1347: Not the Six Burghers of Calais 1759: Eugene Aram, philologist

1623: Daniel Frank, the first hanging in the USA

August 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1623 one Daniel Frank was condemned to hang for theft in the Jamestown colony. It was the first hanging to take place in that part of the British North American colonies that eventually broke away as the United States.

Frank is actually not the very first entry in Watt Espy’s encyclopedic 15,000-plus catalogue of “American” executions — he’s the second. In 1608, George Kendall had been shot for a mutinous plot, also in Jamestown, Virginia. We don’t have a firm date for that event.

But rigorous calendaring, like lenient penal theories, took a back seat in the tiny and tenuous New World colony. Jamestown was the successor to Walter Raleigh‘s failed Roanoke settlement, which disappeared without a trace — and planted in harsh and distant environs, Jamestown had a couple of brushes with the very same fate.


Jamestowne, surrounded by Indian settlements and illustrated wilderness. Excerpt from 1608 map of John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy) found here.

Still, this was a delicate balance: Jamestown didn’t have the resources to countenance potential recidivism, but it also didn’t have the resources to go killing productive colonists — or scaring away potential productive colonists. A draconian 1612 Laws Divine, Moral and Martial evidently never sent anyone to the gallows, but was rolled back all the same in 1619 for fear of disaffecting investors.

Sithence we are not to bee a little carefull, and our young Cattell, & Breeders may be cherished, that by the preservation, and increase of them, the Colony heere may receive in due time assured and great benefite … so profitable succeeding a Commodity, as increase of Cattel, Kine, Hogges, Goates, Poultrie &c. must of necessity bee granted …

wee do strictly charge and command, that no man shall dare to kill, or destroy any Bull, Cow, Calfe, Mare, Horse, Colt, Goate, Swine, Cocke, Henne, Chicken, Dogge, Turkie, or any tame Cattel, or Poultry, of what condition soever; whether his owne, or appertaining to another man, without leave from the Generall, upon paine of death.

-The 1612 legal code, topically.

Daniel Frank — “Daniell Francke” to ye olde time Virginians — drew a hanging sentence for stealing and killing a calf belonging to George Yeardley, a major landowner and the former (and future) colonial governor of the Virginia terrtory. Frank, we can assume, was in a state of agonizing hunger when he undertook this desperate act.

Though Mr. Espy’s register of historical executions is an astounding resource, double-checking the dates is a recommended practice. In this case, I believe he’s used a highly fragmentary original record (pdf) and mistakenly ascribed the legal proceedings to the last previous date heading, March 1, 1622. [This would be March 1, 1623 by current reckoning; see footnote here.] This date has been repeated by any number of sources.*

But the narration very clearly states that “the tryall of Danyell Francke and George Clarke vppon Tewsday the fyfth of August 1623″ proceeded on the charge of

felonyously steal[ing] and kill[ing] one Calf ye goodes and Chattles of Sr: George Yardley kn[ight] of the woorth and Pryce of three poundes sterling. And after the saide Daniell Francke had killed the said Calfe, Thow the saide George Clarke as Access[orie] to the saide Felony didst help the saide Daniell Fra[nck] to carry the saide Calfe into thy owne house, a[nd] didst helpe to dress eate and spend the same, contrary to the peace of our Sou’ainge Lorde the Ki[ng] his Crowne and Dignitie.

Both men “Receaved sentenc of Death Accordinge to Lawe. Daniell Francke was executed: George Clarke repriued” — either because Clarke was merely an accessory, or as Martha McCartney plausibly speculates, because the gunsmith Clarke was a lot more valuable to the colony than the indentured laborer Francke.

The latter had to make do with his milestone distinction: The first documented hanging in the future US, and the first known execution under normal criminal law.

* My reading of the date is also corroborated (and Espy’s undermined) by a February, 1623 [i.e., 1624] record of the colony’s deaths “since April last.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft,Uncertain Dates,USA,Virginia

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