De Quincey’s Highwayman

“It was, in fact, the skeleton of an eminent robber, or perhaps of a murderer.... It is singular enough that these earlier grounds of suspicion against X. were not viewed as such by anybody until they came to be combined with another and final ground. Then the presumptions seemed conclusive. But by that time X. himself had been executed for a robbery, and had been manufactured into a skeleton by the famous surgeon Cruikshank, assisted by Mr. White and other pupils.”—Thomas de Quincey's “Autobiographical Sketches,” chap. xiv.

In “The House on the Marsh,” a novel that has had a wide popularity in recent years, the authoress, Miss Florence Warden, has chosen for “hero” a highwayman, or rather burglar, who lives in the style of a country squire, and, having access to the “best houses,” manages to make his position in society contributory to success in the “profession” he has selected. There is a curious parallel to the theme of this story in the life-history of a man who was at one time an inhabitant of Manchester, and whose strange career has already furnished material to Thomas de Quincey and Mrs. Gaskell. More than a century ago there stood—and still stands—at Knutsford a house on the heathside known as the Cann Office. The tenant appeared to be a man of independent fortune, kept horses, joined in the hunting sportsof the district, and obtained access to the houses and tables of the neighbouring squires. According to the tradition, he had one night noticed the diamonds of Lady Warburton, and followed her carriage on horse-back, but on coming up with it was disconcerted to hear her say, “Good-night, Mr. Higgins; why did you leave the ball so early?” On another occasion he is said to have noticed in Chester a ladder left accidentally against the wall of a house in one of whose bedrooms he noticed a light. Ascending, he saw a girl in her ball dress take off her jewels, and place them on the dressing-table. As soon as the maid withdrew and the young lady was in bed, Higgins opened the window, and, getting into the room, secured the valuable plunder. A slight noise partially awoke the sleeper, who said, “Oh, Mary, you know how tired I am; can't you put the things straight in the morning?” and then fell asleep again. If she had awakened and seen him he would certainly have murdered her. Some suspicion that Higgins was not altogether the plain country squire he wished to be supposed may very well have been excited by his occasional absences. It is traditionally stated that his horse's feet were cased in woollen stockings for his nocturnal expeditions. The murder of Mrs. Ruscombe, an old gentlewoman, at Bristol, caused some noise. The murderer was Higgins. Before the murder was known at Knutsford, in his anxiety to establish an alibi, he put in an appearance at an inn, and made an incautious allusion to it which piqued one of the company, a confirmed newsmonger, who prided himself on having the first intelligence of every event of interest. Suspicion was thus cast upon Higgins. He was arrested at his own residence, but managed to elude the constables, and vanished from the neighbourhood of Knutsford. He played the same rôle  of country squire a few months later at French Hay, near Bristol. Thence he removed into Wales, “where he broke open Lady Maud's house at West Mead.” For this he was tried at Carmarthen, and, notwithstanding that he managed to have a forged respite sent to the Sheriff, he was hanged at Carmarthen on Saturday, 7th November, 1767. He died, we are told, in a very sullen humour, but before he was “turned off” delivered to the officials a letter to the High Sheriff. From this document and the contemporary accounts it appears that the High Sheriff was acquainted with the birth and parentage of Edward Higgins, about which no details are given. His first exploit was that of eloping from the house of his mother with a neighbour's wife. This was the beginning of “all kinds of wickedness.” He was tried at Worcester, 14th May, 1754, for housebreaking, and was sentenced to transportation. “The day before the transports were sent off from Worcester, his sister came to him early in the morning, and desired to speak with him in a private room; this was refused. She then requested that he might have permission to show her the dungeon; thither they went, and stayed some time in close conference. She had not left the gaol more than half an hour when a farmer who lived near Worcester came in to enquire whether his sister had not been there, ‘for,' says he, ‘I have been robbed of £14, and I have reason to suspect her, and that she has given the money to her brother.' The turnkey told him what had passed. Higgins was searched, but nothing was then found. He was brought down to Bristol, put on board the Frisby  for Maryland, and delivered, with the other convicts, at Annapolis. The farmer who lost the £14 (as above) came with him from Worcester to Bristol, and when Higgins was stripped on board thetransport the farmer's money was found concealed in the lining of Higgins' hat; but as it could not be taken from him, the farmer was obliged to be contented with the loss of it .”

By breaking open a shop in Boston he obtained a considerable sum of money, and escaped by a ship sailing for England, to which he thus returned within three months of his transportation. He settled first in Manchester, and afterwards at Knutsford, where he married at the parish church, by special licence, Katherine Birtles, 21st April, 1757. In the licence he is styled yeoman, but in the entries of the baptism of his children he is called Edward Higgins, of Nether Knutsford, gentleman. His fifth child was baptised 11th June, 1764. His letter to the Sheriff concludes with these words:—“As I die an unworthy member of the Church of England, I do not desire your prayers, as you will not receive this till after my death; yet beg for God's sake (as you are a gentleman of benevolence) you will have some compassion on my poor disconsolate widow and fatherless infants, and as undoubtedly you will often hear my widow upbraided with my past misconduct, I also beg you will vindicate her to all such as not being guilty or knowing of my villany.” His wife remained with him until the end. Higgins was dissected, and his skeleton formed part of the museum of Dr. Charles White, F.R.S., of Manchester. In his collection it was seen by De Quincey, who has left a characteristic account of the visit in his “Autobiographical Sketches.”

In De Quincey's famous essay on “Murder as One of the Fine Arts,” the professor of homicide tells this grim story about Higgins. “At the time of his execution for highway robbery I was studying under Cruikshank; and the man's figure was so uncommonly fine that no money or exertion was spared to get into possession of him with the least possible delay. By the connivance of the Under Sheriff he was cut down within the legal time, and instantly put into a chaise-and-four, so that when he reached Cruikshank's, he was positively not dead. Mr. ——, a young student at that time, had the honour of giving him the coup de grace  and finishing the sentence of the law.”

Mrs. Gaskell wrote a sketch—“The Squire's Tale”—based on the career of Higgins, which appeared in Household Words , and is reprinted in her collected writings. When the Rev. Henry Green was preparing his history of Knutsford he carefully collected all the information that could be found respecting the gentleman highwayman. Edward Higgins deserves some remembrance not only for the strangeness of his career, but for his posthumous influence upon English literature.