March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.
We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.
William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.
But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.
It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.
Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.
This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)
Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)
The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.
They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.
I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.
It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.
Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.
This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff’s assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.
At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’
‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.
After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying ‘D-me, you was afraid.’ -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]
After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”
The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.
While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.
More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”
Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.
The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.
As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)
* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.