Highwayman’s 1750 confessions reveal ‘unusual’ ambivalence about gay sex

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2/13/21

An “incredibly rare” deathbed confession from an 18th-century highwayman, written just before he was “hung in chains” for robbing the Yarmouth Mail and detailing his enlightened response to a failed gay seduction, has been acquired by Horsham Museum. The Life of Thomas Munn, alias, the Gentleman Brick-Maker, alias, Tom the Smuggler runs to 24 pages and was printed in 1750. It is part of the once-popular genre of deathbed confessions, a precursor of true crime, and purports to be an autobiography handed by Munn to the Yarmouth gaoler on the morning of his execution on 6 April 1750. The pamphlet, which would have been sold for pennies by hawkers, details Munn’s life of smuggling, robbery and “pranks”, revealing how he turned to a life of crime after growing up in Kent in a brick-making family. He later went to Sussex to become a dancing master, writing of how he “got a set of Young Fellows as undiscerning as myself … to go with me Morris-dancing, as it is called in that County”. This is, said Horsham Museum, one of the earliest documented references to morris dancing. Munn was back making bricks some three years later, at one point recounting how he “trudged” to Horsham to meet a potential wife. The woman, Munn reveals, was a wealthy 70-year-old widow: “I instantly observed the poor old Soul could not bite me, because she had ne’er a Tooth in her Head, which made her kiss might soft”. A local solicitor is also in the running for her hand in marriage, and Munn gives up his suit after the solicitor visits the widow, and she “daddled up Staires with him, and seem’d to be long enough there to have tried a Cause”. It was, however, “a very unhappy Match,” he notes. Horsham Museum said that what raises the pamphlet above the usual deathbed confessions “is the degree to which Thomas was self-aware and reflective on his life”. He describes one incident in a Southampton inn, when the son of the innkeeper joined Munn in his bed, informing him that “I love to lie with a naked man”. “He had not been long in Bed but began to act a Part so Contradictory to Nature that I started up in Bed, wanted Words to express my Confusion, Surprise and Passion, at his Propositions,” Munn says. The “chap” leaves after Munn threatens him with a penknife, and makes “many Excuses” the next day.

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