July 6th, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1840, a valet was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his aristocratic employer, Lord William Russell.
This celebrity murder of a former Member of Parliament, septuagenarian patriarch of one of England’s august noble houses, by a member of his household activated all the crime-panic circuits still familiar a couple centuries later.
That of class, of course: the perpetual frisson of animosity between the respectable and those they held in economic servitude, bursting bloodily onto the front pages.
That of foreignness, since Courvoisier was Swiss.
The valet was quickly on trial for his life; the total time elapsed from Russell’s death to Courvoisier’s own was two months to the day.
But a less hasty schedule might have permitted better investigation, as Courvoisier was well on his way to acquittal with his lawyer’s deft rebuttal of the crown’s entirely circumstantial case.
When police discovered the decisively damning evidence of Russell’s stolen effects midway through the trial, the Swiss man made himself an milepost in the evolution of professional ethics at the bar. Summoning his lawyers, Courvoisier informed them that he was indeed guilty but that he had no intention of pleading guilty to a hanging crime and expected his defense to continue.
Attorney Charles Phillips reluctantly complied, implicating fellow-servant Sarah Mancer as the potentially guilty party. When it became publicly known after the trial that Phillips had become aware of his client’s guilt, he was publicly vilified for the vigor of his representation, e.g., contesting “with violent language the witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence he [knew to be] true,” and a lively debate among legal types on professional propriety in such an instance ensued.**
Read All About It
None of this availed Benjamin Courvoisier aught. His celebrity was brief, but intense — he even signed an autograph for the sheriff, dating it “the day of my execution,” as he was being pinioned for hanging. Broadsides like these below (links to selections from Harvard Library’s extensive publication of execution broadsides) sold a reported 1.65 million copies. (Source)
Among the published broadsides are several popular ballads relating to the case — one written to lament the murder, before the apprehension of a suspect; others for the condemned’s execution. One certainly wouldn’t call these great literature, but they’re representative examples of broadside balladry, nearly de rigueuer for scandal-mongering Victorian crime coverage and therefore very relevant for these pages.
(Written by Himself.)
You Christians all of every nation,
A warning take by my sad fate–
For the dreadful crimes that I’ve committed,
I, alas! repent too late.
Only think what I must suffer,
And the death which I must undergo–
I cannot rest by day or night,
My heart’s so full of grief and woe.
My parents they were poor — but honest –
And brought me up in virtuous ways;
And never, ’till this sad occurrence,
Did I embitter their fond days.
But now, alas! quite broken-hearted,
My friends and family must be,
To think that I soon must quit
This world for a long Eternity.
My Master was a Nobleman–
Lord William Russell was his name;
Beloved he was by all who knew him,
And well he did deserve the same.
Oh! how could I so basely murder
One that was so good and kind?
I hope the Lord above will pardon
Me, that I may mercy find.
Alas! my days they are all numbered.
When I must give up my last breath;
For the horrid crimes that I’ve committed,
Die an ignominious death.
Oh! while I’ve life, let me entreat you
All, take warning by my fate!
Shew the ways of evil-doers,
Or you’ll repent when ’tis too late.
Attend unto my true confession–
A lesson it may be to you;
Give not your mind too much to pleasure,
Act upright — be just and true.
Let not the sight of gold e’er tempt you
To act dishonest to your friend:
For that alone caused me to murder,
And brought me to this untimely end.
Let not the world blame those two Females
Who, fellow-servants were with me;
For of the murder and the robbery,
None whatever knew but me.
No other crimes have I committed,
Save one single robbery;
Tho’ it was said that Etiza Grimwood
Basely murdered was by me.
William Thackeray came too — he was becoming publicly engaged as a man troubled by capital punishment, and it was the first execution he had witnessed. (Actually, he turned away at the decisive moment.) Thackeray published an article about the experience in Fraser’s magazine, reflecting doubt at the salutary value of public executions and empathy with the young man’s scrambled mental state as he was raced from condemnation to the gallows in a mere fortnight.
At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But, read the rest of his statement — the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days; them “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work.” It is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands: night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his. By heaven, it is pitiful to read it. See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect). One knows too well how such language is learned-imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.”
* Courvoisier’s Jack Sheppard reference triggered thunderous indictments of this text in the popular press — “a publication calculated to familiarise the mind with cruelties,” howled the London Examiner “and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual” and caused the stage adaptation to be censored (pdf).
Though Ainsworth had decades of writing ahead of him, it’s been argued that his reputation never fully recovered from this case, and that’s why he’s not in the canon. What he lacks in posthumous celebration he garnered in contemporary buzz; Ainsworth’s “Newgate novels” valorizing highwaymen helped to feed an enduring popular craze for hanging broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” and to mainstream a (commercialized) version of thieves’ cant. See The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868.
** See The Bar & The Old Bailey, 1750-1850. In a more unctuous vein, the bishop of London submitted a petition to the House of Lords demanding repeal of the right of defendants’ lawyers to make closing statements.
Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.
Also on this date
- 1977: Hu Nim, Cambodian Minister of Information
- 1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language
- 1816: Jorge Tadeo Lozano, Colombian Renaissance man
- 1535: Thomas More, the king's good servant but God's first
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Scandal
Tags: 1840, 1840s, ballads, charles dickens, charles phillips, ethics, francois benjamin courvoisier, jack sheppard, july 6, lord russell, media, william harrison ainsworth, william russell, william thackeray