May 8th, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1788, two highwaymen were hanged at Boston Neck: Archibald Taylor, and Joseph Taylor.*
According to a letter later published purporting to be from that Joseph Taylor, however, he and a sympathetic doctor actually engineered one of the most amazing scaffold escapes on record. It all got started when Joseph Taylor found his fellow-condemned Archibald in high spirits one day on death row.
I never, even after my condemnation, realized that I was suddenly to die in so awful a manner, until a gentleman, who I afterwards found was a doctor, came and talked privately with the late unhappy sufferer, and my fellow convict, Archibald Taylor, who, when the gentleman was gone, came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaiety, that it was the price of his body.
This doctor dropped was doing the workaday ghoulishness of procuring imminent corpses for medical cadavers.
Such practices were still highly taboo, viscerally shocking in this case to Joseph Taylor:
This was the first time since my condemnation that I thought what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it, saying that the doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The thoughts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother had so oten caressed and dandled on her knee, and wich had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.
What a night of horror was the next night! — When the doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth.
According to the letter, the doctor “perceived the agony of my soul” and in the conversation as it unfolded agreed to try to help Joseph Taylor survive the hanging — advising him, in order to “not dislocate the Vertebrae of the Neck,” to “Work the Knot behind your Neck and Press your Throat upon the Halter which will prevent the Necks breaking and likewise the Compression of the Jugular and preserve the circulations in some degree.” (This is actually sound advice in case you ever find yourself about to be hanged in the 18th century.)
And the doctor — remember, he was only there in the first place to get his hands on some raw materials that he could autopsy the day after the hanging — even agreed to receive the “body” in secret from Taylor’s confederates and try to restore it to life.
This bit is essential to the narrative, but the skeptical reader can’t help but doubt. What an enormous and unprofitable risk for the unnamed physician to take on behalf of a slab of meat!
I want to propose (and this is too delicious to be anything better than baseless speculation) a false-flag operation on behalf of the medical profession, which just days before the Taylors’ hanging had suffered an astounding public relations debacle. Obnoxious Manhattan medical students had wantonly displayed severed limbs from one of their subjects to schoolboys, whose frightened reports of it ultimately set off the “Doctors Mob”.
Ordinary people hated and feared anatomization, and resented “resurrection men” who stole corpses (sometimes made corpses) for the industry. The mob smashed up the hospital, thrashed the med students, and made off with the human remains.
This is the idiom for Joseph Taylor’s revulsion at being propositioned with the body trade. Although it nevertheless turned out to be his path to salvation, it is evident in his remarks that even then, something in Taylor himself rebels at the coldly utilitarian use to which he himself must put his flesh and bones, and his consequent “reliance on the doctor”, as inimical to the interests of his soul.
The state of my mind after my conversation with the doctor, until the day of execution, it is impossible for me to describe. This glimpse of hope, this mere chance of escaping the jaws of death, and of avoiding the eyes of an offended Judge, at whose bar I was no ways prepared to appear, semed to render my mind but more distracted. I sometimes indulged myself with the thoughts of being recovered t life; and as I had fortunately concealed my real name, that I might return, like the Prodigal, to my parents, and live a life devoted to God and their comfort. But I oftener feared the means might fail to bring me to life: and then I wished that this scheme had never been mentioned, as the hopes of life seemed to prevent my conversion; and then, to be surprised into another world, totally unprepared, how terrible!
According to the writer, the arrival of execution day wonderfully concentrated the mind on its big plan and put those pesky qualms of conscience to rest.
Walking out to the gallows with a case of stagefright — he was worried that his demeanor as he thought about worldly subterfuge rather than spiritual salvation would give away the game — Taylor nonetheless
preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened, remembered the doctor’s directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck … When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and though I have no remembrance of hearing any sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my sense until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath: this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling ever and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away without pain, like one falling to sleep. [compare to this account from a survived hanging. -ed.]
As promised, his buddies got hold of the body and spirited it away to the doctor. After the application of a conveniently unreported treatment, Joseph Taylor quickened back to life two hours and forty-three minutes after he had been “turned off” with the knot at the back of his neck. The reawakening — “I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stranglings are trifling to it!” — was no more pleasant than the passing had been.
Now … is this account true? In the completely unverifiable and also completely sensational version that circulated (quite widely) in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, Taylor completed his escape by sailing for the Old World, disappearing thence into obscurity.
However, according to another, killjoy newspaper (Western Star, Feb. 2, 1790) some early-American Mythbusters team got wind of this popular fable and went to dig up Joe Taylor’s alleged grave — finding the highwayman securely taking his dirt nap after all.
That may be so, but the reader will kindly observe that two-plus centuries on, nobody’s posting anything about Archibald Taylor.
* No relation between the two Taylors, to judge by the indifferent way Joseph writes about Archibald.
Also on this date
- 1979: Twenty-one by revolutionary courts of the Iranian Revolution
- Daily Double: The Iranian Revolution
- 1951: Willie McGee
- 1794: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry
- Daily Double: Revolutionary Justice
- 1948: U Saw and the assassins of Aung San
- 1887: Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov, Lenin's brother