Archive for August 12th, 2016

1806: Josiah Burnham, despite Daniel Webster’s defense

Add comment August 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.

Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham

inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.

By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.

The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.

“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.

We have of this event a lengthy sermon preached by the Rev. David Sutherland

It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Hampshire,Notable Participants,Public Executions,USA

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