The Horsham Museum has acquired an “incredibly rare” deathbed confession of an 18th century mugger written shortly before “Chained” for robbing the Yarmouth Mail and detailing his enlightened response to a failed gay seduction would have.
The Life of Thomas Munn, aka the Gentleman Brick-Maker, aka, Tom the Smuggler, is 24 pages and was printed in 1750. It is part of the once popular deathbed confession genre, a forerunner of true crime and claims of being an autobiography that Munn presented to the Yarmouth Gaoler on the morning of his execution on April 6, 1750.
The pamphlet, which would have been sold by street vendors for pennies, describes Munn’s life of smuggling, robbery and “pranks” and shows how he turned to a life of crime after growing up in a brick factory in Kent. He later went to Sussex to become a dance master and wrote how he got “a group of young fellows as undemanding as I am … to dance with me Morris, as it is called in this county”. This is one of the earliest documented references to Morris dance, according to the Horsham Museum.
About three years later, Munn was making bricks again and once related how he “trudged” to Horsham to meet a potential woman. Munn reveals that the woman was a wealthy 70-year-old widow: “I noticed immediately that the poor old soul couldn’t bite me because she never had a tooth in her head that softened her kiss.” A lawyer is on site also in the running for her hand in marriage, and Munn gives up his suit after the lawyer visits the widow and she “paddled up stairs with him and seems to be there long enough to try something”. However, it was “a very unfortunate game,” he notes.
The Horsham Museum said that what the pamphlet raises about the usual deathbed confessions is “the degree to which Thomas was aware and thought about his life”. He describes an incident in an inn in Southampton when the innkeeper’s son came to Munn’s bed and told him that “I love to lie with a naked man”.
I wanted words to express my confusion, surprise, and passion in his suggestions
“He hadn’t been in bed long, but began to play a role that was so contrary to nature that I started in bed and wanted words to express my confusion, surprise, and passion in his suggestions,” says Munn. The “guy” leaves after Munn has threatened him with a pocket knife and the next day makes “a lot of excuses”.
As Munn relates, “It was what I have never met before or since, but I had enough philosophy in me to consider it a shame to expose a young man when he pointed to a very heinous sin; and surely we who commit crimes beyond the ordinary should be pitied, for no one is sure they can endure when faced with the same temptation. “
Horsham Museum curator Jeremy Knight said it was noteworthy that Munn had this reaction and that he also chose to report on it publicly.
“It’s really interesting to give him space in his confession – the only space in which he had to speak publicly about himself,” he said. “The printer could have taken offense and not included him – after all, the author would have no recourse … But both thought it was important enough to tell. And what Munn says, although it is considered a sin, is that his immediate response depended on his upbringing and social norms. He’s not so sure how he got aroused by the boy, and who should we judge when we have this reaction ourselves? Desire for tolerance and acceptance – that is human nature. “
Justin Croft, a British bookseller who came across the brochure at a US auction and bought it before selling it to the museum, called it “an interesting reflection on the weirdness.
“In some ways, it’s a very typical criminal deathbed confession – there were hundreds of them at the time,” he said. “But this kind of weird episode is unusual. It’s not something I noticed in any of these before. It’s not clear – he says this happened, I did what I did, but don’t blame me because, under the same circumstances, could you resist? “
The Horsham Museum, with the help of the Friends of the National Libraries, acquired the booklet, which is only kept in four libraries worldwide. It will appear in a new gallery when it reopens in the summer.