John Rann, d. 1774

The Life and Death of "Sixteen String Jack"

John Rann alias "Sixteen String Jack" was one of the first criminal celebrities. Rann knew how to foster public interest in his life and crimes, but he could not control the manifold representations of him which appeared in print. Partly as a consequence, it is difficult to disentangle truth from fiction in the accounts of his life.

Early Life

It is not clear when or where John Rann was born. There are two contrasting accounts of his early life which appear in pamphlets published after his death.

In one, A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen String Jack,1 Rann is described as having been born in a village somewhere outside Bath, to "poor, but honest and industrious parents". His early life was spent peddling goods in and around Bath, and when he was twelve he was apparently taken into the care of "a lady of distinction, who happened to be in Bath for the benefit of the waters". While in this care Rann became his mistress’s fondest servant. After he moved to London, he was employed first as a stable hand at Brooke’s Mews, where he is described as both honest and industrious. He then became a coachman to several noblemen. But some of the men he served were less than honest, a fact later used to explain Rann's descent into criminality. In about 1770, Rann became coachman to a wealthy merchant who lived near Portman Square. He became this man’s favourite and was given money and allowed to dress far above his rank. It is through this extravagant dress that Rann earned his nickname. He wore silk stockings and silk breeches, and the breeches had eight silver-tipped strings on each leg below the knee, hence his moniker "Sixteen String Jack". This pamphlet finishes the account of his early life by explaining that Rann had gained many female admirers, naming one specifically, Catherine Smith. 2

Another pamphlet, entitled An Account of John Rann, Commonly called Sixteen String Jack, provides a different account of Rann's early life. Here he is described as having been born on 15 April 1752, in St George Hanover Square, London. In this account his parents were criticised for not having educated John to any decent degree. Rann was apprenticed as a coachman at the age of fourteen to a Mr Dimmock of Grosvenor Square, and was described during his apprenticeship as generally honest and held in "the most grateful acknowledgement and regard" by his master. This pamphlet emphasises that Rann was only a common hackney coachman and it specifically states that some other pamphlets are mistaken in thinking he ever served a nobleman. Like the previous pamphlet, this one also notes that it was Rann’s womanising that contributed to his growing criminality, but the woman identified as his lover is named as la Roache.3

Despite the irreconcilable contradictions in these accounts, both conclude that Rann’s life as a hackney coachman did not earn him enough money to fund his womanising and that thus he turned to crime.

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Petty Thievery and Early Run-ins with Sir John Fielding

Both pamphlets allege that Rann started off by picking pockets, conceding that he was rather successful: "by his clandestine practices he was enabled to appear in all the dress of a gentleman".4 He became a very extravagant dresser, wearing all manner of colourful garments (which sometime later were to help his victims identify him). His crimes did not go unnoticed, however, and he was caught picking the pocket of a gentleman and brought before Sir John Fielding. Fielding apparently wanted to commit him, but no prosecutor could be found, so Rann went free. Apparently this occurred three or more times, but since the cases never came to trial there is no record of them, especially as Fielding’s own records were destroyed in the Gordon Riots just prior to his own death.5

Fielding did manage to have Rann sent to Bridewell for examination on one occasion, after Rann robbed a house in Hill Street, Berkeley Square. Once again, Rann escaped from being charged due to "the prosecutor not being positive, as to the identity of the person". On another occasion, Rann was committed to Bridewell suspected of robbing a coach on Hounslow Heath, but once again the prosecution could not identify him.6 During his time in Bridewell Rann befriended some of other criminals who were subsequently also set free due to lack of evidence, including William Clayton, Nathan Jones and James College (apparently known as "Eight String James").7

Though accounts of his crimes in the pamphlets vary in their specific details, they agree that after his time in Bridewell, Rann turned to highway robbery. The Genuine Account states that after robbing a coach on Hounslow Heath, Rann and his accomplice Timguard Collier attacked two graziers in Smithfield. The graziers fought back, but Rann and his accomplice eventually won the day. After robbing the graziers for very little money, Rann "jocesly [joyously] wished them a good journey".8

Though the pamphlets are full of unverifiable claims concerning these crimes, they imply that Rann had a substantial criminal career before he was finally brought to trial.

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A Night of Mischief and an Easy Acquittal

On the night of Saturday 13 November 1773 John Rann along with David Monroe, William Davies alias Scarlet, John Saunders and John Scott, committed a spate of hold ups and robberies in and around Hampstead. Eventually the group were arrested by John Clarke and Richard Bond for being disorderly as they sat in the Three Tuns pub in Soho. One of Rann's accomplices, John Scott, a tin plate worker from Rupert Street, was admitted as king's evidence by Sir John Fielding, who "Looked upon him to be an honest man; he was in his working dress". Scott deposed that on the 27th of November at about six pm, the group robbed "a foreigner" on foot in a field leading to Hampstead, but only gained "some Farthings and Half pence". Consequently the group moved on to rob some gentlemen in a coach on its way to London near Chalk Farm. Monroe went to the side of the coach and was given by the gentlemen inside "one Guinea in Gold and Six Shillings and Six pence in Silver".

Despite the success of this robbery, the group continued and attacked another man standing by his horse. Unfortunately, the man had no money and instead offered the group a handkerchief, which they declined. In one final act of mischief the group went to a field and fired off two of their pistols. After this, the group descended upon the Three Tuns on Peter Street in Soho to divide the money.

We learn about the rest of the night’s happenings from the trial account, when the case was brought before the Old Bailey on 8 December 1773. While the group was in the Three Tuns, the men who were in the coach, Robert Simmonds, Joseph Davies, and their driver Thomas Shed, informed Sir John Fielding of what had occurred. Fielding dispatched two of his Bow Street Runners to deal with the situation. Clarke and Bond surveyed the road where the robbery had occurred. They found no one on the road and decided instead to search the "disorderly houses", including the Tree Tuns, where Rann and the group had been since 10 pm, in a little room behind the bar. Clarke searched David Monroe and found some shot in his pocket. Bond also found a loaded pistol in the room, which Scott claimed was his during the trial .

The group was "charged then as disorderly", and taken to Fielding. Without Scott's evidence, it would have been impossible to link the crimes to this group, as the only evidence was the seized pistol and also a sword that was alleged to have been wielded by one of the group. The crime they were tried for was the robbery of Robert Simmonds, a vintner from Hampstead, of £1 3s 6d. Simmonds claimed the group "behaved exceeding civil, and rather begged for the money than used any violent means". Similarly, Shed, the coachman, testified that even though one of the men pointed a gun at him and threatened to "blow his brains out" if he did not stop, when he "desired him to put the pistol down; he did, and behaved exceeding civil".

The trial collapsed owing to difficulties in making positive identifications of the culprits. Simmonds deposed that although it was light, he could not observe their faces, nor could he remember their dress. Despite having the best view, Shed could not identify the men. Even Davies struggled to maintain that the man he saw was Monroe: "I am not positive; he answers much to the person; it was only star light".

While all four men maintained their innocence, all but Rann brought character witnesses to attest to their honesty. Rann’s only defence was to say "I know no more of the matter than the child unborn", a line he was to repeat in a subsequent trial, though rather less successfully. All four men were acquitted of robbing Simmonds, and Rann was again acquitted in the subsequent trial for the robbery of Davies, in which no evidence was given.

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Further Trials and Acquittals

The pamphlets provide further evidence of trials which led to acquittals which do not appear in London Lives.9 But Rann does appear, along with Catherine Smith, in a trial seven months later for the robbery of John Deval, with Rann charged with highway robbery of a watch worth ten pounds and seven guineas in money, and Smith charged with receiving the stolen goods.

When arrested for this crime and brought before John Fielding at Bow Street,

Rann entered the office with [more] audacity than was ever observed in any other person in the like circumstances; his irons were tied up with blue ribbons, and he had an enormous bouquet of flowers affixed to the breast of his coat. His answers... seemed rather calculated to convince the auditors that he possessed a matchless share of effrontery, rather than extenuate his guilt.10

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was committed to Newgate to await trial.

Whilst in his previous crime Rann had been accompanied by four men, he now seems to have had only one partner, who remained unidentified throughout. Deval testified that on Saturday May 21 at around 9 pm, somewhere around the nine mile marker between the City and Hounslow, he was accosted by two horsemen. He gave one man seven guineas and the other his watch. But once more he had difficulty identifying the culprits, saying "it was so dark; I could not distinguish even the colour of their clothes".

Following the robbery, Deval had his watch maker, John Allam, advertised the missing watch with a reward of four guineas for its safe return. A woman named Eleanor Roach, identified in other accounts as one of his mistresses, brought the watch into Allam’s shop, and, as was proved in court, it had the same number on the back as the receipt that Deval possessed. Roach explained how she obtained the watch, and in doing so, indicated that Rann was responsible for the theft. She stated that she had been at Catherine Smith’s house the night the crime occurred. On that night Catherine told Roach that "Jack was gone out upon the road to get her some money". Roach acknowledged to the court that she understood that this meant Rann was out stealing, though during her interview with Sampson Wright before the trial she had been far more explicit, saying she was told he "was gone out to rob on the Highway". She told the court that Rann returned by coach at about ten o’clock, and ran up to Smith’s bedroom and gave her the watch and five guineas.

After Rann was arrested, Smith's lodging were searched by John Fielding's runners, and to avoid the watch being found Smith handed it to Roach, who hid the watch under a cushion. Roach was angry at Smith for giving her the watch, since if it had been found she "might have been brought into danger". Apparently in response Smith expressed her love for John and defended her action by saying "as you do not live with him, if I had given you fifty watches you could come to no harm". After John arrived that evening Roach left the house with the watch and brought it to Allam’s shop.

The trial's success or failure seemingly came down to Roach’s testimony, which was portrayed as being motivated by ill-will she felt towards both John and Catherine. This was the defence which Rann used successfully to prove his innocence. Rann stated that he had known Roach for a long time and argued that she probably acted out of malice as "she has often applied to me to take her; I had refused". He said he had "sometimes let her have things; I gave her some shoes". He finished his defence damningly by concluding "It is all out of revenge because I would not keep her".

Smith claimed that she had received the watch in payment from an unnamed gentlemen, who she had met in the Strand. The gentleman took her to a tavern and having no money to pay, left the watch in her care until he came back with money. She claimed that Roach had "extorted it from my maid, with whom I left it in case the gentleman called for it".

Both these defences worked and both Rann and Smith were acquitted.

During this trial Rann seems to have played to the gallery, cultivating a growing reputation for outlandish behaviour. According to one pamphlet, he came into court adorned with blue ribbons, with an enormous bouquet of flowers underneath his coat. Rann was said to have conducted himself during the trial with "an air of gaiety and affection, ill becoming his situation".11

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Extravagant Tales

Rann’s confidence was apparently encouraged by his second acquittal and the events recounted in the accounts become more exaggerated. He began to boast about his crimes and say "I have so much money, I shall spend that and then I shan’t last long". At one point Rann proudly predicted his own death before Christmas.12

Two or three days after his acquittal he was on Bow Street trying to climb into the window of an unnamed woman. In doing so he attracted the attention of a watchman who immediately secured him and delivered him to Sir John Fielding. The unnamed woman came forth in his defence saying that he could not be charged if he was only trying to get into a place where he knew he’d be a welcomed guest, adding "he would have readily gained admission, had she not unluckily fell asleep". The Sunday following Rann apparently appeared at Bagnigge Wells, a fashionable spa, dressed "in a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings, laced hat etc. [and] publically declared himself to be a highway man". Rann then proceeded to get drunk and fight with the local men. Apparently Rann later found himself again in a debtors' prison, this time on Fleet Street for the sum of twenty pounds of unpaid bail money. He "was visited by great number of ladies with easy virtue", and soon after these visits his debt was paid and he was released.13

Rann was regularly described as inverting notions of social order. On one occasion he was in a public house on Tottenham Court Road when two sheriff’s officers entered with a writ against him. Rann was unable to pay the debt, but two of his friends offered three guineas and Rann gave his watch instead. This came to more than the amount of debt and Rann persuaded an officer to buy the company a bowl of punch with the surplus. Rann then accused the men of treating him in an ungentlemanly fashion. Eventually after the officers left, Rann simply rode up the road and robbed a nobleman to replace the lost sum. On another occasion he appeared at the races at Barnet "dressed like a sporting peer of the first rank". He also apparently went to Tyburn in a coach and rode into the constables' ring requesting "that he might have a good view of what passed", because it was proper that "I should be a spectator on this melancholy occasion".14

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The Robbery of a Clergyman and a Final Trial

Three months after his last trial, Rann appeared again at the Old Bailey in October 1774, when he was tried with William Collier for robbing the Reverend Dr William Bell on September 26th.

The two men were tried alongside two women who were accused of receiving the stolen goods: Eleanor Roach (now a defendant rather an informer) and Roach’s servant Christian Stewart.

Dr Bell testified that on September 26 he was travelling to Gunnersbury and at about quarter past three as he was riding through the town of Ealing, he noticed two men, both on horseback, riding very slowly one behind the other. Bell thought something looked odd about one of the men and, after putting his spectacles on, investigated. He noticed that one of the men had "the flap of his hat let down all round, probably without strings, and a red handkerchief upon it". He described the man riding behind as "clothed in a lightish coat, a hat flapped bound, a great deal of black hair hanging loosely about his head, and his horse was something of a kind of brown". Furthermore, "that his boot was shorter than boots commonly are, and ... were very dirty". Bell said that at the time he did not suspect that the two men were highwaymen, but he clearly thought that there was something strange about them.

Bell rode on until, about a quarter of a mile down the road, he heard the noise of two horses. He immediately found himself between two horsemen, one of whom he instantly recognized as "the man I passed first at Ealing town". The men then asked him for his money. Bell stated he was hesitant at first until one of them motioned toward a pistol and threatened "I will blow your brains out". Bell searched in his pocket and found he had only eighteen pence, but whilst looking he held out his watch in the other hand. The men took both the money and the watch, before riding off.

John Cordy, a pawnbroker from Berwick Street, testified that the same day that Dr Bell was robbed, Roach and Stewart came to his shop at about 8 or 9 pm trying to pawn a watch. Cordy asked how they had acquired this watch, and they answered "a gentleman left it with them". Cordy said that he could give the pair no money from the watch unless he saw the man. Cordy deliberately let the women go as he knew where they lived, and after they left he went straight to Sir John Fielding. Cordy and some of Fielding’s men went to Roach’s house, where they held the two women until a constable came. They searched the house and found the watch, which during the trial was confirmed as Bell's. They also found a pair of dirty boots.

The dirty boots became the focus of the trial, as the only way of linking the men with the stolen watch. Blanchville Clarke, one of Sir John Fielding’s runners, had found the boots and stated during the trial that they were "quite wet and dirty, as if they had been wore that day". But the most crucial evidence concerning the boots came from William Hill, who was a post-boy of Princess Amelia. Hill first gave his evidence in an information on 5 October, when he said he was in Acton on the day of the robbery and saw John Rann ride through with another man at about ten minutes past three. During the trial Hill was asked if the other man was Collier. Hill was unsure as "I did not take particular notice of their clothes: I know Rann by sight very well". When asked about their boots he stated "their boots were very dirty; one of their boots was rather shorter than the other", thus confirming Hill's earlier evidence.

Another man who testified for the prosecution was William Halliburton, another of Fielding’s men, who had stayed at Roach’s house after the others had returned to Bow Street. At about quarter past ten, Rann and Collier came back to Roach’s house only to be caught and tied up by Halliburton who had been waiting for them.

Whilst in previous crimes Rann had escaped through the absence of a identification, Fielding had deliberately invited Bell to Bow Street on Wednesday 28 September, three days after the crime, to identify the men. During the trial Bell was asked four times if he believed Rann and Collier were the men who robbed him. Bell was sure that Rann had robbed him, but less so of Collier saying "I would hardly from the nature of things say it can be so equally clear, but the remarkableness of the person of William Collier is so very great, that I think myself very clear".

The final evidence against Rann came from Hannah Craggs, who lived in the same house as Roach and Stewart on Berners Street. Craggs also gave information before the trial, recorded in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. Craggs stated that the morning of the robbery she let Collier into the house. She also saw Roach bring two horses outside the house at about eleven or twelve. She saw a man, who she later identified as Rann, pay for the horses. Craggs was asked to describe the appearance of Collier and Rann on the day. Though she did not remember the former she said the latter was "dressed in reddish coloured clothes". Finally she was asked about the colour of the horses; though she was not confident she stated that "one seemed of a blackish colour, the other rather brown". These colours matched Bell's earlier testimony.

Rann appeared flamboyantly at the trial, wearing "a new coat and waist coat of pea green cloth".15 He apparently was so confident of his acquittal that he organised entertainment for himself and his associates after the trial. He began his defence by saying, once again, "I knows no more of it than a child does unborn", but this time Rann felt the need to expand his defense. He stated he had never seen Dr Bell before and essentially sought to cast doubts on the identifications. Reflecting public interest in the case, Rann’s plea was emotive enough to be printed "verbatim et literatim", in the Proceedings. Collier’s defence was to deny everything up to the point at which he went to Roach’s house in the evening only to be arrested by Halliburton.

Roach’s defence echoed Smith’s from the previous trial, offering an alternative narrative. She said two men had come by her parlour, dripping wet and covered in dirt. Roach offered them clean clothes and for payment they gave her the watch. She ended by saying "if I had known the watch was stolen I should not have offered it to a pawnbroker I had dealt with a great while". Stewart’s defense was largely a reiteration of Roach’s story. She argued she did not know who the men were, and she went with Roach to pawn the watch only because she was a good servant.

Stewart’s defence was the only successful one, and she was acquitted. Both Rann and Collier were found guilty of highway robbery and sentenced to death. Unlike Rann, Collier was recommended for a royal pardon. Roach was sentenced to fourteen years transportation, and in December was sent to America on the Justitia.16

While one pamphlet claimed that following his conviction Rann became penitent and regretful of his life of crime,17 another reported that Rann’s behaviour did not change after the sentence. While in Newgate "not less than seven girls pined with him; the company was very cheerful". Rann was described as "insensible to the dreadful situation his crimes have brought him into".18 He was executed on 7 December 1774.

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Not least owing to Rann's own efforts, this case attracted considerable public attention, with two portraits of him published as well as three pamphlets. In one print he was depicted as young and with curly hair, and fashionably dressed wearing a shirt with ruffled sleeves and a neck cloth.19 But why were the public so interested in this case, and what did they make of it?

Clearly the story was entertaining, and the reports of Rann's exploits and amours, however exaggerated, made for enjoyable reading. Beyond this, the public must have been fascinated by his uncertain social position, as he was sometimes depicted as a gentleman, following in the tradition of "gentlemen highwaymen" like James Maclaine, and at other times as an ordinary criminal.

But despite being entertained by the case, contemporaries demonstrated some scepticism about his claims to gentility. The Ordinary of Newgate, John Villette, described him as "straight, of a genteel carriage, and mak[ing] a very handsome appearance", but he stopped short of calling him a gentleman. James Boswell called him a "fop", implying that his behaviour was effeminate and pretentious.20 It is likely that some of the interest in the case also reflected contemporary anxiety over criminals who were acquitted due to lack of evidence only to subsequently re-offend.

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External Sources

  • An Account of John Rann, Commonly Called Sixteen String Jack. Being a Circumstantial Narrative of his Principal Transactions, and his Amours to the Celebrated Miss La Roache. 1774.
  • A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen-String Jack: Who was Executed November 30th 1774, for a Robbery on the Highway, near Brentford; Containing his Adventures and Enterprises, his Numerous Escapes from Justice, and his Amours with Several Ladies. [1774].
  • John Rann, alias Sixteen-String Jack, Now Under Sentence of Death in Newgate after Being Tried Seventeen Times. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, 1902-10-11-7321.
  • Montagu, James. The Old Bailey Chronicle; Containing a Circumstantial Account of the Lives, Trials, and Confessions of the Most Notorious Offenders. 1788, vol. 4, pp. 131-148.
  • Shoemaker, Robert. The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800. Cultural and Social History, 3 (2006), pp. 381-405.
  • Sugden, Philip. Rann, John [nicknamed Sixteen String Jack] (c. 1750-1774). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (requires subscription). 2004, accessed 3 June 2010.

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1 A Genuine Account of the Life of John Rann, alias Sixteen-String Jack: Who was Executed November 30th 1774, for a Robbery on the Highway, near Brentford; Containing his Adventures and Enterprises, his Numerous Escapes from Justice, and his Amours with Several Ladies [1774], appears in three different editions, two of which are 33 pages long and one is 32 pages. There are no differences in the main texts, only the attached frontispieces and appendices. All quotes are taken from the edition with a frontispiece, "engraved for the Lady's Magazine".

2 Genuine Account, pp. 6-8.

3 An Account of John Rann, Commonly Called Sixteen String Jack. Being a Circumstantial Narrative of his Principal Transactions, and his Amours to the Celebrated Miss La Roache (1774), pp. 6-7.

4 Account of John Rann, p. 7.

5 Philip Rawlings, Fielding, Sir John (1721–1780), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (requires subscription), accessed 21 March 2010.

6 James Montagu, The Old Bailey Chronicle; Containing a Circumstantial Account of the Lives, Trials, and Confessions of the Most Notorious Offenders (1788), vol. 4, pp. 131-148.

7 Genuine Account, p. 8; Account of John Rann, p. 10.

8 Genuine Account, pp. 8-9.

9 Genuine Account, pp. 9-10.

10 Account of John Rann, p. 12.

11 Genuine Account, pp. 13-14; Account of John Rann, p. 12.

12 Account of John Rann, p. 15.

13 Genuine Account, pp. 16-18; Account of John Rann, pp. 15-17.

14 Genuine Account, pp. 18-20; Account of John Rann, pp. 17-18.

15 Account of John Rann, p. 22.

16 Peter Wilson Coldham, More Emigrants in Bondage 1614-1775 (Surrey, 2002), p. 147.

17 Genuine Account, p. 25.

18 Account of John Rann, p. 23.

19 John Rann, alias Sixteen-String Jack, Now Under Sentence of Death in Newgate after Being Tried Seventeen Times, British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, 1902-10-11-7321.

20 Cited in Robert Shoemaker, The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800, Cultural and Social History, 3 (2006), p. 400.

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About this Biography

Created by

Edward Duncan 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker