery the old Adam soon asserted himself in the prodigal son. The unlawful acquisition of some butter and tobacco landed him in jail, but his relatives posted bail and secured his release.
As was the case in his boyhood, the quality of mercy seemed utterly wasted on our hero. He continued on his business of pocket-picking and petty thievery, until he was finally busted for stealing cloth, which he intended to be a present for one of his girlfriends. “Haggart,” the Sheriff sternly told him, “you are a great scoundrel, and the best thing I can do for you, to make you a good boy, is to send you to Bridewell for sixty days, bread and water, and solitary confinement.” The discovery that he had also stolen a watch added another sixty days to his involuntary vacation. After his release, he drifted about, making the usual general irritant of himself with a series of “petty jobs.”
He fell in with a gang of ruffians, and was soon convicted of theft. Two months. Upon serving his sentence, he and a crook known only as “The Doctor” made their way back to Edinburgh, committing the usual plundering along the way. By March of 1820, he was back in the dock—for all his boasts about his exploits, Haggart appears to have been either a remarkably unskilled or remarkably unlucky junior-league criminal. By the end of the month, he had made his second successful jailbreak, and fled to Dumfries, where he encountered his early friend Barney McGuire. The two old business partners went to Carlisle to take up where they left off, but, unfortunately for them, McGuire was immediately recognized and apprehended by the local sheriff. He received fourteen years in Botany Bay, and disappears from history. “He was a choice spirit and a good friend,” Haggart sighed. “I had no thought and sorrow till I lost Barney.”
Haggart himself was arrested the day after McGuire, sent back to Edinburgh, and put on trial for an impressive array of bad behavior: Eleven acts of theft, two of possession of stolen merchandise, one of burglary, and one of prison-breaking.
He was found guilty of theft, and the burglary charge was “Not Proven.” Before the whole legal proceedings had concluded, Haggart did another escape from custody, but was soon recaptured. In the Dumfries jail, he plotted yet another jailbreak with several other prisoners. During the escape, Haggart encountered the turnkey. He struck the man with a stone, knocking him downstairs.
Haggart made it out of the prison, but while in hiding the next day, he overheard that the jailer he attacked had died. As a freelance evildoer, Haggart had now, one might say, hit the big leagues.
Young David was now, quite literally, running for his life. He made it all the way to Fife, but for whatever suicidal reason—a deep-seated sense of guilt, perhaps, or just his inner Imp of the Perverse asserting itself—he almost immediately returned to Edinburgh. Virtually the first thing he saw in the capital was his wanted poster, offering seventy guineas for his capture.
This was enough to give him an urge to see something of the Highlands, where he had a financially rewarding tour of the area. While en route to Ireland, he was, unbeknownst to him at the time, recognized, and his movements reported to the police. This characteristically ill-fated chance encounter was to be his final downfall.
The Emerald Isle saw his usual business practices, and, accordingly, he soon found himself in the position to compare the prisons of Ireland to those of Scotland. A Sheriff who had arrested him before soon arrived on the scene to identify Haggart and haul him back to his native land.
He returned home, he recorded with professional pride, as a celebrity. He was greeted with crowds anxious for a glimpse of “Haggart the Murderer.”
He admitted that “I was fully as wicked” as the witnesses at his trial testified, his only defense being that the killing of the jailer had been accidental. This had little weight with the court, and he was sentenced to death.
It was while awaiting the hangman that he first dreamed of literary immortality. He savored all the public attention he had recently earned, but realized that, pestilential wretch though he was, he had not been able to achieve sufficient heights of villainy to be anything but a passing fad.
Why not, he reasoned, write the story of his life, putting the appropriately glamorous spin on his adventures, thus giving the world a document that would ensure that the name of David Haggart would not soon perish?
When you are only twenty years old and have had little variety in your career, the story of your life is quickly written. The manuscript was soon ready for publication, complete with a self-portrait that served as frontispiece, and a phrenological analysis of his skull. (By the second edition, a helpful glossary of thieves’ slang was added.) For good measure, he even composed a ballad about his fate, a poetic effusion that some may think was a capital crime in itself:
Able and willing, you will me find,
Though bound in chains, still free in mind;
For with these things I'll ne'er be grieved,
Although of freedom I'm bereaved.
In this vain world there is no rest,
And life is but a span at best;
The rich, the poor, the old, the young,
Shall all lie low before it's long.
I am a rogue, I don't deny,
But never lived by treachery;
And to rob a poor man, I disown,
But them that are of high renown.
Now, for the crime that I'm condemn'd,
The same I never did intend;
Only my liberty to take,
As I thought my life did lie at stake.
My life, by perjury, was sworn away,
I'll say that to my dying day.
Oh, treacherous S---- , you did me betray,
For all I wanted was liberty.
No malice in my heart is found,
To any man above the ground.
Now, all good people, that speak of me,
You may say I died for my liberty.
Although in chains you see me fast,
No frown upon my friends you'll cast,
For my relations were not to blame,
And I brought my parents to grief and shame.
Now, all you ramblers, in mourning go,
For the Prince of Ramblers is lying low;
And all you maidens, who love the game,
Put on your mourning veils again.
And all you powers of music chant,
To the memory of my dying rant—
A song of melancholy sing,
Till you make the very rafters ring.
Farewell relations, and friends also,
The time is nigh that I must go;
As for foes, I have but one,
But to the same I've done no wrong.
Haggart was hanged on July 18, 1821. It is recorded that the “prepossessing” young man “decently dressed in black,” met his faith with “calm serenity.” After mounting the scaffold, he “earnestly conjured” the large and friendly crowd “to avoid the heinous crime of disobedience to parents, inattention to Holy Scriptures, of being idle and disorderly, and especially of Sabbath-breaking, which, he said, had led him to that fatal end.”
Haggart died, but his book lived on. The pamphlet, issued four days after his execution, was a huge and amazingly long-lived success—new editions were issued at least as late as the 1880s.
Over the years, there has been much debate over the authenticity of Haggart’s narrative. Court records proved that he was certainly a serial thief and, finally, murderer, but how much decorative embellishment had been added to his dreary doings? His final attorney, Henry Cockburn, gave a negative account of his famous client in his own autobiography. Haggart, he wrote, was “young, good-looking, gay, and amiable to the eye, but there was never a riper scoundrel—a most perfect and inveterate miscreant in all the darker walks of crime…The confessions and the whole book were a tissue of absolute lies—not of mistakes, exaggerations, or fancies, but of sheer and intended lies. And they all had one object: to make him appear a greater villain than he really was.” Other scholars, however, tend to put more faith in Haggart’s general veracity—taking his side, you might say, by insisting that yes, he really was that great a villain.
It little matters whether Haggart was, as Kris Kristofferson once sang, “partly truth and partly fiction.” He probably didn’t care if he was believed, just as long as he was remembered.
And remembered he is, to this very day. He even managed to be immortalized on the silver screen. In 1969, John Huston directed “Sinful Davey,” a film ostensibly based on Haggart’s autobiography. In reality, the production was a comedy/adventure romp that had little to do with the facts of the pickpocket’s short and rather depressing life.
Haggart, of course, would have loved it. He likely would have seen such a tribute as well worth a trip to the gallows.