Archive for August 5th, 2019

1678: Thomas Hellier, “Groans and Sighs”

1 comment August 5th, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Hellier, a miserable New World indentured servant who murdered his master and mistress along with another servant to escape his Virginia plantation, was hanged on this date in 1678.

Desperate in London after frittering away the £12 he stole from his parents without successfully getting his barbering/surgeon business off the ground, Hellier was talked into signing into an indenture. To his recruiter, the skeptical Hellier remembered (in his gallows confession),

I replied, I had heard so bad a character of that Country, that I dreaded going thither, in regard I abhorred the Ax and the Haw. He told me, he would promise I should be onely employ’d in Merchants Accompts, and such Employments to which I had been bred, if they were here used.

Just get them to sign on the line which is dotted. Promises to the contrary, Hellier upon arrival got sold straightaway to a farm that calloused his surgeon’s hands with all the abhorrent tools. The place was literally named the Hard Labour Plantation.

Friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) has a nice profile of this small bit of chum for the emerging Atlantic economy on his site Early American Crime.

It seems that after trying and failing to escape his farm once, Hellier loosed himself by busting into the master’s bedchamber with an axe and bashing to death Mr. Cutbeard Williamson — right hand to God, that’s the name — and his wife, plus the maid who also resided in the house. Although he fled the grounds, neighbors suspicious of his close-cropped hair — a scarlet letter imposed after his previous escape to mark him as a runaway — detained him and the law soon caught up.

Hellier took the opportunity of his execution to sting the Virginia planter class for its abuse of employees, although to some readers eyes it might equally appear a manifesto for laziness.

How much more consonant and agreeable were it to common Policy, Self-interest, as well as true Christian Charity, for all Masters in Virginia, Planters as well as others, to consider first their own Ability, and the Capacity of the Servants whom they designe to purchase, before they deal for them; sincerely at the same time imparting to them, What their Work must be, and what their Usage? And if, by enquiry into their former Condition, they discover them improper persons for their purpose; How much a wiser course were it, that such should seasonably pitch their choice on some others, more useful for them? Or if they will chuse no others, Conscience and Christianity sure ought to oblige them to use such Servants as their Christian Brethren, with Gentleness and Courtesie, content with their honest endeavours, not Tyrannizing over Christians, as Turks do over Galley-slaves, compelling them unmercifully beyond their strength.

For though Masters justly do expect and require Fidelity and painful Industry from their Christian Servants, and such Servants ought to put themselves forth to their utmost power for their Masters Benefit: Yet, the merciful Man exerciseth Mercy towards his Beast, much more toward a Christian Servant. And let cruel, tyrannical, Egyptian Task-masters know, that their Master is also in Heaven, whose Omniscience beholds and knows all persons dealings, and will judge according to Equity, without respect of persons, in his own due time, and listen to the Groans and Sighs of poor oppressed Wretches, vindicating the cause of injur’d Innocents, retributing crosses, vexations and troubles to all Wrong-doers.

And whereas this poor Penitent Wretch declar’d, That the bitterness of his ill-tongued Mistress was the main immediate provocation prompting and exciting him to give way to Satan’s suggestions, while he tempted him to perpetrate this horrid, execrable Outrage: I suppose, all will grant, that Bitterness in any case (especially to morigerous Servants of a gentle Temper, obediently willing to do their endeavours) is no way Christian-like nor commendable, but rather Patience and kinde usage … Also you that are Masters of Servants in this Country, have respect to them, to let them have that which is necessary for them, with good words, and not (Dam you dog, do such a thing, or such a thing.) They are not Dogs, who are professed Christians, and bear God’s Image; happily they are as good Christians as your selves, and as well bred and educated, though through Poverty they are forced to seek Christianity under thy roof; where they usually find nothing but Tyranny. Be good to your Servants, as you would have God be good to you. Servants, in all things obey your Masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as man-pleasers, but with singleness of heart, fearing God. Masters, give to your Servants what is right and equal; know that you also have a Master in Heaven.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Virginia

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