Did you ever hear told of that hero,
Bold Nevison it was his name,
And he rode about like a brave hero,
And by that he gained a great fame,
Now when I rode on the highway,
I always had money in store.
And whatever I took from the rich
Why I freely gave it to the poor.
I have never robbed no man of tuppence
And I’ve never done murder nor killed.
Though guilty I’ve been all my lifetime
So gentlemen do as you please.
THE BALLAD “Bold Nevison”
We have heard tell of bold William Nevison before – and it was in these pages – a Robin Hood of the highway who ‘never done murder nor killed’. Early one morning in 1676 at Gads Hill in Kent he robbed a sailor just home from sea. Realising that he had been recognised and fearing the rope that was surely waiting Nevison rode north on his mare Nutmeg to establish an alibi. At sunset of the same day, with 230 miles of bad road behind them Nevison and Nutmeg rode into York. After washing and changing his travel stained clothes and attending to the exhausted Nutmeg Nevison went out to find the Lord Mayor of York who was playing bowls. Engaging him in conversation Nevison made a bet with the Mayor on the outcome of his game – and made sure that the Mayor noted the time – 8.00pm.
Nevison was eventually arrested for the robbery in Gads Hill. In his defence he summoned the Lord Mayor of York who swore that Nevison was in York at 8pm on the day of the robbery. Nevison was found not guilty and emerged as a folk hero, impressing even the King of England, Charles 2nd.
“I had supped with Nevison on the eve of the robbery in Kent,” attested the Lord Mayor of Kent. “And no man can fly.” But he could rise from the dead as Nevison had demonstrated before…
In the mid 1660’s Nevison was arrested for committing robberies in Leicestershire and committed to Leicester Prison where he was held in chains. One day, feigning illness, he sent for a physician who happened to be a friend. The physician said that Nevison was suffering from pestilential fever and unless he had the benefit of some fresh air not only would he die but the entire prison would become infected. The jailer released Nevison from his fetters and moved him into a cell on his own. However it was too late. The physician said that the infection was becoming increasingly contagious and Nevison was within hours of death. On hearing this the jailer’s wife refused to allow her husband or any other of the prison staff anywhere near the dying man. This gave Nevison and his associates the chance to carry out their plan…
“A painter was one day brought in, who made all over his breast blue spots, resembling those that are the forerunners of death in the disease commonly called the plague; as likewise several marks on his hands, face and body, which are usually on such that so die. All which being done, the physician prepared a dose whereby his spirits were confined for the space of an hour or two, and then immediately gave out that he was dead. Hereupon his friends demand his body, bringing a coffin to carry him away in. The jailer, as customary, orders a jury — the nurse having formally laid him out — to examine the cause of his death, who, fearing the contagion he was said to die of, stayed not long to consider thereon; but having viewed him, seeing the spots and marks of death about him, his eyes set, and his jaws close muffled, they brought in their verdict that he died of the plague; and thereupon he was put in the coffin and carried off.”
THE NEWGATE CALENDAR
At liberty again Nevison immediately returned to his trade of highway robbery. Several of his old victims, the carriers who he used to regularly rob, “were strangely surprised to see what they took to be the ghost of Mr Nevison, who beyond all doubt had died of the plague!”
The courts were also surprised to hear that Nevison had miraculously risen from the dead. They summoned the jailer from Leicester Prison, the man who had released Nevison – or at least a dead Nevison- and charged him to track the man down. A reward of £20 was set and a great search was established but Nevison was not to be found. Like all well behaved spectres, the ghost of Mr Nevison had vanished.
Nevison may have escaped from prison by pretending to be dead. He may have escaped justice by riding to York to establish an alibi – but in the end he could not escape the rope. In May 1684, found guilty of the murder of a Constable Fletcher, he was hanged at York Castle and buried in an unmarked grave in St Mary’s Church, Castlegate. He was 45 years old – and this time he really was dead.
— from Martyn Day