Joseph Blake

Perp: Joseph Blake

Alias: Blueskin

Date: November, 1723

The Crime : Robbery. For breaking and entering the dwelling-house  in St. Clement's Church-yard, and stealing one hundred and eight yards of woollen cloth

Victim: William Kneebone

Motive : Money

Punishment: Executed

Location : Tyburn

The Story : At about this time London and its vicinity were infested by a gang of villains of the most desperate character, of whom this criminal was the captain. With his name are associated those of offenders whose exploits, though they may be better known, were not more daring or more villanous.

The notorious Jonathan Wild, whose system of atrocity will be found to be exposed in the notice given hereafter of his life and death, and his no less notorious victim and coadjutor, Jack Sheppard, were both intimately connected with the proceedings of Blake ; while others of equal celebrity filled up the number of his followers. The Mint in Southwark was, during the early part of the life of these offenders, a place which, being by a species of charter freed from the intrusion of the bailiffs, formed an admirable hiding-place and retreat for criminals, as well as debtors. A system of watch and ward was maintained among them, and, like the Alsatia of Sir Walter Scott's admirable novel of " The Fortunes of Nigel," which is now known by the- name of Whitefriars, its privacy was seldom intruded upon by the appearance of the officers of justice. The salutary laws of the commencement of the reign of the Hanover family, however, soon caused these dens of infamy to be rooted out; and the districts referred to are now known only by repute, as having been privileged in the manner which has been described.

To return to the subject of our present narrative : he was a native of London, and having been sent to school at the age of six years, he displayed, more intelligence in acquiring a proficiency in the various arts of roguery, than in becoming acquainted with those points of decent instruction, with which his parents desired he should make himself intimate. While at school, he formed an acquaintance with a lad of his own age, named Blewitt, who afterwards, with himself, became a member of Jonathan Wild's gang. No sooner had they left school, than they started in life as pickpockets ; and our hero, before he attained the age of fifteen years, had been in half the prisons in the metropolis. From this they turned street robbers ; and forming connexions with others, their proceedings became notorious, and they were apprehended.

Blake, however, was admitted evidence against his companions, who were convicted ; and having by that means obtained his own acquittal, he claimed a part of the reward offered by government. He was informed by-the Court, that his demand could not be granted, because he was not a voluntary evidence; since, so far from having surrendered, he had made an obstinate resistance, and was mueh wounded before he was taken ; and instead of rewarding him, they ordered him to find security for his good behaviour, or to be transported. Not being able to give the requisite bail, he was lodged in Wood-street Compter, and there he remained for a considerable period ; during which his patron, Wild, allowed him three and sixpence per week.

At length he prevailed upon two gardeners to enter into the necessary sureties ; and their recognisance having been taken by Sir John Fryer, for his good behaviour, for seven years, be once more regained his liberty. This object was, however, no sooner attained, than he was concerned in several robberies with Jack Sheppard; and they at length committed that offence for which Blueskin was executed. We have already said that he had become notorious for the daring which he displayed, and the frequency of his attacks upon the property of others; and he had become no less celebrated among his companions, who had favoured him-with the appellation of Blueskin, from the darkness of his complexion, and had besides honoured him by dubbing him captain.

At the October sessions of the Old Bailey, 1723, he was indicted under the name of Joseph Blake, alias Blueskin, for breaking and entering the dwelling-house of William Kneebone, in St. Clement's Church-yard, and stealing one hundred and eight yards of woollen cloth, value thirty-six pounds, and other property. It was sworn by the prosecutor, that the entry was effected by cutting the bars of his cellar-window, and by subsequently breaking open the cellar-door, which had been bolted and padlocked ; and that afterwards, on his going to Jonathan Wild, and acquainting him with what had occcured, he was conducted to Blake's lodgings, for the purpose of procuring his apprehension. The prisoner refusing to open the door, Quilt Arnold, one of Wild's men, broke it open. On this Blake drew a penknife, and swore that he would kill the first man that entered ; in answer to which Arnold said, " Then I am the first man, and Mr. Wild is not far behind ; and if you don't deliver your penknife immediately, I will chop your arm off." Hereupon the prisoner dropped the knife ; and Wild entering, he was taken into custody.

It further appeared, that as the parties were conveying Blake to New-gate, they came by the house of the prosecutor ; on which Wild said to the prisoner, " There's the ken ;" and the latter replied, " Say no more of that, Mr. Wild, for I know I am a dead man ; but what I fear is, that I shall afterwards be carried to Surgeons Hall, and anatomised ;" to which Wild replied, " No, I'll take care to pre vent that, ffir I'll give you a coffin." William Field, an accomplice, who was evidence on the trial, swore that the robbery was committed by Blake, Sheppard, and himself; and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty.

As soon as the verdict was given, Blake addressed the Court in the following terms :—" On Wednesday morning last, Jonathan Wild said to Simon Jacobs (then a prisoner), " I believe you will not bring forty pofinds this time (alluding to the reward paid by Government) ; I wish Joe (meaning me) was in your case ; but I'll do my endeavour to bring you off as a single felon." And then turning to me, he said, " I believe you must die—I'll send you a good book or two, and provide you a coffin, and you shall not be anatomised."

The prisoner having been convicted, it was impossible that this revelation of the circumstances, under which he was impeached could be noticed; but subsequent discoveries distinctly showed that Wild's system was precisely that which was pointed out ; namely, to lead on those who chose to submit themselves to his guidance, to the full extent to which they could go, so as to be useful to him ; and then to deliver them over to justice for the offences in which he had been the prime mover, securing to himself the reward payable upon their conviction. His position screened him from punishment, while his power ensured the sacrifice of the victims, who had so long been his slaves. It appears that Wild was near meeting his end in this case. He was to have, given evidence against Blake, but going to visit him in the bail-dock, previous to his trial, the latter suddenly drew a clasped penknife, with which he cut Jonathan's throat. The knife was blunt, and the wound, though dangerous, did not prove mortal ; but the informer was prevented from giving the evidence which had been expected from him. While under sentence of death, Blake did not show a concern proportioned to his calamitous situation. When asked if he was advised to commit the violence on Wild, he said No ; but that a sudden thought entered his mind : had it been premeditated, he would have provided a knife, which would have cut off his head at once. On the nearer , approach of death he appeared still less concerned ; and it was thought that his mind was chiefly bent on meditating means of escaping : but seeing no prospect of getting away, he took to drinking, which he continued to the day of his death ; and he was observed to be intoxicated, even while he was under the gallows.

He was executed at Tyburn on the 11th of November, 1723.