Account from the Derby Mercury, Aug. 21, 1817:
THE EXECUTION OF
John Brown, Thos. Jackson, Geo. Booth & John King.
The above unfortunate men were arraigned at our late Assizes for setting fire to certain hay and corn stacks, the property of Winfield Halton, Esq. of Southwingfield, in this county, and after a long and impartial trial were found guilty on the most satisfactory evidence, by a very respectable jury of their fellow countrymen. The awful sentence of the law was passed upon them in the most impressive manner by the Judge, who endeavoured to prepare them for the fate which awaited them by assuring them that the heinous nature of their offence precluded all hopes of mercy.
For some days after their condemnation, however, they cherished a hope that pardon or at least a mitigation of their sentence might be extended to them. Under this impression they persisted in asserting their innocence of the crime for which they were about to suffer, and even when this delusion could no longer influence their conduct, their denial of all participation in the offence of which they had been convicted was repeatedly made in the most solemn manner. The faithful exhortations of the Chaplain, and also of a Dissenting Minister, who at their own request attended Brown and Booth, failed to draw a confession of the fact from them. Still they did not appear unimpressed by certain religious convictions which might have been expected to lead to contrition. But in the midst of their profession of forgiveness towards their prosecutor and the witnesses who appeared against them, there was a manifest irritation of mind and a vindictive expression of feeling which justified a doubt of the sincerity of their repentance.
This was particularly the case with Brown and Booth, who were confined together. Jackson exhibited a calmer state of spirit, but still protested that he was not guilty. King shewed the most absolute submission to the fate which awaited him, and his assertions of innocence seemed to be made more in deference to the wishes of his fellow criminals, than to arise from another cause. Indeed he had made a confession of the offence before his trial, but was led subsequently to retract what he had admitted.
It was vainly hoped that at the place of execution they would prove by their confession that their general professions of contrition were sincere. But they had previously stated that they should die with the protestations of innocence on their lips, and not even the dread prospect of that eternity on which they were about to enter was able to produce a charge in this determination.
They were brought out upon the scaffold about a quarter before one o’clock, and seemed but little affected by the sad solemnities by which they were surrounded. After the Chaplain had concluded his devotions, in which they appeared to unite with some degree of fervour, they sang a hymn, all joining in it except King, whose manner expressed a firmness bordering on indifference, and a high disdain of the enthusiastic fervours by which the others seemed to be sustained. Booth and Brown addressed the immense multitudes who were assembled before them; the former expressing himself in unwarrantable terms against individuals whom he named, and the latter exhorting the croud to religious faith and practice.
They, as well as Jackson spoke familiarly to their acquaintances who came to witness their tragical end, and their whole behaviour betrayed an insensibility to their real situation which it was painful to observe, and would be difficult to account for, were not their previous abandoned characters sufficient to furnish the solution. The drop fell from under them about five minutes after one o’clock, and they seemed to die almost without a struggle.
Such was the deportment of these wretched men; even in the closing scene of their lives, aggravating the heavy criminality of their former conduct, by their continued protestations of innocence. Many circumstances tended to produce this. The state of the prison in which they were confined did not, unfortunately, admit of their being in solitary cells, and their intercourse with each other seems to have given them hardihood to deny what had been so clearly proved against them, by evidence which has not been in the slightest degree affected by any circumstances that have subsequently transpired. Indiscreet communications from their friends, by which they were assured that their innocence was believed by their neighbours, farther tended to make them persevere in their first protestations. They seemed unwilling to destroy the sympathy which they believed they had succeeded in exciting.
Still it appears incredible to many that guilt should be so bold, and the professions of religion loudly made by two of the criminals are thought by some to be greatly in favour of their sincerity. Nothing however is more common than protestations of innocence even at the place and hour of execution; nor is it wonderful, where all moral feeling has been outraged during a long course of years that it should not be displayed in a nice regard to truth even in the most awful moments.
The professions of religion made by men who have not been brought by penitence to confession, may well be regarded with suspicion, and such conduct would be inconceivable were we not aware that a species of fanaticism is abroad in the world which separates religion from morals, and substitutes mere profession in the place of practice.
As every fact which may tend to illustrate the principles of human action deserves notice, it is worth observing, that a heavy shower happening, whilst the men were singing the hymn, two of them deliberately retreated to the shelter of an umbrella which was expanded on the drop, and a third placed himself under cover of the door way. The inconvenicne of being wet was felt and avoided by men who knew they had not five minutes longer to live!! The whole of the scene now recorded was one of great horror, increased by the conduct of the criminals themselves. The many thousands of spectators behaved with great decorum, but retired from the spectacle apparently little impressed with sympathy towards men who had evinced so much insensibility to the real nature of their own unhappy condition.