1872: John Presswood Jr., the last legal hanging in DeKalb County 1991: Li Xinming, fecund

1721: Joseph Hanno, “miserable African”

May 25th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1721, Joseph Hanno was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for the murder of his wife, Nanny.

He’d killed her “in a very barbarous manner” on November 10 the previous year: while she was getting ready for bed, he struck her twice in the head with the blunt end of an ax and then slit her throat. He made a feeble attempt to pass the murder off as a suicide, but the coroner’s jury was not fooled.

“Could Hanno expect a fair trial in a Massachusetts court?” asks Mark S. Weiner in his book Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste.

Perhaps surprisingly, Weiner believes the answer is yes:

In general, free black men received rather even treatment in the New England judicial system, at least at this period … They were entitled to the full range of legal rights, with the important exception of the ability to serve on juries. There also was no marked inequality between the punishments they received and those of white convicts. And though Hanno, in particular, certainly faced hostility and anger in the courtroom, in [Judge Samuel] Sewall, he was facing no irredeemably biased magistrate; in fact, years earlier, Sewall had written the first antislavery pamphlet published in the American Northeast.

Weiner notes that Hanno “had no defense counsel, for at the time the institution was almost unknown.” He may have hoped to beat the rap because there were no witnesses to the murder. But the jury convicted him and the judge pronounced the sentence of death.

Ultimately, Hanno himself admitted his guilt.

Other than her name, nothing is known about the victim in this case. But we know something about the perpetrator because of a sermon preached at the time of his execution and distributed in pamphlet form under the bombastic title of “TREMENDA: The DREADFUL SOUND with which the WICKED are to be THUNDERSTRUCK, Delivered upon the Execution of a MISERABLE AFRICAN for a most inhumane and uncommon MURDER.”

The sermon was promulgated by none other than Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister noted for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials. (Old Cotton really got around the gallows back in his day.)

Hanno had been brought over from Africa on a slave ship as a child and grew up in slavery. He was freed in 1707, when he was about forty years old, and then settled down in Boston with his wife.

He was literate and his masters brought him up as a Christian, and he enjoyed “vain gloriously Quoting of Sentences” from the Bible. Indeed, when Cotton Mather offered spiritual counsel to the condemned, Hanno boasted, “I have a great deal of knowledge. Nobody of my color, in old England or new, has so much.”

Replied the minister (without apparent irony), “I wish you were less puffed up with it.”

Hanno himself seems to have subscribed to the “slippery slope” theory of criminality. A newspaper account of his execution says he

hoped that all Mankind would take warning by him to keep themselves from committing such Sin & Wickedness as he was guilty of, particularly, Sabbath-breaking and willful Murder, the one being the Ringleader to the other, for which last he was justly Condemned, which had he not been guilty of the first he might probably have never committed the second.

An aside: although he may have been the only person executed that day, Joseph Hanno didn’t stand alone on the gallows.

At the same time a white woman did public penance on the same gallows. Her crime: giving birth to a child of mixed race. This being considered the lowest depth of self-degradation (especially if the father was a Negro), the woman was made to sit on the gallows with a noose around her neck — a sign of extreme disgrace. Then she was whipped through the streets until her back was raw. (Source)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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