Tell Me More: Whitney’s Farewell
By Graham Christian
One of the most pleasing and accessible dances new to the 9th edition of Playford’s Dancing Master in 1695 is a longways entitled “Whitney’s Farewell,” which went on to be republished in every subsequent edition of that publication until its end in 1728, and, having been kidnapped into John Walsh’s Compleat Country Dancing Master in 1718, was carried in later editions of that collection until 1760.
James Whitney’s career was nothing like so long, although, like a good dance, it was vivid and lively for certain. He was born in Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, and was trained as a butcher, but rapidly found his way into a life of crime, associating with disreputable people of both sexes, and became a fine dresser and a ready lover, and most of all one of a number of “gallant” highwaymen in the tradition of Claude Duval.
Whitney assembled a gang that may have numbered as many as 80 men by 1690. For the Crown, the activities of such brigands had a political dimension, as William III assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the bands were composed of Catholics or Jacobites inimical to his rule; as a result, William situated troops of dragoons on all the major roads around London.
In one particularly spectacular raid on the St. Albans Road near London Colney in 1692, Whitney and 40 of his men attacked a coach carrying a chest of gold and coins—and the Duke of Marlborough. In the resulting skirmish between the detachment of dragoons and the highwaymen, as many as 10 of Whitney’s crew were killed, but they made their escape with 500 guineas.
In another set-to between Whitney’s men and the King’s men near Barnet on December 6 of 1692, several of the brigands were wounded, and a dragoon was killed. Whitney made a dash for London, but was betrayed, some say by a Mother or Madame Cosens, who kept a brothel in Milford Lane near St. Clement’s Church in the Strand.
The anonymous print issued shortly after his arrest shows how sympathetically he was viewed; this male pin-up, with his luscious tresses and splendid hat, coyly disclosing the shackle on his leg, seems remote from the scarred man of middle height, missing a thumb, described in the arrest record.
He was convicted at last for the robbery of 100 yards of lace the previous year. Whitney sued for his life by offering information against his accomplices, and then again by purporting to have knowledge of a Jacobite plot to murder the King in Windsor Forest, but to no avail. A fop to the end, he spent a hundred pounds on a richly embroidered suit to wear at his trial, but the authorities thwarted him. Some accounts give December 19 of 1694 as the date of his execution, but it was almost certainly February 2 of the previous year. Whitney made a great show of his gallows penitence, and intoned for an hour and a half about his ill-spent life, concluding,
I have been a very great Offender, both against God and my Country, by transgressing all Laws, both Human and Divine. I believe there is not here present but has often heard my Name, before confinement, and has seen a large Catalogue of my Crimes has been made public since. Why should I try to pretend to vindicate a life stain’d with so many infamous Deeds? The Sentence passed on me is just, and I can see the Footsteps of a Providence, which I had before profanely laughed at, in my Apprehending and Conviction. I hope the Sense which I have of these Things has enabled me to make my Peace with Heaven, the only Thing that is now of any Concern to me. Join in your Prayers with me, my dear Countrymen, that God will not forsake me in my last Moment.
He was thirty-four years old.
At once, romantic fantastications began to attach themselves to his name. In youth, preparing to steal a horse, it was said, he mistook a she-bear for the horse (it was dark in the barn), and she threw her paws around him: a true bear hug. Or again, that he robbed a notoriously miserly moneylender and tied him backwards on a horse.
“Captain” Alexander Smith’s account of him in the 1714 Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the most notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats of both Sexes in and about London and Westminster set the seal on Whitney’s legend, and it is not hard to see a foreshadowing of the glamorous MacHeath in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) in the Hertfordshire gallant. He was, according to some accounts, an articulate critic of a society at once brutal and lackluster; he is supposed to have said to one of his victims, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten percent, under cover of serving him?”
The tale of the tune is almost as tangled: the cheery F major melody began as “Russell’s Farewell, or Monmouth’s Lament.” William Russell, Lord Russell (1639-1683) was one of the leaders in the ill-advised Rye House Plot to depose Charles II in favor of his illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685), and a ballad and tune were quickly created for the occasion of Russell’s execution, but the tune found more lasting fame when it was used for “The Notorious Robber’s Lamentation,” which purported to be Whitney’s confession in the form of popular poetry, beginning,
“I on the Roads have reigned long
In open Villainy,
But now with Iron Fetters strong,
In Prison close I lie.”
The tune was also used for another grim ballad, “Whitney’s Dying Letter to his Mistriss that Betray’d Him: With her Answer,” although it may have come as a surprise to Mother Cosens that she filled the place of a mistress, much less that she stabbed herself in remorse, as she does according to the text of the broadside.
The tune was also used for “Johnson’s Farewell” (another criminal confession), and for “Fatal Love,” the conclusion of which needs no explanation. The dark tone of the ballads is consistent and notable, and wonderfully incongruous with the tune.
Whitney, like Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard and other dashing outlaws, was remembered with something like admiration long after his death; as late as 1855, the historian Macaulay called him “the most celebrated captain of banditti in the kingdom.” Whitney’s ambitions, and his ill-gotten riches, have vanished—but we have the dance.