Higgins, Francis (‘Sham Squire’) (1745?–1802), adventurer, was born in Dublin, one of the large family of Patrick Higgins, an attorney's clerk, and his wife, Mary, who were said to have moved from Downpatrick, Co. Down. Patrick Higgins may have been the Patrick Higgins of Dublin who conformed to the established protestant church in May 1736. Francis Higgins worked his way up from ‘errand boy, shoeblack and waiter in a porter-house’ (MacDougall) to employment in the office of an attorney, Daniel Bourne of St Patrick's Close. (An attorney of this name is listed as having qualified in February 1774.) In 1766 Higgins forged a legal document to show that he owned landed property and was in government employment; converting from protestantism to catholicism and showing this document, he succeeded in marrying the daughter, Maryanne, of a wealthy catholic merchant, William Archer, and obtaining a dowry of £600 and the assurance of half Archer's estate at his death. In January 1767 he was arrested and tried for assaulting his mother-in-law. At the trial at the court of king's bench the presiding judge, Christopher Robinson (qv), referred to Higgins as a ‘sham squire’ – a name that stuck. In the same year he was convicted of another assault, on a grocer, John Peck. For both assaults he went to prison. His wife died not long after the marriage.
After his release Higgins kept a public house with billiard and hazard tables in Smock Alley. About 1775 he was apparently working as a hosier at the same address and was master of the hosiers’ guild, which he represented on Dublin common council. In 1780, perhaps already in the pay of the government, he became connected with the Freeman's Journal, then an opposition newspaper; he gradually moved it into the government camp and acquired ownership (1783), which proved lucrative – in 1788 he received £1,600 for publishing government proclamations. Owing to the friendship of the attorney general, John Scott (qv), he was admitted as an attorney. He is listed as such for the first time, with an address at Ross Lane, in Wilson's Dublin Directory for 1781; he is listed as deputy coroner of Dublin in later issues (1784–7) and as under-sheriff of Co. Dublin (1787). By 1788 he had moved to 72 St Stephen's Green South. In 1789, through the influence of Lord Carhampton (qv) and the viceroy, Lord Buckingham (qv), he was appointed a JP for Co. Dublin, though he was still practising as an attorney.
On 8 March 1789 (if not earlier) the owner of the Dublin Evening Post, John Magee (qv), began publishing accusations of misdeeds against Higgins dating from 1766. In the issue for 23 July 1789 appeared a letter, signed ‘An old grey-headed attorney’, accusing Higgins of using undue influence to obtain a pardon for a Mrs Llewellyn who had been convicted of complicity in the rape of Mary Neal. The accusations continued for some months in the forms of squibs and lampoons. On 3 July 1789 Magee and three associates were tried, in effect for libel, before Scott, by now Lord Earlsfort and lord chief justice. Magee spent some time in prison, but Higgins's reputation suffered. It appears that in 1790 he was discreetly deprived of his justiceship of the peace for falsifying the court record in the Magee case.
In the second half of the 1790s Higgins was the chief source of information to the under-secretary in the civil department at Dublin castle, Edward Cooke (qv), on Dublin civic affairs and on the activities of Dublin catholics, United Irishmen, and other dissidents. He had a wide circle of acquaintances. He also had the paid services of several informants, most notably Francis Magan (qv), who told him of the whereabouts of Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) after the arrest of other members of the United Irish national directory (May 1798), thus bringing about FitzGerald's arrest and a reward of £1,000 for Higgins. There is an edition by Thomas Bartlett (2004) of 158 letters the ‘sham squire’ wrote to Dublin castle between March 1795 and December 1801. A fair judgement of Francis Higgins, after allowing for the deep hostility of the main source of information on him, William John Fitzpatrick (qv), is that he was a plausible rogue. He died, aged fifty-six, at his house in St Stephen's Green on the night of 19 January 1802 during a heavy storm, and was buried at the city's Kilbarrack cemetery.
Higgins's will, written in September 1791, showed generosity. It contained bequests to the poor, both protestant and catholic, and to various friends. The most significant was ownership of the Freeman's Journal, which went to Frances Tracy, daughter of Thomas Tracy of Ross Lane (to whom Higgins owed a debt of gratitude). Bartlett considers that Francis Grenville Tracy, who for no evident reason was awarded a government pension of £300 (December 1800), was Higgins's son by her; it is more likely that Frances Tracy was really Higgins's daughter. On Frances's marriage (September 1802) the newspaper passed to her husband, Philip Whitfield Harvey (qv), on Harvey's death (10 August 1826) to their daughter, Mary O'Kelly Harvey, and on her marriage (1826) to her husband, Henry Grattan (qv) junior. Thus the Freeman became once again an organ sympathetic to the catholics.