Archive for June 25th, 2011

1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird's hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

-Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Maine,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Mutiny,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Public Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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