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1686: James Morgan, a Warning to you all

March 11th, 2014 Headsman

From Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 – 1698:


On March 11, 1686, was Executed at Easton, one James Morgan, for an Horrible Murther. A Man, finding it necessary to come into his House, he swore he would run a Spit into his Bowels; and he was as bad as his Word.

He was a passionate Fellow; and now, after his Condemnation, he much bewail’d his having been given to Cursing in his Passions.

The Reverend Person, who preach’d unto a great Assembly, on the Day of this poor Man’s Execution, did in the midst of his Sermon, take occasion to read a Paper which he had receiv’d from the Malefactor then present in the Assembly. It was as followeth.

I, James Morgan, being condemn’d to die, must needs own, to the Glory of God, that He is Righteous, and that I have by my Sins provok’d him to destroy me before my time. I have been a great Sinner, guilty of Sabbath-breaking, of Lying, and of Uncleanness; but there are especially two Sins whereby I have offended the Great God: one is that Sin of Drunkenness, which has caused me to commit many other Sins; for when in Drink, I have been often guilty of Cursing and Swearing, and Quarrelling, and striking others. But the Sin, which lies most heavy upon my Conscience, is That I have despised the Word of God, and many a time refused to hear it preach’d. For these things I believe God has left me to that, which has brought me to a shameful and miserable Death. I do therefore beseech and warn all Persons, young Men especially, to take heed of these Sins, lest they provoke the Lord to do to them as he has justly done by me. And, for the further Peace of my own Conscience, I think my self oblig’d to add this unto my foregoing Confession, That I own the Sentence which the Honour’d Court has pass’d upon me, to be Exceeding Just: inasmuch as (though I had no former Grudge and Malice against the man whom I have kill’d, yet) my Passion at the time of the Fact, was so outragious, as that it hurried me on to the doing of that which makes me now justly proceeded against as murderer.

After the Sermon, a Minister, at his Desire, went unto the Place of Execution with him. And of what passed by the way, there was a Copy taken, which here ensueth.


The entire interview — as reported by Cotton Mather, the “reverend person” who attended the doomed soul — is here.

“Secure the Welfare of your Soul,” Mather implored Morgan on the morning of the latter’s hanging, “and this (now) pinion’d, hang’d, vile Body of yours will shortly be rais’d unto Glory, Glory for evermore.”

The terrors of the sentence had already worked the clergyman’s part before Mather himself turned up. Whatever Morgan’s conduct day by day in life, he had grown up in the same universe of New England Puritans as Mather, and breathed the same ideology. We find him not so much assenting to his minister’s exhortations, as soliciting them, almost leading the conversation at some points.

Sir, as for the Pain that my Body must presently feel, I matter it not: I know what Pain is; but what shall I do for my poor Soul? I’m terrified with the Wrath of God: This, this terrifies me, Hell terrifies me: I should not mind my Death, if it were not for that.

Mather runs with this for a while, perhaps a little too far — “those exquisite amazing Torments … such as never have an End. As many Sands as could lie between this Earth and the Stars in Heaven, would not be near so many as the Ages, the endless Ages of these Torments.”

Morgan steers his confessor towards solutions with a leading question.

But is there not Mercy for me in Christ?

(Two things to bear in mind: first, Morgan at “I think about thirty” years old would have been the elder figure in this conversation with 23-year-old Cotton Mather; second, this is Mather’s own account of Mather’s private conversation, as composed in a self-consciously literary “dialogue” form for the purposes of publication.)

This conversation hones by mutual consent of the speakers on the classics of the condemned cell: drinking, Sabbath-breaking, and bad company as the root sins that watered the gallows-tree, mitigated by the redemptive opportunity to turn one’s own public strangulation into a pedagogic moment for the gawkers.

Morgan was right on board. (They didn’t all come so easy.)

Mather records his charge’s last speech, made from the hanging-ladder before he is turned off.

I Pray God that I may be a Warning to you all, and that I may be the last that ever shall suffer after this manner. In the fear of God I warn you to have a care of taking the Lord’s Name in vain. Mind, and have a care of that Sin of Drunkenness: For that Sin leads to all manner of Sins and Wickedness: (mind, and have a care of breaking the sixth Commandment, where it is said, Thou shalt do no Murther) for when a Man is in Drink, he is ready to commit all manner of Sin, till he fill up the Cup of the Wrath of God, as I have done by committing that Sin of Murder.

I beg of God, as I am a dying Man, and to appear before the Lord within a few Minutes, that you may take notice of what I say to you. Have a care of Drunkenness, and ill Company, and mind all good Instruction; and don’t turn your Back upon the Word of God, as I have done. When I have been at Meeting, I have gone out of the Meeting-house to commit Sin, and to please the Lust of my Flesh. Don’t make a mock at any poor Object of Pity; but bless God that he has not left you as he has justly done me, to commit that horrid Sin of Murder.

Another thing that I have to say to you, is, to have a care of that House where that Wickedness was committed, and where I have been partly ruin’d by. But here I am, and know not what will become of my poor Soul, which is within a few moments of Eternity. I have murder’d a poor Man, who had but little time to repent, and I know not what is become of his poor Soul. O that I may make use of this Opportunity that I have! O, that I may make Improvement of this little, little time, before I go hence and be no more. O, let all mind what I am saying now I am going out of this World. O, take Warning by me, and beg of God to keep you from this Sin, which has been my Ruine.

O Lord, receive my Spirit: I come unto thee, O Lord, I come unto thee, O Lord, I come, I come, I come.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,USA

4 thoughts on “1686: James Morgan, a Warning to you all”

  1. KYGB says:

    Enough to drive a man to drink.

    Mather at 23 years old.

    Guess the guy was never young.

  2. Meaghan says:

    KYGB, if you want to talk about people who were never young, I raise you this: look at Edward VI of England. To quote from Alison Weir’s “The Children of Henry VIII”:

    Edward wrote to Katherine Parr, asking her to remind his sister Mary that “the only real love is love of God” and and that she was ruining her good reputation by her famed love of dancing and other frivolous entertainments. Mary should, we warned, avoid “foreign dances and merriments which do not become a most Christian princess.” Mary was then twenty-nine!

    Around this same time Edward wrote to a friend his own age saying, “For women, as far as ye may, avoid their company. Yet, if the French King command you, you may sometimes dance. Else apply yourself to writing, shooting or tennis, with such honest games, not forgetting sometimes your learning, chiefly reading of the Scripture.”

    Edward was EIGHT YEARS OLD when he wrote these letters.

  3. JCF says:

    Um, I’d want to personally *witness* HRH Edward VI, age 8, writing the above (as an original composition), before I’d believe it.

    RIP, James Morgan.

  4. KYGB says:

    Oh, I believe Ed 6 might have set his pen to paper. But I think Cranmer or the Duke of Northumberland was standing behind him when he “wrote” it.

    When you are Henry the VIII’s son, betrothed to a 7 month old girl, King at 9, some amazing things are gonna happen to you.

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