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His real name was James Aitken, though he was better known as "John the Painter," and during the early months of the American Revolution, he wreaked havoc in England by performing acts of terror on behalf of America. In this first full-length chronicle of the man who attempted to burn down royal navy yards across England, Jessica Warner paints a tart and entertaining portrait of the world's first modern terrorist. At the height of the scare, King George III received daily briefings from his ministers, the Bow Street Runners were on the chase, newspapers printed sensational stories, and in Parliament a bill was rushed through to suspend habeas corpus. This is rollicking popular history with something for every reader—authentic 18th-century atmosphere, timely social history, international political intrigue, terrorism, chase scenes, spies, a double agent or two, a jailhouse snitch, the king, a young woman innocently tending her sheep, and much more.
At some point, presumably toward the end of 1775, his thinking progressed from favoring the American Revolution to wanting to play a part in it. This was a step that other British radicals, Price included, were not willing to take. It did not occur to Aitken that he might be able to do something on his side of the Atlantic until he overheard an otherwise innocent conversation. “It is amazing with what force this conversation kept possession of my mind,” he was later quoted as saying. “I believe it never left me afterwards.”
The circumstances were harmless enough. Several men were gathered in a public house in Oxford, talking about the war. Aitken hung on their every word. The Royal Navy, they all agreed, depended on the royal dockyards; take away these, and the war was as good as lost.41 The conversation’s effect on Aitken was electrifying. It was then and there that he set himself the task of hobbling the Royal Navy by destroying the dockyards that kept it afloat.
It was an ambitious undertaking, especially for just one man. But therein lay its appeal. It gave him a challenge. The destruction of just one dockyard would prove an enormous undertaking, one that would use all his talents. The skills that he would employ were the skills that he already had, starting with the two things he had learned as an apprentice: how to draw and how to grind colors and mix paints. He would use the first in making elaborate sketches of his targets, along with designs for incendiary devices, and he would use the second in manufacturing his own combustibles. He was forever grinding unlikely substances, often prevailing on unsuspecting painters to lend him their stones. His background as a painter probably explains why he favored turpentine over other combustibles. The skills that he had acquired as a burglar would also serve him well, allowing him to move about without drawing attention to himself, slipping in and out of buildings and storehouses. It helped, too, that he was the sort of man whom nobody seemed to notice anyway.
His expectations soon acquired a life of their own, and he started to become slightly unhinged. He relived the same scenario, again and again: with the dockyards destroyed, America would win the war by default, and he would return there an officer and a hero. The indignities, obscurity and crushing commonness of his past life would all be behind him.
There was a caveat. Although he desperately wanted fame, he did not want to work too hard or long to achieve it. In this we can detect the impatience and impulsiveness of a very young man. From this perspective, he had come up with just the right project. It was nothing if not economical of his time, with ten months all told for gathering information, and perhaps two months, if everything fell into place, for burning down each of the major dockyards: Portsmouth in the southwest, Plymouth in the west, and Chatham, Woolwich, and Deptford outside London.
chapter one: His Boyhood
chapter two: His Adventures as a Highwayman
chapter three: His Adventures in Colonial America
chapter four: His Return to England
chapter five: His Meeting with the American Envoy to France
chapter six: His Attempt to Burn Down the Town and Dockyard of Portsmouth
chapter seven: His Meeting with a British Spy
chapter eight: His Many Attempts to Burn Down the City of Bristol
chapter nine: His Capture and Subsequent Imprisonment
chapter ten: His Trial in Winchester
chapter eleven: His Last Day
chapter twelve: His Fate and That of Many Others