(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.
His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.
On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.
Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.
So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.
Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.
So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.
He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.
Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.
“The trial became more of a debate over whether a 12-year-old killer should be punished like an adult,” Daniel Hearn writes in Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963. “The presiding judge placed great emphasis on that issue, especially during his instructions to the jury.”
It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.
The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:
Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”
Jim Guild’s manner was of “stoic indifference” when he was hanged before a large crowd fourteen months after his crime, the last execution in Hunterdon County history. He was thirteen years old when he died.