John Cottington alias Mul-Sack, was a Chimney-Sweep, Pickpocket and Highwayman, who brought off some big coups before he was executed at Smithfield in April, 1685.
The father of John Cottington, or Mul-Sack, as he was oftener called, was a haberdasher of smallwares in Cheapside, and one time reputed to be pretty wealthy; but having a large expensive family, and being himself very fond of what is commonly called good company, he so far wasted his substance as to die very poor even so poor as to be buried by the parish. This was an unhappy thing for his children, who were no less than nineteen in number, fifteen of which were daughters, and John was the youngest of them all of either sex, which exposed him perhaps to more misfortunes than those who had some reason to govern themselves by, at the time when they became orphans. At about eight years of age he was put out apprentice to a trade no less honourable than chimney-sweeping. He was bound for a great many years, as he was so young at the time of going to his master; but he took care not to make his servitude longer than ordinary, for instead of adding six or seven years, he cut off two from the usual term, and ran away in the fifth year of his apprenticeship, apprehending that as he was got into his teens he was as good a man as his master, and being confident that he had learned enough of his trade for him to live upon.
He had not been long gone from his master before he perceived business coming on him even as fast as he could wish, and he made all the advantage possible of his good fortune -not in the usual sneaking manner, by hoarding up all he got, but by behaving himself like a gentleman, swearing at everyone that offended him, and assuming to himself almost as much state as the old chimney-sweeper below, who we may be certain is haughty, because to say anyone is as proud as Lucifer is become a proverb. Nor was it only in Cottington's carriage that you might observe the effects of his good fortune, for he lived in the best manner possible; no liquor but sack, forsooth, would go down with him, and that too must always be mulled, to make it the more pleasant. It was from this that he got his name of Mul-Sack, by which he was commonly called, and by which we shall choose to distinguish him in the following account of his exploits.
Mul-sack robbing a waggoner One evening Mul-Sack was drinking at the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street when he observed what he thought was a beautiful woman; and being naturally pretty amorous, and at that time in particular warm with his favourite liquor, he made his addresses to her. Madam appeared to be none of the coyest, for she received him very freely, only nothing but matrimony would go down with her, which did not thoroughly please him. " Yet why," thought he at last, "should I be against it? I can keep myself and a wife very well, and I never saw a woman whom I could like better than this; therefore, hang it! I'll e'en take her, for better for worse." Upon this he immediately gave her his hand, and there were no more words to the bargain, but away they tramped to the Fleet together; where divinity linked their hands, pronounced them man and wife, and prayed heartily for their welfare; in particular, that they might be successful in their honest and lawful endeavours for the procreation of children, which, as the holy office of the Church informs us, is the principal end of matrimony. Note 1
But how was our jolly bridegroom deceived at night when he found himself espoused to an hermaphrodite, and that the lady he had married was no other than a person well known by the name of Aniseed Robin? The redundancy of nature was soon discovered, and the bride confessed her fault, or, if you please, his fault, with abundance of seeming contrition, while poor Mul-Sack had nothing more to do in bed than to go to sleep as usual. This disappointment in matrimony had a great effect upon our gentleman's manners; for whereas he was never before known to be guilty of any worse crime than spending his money, sitting up late, and keeping jovial company, he now ran into all sorts of extravagances. In particular, he got acquainted with five noted amazons in Drury Lane, who were called the women shavers, and whose actions were then much talked of about town, till, being apprehended for a riot, and one or two of them severely punished, the rest fled to Barbados.
Mul-Sack was once present when these furies got a poor woman among them whom one of them suspected of having been great with her husband. As a punishment for this they stripped her as naked as she was born, beat her with rods in a terrible manner, and then shaved off all the hair about her whole body. After that they soused her in a tub of soapsuds over head and ears, and in fine almost killed her, in spite of all her tears, cries and protestations of innocence. After the law - the greatest enemy that people of this character have in the world - had deprived Mul-Sack of these worthy companions, he resolved to pursue his amours elsewhere, and to that purpose appeared, when out of his business, in a very smart and genteel manner; being withal a graceful person, and having a very extraordinary flow of words for a man of his calling. With these accomplishments he found means to insinuate himself into the good liking of a merchant's wife in Mark Lane, who had before this none of the best of characters.
This lady had originally been very handsome, but by a long course of amours her beauty was a little the worse for wearing when Mul-Sack became acquainted with her. However, what she wanted in person she made up in purse; for our smut made a shift to squeeze out of her about one hundred and twenty pounds before she fell sick and died, which happened not a great while afterwards. Mul-Sack had lately been so plentifully supplied with money, that when his kind benefactress departed this life, and changed this vain world, as we ought in Christian charity to believe, for a better, he could not think of applying himself to business anew, and relapsing again to his sooty occupation. Mul-Sack now turned pickpocket - a calling that generally serves for an introduction to the gentlemen who make the heroes of this history.
As a trial of his dexterity, the first thing he did was to take a very valuable gold watch, set with diamonds, from a lady of chief quality in those times of usurpation. One Mr Jacomb, a man very much followed by the Precisians, preached at that time a weekly lecture at Ludgate church, and the gentlewoman we are speaking of was one of his admirers and constant attendants. Mul-Sack had taken notice for some time how the pretty bauble hung dangling at her side by a gold chain. One of the companions he had engaged on this occasion found means to take out the pin of one of the coach wheels, so that the wheel fell, and the coach caused an obstruction just under the gate. The end of this was to make a crowd, and oblige madam to alight before she came to the church door; all which was effected, and Mul-Sack stood ready, dressed in what was then the height of the mode, to offer the lady his arm into the church. He presented himself very impudently, the favour was kindly accepted, and by the way he found means to cut the gold chain in two, and secure the watch as they passed through the crowd. The loss was not perceived till Mr Jacomb concluded, when the devout gentlewoman was going to see how long the spiritual meal had lasted. But, alas ! all the consolation she had received vanished after her darling watch.
We are informed that, before Mul-Sack left off this trade, he was once so impudent as to attempt the pocket of Cromwell himself, and the danger he then ran of being detected was the occasion of his leaving this secret sort of knavery and taking to the highway, in company with one Tom Cheney. These two fellows had the courage and confidence to set upon Colonel Hewson, a great man in those times, and one who had been advanced from a cobbler to the dignity he then enjoyed merely because his conscience was according to the measure of that time. The colonel's regiment was then marching to Hounslow, and he not so far before it but some of the troopers saw the action of our bravoes. Nobody can doubt but they were soon pursued; yet by the help of a good horse Mul-Sack got clear off ; but Cheney's beast failing him he was obliged to stand in his own defence, which he did very stoutly, till he was over powered by numbers, desperately wounded, taken prisoner, and carried to Newgate.
Sessions began at the Old Bailey within a few days after, and Cheney, being brought to the bar, begged to have his trial put off on account of his wounds. But the favour could not be obtained; for they caused a chair to be brought for him to sit in, obliged him to plead, and passed sentence of death upon him. What he had urged as a motive for putting off his trial was made the means to hasten his execution; for though it was two o'clock in the afternoon when he was condemned, he was carried in a cart that very day to Tyburn, and there executed, lest he should have evaded the sentence of the law, by dying in Newgate.
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The next companion Mul-Sack entered into articles with was one Mr Horne, a very bold man, and a pewterer by trade, though he had been formerly a captain in Colonel Downe's regiment of foot. Their engagement was to act in concert, offensively and defensively, like generous highwaymen. But neither did this partnership subsist long; for the first considerable action they ventured on was fatal to the poor captain, he being taken in the pursuit, while Mul-Sack had still the good fortune to escape. The captain's fate was the same as Cheney's, saving that he continued in good health till the hour of his execution, when he behaved with so much bravery and gallantry that his death drew tears from a great part of the spectators, particularly from that sex who know the value of a brave man so well as always to be grieved when such a one dies, especially at Tyburn.
His companions having such ill success, Mul-Sack was resolved to try his fortune alone, and he several times practised his calling upon committee-men, sequestrators, Members of Parliament, etc., who were then almost the only men in the nation worth robbing, they having plundered everybody else, and gotten the wealth of England into their own hands. In all these adventures he was as fortunate as he could wish, which prompted him forwards to attempt still greater things. Being informed that four thousand pounds were coming from London to pay the regiments quartered at Oxford and Gloucester, he resolved to venture his life for so considerable a sum, though two or three men well armed were appointed for a convoy. Just at the close of day, when the wagon was past Wheatley, and at the foot of a hill, he started from an ambuscade, presented his pistol, and bid the carrier stand. He would have certainly now gone to pot if the guard had not thought it impossible he should attempt such an action without company, but the apprehension of more behind the hedge made these sturdy fellows ride for their lives, and leave our adventurer to secure the booty; which he spent with as much mirth as he had obtained it with danger.
There were also two or three passengers in this wagon who were frightened terribly; but Mul-Sack generously told them he had no design upon what they had. " This," says he, " that I have taken, is as much mine as theirs who own it; being all extorted from the public by the rapacious members of our Commonwealth, to enrich themselves, maintain their janizaries, and keep honest people in subjection; the most effectual way to do which is to keep them very poor." It is said that Mul-Sack got more money than any highwayman of his time, though no man was less suspected than he by his acquaintance in town. When out of his calling he appeared like a merchant, talked always about business, and was seen on Change very often, these being the methods he used to conceal his trade; for nothing betrays a man so soon as endeavouring to hide himself.
One time, having notice that the Receiver-General at Reading was to send up six thousand pounds to London by an ammunition wagon, he immediately contrived to save that trouble, and bring it up to town himself on his own horse. An accomplice was necessary in this undertaking, and he soon found one, by whose assistance he scaled the receiver's house the night before the money was to be carted. The window they got in at was next to the garden, where they left the ladder standing, and came off at the present very well, having bound all the family, to prevent any alarm whereby they might be discovered. But an affair of this kind, as might very well be expected, made a great noise, and Mul-Sack was apprehended in town by some who had seen him in Reading the evening the fact was committed. Upon this he was sent down to Reading, and tried at the next assizes for Berkshire before Judge Jermyn, who did all he could to hang him. Nevertheless, by his cunning, he found means either to baffle the evidence or to corrupt the jury by his money, so far that he was acquitted, the proofs against him being only circumstantial.
Not long after this narrow escape our offender, growing in wickedness, added murder to his former crimes. The person on whom it was committed was one John Bridges, with whose wife he had before contracted a familiarity. On this account he fled beyond the sea, and got himself introduced at the Court of King Charles II., who was then in exile. He got so much intelligence here, that he ventured home again, upon a presumption of obtaining his pardon from Oliver Cromwell, as a reward for what he could discover of affairs amongst the King's friends. Accordingly, he applied himself to the usurper, confessed his crime, and made very large promises, upon the performance of which Cromwell assured him of his life. But whether he could not be as good as his word, or whether the Protector thought such an abandoned wretch utterly unfit to live, so it was that he was apprehended, condemned, and executed in Smithfield Rounds, in April, 1685, being forty-five years of age.
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Note: 1. Fleet Marriages: These were notorious clandestine marriages which were performed without a licence by indigenous clergymen. They were first performed in the chapel of the Fleet Prison by clergymen imprisoned there for debt. From the beginning of the 18th century they were also performed in the inns and taverns around the Fleet. They were declared void by the Marriage Act of 1753.