Ironically, despite the dangers and streams of complaints from the colonies, people still kept going! Mostly prisoners, religious dissenters/ prisoners of war, kidnapped street kids, etc. but still a lot of free-willers. Despite this, the colonists were (supposedly) still short on labourers and ‘needed’ more spirited kids.
A clergyman from Virginia, Morgan Godwin (thank God it wasn’t another Thomas!) claimed around 10,000 kids a year were kidnapped. Others claim that figure was ludicrous; surely we’d notice if 10,000 children suddenly disappeared from our country?
Whatever the numbers, we know there were many. Court records of the day prove it. At Middlesex Assizes a lady called Elizabeth Hamlyn was the very first spirit to be charged and sentenced to whipping, and between 1625-1701 Middlesex County Court had known of 73 cases. However, we also know there were many more that weren’t recorded, simply because of law enforcement’s laissez-faire attitude.
After all, these are (probably) street kids. Who gives a shit?
In 1671, a spirit called William Haverland was convicted. Even though he confessed, he also ratted out on a host of other spirits such as John Stewart. Stewart also confessed he’d been a spirit for 12 years and kidnapped an average of 500 people per year! 12 x 500 = 6,000. According to Haverland, Stewart paid 25 shillings per spirit to bring him new victims and sold them off for 40. He also ratted out on a shoemaker called William Thiere who’d reportedly spirited 840 people, and Robert Bayley had known no other means of livelihood apart from spiriting!
Suddenly 10,000 doesn’t seem so ludicrous, does it?
Furthermore, to be able to get away with it on such a large scale spirits would need accomplices. Strong-arm men, fencers, stolen goods dealers, ship captains, agents, merchants, officials & magistrates were all in on it – both in England and America. Usually the kidnappings weren’t done by force; more often it was done by duping gullible/ hopeful/ drunk people into signing their lives away. Once done, they were then carted off to ships in the Thames, or makeshift prisons to wait for arriving ships. Anyone who put up a fight was dealt with by the pressgangs.
A person was specially appointed to keep the business looking decent in the public’s eyes – the office keeper. His job was to provide a base of operations and get the free-willers to sign the papers. Or mark them, since most were illiterate. Despite what you may think, spirits didn’t just target the poor & unemployed. All social strata were at risk, including those due to become genuine apprentices. The ones most at risk were 10-year-olds to those in their mid-20s. Spirits operated all over the UK, including in London (hence the Thames), Southampton, Aberdeen, Dublin & especially Bristol.
Bristol’s activity was exposed, however, by George Jeffreys – an alcoholic lawyer turned Lord Chief Justice.
He discovered a boy being shipped off, and on further inspection found that victims were forced to appear before local justices to agree to the voyage! Jeffreys tracked the spirits down and fined them £1000 – in other words, he actually did something to stop a kidnapping! This was far from typical but it was something. But 3 years after King James II left, Jeffreys was meant to leave as well. Didn’t happen; instead he got drunk in the Tower of London and died from a stomach ulcer.
Spiriting was so common authors (e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe) even wrote fictional works on it, terrifying local parents and children alike. Especially ones living near the ports. Fear was so rife hysteria sometimes broke out, and neighbours were accusing each other at random of being spirits! Almost needless to say, sensationalist journalism wrote about the phenomenon too.
It became such a serious problem that:
- In 1645, Parliament ordered officers and port officials to search all vessels for children.
- In 1654, Bristol council drew up a book to record the details of all indentured peoples.
- In 1661-2, merchants told Parliament to officially ban spiriting – which never happened.
- 1664, Parliament planned to interview all emigrants to ascertain if they were leaving of their own free will. Kinda pointless, since most were.
- 1670, kidnapping became a crime punishable by DEATH! Meanwhile the spiriting business was booming.
In 1680 at Middlesex Assizes, Ann Servant was charged with assaulting & spiriting an Alice Flax to Virginia. She was fined 13 shillings and sixpence. Compare that to the punishment for stealing a horse –
In 1684, a man & woman were fined 12p for spiriting a 16yo girl. Also, to show how seriously justices took the matter, the accused were allowed to claim monetary recompense for their victims.
Cue face palm.