Archive for September 18th, 2011

1755: Mark and Phillis, a landmark

1 comment September 18th, 2011 Headsman

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officers.”

-Paul Revere‘s account of his midnight ride

This useful landmark* so nearly catastrophic for the cause of American liberty had been supplied this date in 1755 by the fruit of American liberty’s original sin: slavery.

“Mark” was a Massachusetts slave who, for the crime of offing his master Captain John Codman — “willfully felloniously and Traiterously put a Deadly Poison called Arsenick into a Vial of Water” because Captain John had separated Mark from his family — was entombed in colonial cartography by means of hanging, tarring, and gibbeting in an iron cage.

This exceptional sentence was mirrored by the rare-for-North-America fate of burning alive meted out to Mark’s fellow-slave and co-conspirator, Phillis.

They were adjudged to have committed not merely murder, but that archaic offense of petty treason — betraying not their sovereign but their natural superior.

Besides Mark’s becoming a literal landmark, theirs was a landmark case: Mark and Phillis were the only people ever convicted (pdf) for petit treason in Massachusetts.

The records of this trial are preserved in a public domain volume available from Google books; we’re particularly drawn to a tangential mention in this tome of a British governor‘s defense of capital punishment as a specifically oligarchical strategy: “Whilst the people of this country lived from hand to mouth, and had very little wealth … capital punishment might in a great measure be avoided; but when by the acquisition, diffusion, and general intercourse of wealth, the temptations to fraud are abundantly increased, the terrors of it must be also proportionably enlarged; otherwise if, through a false tenderness for wicked men, the laws should not be sufficient to protect the property of the honest and industrious …”

borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

-Longfellow, who doesn’t mention Mark

* A nicely tarred corpse will really keep for you: one colonial doctor observing this gibbet in years past had noted that Mark’s “skin was but little broken altho’ he had been hanging there near three or four years.” This is the kind of Founding Fathers’ wisdom that latter-day America has so sadly turned its back on.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

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