Ratsey, Gamaliel (DNB00)

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RATSEY, GAMALIEL (d. 1605), highwayman, son of Richard Ratsey, a well-to-do inhabitant of Market Deeping, Lincolnshire, took to evil courses as a boy, and in 1600 enlisted in the army which accompanied Sir Charles Blount (afterwards Earl of Devonshire) to Ireland. On returning to England about 1603, Ratsey robbed of 40l. the landlady of an inn at Spalding, but, when arrested, he escaped from prison, and, stealing a horse of a serving-man on the road, entered into partnership in Northamptonshire with two reckless thieves named respectively Snell and Shorthose. Ratsey's exploits on the highway, which were thenceforth notorious, were equally characterised by daring and rough humour. He usually wore a mask in which the features were made hideously repulsive. Gabriel Harvey referred to him as Gamaliel Hobgoblin. Ben Jonson wrote in his ‘Alchemist’ (i. 1) of a ‘face cut … worse than Gamaliel Ratsey's.’ In ‘Hey for Honesty’ (1651), assigned to Thomas Randolph, an ugly woman is similarly described (Randolph, Works, ed. Hazlitt, p. 470). On one occasion Ratsey and his friends successfully robbed a large company of nine travellers. Before he relieved a Cambridge scholar of his property, he extorted a learned oration from him. To the poor he showed a generosity which accorded with the best traditions of his profession. But within two years his partners betrayed him to the officers of the law, and he was hanged at Bedford on 26 March 1605.

Some literary interest attaches to his career. He is the hero of several ballads, none of which are now known, and of two pamphlets, each of which is believed to be extant in a unique copy. One, which is in the Malone collection at the Bodleian, was licensed for the press to John Trundle on 2 May 1605. This copy has no title, but it is described in the ‘Stationers' Register’ as ‘The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey, a famous thief of England, executed at Bedford the 26th of March last past.’ A portrait of Ratsey, which is no longer accessible, is said to have formed the frontispiece. A poem in Spenserian stanzas, headed ‘Ratseys Repentance, which hee wrote with his owne Hand when he was in Newgate,’ concludes the tract, and, with some vagueness but with much poetical fervour, relates his adventurous life. The popularity extended to this little volume led another publisher (Valentine Simmes) to obtain, on 31 May, a license for a second part, which he christened ‘Ratseis Ghoaste, or the second part of his Madde Prankes and Robberies.’ It is a collection of imaginary adventures on the road. The only known copy is in the John Rylands Library at Manchester. The most interesting chapter reports a speech which it is pretended Ratsey addressed to the leader of an itinerant company of actors who played before him at a country inn. The speaker advises the actor to perform in London, but, as soon as he has secured a competency, to buy ‘some place of lordship in the country,’ and seek dignity and reputation. The actor promises to follow this advice, which is assumed to be an ironical reflection on Shakespeare and the position he had gained at Stratford-on-Avon.

[Collier's Bibliographical Cat. iii. 231–4; Halliwell-Phillipps's Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, i. 325–6.]

S. L.