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A Sin and A Secret: The Highwaymen of the South River and Bumbo

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Mix yourself a drink based on a colonial recipe and then curl with a completely true, completely salacious story. Enjoy a new #ASinAndASecret post every other week.

On September 15, 1747 in London, England, James Ward’s wife pointed out a young man, in a crowd outside his shop. “He is the Person we suspect that stole our first Glass from us.”

Two weeks earlier, the man had stolen an expensive, gilt-framed mirror from Ward’s shop. Ward’s wife saw him “put the Glass under his Coat.” Seeing the man again now, “She ran out of the Door,” Ward later testified, “and took him by the Flap of his Coat, and cry’d out, Thief, Thief! Accordingly, I ran out and seiz’d him by the Collar, and brought him in.”

The thief was Thomas Bavin. He gave a weak defense, claiming he only “took it down to wipe the Dust off.” He was tried at the Old Bailey on October 14 and sentenced to whipping.

Nighttime city scene with buildings and the background and boats on the river in the front. Everything is lit up with fireworks.

April 27, 1749, was a grand day in London. The War of Austrian Succession, along with King George’s War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, and the First Carnatic War had all come to an end. In celebration, a grand illumination of fireworks was displayed at Green Park. There it was accompanied by a performance of George Frederic Handel’s famous “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” penned especially for the occasion at the request of King George II himself. It is said that over twelve thousand people paid admission for the show (Image:

Bavin found trouble again on April 27, 1749. At the Sign of the Nag’s Head tavern, he ordered “Bumbo,” a rum drink. There was a grand celebration happening that day, keeping the tavern busy. That might be why tavern-keeper Joseph Warwicker used a valuable “silver pint-mug” to serve Bavin his bumbo. Perhaps Warwicker had to use any and all vessels available. The silver pint-mug went missing.

Constable John Lyon searched for Bavin. After being spotted, Bavin flung the stolen tankard into a nearby pond. However, a young boy dove in and retrieved it. Bavin was found guilty and sentenced to transportation, which meant serving multiple years in America as a convict servant. He was sent to Maryland in August of 1749.

Two years later, Bavin escaped his master. He plotted with John Conner, another convict, to steal money from Charles Cole, an Annapolis merchant. They raised a ladder to climb into Cole’s house. Conner served as lookout. Banner tied Cole to his bed at gunpoint and threatened to “blow his Brains out.” He tried beating Cole into telling him where his money was, “giving him several bruises.”

Ironically, Cole was saved by John, a man he had enslaved. John had awoken in an adjoining house and seen Conner at the base of the ladder. Conner threatened John, telling him that if he made any trouble, “he would shoot him Dead.”

Undeterred, John found a musket, leveled it out his window, and fired at Conner. Conner fired back with his own piece, “loaded with Slugs.” The brief gunfight alarmed Bavin, who fled out the window, leaving Cole tied to his bed.

The pair fled Annapolis and sheltered along the South River Road. They hid in “the almost impenetrable Fields of Pines near the Town.” There they doubled down on their life of crime. The writers of the Maryland Gazette lamented that “almost every Day, since the Attempt made at Mr. Cole’s, has brought a fresh Account of some new Villainy” committed by Conner and Bavin.

The South River Road was a prime location for highway robbery. With eight roads converging at London Town and its ferry crossing, the South River was a bottleneck of colonial travel. With the thick pine forest to hide in, and a remarkably well travelled route, the area provided both coverage for the highwaymen and many potential travelers for victims.

Near the banks of the South River, the mounted and armed pair dragged a man off the road. They only released him after he proved he didn’t have any money. Another potential victim escaped them by spurring his horse and outpacing his pursuers. They robbed enslaved men of the goods they were carrying to market. These were likely goods the men themselves had grown, raised, or manufactured as an extra source of income. It had become so dangerous to travel between the South River ferry and Annapolis that the Gazette warned its readers not to travel that way “except in Companies and with Arms.”

Even the watchman at the Annapolis City Gate wasn’t safe. The pair boldly tied their horses in his sight. Although had his pistol not misfired, perhaps the pair’s story would have ended right there.

Annapolis residents sent “several Companies…at sundry Times, with Fire Arms and Dogs, to search for them.” Feeling threatened, Bavin and Conner left for less perilous hunting grounds. Taking their horses and guns, they traveled out west to Frederick, where they robbed again.

However, the pair underestimated the Fredericktonians. The day after their first robbery, “a Number of Men went out” and “found a large Bay horse tied to a Bush, who had just been fed with Oats and was in good Order; and just by him there lay three Saddles, and hard by, on a Bush, hung a loaded pistol.” Bavin and Conner escaped, but they were short a horse and had lost a valuable weapon.

With the law closing in, they split up. Conner returned to his master (“a Gentleman at Elk Ridge”) on August 8 and made “a free and full Confession.” He was thrown into the town’s “gaol.”

The next day, Bavin snuck into Annapolis and was discovered. At gunpoint, he returned to his master. Where Conner was penitent, Bavin was demanding. He told his unnamed master that “he would not have him lost by him, but should be glad to be sold out of the Country” so that he could escape by water. Hiding away in the cellar, he waited for a ship to carry him away.

Instead, the master informed the authorities. The next morning, a group of men armed with pistols stormed the basement, “where he was surprised and taken.” Dragged to the “gaol,” Bavin was “strongly Iron’d and chain’d to the floor” to prevent his escape.

On September 16, 1751, Thomas Bavin was tried and entered a plea of not guilty. When Conner took the stand to testify, Bavin objected. In English law, the word of a convict was not admissible evidence. Unfortunately for Bavin, Maryland law permitted the testimony, provided it was also against a convict.

At this moment, Bavin must have known he would hang. There was no one to speak for his character, and no mitigating evidence to save him. He changed his plea to guilty, and “ask’d Pardon of the Court for giving them so much Trouble.”

Before his execution, Bavin “applied himself to reading good Books, and was visited in Prison by several Divines to assist him in the work of Preparation.” On Friday, November 4, 1751, Bavin was set to hang. On his way to the gallows, continued to read. Standing beneath the rope that would end his life, he prayed for half an hour, and then gave a speech to the assembled crowd “to take Warning by his untimely and shameful End, and to lead quiet and peacable Lives.” He was then hung outside of Annapolis City Gate, the very same he had tried to boldly enter only a few months before.


Looking down at a drink of bumbo with bottles, wrapped sugar cone, and playing cards


Bumbo was a popular inexpensive drink of rum, water, and sugar. It was considered a “lesser punch” because it didn’t contain citrus fruits and spices, so popular in colonial punches. Thomas Jefferson’s ledger books contain scattered references to the beverage, purchased at the races or at taverns. Because bumbo was such a common drink, there are no exact recipes from the colonial era to guide the recipe we have provided. It was mixed differently in every tavern according to people’s money and their tastes.

Bumbo Recipe

  • 2 oz of dark rum

  • 1 oz water

  • 2 sugar cubes

  • Sprinkle of nutmeg

Combine all ingredients into a shaker with lots of ice, mix until completely cold and serve.

Highwaymen Story Sources:

Bumbo Sources:

Select Drink Recipe Sources for the Series:

  • Alderman, Clifford Lindsey, "Of Drinks & Drinkers," Early American Life, December 1975, pgs 87-88, 91 - 93

  • Bullock, Helen, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion: Being a Collection of Upwards of Five Hundred of the Most Ancient and Approv'd Recipes in Virginia Cookery, Colonial Williamsburg and Dietz Press: Richmond, VA, 1938

  • Carr, Eve, "Home-Grown Treats," Mid-Atlantic Country, December, 1986 pgs. 34 - 35, 58

  • Gaspee Days Committee,

  • Mackin, Jeanne, "Flowing Bowl," Americana, pgs. 39 - 41

  • Stief, Frederick Philip, Eat, Drink, & Be Merry in Maryland, Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, MD, 1932

  • Tilp, Frederick, "Tips on Tippling from Tidewater Maryland," Maryland Magazine, 1978, pgs. 14 - 17

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