Apprehending Early Modern Fugitives

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring, 2 April 2019

From the iconic  ‘wanted’ posters of the American Wild West to the facial recognition software in use today, the methods for finding fugitives become ever more sophisticated. In years before such technologies of surveillance and detection developed, though, how did authorities track down people on the run?

When writing my last post, which touched on the use of images in punishment, I became curious about the use of images in early modern English criminal justice more generally – a curiosity revived by Cassie’s recent post on the advent of illustrated crime reporting in the Victorian press. Did early modern authorities ever use pictures to try to track down fugitives from justice? Valentin Groebner has noted that Spanish Inquisitors of the sixteenth century sometimes used depictions of escapees painted on small linen cloths to aid in the pursuit.[1] I’ve not yet found evidence of anything of this nature being done in England. There, before the nineteenth-century turn to photography and fingerprinting, authorities relied largely on written and oral descriptions. As newspapers became increasingly common in the eighteenth century, they often ran ads with brief, narrative pen portraits of fugitives – whether people evading justice, enslavement, or the control of their husbands and masters. Earlier still, seventeenth-century authorities shared written descriptions in warrants of hue and cry given from one constable to another to track down suspected criminals.[2] Sometimes, too, royal proclamations offered similar pen portraits when calling upon all subjects to join the hunt.

Officials working for King James VI/I introduced the practice of calling forth a criminal-hunting public in this manner in the early seventeenth century, for a select group of offenders of particular concern to the Crown. Published throughout the realm both orally and as printed broadsheets for display, these royal proclamations narrated the deeds that prompted the search and urged the participation of all subjects in the pursuit of the offender, sometimes offering a reward for the person’s capture, whether dead or alive. While we don’t find here pictorial depictions of fugitives, we do see previously unremarked uses of the technology of print in the interests of the state and a step in the evolution of the medieval hue and cry toward later methods of apprehending offenders.

The descriptions in these proclamations also give us a glimpse of how fugitives’ identities were ‘apprehended’ in another sense of the word. Several significant collections of ads for the recapture of people who ran from slavery are now available online, offering valuable resources for learning about such things as the self-fashioning of enslaved people and the attitudes of those who treated them as property to be recovered.[3] The few brief pen portraits of these early seventeenth-century proclamations do not provide nearly the same food for thought, but they do give us a few descriptions of men who went on to be venerated as martyrs for the Catholic cause, amongst others. They’re interesting, too, not just for what they suggest of the difficulties involved in tracking down fugitives, but also for what they indicate of the language of personal description and the characteristics authorities thought likely to lead to an identification. Age, size, hair colour, and ‘complexion’ all appear, as do scars, speech, and status. And beards — beards, it seems, were thought to be of particular use in identifying people.

Here, in conclusion, are the fugitives’ descriptions included in early seventeenth-century ‘wanted’ proclamations:

Sir Griffin Markham has a large broad face, of a bleak complexion, a big nose, one of his hands is maimed by a hurt in his arm received by the shot of a bullet, he has thin and little hair upon his beard; all his brethren are tall of stature, young, and without any hair of their faces, of exceeding swarthy and bad complexions, and have all very great noses.

William Watson, priest, is a man of the lowest sort, about 36 years of age, his hair betwixt abram and flaxen, he looks asquint, and is very purblind, so as if he read anything he puts the paper near to his eyes; he did wear his beard at length of the same coloured hair as is his head, but information is given that now his beard is cut.

William Clarke, priest, is a man of middle stature, inclining to the lower sort, about the age of 36 years; his hair is betwixt red and yellow, he keeps his beard close cut, he is not lean nor corpulent, but betwixt both, rather lean.

Robert Winter is a man of mean stature, rather low than otherwise, square made, somewhat stooping, near 40 years of age, his hair and beard brown, his beard not much, and his hair short.

Stephen Littleton is a very tall man, swarthy of complexion, of brown coloured hair, no beard or little, about 30 years of age.

John Gerrard, alias Brooke, of stature tall, and according thereunto well set; his complexion swarthy or blackish; his face large; his cheeks sticking out, and somewhat hollow underneath the cheeks; the hair of his head long, if it be not cut off; his beard cut close, saving little mustachios, and a little tuft under his lower lip; about 40 years old.

Henry Garnet, alias Walley, alias Darcy, alias Farmer, of a middling stature, full face, fat of body, of complexion fair; his forehead high on each side, with a little thin hair coming down upon the midst of the forepart of his head; the hair of his head and beard griseled; of age between 50 and 60; his beard on his cheeks cut close, on his chin but thin, and somewhat short; his gait upright and comely for a fat man.

Oswald Tesimond, alias Greenway, of mean stature, somewhat gross; his hair black; his beard bushy and brown, something long; a broad forehead, and about 40 years of age.

Lord Maxwell: He is about the age of 23 years, tall and slender, of a whitish complexion, his face full of pockholes, his nose short and low in the midst, a little hair on his chin of a white colour, the hair of his head somewhat darker, and his legs are very long and small.

The Lord Sanquhar of a reasonable tall stature, pale faced, of a sallow colour, a small yellowish beard, one glass or false eye, attended commonly with a French boy.

Robert Carlisle, of an ordinary stature, a handsome fellow, his hair of his head of a flaxen red, his beard something redder, with a hair-scar or cut on his lip up to his nose, which makes him snuffle in his speech.

John Cotton is of the age of 48 years, or thereabouts, of a reasonable tall stature, slender of body, the hair of his head and beard flaxen, but now inclining to white, well complexioned, with somewhat a long and lean visage.

Henry Field: He is a man of a middle stature, about 40 years of age, some pockholes about his nose, his face lean, his complexion sallow, very hollow eyed, the hair of his head brownish, his beard somewhat lighter, thin of hair, and cut short and blunt. When he was last seen, he wore a cloth suit of dark green colour, with two laces in a seam, of a lighter colour.[4]

Main image: from the title page of Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (London, 1608), public domain, from the British Library.

[1] Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p. 197. See also Edward Higgs, Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present (London: Continuum, 2011).

[2] See, e.g., Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 255-7, which briefly discusses the switch to written warrants of hue and cry from the earlier physical pursuit of offenders across parish and county lines, and offers a few quotes from some of the warrants’ descriptions of offenders. On the eighteenth-century switch towards the printed newspaper, e.g. in the Quarterly Pursuit and then the Hue and Cry, see Higgs, above, and also J.M. Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 60-64. For the medieval precursor, see Kenneth L. Duggan, ‘The Hue and Cry in Thirteenth-Century England’, Thirteenth-Century England 16 (2017), 153-72 and Samantha Sagui, ‘The Hue and Cry in Medieval English Towns’, Historical Research 87 (2014), 179-93.

[3] See, e.g., the Runaway Slaves in Britain project, produced by Simon Newman et al.

[4] Descriptions come from Stuart Royal Proclamations, ed. James F. Larkin and Paul L. Hughes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), vol. I (1603-1625), nos. 22, 60, 62, 81, 123, 130, 244.


  1. Krista
    Very interesting as always. It raises the general issue of the reliability of eye witness testimony. Forensic psychologists today have cast great skepticism on its reliability. I think historically the opposite may have been true. My colleague Michael Saks is an expert on this issue. Here is a google link with references to some of his work. Thanks.

    Jonathan Rose
    Professor of Law & Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar Emeritus
    Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University,
    609 E. Carter Dr.
    Tempe, AZ 85282
    (480) 839-2104
    Faculty Profile
    SSRN Page


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