Posts filed under 'Hanged'

1750: James Maclaine

Add comment October 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Gentleman highwayman James MacLaine hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1750.

The debauched son of a Presbyterian minister, MacLaine wasted first an inheritance and later a dowry on expensive clothes, gambling, and ladies of easy virtue; want, however, was his ticket to the immortality of the gallows when he joined fellow penniless gentleman William Plunkett to seek his revenue on the roads. (Inspiring the 1999 film Plunkett & Macleane — which uses one of several alternate spellings available for our man’s surname.)

For several months in 1749-1750 they prowled the environs of a lawless London, and notably Hyde Park, with the exaggerated courtesy demanded by romance of their profession. They found noteworthy prey: once, they stole a blunderbuss from the Earl of Eglington, though Eglington survived to suffer a noteworthy murder years later; in November 1749, they robbed M.P. Horace Walpole, even skimming his face with a pistol-ball that was inches wide from depriving posterity of the gothic novel.*

When caught** by mischance, the mannered† Maclaine became the object of public celebration, much to the bemusement of Walpole — who professed no ill will for his assailant but wondered that “there are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.”

Three thousand people are reported to have turned up on a sweltering summer Sunday to pay their admiration to the rogue, not excluding the very cream of society. Walpole teased his friends, court beauty Lady Caroline Fitzroy (wife of the Earl of Harrington) and her sidekick Miss Elizabeth Ashe, for presenting themselves among these masses to starfuck this latter-day Duval. “I call them Polly and Lucy,” he wrote, alluding to female conquests of the outlaw Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, “and asked them if he did not sing,”

Thus I stand like the Turk with his doxies around.

(Via the British Museum)

Maclaine did not have to borrow Macheath’s ballads, for he was celebrated with verse dedicated all to him — like this “Jemmie Maclaine”, to the tune of Derry Down:

Ye Smarts and ye Jemmies, ye Ramillie Beaux,
With golden cocked hats, and with silver laced clothes,
Who by wit and invention your pockets maintain,
Come pity the fate of poor Jemmy Maclaine,

Derry down derry, etc.

He robb’d folks genteely, he robb’d with an air,
He robb’d them so well that he always took care
My lord was not hurt and my Lady not frighted,
And instead of being hanged he deserved to be knighted!

Derry down derry, etc.

William Hogarth‘s 1751 print cycle The Four Stages of Cruelty, one skeleton overseeing the operating theater where a hanged criminal is dissected is subtly labeled — Macleane.

* Walpole once remarked of the ubiquity of violent crime in London that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”

** Plunkett was never apprehended; it’s alleged that he ultimately escaped to North America.

† Although our man “has been called the gentleman highwayman,” the player-hating Ordinary of Newgate wrote, “and his dress and equipage very much affected the fine gentleman, yet to a man acquainted with good breeding, that can distinguish it from impudence and affectation, there was little in his address or behaviour, that could entitle him to that character.”

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1850: Henry Leander Foote, sex crazed

Add comment October 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1850, Henry Leander Foote was hanged in Connecticut.

Foote was an educated man who used his time languishing in jail — there was nearly a full year between his conviction and his execution — to bestow upon the world an autobiographical narrative of his peregrinations, which the reader can peruse in its entirety at the bottom of this post. Affected with wanderlust, he struck out from home as a teenager and began a rambling career that would take him all over America.

One of his first stops was the bustling and burgeoning metropolis that will become the hub of his narrative and, as Foote conceived it, the source of his ruin — New York city. There he was introduced to the city’s vast sexual marketplace.

At the end of two or three weeks, I found myself in the city of New York. What a place for a stranger, a young man of seventeen or eighteen years of age to visit alone, without any guardian to conduct him or advise him, and warn him against evil company! I had no acquaintances except three or four young men, whom I met on board the boat, who were also from Connecticut. They were in company, all belonging to one town, and then invited me to stop at the same public house with them. I had been informed that one of them was the son of a minister of the gospel, consequently I concluded that the company was good and safe to be with. But I found, to my astonishment, that this young man was the ring leader, the rudest and wildest of the crowd. The first night I was led to the Theater, from there to the brothel, and from there to the gambling house and drinking saloon. Here we must be fashionable and have a game of cards and a bottle or two of champane. [sic] … We played and drank till sometime past midnight, when we concluded it was time to retire.

Foote is coy here and suggests that his virginal young self repelled the subsequent invitation to a brothel. Whether or not this is so, he soon became by furtive subsequent visits whose purpose he was careful to conceal from his family an intimate of the city’s many whores.

These youthsome frolics are only foreshadowing for the excuses that Foote would be obliged to make many years later in the pall of the gallows. He spent the 1830s and 1840s bouncing around the growing republic — upstate New York, westward to Cleveland at St. Louis, south to Charleston where he married but lost his wife within a year to childbirth. (The son died, too.) After that, he enlisted in the cavalry and fought in the Seminole Wars.

Foote does not give us much of his sexual adventures on these trips, but between the lines it appears that the concupiscient fornicator and the New England prude ever travel side by side with him. He ships to Rio de Janeiro and does not fail to notice that “the dress of most of the women was not much better than none, being merely a short gown, all open in the neck and breast, and reaching only half way to the knee, fastened round the waist with a belt. They would make any civilized man blush from head to foot, but they were not at all particular as to what position they happened to be in.” Nevertheless, he affects shock when “a mixed-blood, half Spanish and half Indian publican” offers him a girl for the night. (According to Foote, he did not take the girl.)

As for the army, well, it “is a most dangerous and destructive place to the morals of young men. It is a school of intemperance, profanity, licentiousness, obscene language, filthy communications, and all kinds of vile and lewd company” thanks to the degrading example of officers who “when at home, or where they are known, always assume the character of gentlemen, and presume to walk in respectable society, unite with the ‘upper ten,’ and [associate] with virtuous females, who, if they knew their true character, would turn from them with disgust.”

By 1849 we find the peripatetic Foote back in his native hamlet of Northford, Connecticut, 37 years old and again, or still, preoccupying himself with the diversions of the Tenderloin. To the best of my knowledge he is the subject of no biography save his own, and since we find that the diverse sojourns of the previous 20 years have ultimately changed neither his conduct nor even his locale, we might be excused for speculating how many adventures were contrived by the author’s hand.

Wherever it was that he had been, he was becoming a worldly denizen of the bagnio.

A few months before the murder, I spent one week in the city of crime and pollution, viz., New York. As usual on former occasions, I spent my evenings and nights in a theater, gambling house, or brothel. Also on a former visit I had attended an exhibition of nudes, or model artists, as they are termed. But at this time the company had gone to New Orleans; a few of them, however, remained in New York, with one of which I had the misfortune to become acquainted. She was an arrogant prostitute, residing in a house of the higher class. I found her at the Bowery Theater; she enticed me, and I consented to accompany her home. As we entered her room she locked the door, laid aside her upper garments, and invited me to take a glass of wine with her. She poured out two glasses, and took a phial from the drawer of her toilet, drew the cork, and pretended to drop some of the contents in her glass of wine, but not a drop did she let fall. She said it was Cream of the Valley, it would give the wine a delightful flavor, and then made a motion to drop some into my glass. But I was too wide awake for her. I knew it was some drug that might upset my ideas, so I told her to save her cream, I did not need any cream of that sort. She looked at me, and said, “you are not so green as you pretend. I gues syou understand a game or two.” I replied, “I understand enough to know the nature of your cream.” And said I, “what was your object in giving it to me?” “O,” she replied, “I was only going to give you a drop or two, to make you feel keen.” She was very proud of her perfect symmetry of form, and proceeded to make a model artist of herself again, that she might give me a clear view of her model, and also of the extra manoeuvres which she had learned in the model artist plays.

After passing the night with his model artist’s “extra manoeuvres,” Foote pinched the potion for himself thinking to deploy it for his own benefit. He first called on a prostitute who had previously robbed him, engaged her charms for the night, and administered the drug to her, thereby having leisure to rob back the lost funds (“with interest,” Foote admits) as well as to leave behind a taunting note. He also found that she, too, possessed a dose of this potent Cream of the Valley, and duly replenished his supply.

Our dissolute principal was much given to exploiting his moment of notoriety for moral grandstanding, and we again should treat his account with caution.* Another author who visited Foote and published his observations in a pamphlet titled Death Cell Scenes, Or, Notes, Sketches and Momorandums of the Last Sixteen Days and Last Night of Henry Leander Foote is my no means hostile to his subject but often notices his unbecoming worldly preoccupations when he ought to be attending his imminent death with due gravity: he “showed a singular disposition to make money even at the hazard of his soul” by cranking out paintings to sell to the gawkers come to gape at him through the prison-bars and on one occasion arrives only to be brushed off as Foote is “in the height of glory and ambition, vending pamphlets and pictures to persons surrounding his cell with as much gusto as though he had to live twenty years or more!”

He was a doomed man with a keen sense of his audience; Foote even took the trouble to pre-order his own inscribed marble tombstone. (The stone can still be seen at Northford Old Cemetery in New Haven.)

He had a gift for rationalizing and segmenting his hypocrisies, surely honed by his years alternating Puritan piety with opportunistic harlotry. At the end when it could no longer be denied, he surfaced the contradiction by way of attenuating his own guilt.

“By this and other means, the hags who keep brothels contrive to get many of their recruits,” Foote wrote of the drugs like Cream of the Valley — subtly conflating his own loss of self-control with white slavery. “And if an inexperienced young man allows himself to visit their houses once, perhaps for mere curiosity, when he is not aware of any danger, they will bewitch him in some way that will induce him to come again; and so he will continue to go until his ruin is completed. Beware, young man, and shun all such places! Once in, you insensibly lose self-command. It is not easy to resist such temptations when once poisoned. These female Satans use the very arts of old Satan himself, and some that he does not use. Once in their power, you are not your own keeper.”

Not your own keeper — even as he admits and bewails his own crime, Foote wants to convey to posterity the notion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde: that there is a Foote distinct from the murderer.

Back at Northford, “my thoughts were continually revolving upon the obscene views which I had witnessed in New York, particularly upon the model artist female … I seemed to have a bewitching anxiety to see the same again, or to see something of the same kind, and this base desire I could not overcome. A curiosity to see and examine some female in the same state of nudity was constantly haunting my mind.”

Although he’s taken the care to secret the prostitutes’ powerful draught in his trunk, it is not quite he who addresses himself to the “bewitching anxiety”: he gets drunk, and then “Satan himself was certainly busy with me, driving me on to ruin with all his power … [using] me as an instrument for the destruction of innocent life.” At length, “Satan” suggests him his young cousin Emily as the object to satisfy his base desire. Foote intercepted her on the way to school and, he said, lured her into the woods to snack on some tomatoes which he had dosed with the sleeping potion after which, you know, stuff happened. For a guy who carried out a premeditated plan to incapacitate and molest his underage kin, he sure expected to be given a lot of latitude.**

But with shame! shame! do I write it, I now proceeded to examine her person, which inflamed my baser passion to an unmanageable degree; and after my eyes were satisfied, I violated and robbed her of her virgin purity. She gave no signs of feeling except to draw one deep sigh. My brutish passion was now satisfied. I meditated upon what I had done, the criminal nature of the awfully wicked deed, the meanness of the act itself, and the base stratagem which I had employed to gratify my shameful curiosity. In the first place I had no intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes; but this created a passion so strong as to overrule all better feelings, honor, and decency. I stood over the wreck of beauty, innocence, and purity, and sincerely wished I had never seen the city of New York, or any of its bewitching female satans … my head was wild, and my heart felt as if it had turned into a great stone. I would have given half of the town had I possessed it, if I could have undone what I had done that morning. But that was impossible.

And having come this far, Foote realized if he should allow her to revive and be on her way, her story would send him to prison. “As if I almost heard an audible voice,” “something” suggested to him that he murder her. Foote floridly describes himself alternately resisting and impelled to the idea until “I acceeded [sic] to the horrible proposal, and Satan used me as an insensible instrument for his nefarious, bloody, and soul-destroying purpose.” Then Satan used him to slash Emily’s neck through the windpipe.

It’s a bit difficult to disentangle the actual or purpoted sequence of steps to the next murder; Foote writes of it as if he was hurled into despair by his crime and only paused from his intention of suicide to murder his mother when he reflected that the incestuous rape-murder imputed him might destroy her after he was gone. We get a somewhat different picture from the period’s newspaper accounts which suggest that he was no suspect at all when Emily first turned up missing and coolly played it as if shocked, before getting drunk and bashing mom’s head with a hammer. If you liked his story about how Satan made him rape Emily, you’ll love this.

I drank several times during the forepart of the afternoon, and about three o’clock I went to get another drunk, but the jug was missing — my mother had hid it, and it was not to be found by me. This enraged me … if she had let the liquor alone, it is possible, and not improbable, that I would have drank so much as to render me incapable of making any attempt upon her life; and thereby she might have escaped entirely. But she was often very unwise in provoking me, especially when I had liquor in my head. It was a wrong way to deal with me, to take liquor from me to prevent my drinking, for I was generally sure to go and get a larger quantity and drink so much the more. But she has many times done it, and thereby caused me to behave much worse than I should otherwise have done. Late years my mother has been very petulant towards me; whether I had been drinking or not, it seemed to be about the same. This I attributed to trouble, and the influence of opium, which induced her to pack the faults of others upon me, charge me with things of which I was entirely innocent, and find fault with me when I was not in the least to blame; and to complain of things which I knew were right.

Foote insists that he tells us all this not “for the purpose of defending or screening myself from any blame” from the matricide he committed for mom’s own benefit. Just wanted to contribute to the historical record. And then he has the chutzpah to accuse a neighbor who came running to the battered woman’s shrieks of being a big old pussy for backing away and yelling for help when threatened with the bloody hammer. This is a man who required a more forceful minister, a good psychiatrist, or a better P.R. team. Even to the last, the killer’s self-awareness only amounted to his own narcissism.

“The last act of Foote in his cell,” writes the hanged man’s companion in Death Cell Scenes, “was to make use of a quantity of mus on his hair, six cents worth of which he had ordered the night previous, besides ‘two pleasant Spanish cigars.'”

* As pertains the potion specifically, Foote cites (and perhaps may be suspected of borrowing from) the story of temperance moralizer John Bartholomew Gough, who disappeared in New York for a week in 1845 and was discovered in a whorehouse, floating in an opiate daze.

** There was a witness who heard a scream, presumably by Emily. Foote’s account essentially renders the attack “non-violent” (he says, as if to complete his travesty of Eden, that at one point she shrieked when she caught sight of a snake). It really is entirely possible that he simply perpetrated an uncomplicated wilderness rape and subsequently concocted every other convenient detail. (“No intention of doing any thing more than to satisfy my eyes” indeed.)

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1891: Ed Leeper and James Powell

Add comment September 29th, 2015 Headsman

The Ballad of Leeper and Powell

Come all my friends and near relations;
Come and listen unto me.
I will sing about two men,
About two men that’s to be hung.

‘Twas on the eighteenth night of December,
In eighteen hundred ninety-five,*
‘Twas the night they did the murder
For which they had to give their lives.

One says, “Father and dear mother,
Won’t you both remember me,
When I’m dead and gone forever,
And my face no more you’ll see?”

“We were held long in this prison —
No one came to go our bail** —
God will aid and assist us
Now to break the Gatesville jail.”

And when started from that prison
And the guards surrounded them —
“I must die and I’m not guilty,”†
‘Twas the answer Jim made then.

Ed was tall and fair complected;
Jim was low and very neat.
They were pale and very silent,
And their lips did seem to meet.

One says, “Lord, oh, do have mercy
On those who swore my life away.”
They tied their wrists and their ankles,
Placed black caps upon their heads.

The trapdoor fell and left them hanging,
Between the earth and the sky.
It was for a dreadful murder
These two men were made to die.

They’s cut down, placed in their coffins,
Delivered over to their friends,
Who were there for that purpose,
To receive them at their end.

Come all young men, now take warning;
Live, oh, live a sober life.


* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)

** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.

This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:

Newspaper article describing the death of a prosecuting attorney who was injured returning by train from Austin 'on the Leeper and Powell business'.
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.

† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.

Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)

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1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1774: John Reid, James Boswell’s first client

Add comment September 21st, 2015 Headsman

Though best known as the familiar and biographer of English writer Samuel Johnson,* James Boswell was educated as a lawyer.

His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.

In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”

It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.

Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)

Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”

Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)

It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.

The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)

TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.

When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.

WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.

We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.

“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”

“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.

John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.

“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.

Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.

He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.

I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.

“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”

“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.

I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.

I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.

I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.

“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.

Two o’clock struck.

I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.

There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.

When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”

The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.

He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.

I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.

The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.

We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.

We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.

I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”

I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.

I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.

Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.

It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.

Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).

Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.

“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”

* Among other things, Dr. Johnson bequeathed us the aphorism that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concenrates his mind wonderfully.” When Johnson said it, it concerned a real person whose hanging was really imminent … and it was a 100% bullshit cover story for a faked enhancement of mental faculties said man had not, in fact, evinced.

** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.

† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:

The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.

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1889: Thomas Brown, Fargo-Moorhead outlaw

Add comment September 20th, 2015 Headsman

At 4 a.m. on this date in 1889, Clay County, Minnesota hosted its only execution.

This affair began, as such things do, when “a bunch of drunken hoboes got into a fight near Hillsboro, ND” in the autumn of 1888. One of them was killed, and a farmer who saw it happen identified Brown as the suspect. What little is known of Brown* indicates that he was a hardened outlaw; he broke out of prison in Wisconsin, and did time in the Dakota territories, too. While awaiting his fate he would solve a frontier sporting mystery by admitting that he murdered the tramp who had killed bareknuckles pugilist George Fulljames.

So police had their eyes peeled for Brown 40 miles down the way in the border settlement of Fargo-Moorhead. (Fargo is on the North Dakota side of the river, Moorhead on the Minnesota side.)

One night in October, an off-duty Fargo cop spotted Brown a few blocks into the Minnesota side of town, and alerted Moorhead policeman John Thompson. But Brown had noticed them, noticing him, and drew on the Moorhead officer. While Brown was demanding to know what the two had spoken about, another Moorhead policeman approached.

This Patrolman Peter Poull’s appearance set off the gunplay: Brown wheeled and felled Poull with a shot through the heart, but the distraction allowed Patrolman Thompson to draw and wound he fleeing desperado. Brown was captured, his revolver empty, collapsed on the train tracks with shots through his shoulder and leg. It was only because the quick-thinking Clay County sheriff whisked Brown out of jail under cover of darkness by forcing a night train to Minneapolis to make an unscheduled stop that a lynching was averted.

“Unless I get a change of venue I guess I shall have to swing,” Brown observed, with preternatural coolness.

He did not get a change of venue.

Brown’s execution was one of the first (to state it more exactly: it was the second) to occur under the state’s new “midnight assassination” law, which not only shamefacedly stashed hangings behind prison walls under cover of darkness, but also prohibited newspapers from publishing the particulars of the event.

Those lingeringly detailed descriptions — of the hardihood of the dead man and the conduct of the onlookers and the ceremony upon the gallows and whether the victim confessed and if he died fast or died hard — have been a staple of print media practically since its birth, and certainly an indispensable font for these grim annals. But the legislature had been persuaded that their circulation constituted a moral degradation to the consumers who eagerly read them. This directive was at best unevenly complied with: a number of newspapers did publish such accounts, and they were not punished for it. And of course the law did not reach across the Dakota border at all, so the Fargo Argus was able to insinuate an editor into the death chamber, who later described the killer’s last moments thus:

When the spectators reached the gallows, Brown was standing on the drop, on either side being a priest, all engaged in half audible prayer … Sheriff Jensen then tied Brown’s feet, and adjusted the noose about his neck, the knot being behind his right ear … In a weak and trembling** voice, almost inaudible he bade the jailor, Sheriff and priests goodbye, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. He then turned to the spectators, half smiled and nodded a farewell. The black cap was then pulled over his head and fastened under the chin, he with the priests praying meanwhile.

The drop fell at exactly 4:30 o’clock and the murderer of Officer Poull was launched into eternity. Brown’s neck was broken by the fall … In twelve and a half minutes his pulse ceased to beat, and in fifteen his heart had ceased action.

* Even to the end he refused to reveal his real identity or background, so as not to shame his family.

** Other published accounts speak of the hanged man’s unusual nerve. Between the moralizing interests of the interlocutors and the circulation of bogus information facilitated by the midnight assassination law, we here profess agnosticism as to Brown’s actual behavior.

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1851: Aaron Stookey, clemency denied

Add comment September 19th, 2015 Headsman

State of New York, Executive Department
Albany, Sept. 4, 1851.

To Thomas Carnley, Esq., Sheriff of the City and County of New York

Sir: — I have carefully considered the application for a commutation of the sentence of death pronounced upon Aaron B. Stookey, to be executed on the 19th inst., for the murder of Zeddy Moore.

I have weighed the evidence with an anxious desire to give him the benefit of every circumstance which tends to extenuate his guilt; but after a mature deliberation I am clearly of opinion that his conviction was merited, and that the ends of public justice require the execution of the sentence.

The facts disclosed on his trial were sufficient beyond all doubt, to constitute the crime of wilful murder. It is contended that most of the material witnesses for the prosecution were persons of infamous character and unworthy credit. Making all due allowance for this objection, the proof of his guilt is so complete and overwhelming as to preclude any doubt, and in fact no material fact alleged by any of the witnesses have been called in question by the convict or his friends.

It appears that Stookey met his unfortunate victim casually in one of the public streets of your city. He was armed with deadly weapons, which he usually carried about his person. Upon provocation which, if not wholly imaginary, was too trivial to justify even momentary resentment, and apparently with no other motive than the indulgence of wanton and brutal passion, after first instigating his comrade to commit violence upon Moore, he declared his own intention to kill him and instantly stabbed him to the heart.

To palliate the enormity of this offence, it has been alleged that Stookey was laboring under temporary alteration of intellect, and was morally incapable of an intentional and deliberate crime. [i.e., he was drunk on rum -ed.] Several affidavits have been placed before me intended to sustain this hypothesis. Deeming it my duty to obtain satisfactory evidence on so material a point before coming to a final decision, I have caused an investigation to be made of all the facts bearing upon the question of insanity, and the result proves that there are no sufficient grounds for such an assumption.

It is shown that Stookey, for some years past, had led a life of dissipation and debauchery, that his moral nature was depraved, and his mental faculties impaired, by a long course of vicious indulgence; and in this general degradation of character consists the only reason that has been adduced for doubting that he was conscious of evil, and still retained those powers of moral perception which are given to discern between virtue and crime. All the usual phenomena of insanity and lunacy are wanting. There was nothing in his conduct to indicate that destitution of reason which absolves men from moral and legal responsibility.

My sympathies have been deeply moved by the earnest appeals made in behalf of your prisoner by his worthy relatives and friends. The petitions presented to me bear the names of many influential and respected citizens, whose opinions deserve the highest deference and regard. It is a painful office to be compelled to resist these urgent and affecting solicitations. But all must remember it is the voice of the law which condemns the murderer to death. This penalty, the most dreadful which human power can inflict, is imposed not in a spirit of retaliation or of vengeance, but from conviction of its necessity, for the protection of society and the security of mankind. The severity of the law in this respect has its source in the sacred regard for human life which pervades all civilized communities.

It proclaims in advance, to all whose evil passions may prompt to deeds of blood and vengeance, the impressive warning, that whosoever shall take the life of his fellow being shall thereby forfeit his own. This stern mandate is conceived not in cruelty but in humanity; in compassion for the innocent rather than a willingness to destroy the guilty; it originates in the obligation which society owes to all its members to protect them from unlawful violence, and its true aim is to prevent both crimes and punishments by restraining those who can only be deterred from the worst of offences by the most terrible penalties.

I am aware that serious differences of opinion exist among enlightened legislators in respect to the justice and tendency of a penal code which forfeits the life of the offender in case of murder. It does not come within my province to discuss this principle in the discharge of my executive duties. The law as it stands must be my guide, so long as it remains in force. It is among the first and highest of my obligations to see that it is faithfully executed.

The penalty which the State has prescribed, as a punishment for the crime of wilful murder, must be enforced in all cases where the offence is established by clear and sufficient proofs. This responsibility, weighty and difficult at all times, derives unusual force from the alarming increase of crime in some portions of our State, and especially in your city. The destruction of life by criminal violence has become an event of almost daily occurrence. My reflections upon this subject have produced a firm conviction that this deplorable evil is to be checked, and the lives of our peaceful citizens effectually shielded from danger only by an efficient, faithful and unswerving execution of the law. The peace and safety of society are too sacred to be hazarded by the indulgence of those generous sympathies which the fate of the convict is so well calculated to excite. The demands of justice, and an enlightened regard for the public security, must prevail over the pleadings of compassion.

It remains for you to discharge the most trying duty of your office as I now do mine.

Very respectfully,

Washington Hunt

P.S. — I intended to have remarked that Stookey’s crime may be traced directly to the habit he had adopted of carrying a dangerous weapon concealed about his person. His fate should be a warning to all who indulge in this reprehensible practice. It cannot be too strongly impressed upon their minds that persons who choose to carry concealed arms, will be held to a rigid responsibility for the use they may make of them, and for all consequences that may ensue.

(Clemency denial and execution order as printed in the New York Spectator, September 11, 1851.)

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1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.

(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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1721: John Meff

Add comment September 11th, 2015 Headsman

John Meff hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1721 for returning from convict transportation.

If we are to credit the autobiographical account that Meff furnished the Ordinary of Newgate prior to his hanging, it was the last act in an adventuresome life. )Here’s the Ordinary’s account of the execution of Meff with three other men; here’s the Newgate Calendar entry based upon it, and which provides the quotes ensuing in this post.)

“I was born in London of French parents,” Meff begins — Huguenots who had fled Catholic harassment.

Huguenot refugees formed an important part of London’s Spitalfields weavers, and Meff apprenticed in this business until he could hang out his own shingle. But finding business too slow to support his family, he took to a bit of supplementary thieving.

Meff says that he had already once been condemned to death for housebreaking “but, as I was going to the place of execution, the hangman was arrested, and I was brought back to Newgate.”

Certainly the era’s executioners had frequent criminal escapades, but I have not found this remarkable Tyburn interruptus related in any press accounts in the 1710s. It’s possible that Meff is embellishing on the 1718 downfall and execution of hangman John Price — though Price was seized red-handed and not detained in the exercise of his office. This inconsistency has not prevented creation of a wonderful illustration, The Hangman Arrested When Attending John Meff to Tyburn, from this volume.

At any rate, Meff’s sentence was moderated to transportation to the New World, and he says that he “took up a solemn resolution to lead an honest and regular course of life … But this resolution continued but a short time after the fear of death vanished.”

Here Meff’s story really gets colorful — whether to the credit of the unsettled Atlantic economy or to the teller’s gift for embroidery we cannot say.

The ship which carried me and the other convicts was taken by the pirates. They would have persuaded me and some others to sign a paper, in order to become pirates; but we refusing, they put me and eight more ashore on a desert uninhabited land, where we must have perished with hunger, if by good fortune an Indian canoe had not arrived there. We waited till the Indians had gone up the island, and then, getting into the vessel, we sailed from one small island to another, till we reached the coast of America.

Not choosing to settle in any of the plantations there, but preferring the life of a sailor, I shipped myself on board a vessel that carried merchandise from Virginia and South Carolina to Barbadoes, Jamaica, and other of his majesty’s islands. And thus I lived a considerable time; but at last, being over-desirous to see how my wife and children fared inEngland, I was resolved to return at all adventures.

Once back, Meff says, he “quickly fell into my former wicked practices” — as if by gravity, no further explanation ventured. It’s hard not to suspect that he simply managed to escape his American indenture to continue a career in larceny, absent the whole marooned-by-pirates subplot. Men were known to tell tall tales to the Ordinary — who, after all, had their own story to sell the public through the deaths of their charges.

“The narrow escape he had experienced from the gallows ought to have taught him more wisdom than to have returned from transporation before the expiration of his time; but one would think there is a fatality attending the conduct of some men, who seem resolutely bent on their own destruction,” the Newgate Calendar’s entry concludes.

“One truth, however, is certain. It is easy, by a steady adherence to the rules of virtue, to shun that ignominious fate which is the consequence of a breach of the laws of God and our country.”

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1732: Pompey, poisoner of James Madison’s grandfather

Add comment September 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.

The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.

We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**

Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.

In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.

And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.

In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)

Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.

If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡

As Miller notes,

It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).

All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.

We must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property … Let the compromising expedient of the Constitution be mutually adopted, which regards them as inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants, which regards the slave as divested of two fifths of the man.

-(Future President) James Madison awkwardly defending the three-fifths compromise in the Federalist #54

Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.

The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.

Col. Madison’s more famous son, the U.S. “founding father” and eventual president also named James, had slaves in the White House but was deeply conflicted about the horrid institution.

“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.

Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.

* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.

** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”

† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven cmopatriots history passes over in silence.

‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.

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