16th Century

Gamaliel Ratsey (d.1605): The Man whose Life Kick-started the “True Crime” Genre

By Stephen Basdeo

Gamaliel Ratsey was born in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, during the late sixteenth century.[1]

Little is known of Ratsey’s early life; his father, Richard, and his wife had several children and provided them all with a good education, and young Gamaliel was an excellent scholar in his early years.[2]

Ratsey bio

My Copy of The Life of Gamaliel Ratsey (1605). Feel free to reuse!

But by his teenage years Ratsey grew tired academic pursuits and decided to enlist in the army. He joined the Earl of Essex’s regiment to fight in the Irish campaign during the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603). English rule in Ireland since the Middle Ages was restricted to the region known as ‘the Pale’ on the eastern coast, while Anglo-Irish lords controlled Ormond, Desmond, Kildare, Munster, and Ulster. Throughout the sixteenth century, however, the English had made further advances into Ireland to which, unsurprisingly, the Irish objected. In 1594 two Irish chieftains, Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell, and their allies waged war against the English. The war did not end in the chieftains’ favour, and by the time that James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne in 1603, it was clear that the English advance could not be stopped.

Ratsey Ghost

My copy of Ratsey’s Ghost (1605)

In 1603, also, Ratsey returned to England. With few means of supporting himself he turned to robbery. On his journey home he passed through a town called Spalding in Lincolnshire and stopped at an inn. Having ordered some refreshment, he sat down and began flirting with one of the barmaids. While in the pub, he began spying out opportunities for aggrandising himself that might present themselves. He did not have to work very hard; after a short while a local farmer entered the parlour and began making small talk with the staff. Ratsey overheard that the farmer was due to pay a debt of forty pounds to another local gentleman after he had been to market. The farmer asked the barmaid to keep hold of it and return it to him upon his return. With the farmer had gone, the girl started flirting again with Ratsey in the middle of serving customers. As soon as the girl’s back was turned, however, Ratsey quickly grabbed the bag from behind the bar and scarpered. When he returned home, he buried the bag in his mother’s orchard.


Engraving of the inside of a pub during the late Elizabethan era

That evening the farmer returned to the inn and asked the barmaid for his bag. It was gone. The farmer was angry and the girl was distraught that the apparently nice man who was flirting with her could have done such a thing. The pair of them went to a local judge and asked for a warrant to be drawn up for Ratsey’s arrest.

Awdley Title Page

Rogue literature made the capital seem like a hotbed of vice and iniquity

He was apprehended by the local constable and, despite denying the charge, was thrown in gaol until he could be examined by a judge. Prisons in this period were temporary lock ups which were designed to hold the accused until their trial and sentence. The prisoner also had to pay for their own food and board. When he was taken Ratsey had no money on him and needed to pay the gaolers for something to eat. When his mother came to visit him in the lock up, he told her about the whole affair and asked if she could dip into his store for him. Ratsey’s family, it must be remembered, were on the whole a respectable one and the author of Ratsey’s biography even goes out of his way specifically to say that Ratsey’s mother was virtuous.[3] Her conscience was very conflicted at being asked to carry this task out for her son, and when she got back home she sought advice from her daughter, who then notified the father, who in turn told the justice.

The justice began making arrangements for Ratsey’s trial. Knowing that the punishment for stealing over forty pounds would be severe, he started planning his escape. How he managed to escape nobody knows, and all that his biography records is that he escaped ‘out of a very narrow passage in his shirt’.[4]

Ratsey obviously could not return home. He therefore went to the house of an old friend who gave him some clothes and a little bit of money to get by with.  He then made his way to London where he might live a life of crime and find other like-minded fellows.


My personal copy of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665). After Ratsey’s life story was published, the true crime industry exploded!

Contemporary writers perceived London as a hot bed of vice and iniquity, so much so that the fear of crime in this period contributed to the emergence of a new style of crime writing: rogue literature, which we encountered briefly in the introduction. Shortly after Ratsey was executed, Thomas Dekker in The Belman of London (1608) attempted to shed light on this emerging ‘underworld’ of crime, delineating the different species of criminal that an unlucky traveller could meet with in London. Much of this was lifted from an earlier account written by John Awdley entitled The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561). The rogues that flourished in Tudor and Jacobean England were ruthless cut-throats (or so they were thought to be), who, unlike the good forest outlaws of old, operated according to no moral code but were a law unto themselves.

For example, ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance,

Goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’[5]

The ‘frater’ would similarly

Prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[6]

Furthermore, the ‘whipjack’ would target small tradesmen.[7] Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay go about ‘by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’.[8]

At least Robin Hoodonly stole from the rich. The ‘new’ urban criminals were not so kind.

The first man whom Ratsey met when he got to London was named Henry Shorthose — an old friend from Market Deeping. They formed a confederacy with another man named George Snell, a career criminal who

Was twice burnt in the hand in Newgate for his bad conditions.[9]

Branding was a common punishment for petty thieves during the early modern period: as well as inflicting instantaneous painful punishment upon the body of the offender, in an era before police mug shots it was also a means by which the authorities might identify someone who had re-offended.[10] Together these men began to rob travellers upon the highway north of London. Among their victims were two scholars from Cambridge University, as well as two woollen merchants form whom they robbed forty pounds.


Cambridge in the 1600s.

Ratsey and his gang were not totally ruthless and on occasion they stole from the rich and gave to the poor. One day Ratsey stopped an old man and a woman on the road between Cambridge and Huntingdon. He bade them stand and deliver, but the old man pleaded with him, saying that between them he and his wife they had nothing but one shilling and sixpence. The pair was on their way to the fair to sell the rest of their possessions in order to buy a cow. At first, Ratsey was having none of it, and commanded the man to hand him his purse. The old man did as he commanded but Ratsey, finding that the elderly man was being truthful, was moved with pity. He gave the old man and woman forty shillings from his own stock of money.

Thus did Ratsey leave the old man both lighter at heart, and heavier in purse than he found him.[11]

It is not known how true this episode in his biography is: although tempting to believe that is indeed so, it is likely invented. Tales of outlaws demanding money from people and then finding out that they are indeed as poor as they claim, and subsequently helping the paupers out by giving them money, were common in earlier outlaw ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495).


Illustration of a highwayman. They weren’t all nice people.

And Ratsey was not a trigger happy highwayman—all good robbers should endeavour to refrain from using violence. It was much easier to rob someone by charming them, or conning them, rather than going in guns-blazing. And so one day (very few specific dates are given in early true crime literature) Ratsey spied a preacher travelling alone on Newmarket heath, Suffolk, and decided to have some sport with him. He rode up to the preacher and asked where he was travelling. When the preacher told him, Ratsey exclaimed that he was going there as well (the place to which the preacher was travelling is not mentioned in the accounts). The pair began conversing on a range of matters. Eventually, the preacher asked Ratsey about his life story, to which he replied that he was a gentleman who had fallen upon hard times, and had almost fallen into a criminal course of life, until he met the preacher and was able to confess to him all that was going on in his life. Ratsey asked the preacher whether he remembered those parts of the Bible where it spoke about being charitable to the poor. At this the preacher opened his purse and gave Ratsey £3.

Ratsey was sure that the man had more money about him, so he continued his feigned tale of woe:

My minde giues mee (I cannot tell what the reason is) that you have more money about you. If you have, it ill befits a man of your profession to dissemble, for that is a fault you much reprehend in others.[12]

The preacher revealed that he had £10 which Ratsey asked to see. Accordingly, Ratsey was handed the preacher’s purse and saw this was true. He kept the ten pounds for himself and handed the three pounds back to the preacher, telling him that God would surely remember this kind deed of his on the day of judgement.

At this point, Britain did not have an organised system of law enforcement. The late Tudor and early Stuart state relied on a network of parish constables who mainly performed a ‘reactive’ role in policing: they did not set out to detect crime but merely responded to victims’ complaints after the offence had been committed. As such, criminals often had to be caught ‘red-handed’.

The other way that the authorities could get their hands on notorious criminals such as Ratsey, however, was to encourage certain thieves to turn evidence against their former accomplices. This is what happened to Ratsey.

Ratsey, Snell, and Shorthose learnt that a gentleman who lived about seven miles from Bedford had recently come into possession of £100. They decided to rob the gentleman’s house. As they were biding their time near the gentleman’s house, the gentleman’s brother came riding out with the money in a bag. Ratsey and the gang chased after him and knocked the man off his horse. The gentleman’s brother was no wimp, however, for he drew his sword and commenced sparring with Ratsey, injuring him quite badly. Our thief was only saved when Snell came running up behind to assist his accomplice. Seeing that it would be no use to continue fighting against three people, for Shorthose had now joined them, the gentleman’s brother gave up the money. Ratsey, Snell, and Shorthose then made a quick escape.

The trio parted ways temporarily and rendezvoused at an inn in Southwark, London, a few weeks later. He they would divide the booty between themselves. A few days after the robbery, however, Snell was apprehended in a tavern in Duck Lane for having stolen a horse. Horse stealing was a serious offence, and is comparable to car theft in modern times: people depended upon them for transport, for work, and those guilty of horse stealing were almost certain to be hanged. When he was taken before a judge, Snell pleaded for mercy, and said that if the judge would show him leniency then he would give the authorities an even greater prize: the notorious offender, Gamaliel Ratsey.


London in the Elizabethan period

Snell directed the authorities to Ratsey’s location where the latter was taken and thrown into Newgate gaol. Shorthose was still at liberty, and having heard about the arrests of his former comrades, he intended on going to Newgate incognito to see them. However, he was pointed out to the gaol keepers and arrested as well. The three of them were then removed to Bedford for trial and sentencing. At Bedford, Ratsey did make one attempt to escape, having managed to get free of his irons, but he was quickly retaken.

Poor Snell never obtained the reprieve he had hoped for as all three men were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on 20 March 1605.

A poem, alleged to have been written in Ratsey’s own hand (we take this claim with a pinch of salt), was afterwards found in the cell. The poem enjoined all would-be offenders to avoid a life of sin and vice, which course had led Ratsey to the gallows:

Drinke not the nectar of your neighbours sweate,

Steale not at all they God dooth so command:

Whose laws to keepe thy souvraigne doth intreate,

Thy health it is, Gods law to vnderstand:

Obeying God, God shall all harmes preuent,

Keeping Kings peace, thy King is well content.

Anon. Ratsey’s Repentance, Which he wrote with his own hand in New-gate (1605)

Ultimately, Ratsey was a two-bit highwaymen. He may have done one or two good deeds but there’s no denying that he was an incorrigible rogue, no better nor worse than the many highwaymen who came before him. Yet his life is special because the two pamphlets that were printed about his life were in effect the first examples of true crime literature. There had been literature printed about criminals before, such as the early poems of Robin Hood like A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robyn Hode and the Monk. Yet the pamphlet about Ratsey was the first time that an author, whose name is now lost to time, took the life and deeds of a real person, wrote it down and served it up to audiences for entertainment!

Who could’ve known that the life of this obscure thief would kick-start the whole true crime genre?

An engraving of hanged criminals. Such was the fate of many a highwayman!

[1] The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey, a Famous Theefe of England, Executed at Bedford the 26 of March Last Past, 1605 (London: V. Simmes, 1605), [p. 4]. The surviving copy of this publication is not paginated, and references to page numbers are my own insertion. Philip Sugden, ‘Ratsey, Gamaliel (d. 1605)’, in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2008) [Internet <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23163> Accessed 17 June 2017]. See also Lawrence Stone, ‘Social Mobility in England, 1500-1700’, Past & Present, No. 33 (1966), pp. 16-55 (pp.17-18).

[2] This is a precis of Stephen Basdeo, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

[3] The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey, [p. 4].

[4] Ibid., [p. 14].

[5] John Awdley, The Fraternity of Vacabondes (London, 1561; repr. London: J. Awdley, 1575), [p. 4]. Early editions of this work are not paginated, but I have inserted page numbers for ease of reference.

[6] Ibid., [pp. 4-5].

[7] Ibid., [p. 4].

[8] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Early Stuart Rogue Literature ed. by Arthur Kinney (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), pp. 59-84 (p.71).

[9] The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey, [p. 16].

[10] Pieter Spierenburg, ‘The Body and the State: Early Modern Europe’, in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society ed. by Norval Morris & David J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 44-70 (p.48).

[11] The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey, [p. 27].

[12] Ibid., [p. 34].

3 replies »

  1. Aw, this was a very good post. Finding the time and actual effort to produce a very good article… but what can I say… I put things off a lot and never seem to get anything done.