An American Highwayman

“As a stranger he came, and a stranger still he passed beyond the reach of human questioning.”

On account of her extreme youth, America, as has often been remarked by discriminating tourists from across the sea, lacks much of that picturesque background which goes far toward lending interest to the older countries of the other hemisphere. Along the Hudson and the Connecticut there are none of the tumble-down castles which perch upon the rocky headlands of the Rhine; across the plains are found no Roman roads or walls such as were built by Cæsar and his successors in France and Spain; there are none of the ivy-grown monastic arches which tell Englishmen of the time when the learning and the wealth of their country reposed in the Holy Church. The romances which cluster about a throne are wholly wanting; the vista of powdered periwigs, of patches and brocade, of knee-breeches and silver shoe-buckles, ends abruptly against the dark green of the primeval forest; and there has been no native Turpin or Duval to stop the traveler on the lonely heath, and politely relieve him of his watch and purse. The Western “road agent,” to be sure, has done something in this line in his adventures with the Deadwood stage, but his efforts, though sometimes daring, have invariably lacked that refinement which was a distinguishing characteristic of those popular heroes who ended their lives at Tyburn. This is not wholly the poor fellow’s fault, since he has done his best; but he needed breeding, and how was he to obtain it in the midst of the prairies?

But there was a time, nearly a century ago, when but for the interposition of Nature and two other women America might have had a highwayman for whose deeds his countrymen would have had no cause to blush. In his too brief career he displayed all the rudiments of future greatness, excepting the cynical hardness of heart which marked his illustrious predecessors, and doubtless that would have come in time. His public life ended abruptly, whence he came and whither he went remaining alike undiscovered. All that is certainly known of him is contained in a little old pamphlet dedicated to his exploits, for he too had his chapman; and if more was ever ascertained it has long since passed from the memory of men. The story may be gathered from among the old-time phrases and the quaint reflections of the biographer who, some years after the events narrated had taken place, was moved to set them down for the benefit of posterity.

One snowy afternoon, something over a week before Christmas of the year 1808, a stranger rode up to the door of landlord Whitmore’s old stone tavern, which stood in Green Street, in the town of Albany. Dismounting and shaking the snow from his rich furred mantle, he desired the hostler to lead his animal to the warmest stall obtainable, and to feed him well. He then entered the tavern, and it could be seen at a glance that he was a person of consequence. He was tall and strongly built, with a handsome dark-skinned face and keen black eyes which betrayed his Southern origin. His manner was courteous and pleasant, and, in short, he seemed to his host and to those who frequented the tavern to be a thorough gentleman, “agreeable and diffuse in conversation, as he was extremely well informed in the lore of literature, as well as any and all parts of the globe, the governments of the different nations, the bearing of universal politics, and the balance of power between the different nations of Christendom.”

Tavern discussions must have taken a wide range in those days. But in spite of the diffuseness of his talk, the stranger was careful not to mention the place whence he had come nor the nature of his business in the old Dutch town, matters of which mine host and the rest would no doubt have learned willingly. It was remarked, indeed, that when left to himself he became silent and abstracted, and that his face often wore a melancholy expression as he sat gazing into the open fire.

He remained several days at the old tavern, employing his time mainly in making short excursions, by means of which he gained a knowledge of the neighborhood. He visited many of the public houses in the vicinity, and especially that kept by “Pye the Englishman,” on the road to Troy and Canada. Here on one or two occasions he passed the night, saying that his name was Johnson, and that his object was the selection and purchase of a house. John Pye and his good wife could not do too much for the pretended buyer of real estate, and he had every opportunity to acquaint himself with the disposition of the rooms and the location of the doors and windows, and to learn about what sum was usually taken at the bar during the day. If he made a mental note of these things, he did so without taking Pye into his confidence, and departed as affably as he had come.

On the afternoon of the fourth day before Christmas he was observed cleaning a heavy and richly ornamented pair of pistols. When he bad set them in order, he paid his reckoning, mounted his beautiful mare, and set off toward the north, which, he said, was the region of his destination. The tavern friends who watched him as he rode around the corner and disappeared little thought they were to hear more of him before morning.

About two miles south of the city stands a toll-gate, the keeper of which at that time was one Baker. An hour or two after the stranger had ridden away, professedly to the north, on the other side of the city, Mrs. Baker, who had been left by her husband in charge of the gate, saw a horseman come galloping down the road. She made ready to raise the gate, in order that the hasty way-farer might pass without loss of time; but, to her surprise, when he came up he reined in his horse, which stood perfectly still without tying, leaped from his saddle, and advanced toward her, fiercely demanding the toll-money. Now, as it happened, the good woman had that very afternoon tied up the toll-money in a small bag kept for the purpose, and, as the robber pushed by her into the gate-house, she contrived to cast this bag under the front stoop, unperceived by him. At the same time she protested “with great earnestness and womanish simplicity” that her husband had but now carried the money to the city, to pay it over to the agent of the company. The man examined the drawer where the tolls were usually kept, amid finding only a few shillings believed her story. Mounting his mare with a curse, he made off at full speed toward the city, northward this time in earnest, along the road by which he had come, his fur mantle floating out behind him.

Thus in his first attempt the highwayman was balked by a woman. Turpin, had he been present, would not have let her go out of his sight for an instant, and, had he failed to obtain the booty, would have ridden away more slowly, lifting his three-cornered hat and paying the dame a smiling compliment as he went. That our hero failed in this shows that he was but an amateur, after all. Had he secured the gate-money he might have gone on his way satisfied, and so have escaped what afterward befell him; but he had been too ready to place confidence in the words of the woman, and, though a novice, he did not lack courage.

From the toll-gate he rode to an inn at Gibbonsville, some four or five miles north of the city. It is plain that he had it in mind to empty the till of landlord Goewey, but the dogs, of which a number were kept about the place, raised such an uproar with their barking that he was forced to abandon the attempt. Fortune was against him, but his case was desperate, and he turned his horse’s head once more toward the city. Before Pye’s tavern he paused, but, seeing lights within and hearing the voices of late guests, he rode slowly on again. A few rods beyond the tavern, in a field, stood a stack of hay. Turning in to this, the rider dismounted and waited, leaving his mare to nibble. It was hard upon midnight, and soon he had the satisfaction of perceiving that the lights were put out in the tavern and the voices had become quiet.

The young man crept up to a window opening into a back room, raised and secured it by thrusting a splinter between the sash and the casing, and softly stepped inside. His first move was to light the dark lantern which he had brought with him. Then with a pail of water he extinguished the coals which still glowed in the great fireplaces of the kitchen and the front room. After this had been accomplished, no doubt with a beating heart, for he was but a beginner, he crept up the stairs leading to Pye’s sleeping-room. The hostess, who had been up late attending to the wants of her guests, had but just fallen asleep, when she was roused by a voice calling upon her husband. Springing from her bed, she confronted the intruder, and demanded what he wanted at that late hour, in a place where he had no business.

“It is to your husband, madam, and not to his wife, that my business is addressed,” muttered the stranger, shaking the sleeping Pye by the arm.

By his voice and figure she knew him to be the man who had called himself Johnson, and who had been in search of a house, but, being a prudent woman, she said nothing of this. Her husband had now waked, and in a peevish voice asked who was there, and what he wanted at such a time.

“Your money or your life I must have, and that immediately,” answered the robber, in a stern voice.

Pye, thinking that he was the victim of some waggish young man from the city, who was merely trying to frighten him, replied boldly, “It’s damned little money you’ll get out of me, my lad; the thing is but indifferently plenty with me.”

“Sir,” answered the robber, there’s no jesting in this matter. I am in earnest, and not to be trifled with. Your money, or here is that which can make its own terms,” and he pressed his pistol against the landlord’s breast.

The poor man was silent and not a little alarmed. He knew that in a box under the foot of the bed lay five hundred dollars in gold coin, and that there was as much more in notes in the bureau close at hand. But when the robber commanded him to lead the way downstairs to the bar, he complied gladly, thinking to be quit of the affair for the trifle that might happen to be there. In his agitation he forgot that his wife kept the key of the bar-room, as she kept all the other keys, and having arrived at the door, and finding it locked, the two were obliged to return to the upper story. Mrs. Pye, who had her wits about her, knew that this would be the case, and no sooner were their backs turned than she hastened across the hall to a room where two travelers were lying. Finding them sound asleep, she seized the one nearest her by the arm, and, being a woman of superior strength, brought him with one pull from his couch to the floor. Hurriedly whispering that the house was beset by a highwayman, and desiring him and his companion to help as best they could, she darted back into her own room, and waited as if she had never left it. As her husband and the robber came up, the two travelers whom she had warned opened their door and made as if they would interfere; but the muzzle of a pistol caused them to beat a hasty retreat, and for a time nothing more was heard of them.

“Wife, give me the key to the bar,” said Pye; “we are set upon by a robber, and we must give up our money, or we may lose our lives.”

“I will give the keys to thee nor to no man else,” quoth she bravely.

“Nay, wife,” he urged, “give them up, or worse may come.”

“I will not,” she replied again. “I will give the keys to thee nor no man living, I tell thee!” and with that she ran to the corner of the room, where there was a loaded gun.

It was an unlucky move. She had no sooner laid hold of the gun than the robber raised his pistol and shot her husband in the side. One of the bullets glanced on his ribs and fell to the floor, while the other passed through his left arm and buried itself in the wall close by where she stood. Nothing daunted, however, she cocked the piece and thrust it into her husband’s hands, crying, “Fire, Pye, fire, or he will kill thee! He is fumbling for his other pistol!”

“I cannot hold the gun,” he groaned; “I am sore wounded in the arm.”

At this she seized his hand and placed the barrel of the gun within it, supporting it and directing it toward the robber while he pulled the trigger. There was a deafening report, and the intruder fell, extinguishing his lantern as he went down.

Mrs. Pye’s first thought was to procure a light, by which the exact position of affairs might be ascertained. As she groped her way to the door, she stumbled over the prostrate body of the robber, and concluded that he was dead. Obtaining a light from the coals below, for there had been a fire in her own parlor, which the robber had failed to put out, she returned with her candle to the scene of action, to find her husband lying in a faint on the bed where he had fallen, and the robber nowhere in sight.

The two travelers, whom the chronicler speaks of derisively as “bedroom knights,” now ventured forth. By the marks of blood upon the walls and floor they traced the robber to a side door by which he had escaped, and they determined to set out at once for Albany for men to assist in his capture. This they did; but they had not gone far before they came upon the highwayman by the haystack, rolling in the snow, as if trying to stanch the flow of blood from his wound. The ball had taken effect in the back of his head, fracturing his skull. He could hardly have been in his right mind with such a wound, and that his brain was injured his subsequent actions plainly showed.

The two “bedroom knights” thought best not to disturb him, but left him rolling, and hastened on to the city. When they arrived they gave the alarm, shouting, “A robber! A robber!” at the top of their lungs. The night-clubs of the watch were soon heard on the pavement, as they passed the alarm on from one to another, and in a few moments a considerable number of people had collected to listen to the story of the travelers. This was hurriedly told, and meantime the populace came running out of the adjacent streets, each man crying, “A robber! A robber!” as loud as he could. William Winne was the captain of the watch, a brave man, who had served in the Revolution, and who had performed several famous feats both in running from and running after the Indians. The speech which he is said to have delivered on this occasion was short and to the point. “Gentlemen of the watch and citizens of Albany,” said he, “who among you all is willing to take part in the pursuit and apprehension of the robber? If there be any such, let them follow rue!” And so saying he at once set out. But hardly had the crowd started when it was brought once more to a halt by the command of the wary captain, who had caught the sound of rapid hoof-beats approaching from the north. In a moment the horse-man had burst upon them, hatless, with a bloody handkerchief bound about his head and his face spattered with blood. Again the cry of “A robber! A robber!” arose, but no man was found bold enough to stand before the furious horse and rider. The throng gave way to the right and left, and the highwayman dashed down the lane thus opened before him. One of the citizens did indeed strike at him with a heavy cane, as he passed, but he bent forward and escaped the blow. He had lost one of his pistols at Pye’s, but drawing the other from its holster, he turned in his saddle and fired as he fled. The bullet went wide, and the weapon fell from his hand.

The street before him, which was parallel with the Hudson, was now open, and he might perhaps have escaped had he followed it. But instead of doing this he turned aside into another street, which cut across the first at a right angle, and led to a wharf on the river front. Neither horse nor rider hesitated when they found the river before them. The leap which the mare made was talked of for years after. She struck full twenty feet from the edge of the wharf, upon the ice eight feet below. The citizens who had followed expected to see the ice give way beneath her feet; but it held, and soon both horse and rider had gained a little island in the midst of the stream, from which they made their way to the other shore, and climbed the steep slope. Here the highwayman might have turned to the right and followed the road to New York; but he was probably bewildered by his wound and the excitement of the chase, so that he took small note of his course. At any rate, he ignored the road, and dashed on across field and fence until he reached the wooded crest of the slope; and here, in the edge of the timber, he stopped to listen and to breathe his mare.

He soon found that if he would escape he had no time to lose, for the hue and cry of the pursuit came rolling toward him across the ice, and by the sounds he perceived that some of his followers were mounted. He turned, and plunged in among the tree-trunks; but his speed was slackened by the undergrowth and the deep snow, so that the pursuers gained on him every moment. One of them, who had outstripped the rest, came riding along a wood-road, hoping to capture the fugitive single-handed, and so win undying fame in the city. Suddenly the object of his search burst out through the bushes which fringed the way, and confronted him with a naked dagger which glittered in the gray of the morning. One glance at the pale and desperate face dissolved his courage. With a cry of terror, he wheeled his horse, dug his heels into its sides, and clattered off down the hill to the main band as if he had seen a ghost. In place of the honor he had sought he got only jeers arid laughter.

The highwayman was as startled at the unexpected meeting as the other, and instead of following the open road he dashed recklessly into the woods again, making for a point where the dense foliage of some fir-trees seemed to promise concealment. Alas! as he had been before beguiled and thwarted by two women, he was now deceived by Nature herself. Just as he was on the point of reaching the friendly shelter of the pines he came upon a bog, in which his mare struggled and floundered for a moment, and finally sank to her body, throwing him over her head into the mire.

His pursuers had now reached the point where he had abandoned the road, and the bold Winne leaped from the saddle and continued the chase on foot; uttering as he went cries of astonishment at the wonderful strides of the mare in her last desperate burst for freedom. It was more than twenty feet between the hoof-marks in the snow. Being a fleet runner, the captain of the watch soon left the others behind, and presently came upon the highwayman, stretched at full length among the brown grasses of the bog. When the poor wretch heard the sound of footsteps, he raised himself to a sitting posture, clenched his dagger more firmly, and prepared to sell his life as dearly as he might. But Winne drew nearer, and with a fortunate blow of his staff of office sent his opponent’s only remaining weapon spinning away into the snow. The latter now grasped the cudgel of his assailant, and with a desperate effort wrenched it away. As the plucky veteran sprang upon him, he was met with a half blow from the staff that dashed his front teeth into his mouth, “which he afterward took out at his leisure,” remarks the historian. But in spite of the blow he succeeded in catching the knotted kerchief, which had slipped down about the highwayman’s neck, and, twisting his fingers in this, he soon choked him into submission. It was the end of a gallant fight for liberty.

The others had now come up, and together they pinioned the captive’s arms, drew the mare out of the mud, and led them both away down the hill and across the river to the town. As the triumphal procession passed through the narrow streets, many an exclamation of pity was uttered by the good housewives and their tender-hearted daughters, who viewed the scene from behind the curtains of their chamber windows underneath the peaked roofs. In truth, the young man presented a sorry spectacle, as he walked with bent head among his captors. His long black hair was stiff with gore, and his garments were splashed with blood and mire from head to heel. He was taken at once to the prison, and irons, attached to staples some distance from each other, were placed upon his ankles. “Iron me as you will,” said he, “they can hold me but a short time.” He meant that death would soon set him free, but his captors thought he intended to escape, and so placed additional manacles on his wrists, and fitted an iron band about his waist, by which he was chained to the wall. They would also have put a collar of iron about his neck, but this his wound prevented.

So he lay in prison, and hundreds came to view him, among them Mrs. Pye, who insisted on being admitted to his cell, with the intention of reproaching him for his barbarity. She found him lying face down on the bare stone floor, but he raised himself when he knew that his visitor was a woman.

“Johnson, don’t you know me?” she asked, calling him by the name he had given.

“Indeed, madam, I do not,” he replied.

“What!” exclaimed Mrs. Pye; “don’t you know the woman whose apartment you entered a few nights since, and demanded money, and whose husband you have shot, so that I fear he will die of the wound?”

“My God, is he not dead, then?” cried the prisoner joyfully. “I thought I had killed him on the spot, though indeed I had not intended to do so. And are you the woman whom I have so deeply injured, and whose courage and address on that fatal night were so far beyond what is common to your sex? I bitterly deplore that adventure, and it has cost me my life, for the wound received from the shot of your gun is dreadful.”

When she entered the prison Mrs. Pye had felt only hardness of heart toward the robber, but this speech, in which sincere repentance was mingled with admiration of her courage, and the feeling that she had been instrumental in reducing him to the present pass subdued her anger. She felt the natural sympathy of her sex overcome her. With streaming eyes, she condoled with the prisoner, and tried to draw from him his story. He refused to disclose his true name and whence he had come, though he admitted that his family was respectable, and that he regretted the disgrace he had brought upon them. At last, much moved, Mrs. Pye left him, begging to be allowed to bring him some few comforts and dainties, and promising to return soon, as he was very desirous to know whether her husband was likely to recover. But before she had business in the city again the smith had filed away the prisoner’s irons, and he had stretched himself on the bed where presently he died.

His body was given over to the doctors who had attended him, and one of them preserved his skeleton and hung it up in his cabinet; so that even after his death his fate bore some resemblance to that of certain of his famous predecessors whose bodies were hanged in chains.

Such is the history of the only American highwayman who has ever shown himself in any degree worthy of the name.

To this day his identity remains shrouded in mystery, but no doubt there hung in a secret closet in the mansion of some Virginia planter another skeleton, whose dry bones rattled whenever the name of a certain son was mentioned. As a stranger he came, and a stranger still he passed beyond the reach of human questioning; but had not the presence of mind of one woman, the courage of another, and the treachery of a swamp intervened, the Hudson valley might have had a highwayman whose exploits would have been sung in ballads and pictured in story-books to this day.