On this date in 1749, five men were hanged at Kennington Common.
We wish well the restive shades of Patrick Rena, Thomas Dobbings, Thomas Walker, and Arthur Gibbons; the former two died for a violent robbery upon the roads, and the latter two for a violent robbery upon the Thames.
But our attention for this date is to the fifth man. Richard Coleman also drew the attention of those present, both for the monstrous crime he was accused of, and for his steady assertion of innocence. The minister assigned to salvage these wrongdoers’ souls, which was also a not entirely reputable marketing business in selling scaffold exclusives, knew a lead story when he saw one.
Coleman was executed for being part of a gang of three men who raped to death a woman named Sarah Green on the night of July 23, 1748. He was in no way implicated in this horrific crime for well over a month, a time when the victim lay precariously in hospital.
But by the next April, well … he was the man as far as the law was concerned. Coleman protested his innocence in vain, via Rev. Wilson; the latter’s hanging-day chapbook made Coleman the distinct feature attraction.
The following Paper was delivered to me at the Place of Execution, by Richard Coleman, which he earnestly desired I would publish.
To all Christian People.
The dreadful Sentence passed upon me, I shall meet with Cheerfulness, being in no Degree conscious of the least Guilt of that most inhuman and most unnatural Crime that I have been found guilty of.
I am very sensible that it is not in my Power to make the incredulous World believe me innocent. I leave the following Account with the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who I am very greatly obliged to, and return him my hearty Thanks, for the comfortable Relief I have received from him in a Preparation for a future State of Bliss, and I hope he will cause it to be published for m Satisfaction, that it may pass the impartial Examination of all Persons.
Here Coleman proceeds to give a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of his activities on the night of the murder … and the activities of those around him.
Coleman was at pains to do this not only to assert his own innocence, but to decry a particular witness who ought to have supported his alibi but instead made it known “that if he was subpoenaed he should do me more Harm than Good … The Occasion of expressing himself in that severe Manner, I suppose, was owing to his being unluckily found by me with Mrs. B—t in very indecent Actions soon after her Husband’s Death; and having been often detected by me in the same Manner, it has caused ill Blood between us.”
Whether this man’s testimony would have made the difference one can only guess. At any rate, Coleman insisted,
On Monday the 25th of July I heard that a Woman had been used very ill by three of our Men, but no-body was taken up for it till a Quarrel happened between me and one [Daniel] T[rotma]n, at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse in Bandy-Leg Walk, which was as follows:
— On the 27th of August last … I was very much in Liquor; we had a Pint of Bumbo in the publick Room; and as I was stirring it with a Spoon, Trotman, an entire Stranger to me, very abruptly asked me what was done with the Pig, (meaning a Pig that our Men had taken and killed belonging to a Neighbour, and had been in Custody for it.) … I said to Trotman, Damn the Pig, what is it to me. He damn’d me, and I him; we gave each other very bad Language, and because it had been reported that three or four of our Men committed the Cruelty on Sarah Green, he made use of the following aggravating Words, namely (says he) Don’t you know Kennington Lane. I reply’d yes, I do, damn you, what of that? He said again don’t you know the Woman that was so cruelly treated, Yes, said I, Damn you what of that? Said he, was not you one of the Persons concerned in doing it; I reply’d if I was, you Dog what then, and immediately threw the Spoon at him. He returned it in the same Manner at me, and had it not been for the Persons present we should have fought.
The Morning after the Quarrel happened I called at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse; and Mr. C—t, who keeps the House, said to me Mr. Coleman you was silly last Night … and he repeated the Discourse aforesaid, and told me I did not consider what Advantage bad People might make of such unguarded Expressions. I reply’d that I was much in Liquor, and did not remember what I said.
But as prophesied, the offended Daniel Trotman and a woman in the pub who witnessed the exchange did indeed proceed on the basis of this “admission” to swear out an oath against Coleman who
was carried to the poor Woman in St. Thomas’s Hospital, to see if she knew any Thing of me; and when I came before her I was particularly pointed out by Mr. C— P—e, who laid his Hand on me, and said, is this one of the Men; which was not fair, for she should [not] have fixed upon me without being dictated. Upon that she said I believe he is one. I said to her consider well what you say, for my Life is at Stake. Will you swear I am one of the Persons. She reply’d, No I won’t, and likewise said if I was one of them we walked a good Way, and talk’d of indifferent Things, and you behav’d much like a Gentleman; but when she was assaulted, I ran away, which was not behaving like a Man.
Coleman’s story was that he wasn’t with Sarah Green as friend or foe at all that night. The justice of the peace clearly thought little enough of Green’s sketchy witness guesstimate that Coleman was released on his own word to return for more questioning.
The next scene at Sarah Green’s bedside begins with Coleman outside the room, and the victim asked
what sort of a Man Mr. Coleman was. She reply’d that he wore his Hair, and had a Carroty Beard. As to having my own Hair she was mistaken, for I have not wore it these 14 Years.
His Worship asked the Deceased if she could swear that I aided or assisted in the Assault. She said No, I cannot, for it was dark.
I was called in, and she made the following Information.
This Informant on her Oath says, that on Saturday Night the 23rd of July last between the Hours of 11 and 12 o’Clock, as she was going thro’ Newington Church-Yard to her Lodging in Bandy-Leg-Walk, she was assaulted and cruelly beaten by two Men to her unknown, and that R. Coleman was present in her Company at the Time she was assaulted and cruelly treated.
Coleman would say in his last publication that he believed Sarah Green was coached. Being conscious of innocence — we’ll come to that — the evidence aligning against him must have struck the young man as the product of an evil hand. Maybe it was just a lot of circumstantial stuff and half-mistaken witnesses falling into a terrible pattern.
The next mischance to befall the accused was that his victim/accuser succumbed to her injuries prior to the formal September 19 hearing.
This made the charge against him murder. Well, rape was already a capital crime, so no real change for Coleman … except that he had now lost the chance to confront openly a witness whose testimony sounds from the hospital interviews like it was eminently impeachable. Now, Green’s last affidavit was going to her final word on the matter.*
Coleman fled the warrant consequently taken out for him, which was read as evidence of guilt by neighbors who had the luxury of not reckoning their own survival odds upon a jury-box. Coleman says he tried to place an advertisement which a lily-livered editor rejected, reading
I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on Account of the Murder of Sarah Green, knowing my self not any ways culpable, do assert, that I have not absconded from Justice, but will readily and willingly appear at the Assizes, knowing my Innocence will acquit me.
From some combination of partiality, malice, and groupthink, some additional eyewitness testimony — people who think they might have seen him that night, people who swear they talked to Coleman and Green together but never thought to bring it up to the authorities until he was arrested, and alibi witnesses of his own whom jurors disbelieved — Coleman was judged guilty and doomed to the noose.
Basically, the evidence against him was that he’d popped off to Daniel Trotman while in his cups, Sarah Green (mostly) ID’d him, and some people thought he’d been seen with her in the dark that night while some of Coleman’s own friends and relatives claimed otherwise. There isn’t exactly going to be crime lab evidence here, nor was there an explicit threshold for jurors to require near-certainty to convict. It probably looked to the court like a pretty darn good case.
Coleman had no recourse but to commit his futile self-vindication to posterity.
I do also most solemnly protest, that I am not in any Manner of Degree guilty of that most inhuman Murder of Sarah Green, neither was I at Newington, or in Kennington-Lane that Night that the cruel Fact was committed on Sarah Green.
This I declare as a dying Man, and I sincerely believe (as the Rev. Mr. Wilson told me several Times) if I was either directly or indirectly guilty of that Murder, and should go out of the World with denying it, that eternal Damnation would be my Portion.
… I have the Satisfaction to declare myself to the World (as I have often done to the Rev. Mr. Wilson) that I never was so serene in Mind, or so easy in my Conscience in my Life, as I am at this Time, and I heartily wish that every wicked Sinner may have the Opportunity of so good a Divine as the Rev. Mr. Wilson has been unto me, which must be a great Means to the Enjoyment of eternal Bliss.
It is an inexpressible Pleasure to me, that I am soon to leave this very wicked World; and I hope that GOD Almight of his infinite Mercy and Goodness, will, through the Merits and Intercession of my blessed Redeemer, his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, pardon all my Sins, and receive my Soul into eternal Happiness …
There is nothing that gives me so much Concern as the Distress that I leave my poor Wife and two Infants in. She has been very good to me under my unhappy Misfortune and so have my poor afflicted Brothers. I hope that the Almighty will be the Guardian of my Wife and Children.
We’ve been speaking of Coleman as categorically innocent but presented only conflicting and doubtful witnesses.
The resolution of the matter did not come until two full years after Coleman serenely strangled to death. The rest of the story was incautiously blabbed by a gentleman named James Welch to a companion as they walked the road to Newington Butts.
“Their conversation,” says the Newgate Calendar, “happened to turn on the subject of those who had been executed without being guilty; and Welch said: ‘Among whom was Coleman. Nichols, Jones and I were the persons who committed the murder for which he was hanged.'”
Maybe he should have chatted about the weather.
In the course of conversation Welch owned that, having been at a public-house called Sot’s Hole, they had drunk plentifully, and on their return through Kennington Lane they met with a woman, with whom they went as far as the Parsonage Walk, near the churchyard of Newington where she was so horridly abused by Nichols and Jones that Welch declined offering her any further insult.
Welch’s companion informed on him, but upon arrest there was no better evidence against Welch, Nichols, and Jones than there had been against Coleman. Actually, this later case was much weaker: one guy’s alleged hearsay statement.
In a classic prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, John Nichols was finally persuaded to turn crown’s evidence on the other two before they turned on him, and his testimony to the vile end of Sarah Green got his former mates hanged.
“The poor woman was treated in a manner too shocking to be described,” our correspondent relates. And “it appeared that at the time of the perpetration of the fact the murderers wore white aprons, and that Jones and Welch called Nichols by the name of Coleman — circumstances that evidently led to the conviction of the unfortunate man of that name.”
The hangings in the case of Sarah Green — both the right ones and the wrong one — occurred at the acme of Britain’s “Bloody Code” days.
It’s instructive to note that the reality of wrongful executions seems to have been widely accepted. In the case at hand, the Newgate Calendar does not mince words in describing Richard Coleman as innocent.
And while doubt about individual defendants’ guilt often led jurors to acquittals or the ad hoc “pious perjury” downgrading of potentially capital charges, the existence of this or that wrongful execution in no way imperiled the capital statutes as a whole. It was merely another risk in a brutal world all too full of them.
Just a few months after Welch and Jones went to the gallows, another woman controversially on trial for her life received from one of her correspondents a lament that “We see nothing more frequent than Persons confessing the Crimes that others had suffer’d for before.”
* Although Green’s case was a bit different since she actually had time to swear a statement, the legal footing of “dying declarations” vis-a-vis the usual right of a defendant to confront an accuser has long remained a jurisprudential sticky wicket.