Note: Crate-Diggings is a new feature on this website—book listicles, or if you prefer, bicksticles. This week, we gather the top free-to-read online books about crooks, with some illustrations.
I thought it good, necessary, and my bounden dutye, to acquaynte your goodnes with the abhominable, wycked, and detestable behauor of all these rowsey, ragged rabblement of rekehelles, that—under the pretence of great misery, dyseases, and other innumerable calmities which they fayne—through great hipocrisie do wyn and gayne great almes in all places where they wyly wander, to the vtter deludinge of the good geuers, deceauinge and impouerishing of all such poore housholders, both sick and sore, as nether can or maye walke abroad for reliefe and comforte (where, in dede, most mercy is to be shewed).
Upon this sight, Fancy me thought suggested to me that her money was already as surely mine as if I had already confin’d it close Prisoner in my leathern dungeon.
Now hath the gentle reader heard in what danger of life I put myself. But as concerns the danger of my soul ’tis to be understood that as a musqueteer I became a right desperate fellow, that cared naught for God and his word. No wickedness was for me too great: and all the goodnesses and loving kindnesses that I had ever received from God quite forgotten: and so I cared neither for this world nor the next but lived like a beast.
Let them remember that a time of distress is a time of dreadful temptation, and all the strength to resist is taken away; poverty presses, the soul is made desperate by distress, and what can be done? It was one evening, when being brought, as I may say, to the last gasp, I think I may truly say I was distracted and raving, when prompted by I
know not what spirit, and, as it were, doing I did not know what or why, I dressed me (for I had still pretty good clothes) and went out. I am very sure I had no manner of design in my head when I went out; I neither knew nor considered where to go, or on what business; but as
the devil carried me out and laid his bait for me, so he brought me, to be sure, to the place, for I knew not whither I was going or what I did.
Modern history can scarce instance a Subject, that for such a Length of Time has more generally engaged the Attention of all Ranks of People, than the Affair of Elizabeth Canning and Mary Squires, concerning whose Innocence or Guilt, whether the Gallows out not to have been the Allotment of the one, or the Pillory of the other, the Sentiments of the Publick, even after two solemn Trials, before a solemn Court of Judicature, seem to remain to the full as much undetermined as if no such Trials had been.
There is a remarkable difference between the civil laws, those jealous guardians of life and property, and the laws of, what is called, honour, which particularly respects the opinion of others.
The first laws, and the first magistrates, owed their existence to the necessity of preventing the disorders, which the natural despotism of individuals would unavoidably produce. This was the object of the establishment of society, and was either in reality or in appearance, the principal design of all codes of laws, even the most pernicious. But the more intimate connections of men, and the progress of their knowledge, gave rise to an infinite number of necessities, and mutual acts of friendship, between the members of society. These necessities were not foreseen by the laws, and could not be satisfied by the actual power of each individual. At this epocha began to be established the despotism of opinion, as being the only means of obtaining those benefits which the law could not procure, and of removing those evils against which the laws were no security. It is opinion, that tormentor of the wise and the ignorant, that has exalted the appearance of virtue above virtue itself. Hence the esteem of men becomes not only useful, but necessary, to every one, to prevent his sinking below the common level. The ambitious man grasps at it, as being necessary to his designs; the vain man sues for it, as a testimony of his merit; the honest man demands it as his due; and the most men consider it as necessary to their existence.
Hence it follows, that in extreme political liberty, and in absolute despotism, all ideas of honour disappear, or are confounded with others. In the first case, reputation becomes useless from the despotism of the laws; and in the second the despotism of one man, annulling civil existence, reduces the rest to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, then, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies, which are a limited despotism, and in these, like revolutions in despotic states, it is a momentary return to a state of nature, and original equality.
It is true there are certain recognized conventions, which men have devised to keep what is called the social compact. Honor! truly a very convenient coin, which those who know how to pass it may lay out with great advantage. Conscience! oh yes, a useful scarecrow to frighten sparrows away from cherry trees; it is something like a fairly written bill of exchange with which your bankrupt merchant staves of the evil day. Well! these are all most admirable institutions for keeping fools in awe, and holding the mob under foot, that the cunning may live the more at their ease.
Up to his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been considered the model of a good citizen. In a village which still bears his name, he owned a farmstead on which he quietly supported himself by plying his trade. The children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God, and taught to be industrious and honest; nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice. In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue—his sense of justice, which turned him into a robber and a murderer.
Practice and theory must advance pari passu. People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.
“By-the-way, from the manner in which you alluded to the world’s census, it would appear that, according to your world-wide scheme, the pauper not less than the nabob is to contribute to the relief of pauperism, and the heathen not less than the Christian to the conversion of heathenism. How is that?”
“Why, that—pardon me—is quibbling. Now, no philanthropist likes to be opposed with quibbling.”
“Well, I won’t quibble any more.”
“No, Rodion Romanovitch, Nikolay doesn’t come in! This is a fantastic, gloomy business, a modern case, an incident of to-day when the heart of man is troubled, when the phrase is quoted that blood ‘renews,’ when comfort is preached as the aim of life. Here we have bookish dreams, a heart unhinged by theories. Here we see resolution the in first stage, but resolution of a special kind; he resolved to do it like jumping over a precipice or from a bell tower and his legs shook as he went to the crime. He forgot to shut the door after him, and murdered two people for a theory. He committed the murder and couldn’t take the money, and what he did manage to snatch up he hid under a stone. . . But consider this: he is a murderer, but looks upon himself as an honest man, despises others, poses as injured innocence. No, that’s not the work of a Nikolay, my dear Rodion Romanovitch!”
After he had killed the innkeeper he did not return to town. Strange to say, he was not sorry to have committed that murder. His mind went back to the murdered man over and over again during the following day; and he liked the recollection of having done the thing so skilfully, so cleverly, that nobody would ever discover it, and he would not therefore be prevented from murdering other people in the same way. Sitting in the public-house and having his tea, he looked at the people around him with the same thought—how he should murder them.
Honorable Mentions: “A Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, anything by Balzac featuring Vautrin. The Life, Times, & Treacherous Death of Jesse James by Frank Triplett (1882) doesn’t seem to be available online, which is a shame.