18th century

The Rogue Academic: William Dodd, L.L.D. (1729-1777)


The Execution of Dr. William Dodd in 1777 (Illustration from The Newgate Calendar)

William Dodd, the son of a Clergyman, was born in Lincoln in 1729 to a comfortable middle-class family. He was educated at Cambridge University, and was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1750, and by all accounts distinguished himself there by a close application to his studies. He was also a good-looking young fellow who knew how to dress. The account of his life states that:

It was not, however, only in his academical pursuits that he was emulous of distinction. Having a pleasing form, a genteel address, and a lively imagination, he was equally celebrated for accomplishments which seldom accompany a life of learned retirement. In particular, he was fond of the elegancies of dress, and became, as he ludicrously expressed it, a zealous votary of the God of Dancing. [1]

After completing his BA he for a time lived as a professional author, at which time his finances began to dwindle. Then, to the surprise of all of his friends, he announced, in 1751, that he was going to marry someone, a Miss Mary Perkins; this surprised his friends even more because, knowing Dodd’s precarious financial situation, the marriage to them seemed unsuitable because she was not in the least bit wealthy herself. They must, then, really have married for love, even if the marriage was somewhat hasty.

Dodd and his wife took lodgings in Wadour Street, Soho and he seems to have immersed himself in London’s night life, which greatly alarmed his family and friends:

Dancing on the brink of a precipice, and careless of to-morrow, his friends began to be alarmed at his situation. His father came to town in great distress upon the occasion, and he quitted the house before winter. [2]

Things seemed to then be looking up for Dodd, for after he left London he was appointed as Deacon at Caius College, Cambridge. There he devoted himself to his profession, and distinguished himself, and most of his family and friends thought that Dodd had finally matured and become a man. This seemed further evident when he was appointed as a Clergyman at a Parish in West Ham, where his behaviour was described as:

Proper, decent, and exemplary. [3]

It was during this time that he also completed his Master of Arts degree, in which he again proved to be a model pupil. Shortly after this, in 1766, he was appointed as Chaplain to his Majesty whilst simultaneously completing his Doctor of Laws at Cambridge.

As a man who was educated, and very successful in life, why, then, did he end up in Newgate gaol? Whilst contemporary accounts say that he managed to suppress the ‘wild inclinations’ of his youth whilst he was completing his doctorate, this seems to have changed when he won the National Lottery. Suddenly, with a lot of funds at his disposal, it seems he fell back into his old ways, once again developing a fondness for good living. His debts started to climb, and he resolved to commit forgery in the hope of getting enough money to pay off his debts.

In February 1777, one of Dodd’s pupils was the young Lord Chesterfield. Dodd forged a bond to the sum of £4,200 with Chesterfield’s name on it. This was a pretty dangerous crime to commit; it was technically classed as Treason against the King, the punishment for which was hanging, drawing and quartering. [4] The forgery was discovered soon after, and Dodd’s trial commenced on 24 February 1777. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Tyburn. During his time in prison, some 23,000 people signed a petition to have him pardoned, notably among them was Doctor Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). But forgers rarely obtained reprieves; their crime was an offence against the authorities and against trade; everything that the English held dear. Dodd was subsequently taken to Tyburn and hanged on 27 February 1777.

Dodd’s case is significant for it presented something of a difficulty for people in the late eighteenth century. Dodd was to all appearances a good man, happily married, and educated; he should not in theory have become involved in crime. This was explained away by the fact that popular notions of criminality in the century held that all people, regardless of social status, could become a criminal because all men were guilty of original sin. Yet that notion was dominant in the early part of the century. By Dodd’s time, crime was increasingly thought of in terms of class. There was an idea, not yet fully articulated, that it was only people from a certain class who were responsible for the vast majority of crime.

When Dodd’s trial report, and his own auto-biographical Thoughts in Prison (1777), was published, it was designed to be a moral tale. Readers were supposed to follow Dodd’s life story through the pages, see where he had made fatal moral mistakes along the way, and avoid the consequences of a life of sin and vice – namely, hanging at Tyburn. But on a lighter note, perhaps we can also draw a further moral from it; I like to think of it as a case that we should pay and value our academics more in society!


[1]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’ in Thoughts in Prison; in Five Parts, viz. The Imprisonment, The Retrospect, Public Punishment, The Trial, Futurity. By William Dodd, L. L. D. (London, 1777 repr. London: Longman, 1815), v.
[2]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’, vi.
[3]Anon. ‘The Life of the Author’, vii.
[4]Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, and Robert Shoemaker ‘Punishments at the Old Bailey’ Old Bailey Online [Internet <http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment.jsp#death> Accessed 29/11/2015].