We return for this post to a hanging we have previously attended, an uncommonly interesting February 11, 1751 dectuple execution at Tyburn.
This is considerably higher society than a baronet, but we don’t need much excuse hereabouts for a Barry Lyndon tribute.
In the broadest strokes he was the sort of parasitic failson whom the more common stock have long loved to detest, his dissipation having seen him first disinherited, then sent abroad with the Royal Navy (he washed out), then rescuing his situation with a favorable marriage and an army appointment before “the extravagant manner in which he lived, and the loss of large sums of money in gambling, compelled him to throw up his commission, and to return … to his country, a beggar and a vagabond.”
Sentenced by a lenient court to the hard New World frontier of Maryland, Parsons leveraged his family’s good name to escape almost immediately from the drudgery of indentured servitude and risked a return to the mother country where he took to the roads to espouse the classic profession of the embarrassed gentleman, and made men stand and deliver.
It sufficed in the end to recognize him returned from transportation to secure his condemnation, at which Parsons excites the loathing of contemporaries and posterity alike by making bold to beg mercy of his judge “in regard to the family to which I belong, who never had a blot in their escutcheon.” Escutcheon this.
In the scheme of things, his career of self-destruction makes the man nothing but a minor malefactor. However, at least for a season his precipitation — because nine Britons in ten would have looked with envy on his situation even as a disinherited ensign or for that matter as a man with the pull to self-parole from penal transportation — made for the sort of morality play ideally suited to the mass print culture burgeoning in the gallows’ shade.
As we have previously noted in an Irish context, the scrabbling biographers of the latest doomed criminal themselves forever arrived at loggerheads, their rival pamphlets chasing preeminence in authority and rapidity before yesterday’s outrage could be displaced in the public memory by tomorrow’s.
The institutional voice of this racket was of course the Ordinary of Newgate, who by this point had for decades been gobbling up publishing residuals thanks to his didactic and ever more embroidered Ordinary’s Accounts. His entry for February 11, 1751 is a fine exemplar of the genre, running to 19 pages of which the last two are taken up with revenue-pumping advertisements.* With apologies to James Field, the Parsons narrative entirely overawes that of his nine fellow-sufferers, with six full pages devoted to lovingly reminiscing this one man’s tragedy.
Among those lines, we find our divine has relaxed his focus on the salvation of his patients long enough to throw an elbow in the direction of the independent hustlers who will be contesting the marketplace against the Ordinary’s own forthcoming Parsons biography.
N. B. If a certain independent Teacher, or any one else intends to print a Life of Parsons write by himself, take Care left he has imposed upon your Credulity, as he has done to all that had any Thing to do with him.
The “teacher” referenced here is probably Grub Street hack Christopher Smart, who had abandoned a praelectorship at Pembroke College for the charms of movable type … but it’s likely the Ordinary merely selected this allusion because his happened to be the flashiest brand at that moment among the scabrous-broadsheet set, like a present-day critic might metonymize media with the name of Rupert Murdoch.** Richard Ward has argued in his Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London that this moment occurs amid an “explosion in printed crime reporting in London in the years 1748-55 … created in large part by [publishers’] efforts to generate and sustain public interest in crime.”
The Rev. John Taylor would indeed like any self-respecting scribe collect a second purse on his prose by recycling his Ordinary’s Account version (prepended with the trial transcript) into a distinct standalone publication — “The Trial and Remarkable Life of William Parsons” &c., which Taylor authenticates on the title plate with the notation, “Publish’d by the Minister who attended him while under Sentence of Death, and at the Place of Execution”.
We have nothing like an exhaustive catalogue of the print ephemera swarming Old Blighty in those days, but at least one rival publisher attempted to “impose upon the Credulity” of Parsons gawkers. Francis Stamper’s† “Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of William Parsons, Esq.” claims to have been “Written by Himself [i.e., Parsons], and Corrected (with Additions) at his own Request by a Gentleman.” It runs upwards of 60 picaresque pages.
In a like vein is “A Genuine, Impartial, and Authentick Account of the Life of William Parsons, Esq.” &c. promulgated by Thomas Parker, a regular haunt of the Old Bailey crime blotter; however, close readers might notice that Parker is also one of the publishers of the Ordinary’s Accounts‡ and for that reason his edition is presumably more commercially congenial to that clergyman. Parker promises besides the expected biography a trove of correspondence to and from Parsons in the dungeons — we might well suspect whose hand has procured it — a good deal of which is taken up in Parsons imposing pleas for intercession upon a friendly earl, on his prosecutor, and upon his family to pull whatever strings they might.
* One of those ads hyped publication of “A COMPLEAT HISTORY OF JAMES MACLEAN, The GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN”; that man had just hanged four months previous. This volume went abroad under the imprimatur of Charles Corbett, who shared with Thomas Parker the contract to publish the Ordinary’s Accounts.
** A satirical poem called “Old Woman’s Dunciad”, itself a travesty of Pope’s “Dunciad”, was in those weeks burning up the London bestseller lists. Smart is targeted for satire in the poem but was also suspected to be the author. In fact, it was the work of another knight of the low literature called William Kenrick — but both Kenrick and Smart intentionally muddied the authorship lurking behind the pen name “Mary Midnight”, which both men employed. (For context on the dizzying 1750-1751 publishing scene, see Christopher Smart: Clown of God.)
† Stamper was a collaborator of William Kenrick’s (see preceding footnote).
‡ Look for it on the first page of the Ordinary’s Account: “Printed for, and sold by T. PARKER, in Jewin-street, and C. CORBETT, over-against St. Dunstan’s Church, in Fleet-street, the only authorised Printers of the Dying Speeches.” This notice is to be found repeatedly in Ordinary’s Accounts of the period; moreover, Corbett and Parker sometimes advertise their potboilers in those same accounts, in language that makes explicit their alliance with the Ordinary. For example, we have this from the March 23, 1752 Account:
In a Few Days will be Published, The Only Genuine and Authentic NARRATIVE OF THE PROCEEDINGS Of the Late Capt. LOWREY, Both before and after he became Commander of the Ship MOLLY: As the same was delivered by himself, in Manuscript, into the Hands of the Rev. Mr. TAYLOR, Ordinary of NEWGATE, some short Time before his Execution.
Printed only for T. PARKER, in JEWIN-STREET, AND C. CORBETT, in FLEET-STREET.