Born in Co Monaghan, MacLaine was a notorious highwayman with his accomplice William Plunkett. He was known as the “Gentleman Highwayman” as a result of his courteous behaviour during his robberies. He famously robbed Horace Walpole, and was eventually hanged at Tyburn. The film Plunkett and Macleane was based loosely on his exploits.
MacLaine was the second of two sons of an Irish Presbyterian minister Rev. Thomas Maclaine of 1st Monaghan Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The elder son also became a minister. Educated to become a merchant, MacLaine frittered away his inheritance in Dublin on fine clothes, gambling and prostitutes. He moved to London and married the daughter of an innkeeper or horse dealer. With the dowry of five hundred pounds, he set himself up as a grocer in Welbeck Street. His wife died within 3 years, and he ruined his business in adopting the airs of a gentleman to attract a new wealthy wife. At that time the son of a clergyman would have all the true airs of a gentleman, though perhaps not the funds. He joined bankrupt apothecary William Plunkett as a highwayman.
Plunkett and Maclaine were responsible for around 20 highway robberies in six months, often in the then-relatively untamed Hyde Park. Amongst their victims were Horace Walpole and Lord Elgington. The thieves were always restrained and courteous, earning Maclaine the sobriquet “gentleman highwayman”. The proceeds enabled him to live the high life.
However, the Derby Mercury published on 21 September states that James Maclean was held in the Gatehouse, Westminster for robbing Josiah Higden of a Portmanteau containing divers wearing apparel and that the Salisbury Stagecoach was the targeted route.
After one robbery, the information on the stolen items was circulated and led to Maclaine’s arrest — he stripped the lace from a waistcoat taken in the robbery and attempted to sell it to a pawnbroker in Monmouth Street, who by chance took it to the same man who had just sold the lace and recognised it. Rather than returning home to fetch the money to pay for the lace, the man alerted a constable and Maclaine was arrested. When his premises were searched, many of the other things the men had stolen, including Lord Eglington’s blunderbuss and coat, were uncovered. Walpole writes:
“…there were a wardrobe of clothes, three-and-twenty purses, and the celebrated blunderbuss found at his lodgings, besides a famous kept mistress.”
Such accounts were fictionalised in books written soon after the trial and later versions are based on these books rather than on the facts of the charges as stated by the Darby Mercury, written four weeks before Maclaine’s execution.
Maclaine’s trial at the Old Bailey became a fashionable society occasion, and he reputedly received nearly 3,000 guests while imprisoned at Newgate. He was convicted and hanged at Tyburn on 3 October 1750. His brother, Archibald, a minister of religion and a translator, travelled from the Hague to intercede with the court for justice for his brother.
After Maclaine was hanged, he earned a mention in the poem The Modern Fine Lady by Soame Jenyns: as an aside after the line “She weeps if but a handsome thief is hung” the following note was added: “Some of the brightest eyes were at this time in tears for one McLean, condemned for robbery on the highway.” These lines quietly and eloquently speak of an England subdued by its justice system. Maclean paid with his life. Plunkett escaped with his money and his life.
Maclaine was once thought to be the original model for Macheath the Knife, anti-hero of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, but as that was written in 1728, when MacLaine was only 4, this cannot be sustained: the preferred claimant for this distinction is Jack Sheppard. His execution was, however, the subject of an early Cheap Repository Tract in 1795, which went through several editions. A modern, although fictionalised, portrayal of his life appears in the 1999 film Plunkett and Macleane, where he was played by Jonny Lee Miller. His skeleton appears in the final plate of William Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Image | 1756 print of a drawing of James MacLaine by L. P. Boitard