This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.
But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.
Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.
“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”
James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.
There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).
Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.
He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.
And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.
James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)
Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.
I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)
Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)
Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.
Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”
[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.
… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?
This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.
After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.
At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.
To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*
Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.
Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.
Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)
“I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.
Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.
The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.
Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.
One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.
I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?
JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.
Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.
ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?
JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.
* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.
** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.