James MacLaine & William Plunkett

"The Gentlemen Highwaymen"

There were some highwaymen who epitomised the devilish rogue of fiction and who captured the hearts and curiosity of the public. For example, the highway robber James MacLaine lived by day as a respectable gentleman in Londonís St Jamesís, while his criminal accomplice, William Plunket, who was also presumed to be a gentleman, lived in nearby Jermyn Street. 

James MacLaine was born in 1724, the youngest of a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the north of Ireland. Educated for a career as a merchant, Maclaine took his fathers inheritance to Dublin where, aged 18, he blew the lot of foppish clothing, gambling and whores. Shunned by his family, he moved to England, married an innkeeper's daughter and set up store as a grocer. When his gambling ruined the business and his wife died, he struck up the famed criminal partnership with bankrupt apothecary owner Plunkett. With stolen pistols and horses, and their faces hidden by Venetian masks, the pair had a short but highly successful career as highwayman.

Despite rickety beginnings (Maclaine fled from their first robbery), the pair committed around 20 hold-ups during 6 months, often in the wilds of Hyde park. As a highwayman MacLaine listed Horace Walpole, Lord Elgington and Sir Thomas Robinson among his many wealthy victims. The robberies were always conducted in a restrained and courteous fashion, earning Maclaine the gentleman highwayman tag and giving him enough money to finally live the society lifestyle he'd always craved.

Maclaine was eventually arrested when he tried to pawn lord Elgington's distinctive coat (ripped off during a hold-up on Hounslow Heath). Such was his position among the fashionable glitterati that following his capture in 1750, his trial at the Old Bailey court was a social occasion, while he reputedly received nearly 3,000 guests during his imprisonment in Newgate prison. Reputedly a great many high-society ladies, such as Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, clamoured for an audience with him in his cell. Despite calls for MacLaine to be saved from the gallows, he was hanged at Tyburn on 3rd October of 1750, as to have spared him could have been viewed as "setting a bad example". At his hanging he simply said "May god forgive my enemies and receive my soul". His accomplice Plunkett was smart enough to escape with both his money and his life.

Maclaine is widely accepted as the original model for Macheath the Knife, charming bigamist hero of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera".

Newgate Calendar entry on James MacLaine


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