On this date in 1546, which was his 37th birthday, the French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in Paris over a few little words.
Dolet (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a young polymath with a pugilistic streak both literary and literal. While a law student at Toulouse, he won both a stint in prison and the patronage of King Francis I.
Dolet might have rated the latter a sturdier shield than it proved to be in practice, for his satires — so irreverent as to be heretical in a time when heresy really mattered — landed him back in the clink in Lyons from 1542 to 1544, charged with atheism.
Dolet’s real concern was language: he was a prolific translator of books into French (including some of his own work in Latin), and he produced a lengthy commentary on classical Latin and, in 1540, Europe’s first vernacular treatise on translation.
But for a smart guy he could be a little dumb.
Having pulled strings with the bishop to weasel out of his dungeon, Dolet made tracks for Italy … but then cockily returned to Lyons where he was once again arrested as a heretic. He didn’t get a second chance to learn his lesson.
Dolet’s condemnation turned on a philistine misapprehension of the humanist art of translation.
“While translating, you must not be enslaved to the extent of rendering word for word,” he had counseled in his treatise. “Concentrate on the meaning and handle things so that the intention of the author is expressed, while heedfully maintaining the propriety of both languages.” This is nearly a banality for the modern art of translation, but at the time pitted him against a long Christian tradition that prized textual fidelity over literary elegance.
Rendering a complex bit of Plato into French, Dolet reworked the passage into his target language thus:
Since it is certain that death is not at all among the living: and as for the dead, they no longer are: therefore, death touches them even less. And hence death can do nothing to you, for you are not yet ready to die, and when you have died, death will also not be able to do anything, since you will no longer be anything at all.
If you’re going to be executed over a block of text, that’s a pretty good block.
It’s the anything at all (we added the emphasis) that got Dolet in this instance: Plato had not literally said that, and Dolet’s hostile interlocutors decided to read this flourish of artistry and emphasis as proof of a sly atheist denying the immortality of the soul. No less an authority than the Sorbonne theological faculty signed off on this reading. (Calvin also denounced Dolet; he’s sometimes regarded as a freethinker martyr, which is a more generous spin than “clever asshole.”)
Dolet’s surname chances to double as a declension of the apt Latin verb “to hurt”; en route to the stake, the impious polyglot is said to have exploited the overlap in one final — shall we say dolorous? — witticism:
Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet
Dolet himself does not suffer, but the pious crowd grieves
Having observed that of late years it is become Customary to publish the dying Speeches of such as have been in a Publick manner Executed as Criminals, I thought the sight of these Speeches (not as Speeches or Discourses only, but) as the Speeches of these two (so much talk’d of) Men, would to most be very acceptable, all persons I believe being curious to know what they would say in their Circumstances, I did not think it necessary to make any Animadversions upon them, but leave it to the [illegible] of every Reader to make his own Remarks, (it being as easie to animadvert in this Case as to read) I would as unwillingly impose my Comment upon others, as I would be imposed upon my self.
The Speech of Mr. John King.
I do not doubt but that many that are Spectators here, have some other end, than to be edified by what they may see and hear in the last words of one going to Eternity, but if any one of you have Ears to hear, (which I nothing doubt but some of this great gathering have) I desire your Ears and Attention, if the Lord shall help and permit me to speak, to a few things.
I bless the Lord, since infinite Wisdom and holy Providence has so carved out my Lot to dye after the manner that I do, not unwillingly, neither by force: It’s true, I could not do this of my self, Nature always having an Inclination to put the evil day far off, but through Grace I have been helped, and by this Grace yet hope I shall: ‘Tis true, through Policy I might have shunned such a hard Sentence, if I had done some things, but though I could I durst not, God knows, redeem my life with the loss of my Integrity and Honesty. I bless the Lord that since I have been apprehended and made a Prisoner, God hath very wonderfully upholden me, and made out that comfortable word, Fear not, be not dismayed, I am with thee, I will strengthen thee, I will uphold thee by the right hand of my Righteousness, Isaiah 42.10. [sic – the correct cite is Isaiah 41:10 -ed.] I thank the Lord he never yet gave me leave so much as to have a thought, much less to seek after any [illegible] that might be the least sinful: I did always, and yet do judge it better to suffer Affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of Sin for a Season; therefore I am come hither to lay down my life; I bless the Lord I dye not as a Fool dyeth, though I acknowledge I have nothing to boast of in myself: yea I acknowledge I am a Sinner, and one of the chiefest that hath gone under the name of a Professor of Religion; yea amongst the unworthiest of those that have Preached the Gospel; my Sins and Corruptions have been many, and have defiled me in all things; and even in following and doing of my Duty, I have not wanted my own sinful Infirmities and Weaknesses, so that I may truly say, I have no Righteousness of my own, all is evil and like filthy Rags; but blessed be God that there is a Saviour and an Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and I do believe that Jesus Christ is come into the World to save Sinners, of whom I am the chief, and that through Faith and his Righteousness I have obtained Mercy; and that through him, and him alone, I desire and hope to have a happy and glorious Victory over Sin, Satan, Hell, and Death; and that I shall attain unto the Resurrection of the just, and be made Partaker of Eternal Life. I know in whom I have believed, and that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. I have, according to my poor Capacity, preached Slavation in his name; and as I have preached, so do I believe, and withal my Soul have commended it, and still do commend to all of you the riches of his Grace, and faith in his Name, as the alone and only way whereby to come to be saved.
It may be many may think (but I bless the Lord without any solid ground) that I suffer as an Evil-Doer, and as a busie body in other mens matters; but I reckon not much upon that, having the Testimony of my own Conscience for me. It was the lot of our blessed Saviour himself, and also the lot of many of his eminent precious Servants and People to suffer by the World as Evil-doers: Yea I think I have so good ground not to be fear’d as such a lot, that I count it my non-such-honour; and Oh what am I that I should be honoured so, when so many Worthies have panted after the like, and have not come at it: My Soul rejoyceth in being brought into Conformity with my Blessed Lord, and Head, and so Blessed a Company in this way and lot; and I desire to pray that I may be to none of you this day upon this account a Stone of stumbling, and a Rock of Offence: and blessed is he that shall not be offended in Christ and his poor Followers and Members, because of their being Condemned as Evil doers by the World.
As for these things for which Sentence of Death hath past against me, I bless the Lord my Conscience doth not condemn me, I have not been Rebellious, nor do I judge it Rebellion for me to have endeavoured in my Capacity what possibly I could for the born-down and ruined Interest of my Lord and Master, and for the Relief of my poor Brethren afflicted and persecuted, not only in their Liberties, Priviledges, and Persons, but also in their Lives; therefore it was that I joyned with that poor handful; the Lord knows, who is the searcher of hearts, that neither my design nor practice was against his Majesty’s person and just Government, but I always studyed to be Loyal to lawful Authority in the Lord, and I thank God my heart doth not condemn me of any Disloyalty; I have been Loyal, and I do recommend it to all to be obedient to higher Powers in the Lord.
And that I preached at Field-Meetings, which is the ground of my Sentence, I am so far from acknowledging that the Gospel preached that way was a Rendezvous of Rebellion, as it is so tearmed, that I bless the Lord that ever he counted me worthy to be Witness of such Meetings; which have been so undoubtedly countenanced and owned, not only to the conviction, but even to the Conversion of many; therefore I do assert, That if the Lord hath had any purer Church in the Land than other, it hath been in and amonst these Meetings in Fields and Houses, so much now despised by some, and persecuted by others.
That [illegible] up Rebellion, and taking up Arms [illegible] authority is untrue, I bless the Lord my Conscience doth not condemn me for that; this never being my design; if I could have preached Christ, and Salvation through his name, it was my work; and herein have I walked according to the Light and Rule of the Word of God, as it did become me, though one of the meanest of the Ministers of the Gospel.
I have been looked upon by some, and represented by others to be of a divisive, and Factious Humor, and one that stirred up division in the Church, but I am hopeful that they will all now give me their Charity, being within a little to stand before my Judge, and I pray the Lord forgive them that did so misrepresent me; but I thank the Lord what-ever men have said against me concerning this, that on the contrary, I have often disswaded from such ways and practices, as contrary to the Word of God, and of our Covenanted and reformed Religion; and as I ever Abhorred division, and Faction in the Church, as that which tends to its utter Ruine, if the Lord prevent it not. So I would in the bowels of my lord and Master, if such an one as I am may presume to perswade, and Exhort both Ministers and Professors; if there be any Consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love; if any Fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies that you be like minded, having the same Love, being of one accord, of one mind the Lowliness of mind; let each esteem other better than themselves, Phil. 1.12. [again, sic; I believe Philippians 2:3 is the citation] Harmoniousness and Honesty in the things of God, can never enough be south after, and [illegible] tend to the prejudice and hurt of Christians [illegible] can never enough be fled from and avoided.
And as I am come hither willingly to lay down my Tabernacle, so also I die in the belief, and faith of the Holy Scriptures, and in the faith of the Apostles, and primitives Christians, and Protestant Reformed Churches, and particularly the Church of Scotland, whereof I am a poor member: That have been so wonderfully carried on against so many Oppositions, by the mighty Power and goodness and Wisdome of God, I bear my Witness and Testimony to the Doctrine and worship, Discipline and Government of the Church of Scotland, by Kirk Sessions, Presbyters, Synods with Assembles.
Here he also bore his Testimony to the Solemn League and Covenant.
Also I bear Testimony to our publick confessing of sins, and Ingagements to duties, and that either as to what concerns the reformation of the whole Church in general, as also the causes of Gods wrath, the neglecting of which is feared, to be one of the greatest causes of Gods wrath this day against the Land: I also give witness and Testimony unto the protestation, given in against the Receiving the Malignant party into places of power and trust, contrary to our Solemn Ingagements, and Obligations to God, also I adhere unto our Confession of Faith, Larger and shorter Catechisms. I witness my Testimony against Popery, which is so greatly increased, yea so much Countenanced, and professed openly by many, and that without the least punishment; I bear witness against the Antichristian Prelacy now — established by a Law contrary to our Vows to Almighty God, and against defending all our Solemn Oaths, and ingagements, as a thing that Calls for Divine Vengeance.
Here he bore witness against all Oaths contrary to the Covenant: and then proceeded thus.
Also I bear my Testimony against all Error, Schisme, Heresie, contrary to our ingagements to God, and especially against that Reviving again, and Soul deluding evil or rather Devilry Quakerisme so much Connived at, if not allowed and Countenanced by many, whose Office it is to restrain it, as also against all the Steps and Courses of Backslidings, defections, which have been and now are on Foot in the Land, and against all branches and parties thereof, under whatsoever name or Notion; moreover, I bear my Testimony to all the Testimonys both formerly and of late, by suffering and banished witnesses, and to all the Testimonies by our first suffering Gentlemen, Noble-men, and others, that have suffered in this City and Kingdome, who Chearfully laid down their lives with admirable Divine Assistance, and all those who have laid down their lives, as also to those who have Sealed their Testimony, either with suffering imprisonment or Banishment upon this account, Score, and quarrel.
Here he bore his Testimony against their Act of Supremacy.
As also I bear my Testimony against the Cess imposed by the late Convention of Estates, whereby the Enemies of Christ, and his Church, are supplyed with all necessaries, for the utter extirpating of the interest of Christ in this Church.
And there is one thing more I would say, that the Lord seems to be very wroth with the Land. The causes are many, first the dreadful sleights our Lord Jesus Christ, has received in the Offers of his Gospel.
Secondly, The Horrid profanity that has overspread the whole Land, That not only Religion in its Exercise, but even Common Civility is gone.
Thirdly, there is the Horrid perjury in the matters of our vows and ingagements, its to be feared will provoke the Lord to bring his Sword upon these Lands.
Fourthly, The dreadful formality and stupidity in the duties of Religion, which is introduced, like that which came upon the Carless Daughters.
Fifthly, Horrid ingratitude, what do we render to him for his goodness? is not the most of all that we do, to work wickedness, and to strengthen our selves to do evil, and want of Humility under all all [sic] our Breaches? We are brought Low, and yet we are not Low in the sight of God, what a dreadful Covetousness, and minding our own things more than the things of God, and that amonst all Ranks? would to God that there were not too much of this among many, who are Enemies of the Cross of Christ, and mind earthly things.
And yet I dare not say, but there are many faithful and precious to him in Scotland, both of Ministers, and Professors, whom I trust God will keep stedfast, and who will Labour to be found faithful to their Lord and Master, and whom I hope he will make a brazen wall and Iron Pillars, and as a strong defenced City, in the following of their duties in these sad evil times, but it were to be wished, That there were not too many to strengthen the hands of the evil-doers, and make themselves Transgressors, by endeavouring to buidl again that which formerly they did estroy, but let such take heed of the flying Roll, Zach. 5. And let all the Lords Servants and Ministers take heed that they watch, and be stedfast in the faith, and quit themselves like men, and be strong, and set the Trumpet to the mouth, and give Seasonable and faithful warning to all Ranks Concerning sins, and duties, especially against the sins of this sinful time: it is to be Lamented and sadly Regretted by many of the Lords people, that there has been so much silence and fainting, even amongst Ministers of how great Concernment it is; now in this sad Juncture, let Ministers consider well, what it is that God calls for at their hands. To be silent now, especially when so many Cruel and Horrid things are [illegible], when they are so much called, and ought to be concerned to speak even upon the Peril of their lives, certainly a dreadful sin in the sight of God, their silence must be. I shall only desire that the Lord would open the mouths of his faithful servants, that with all boldness, they may speak out the mind of their Master, that so the work, interest, Crown and Kingdome of our Lord Jesus Christ, may not be destroyed, and that the troubles of his poor people, which are precious to him, may not without a Testimony be ruined. I shall but say a few words.
First, All you that are profane, I would seriously Exhort you that you return to the Lord by serious Repentance; if you do, iniquity shall not be your Ruine; if you do not, know that the day of the Lords Vengeance is near and hastneth on. Oh know for your comfort, there is a door of mercy yet open, if you be not despisers of the day of Salvation. And you that have been, and yet are, Reproachers and persecutors of Godliness, and of such as live Godly; take heed, Oh take heed, sad will be your day, when God arises to scatter his Enemies, if you repent not for your ungodly deeds.
Secondly, All those who are taken up with their own private interests, and if that go well they Care the less for the interests of Christ, take heed and be zealous, and repent, lest the Lord pass the Sentence I will spew you out of my mouth.
Thirdly, For the truly Godly, and such as are Lamenting after the Lord, and are mourning for all the abominations of this City, and are taking pleasure in the very Rubbish and Stones of Zion, be of good Courage, and Cast not away your Confidence, I dare not say any thing to future things, but surely the Lord has a handful that are precious to him, to whom he will be Gracious; to these is a dark night at present, how long it will last the Lord knows. Oh let not the sad disasters, that his poor people meet with, though very astonishing, Terrifie you, beware of snares that abound, Cleave fast to your Reformed Religion, do not Shift the Cross of Christ, if you be called to it, it is better to suffer than sin, account the reproaches of Christ greater Riches than all the Treasures of the World.
In the last place, let not my Death be Grievous to any of you, I hope it will be more profitable both for you and me, and for the Church and interest of God, than my life could have been. I bless the Lord, I can freely and Frankly forgive all men, even as I desire to be forgiven of God, pray for them that persecute you, bless them that Curse you. As to the cause of Christ, I bless the Lord I never had cause, to this day, to repent for any thing I have suffered, or can now suffer for his name. I thank the Lord who has shewed mercy to such a vile sinner as I am, and that ever he should advance me to so High a dignity, as to be made a Minister of his blessed and everlasting Gospel, and that ever I should have a Seal set to my Ministry, upon the hearts of some in several places and Corners of this Land: the Lord visit Scotland with more and more faithful Pasters, and send a Reviving day unto the people of God; in the mean time be patient, be stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; and live in Love and peace one with another, and the Lord be with his poor Afflicted Groaning people, that yet remain.
Now I bid farewell to all my friends, and dear Relations; Farewell my poor Wife and Children, whom I leave in the good hand of him who is better than seven Husbands, and who will be a Father to the fatherless. Farewell all Creature comforts, Welcome everlasting life, everlasting glory, Welcome everlasting love, everlasting praise; bless the Lord, O my Soul, and all that is within me.
August, 14th. 1679.
Tolbooth, Circa boram Septimam.
The Speech of Mr. John Kid.
Right Worthy and well beloved Spectators and Auditors.
Considering what bodily distempers I have been exercised with since I came out of the Torture, (viz.) Scarce two hours out of my naked bed in one day, it cannot be expected, that I should be in Case to say any thing to purpose at this Juncture, especially seeing I am not as yet free of it, however I cannot but Reverence the good hand of God upon me, and desires with all my Soul to bless him for this my present Lot.
It may be there are a great many here that Judge my Lot very sad and deplorable. I must confess death it self, is very Terrible to Flesh and blood, but as it is an out-let to sin, and an in-let to righteousness, it is the Christians great and inexpressible priviledge, and give me leave to say this, that there is somthing in a Christians Condition, that can never put him without the reach of insufferableness, even shame, death, and the Cross being included.
And then if there be peace betwixt God and the Soul, nothing can damp peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, this is a most supporting ingredient in the bitterest Cup, and under the sharpest, and firiest Tryal he can be exposed unto. This is my mercy, That I have somthing of this to lay Claim unto, viz., The intimacies of pardon, and peace betwixt God and my Soul.
And as concerning that, for which I am condemned, I magnifie his grace, that I never had the least challenge for it, but on the contrary, I Judge it my Honour, that ever I was counted worthy to come upon the Stage upon such a consideration; another thing that renders the most despicable Lot of the Christian, and mine insufferable, is a felt and sensible presence from the Lord, strengthening the Soul when most put to it, and if I could have this for my Allowance this day, I could be bold to say, Oh death where is thy sting, and could not but cry out Welcome to it, and all that follows upon it: I grant the Lord from an Act of Soveraignity may come, and go as he pleases, but yet he will never forsake his people, and this is a Cordial to me in the Case I am now exposed unto.
Thirdly, The exercising and puting forth his glorious power, is able to Transport the Soul of the believer, and mine, above the reach of all Sublunary difficulties, and therefore seeing I have hope to be kept up by this power, I would not have you to look upon my Lot, or any other that is or may be in my Cafe, in the least deplorable, seeing we have ground to believe, that in more or less he will perfect his power and strength in weakness.
Fourthly, That I may come a little nearer to the purpose in hand, I declare before you all, in the sight of God, Angels and men, and in the sight of that Son and all that he has Created, that I am a most miserable sinner, in regard of my Original and Actual Transgressions. I must confess they are more in number than the Haires of my Head. They are gone up above my Head, and are past numbering, I cannot but say as Jacob said, I am less than the least of all Gods mercies, yet I must declare to the exalting of his free grace, That to me who am the least of all Saints is this grace made known, and that by a strong hand, and I dare not but say he has loved me, and washed me in his own blood from all iniquities, and well is it for me this day, That ever I heard or read that faithful saying, that Jesus Christ, came into the World to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
Fifthly, I must also declare in his sight, I am the most unworthiest that ever opened his mouth to preach the unsearchable Riches of Christ in the Gospel. yea the sense of this made me altogether unwilling to fall about so great a work, until by the importunity of some whose names are precious and savoury to me and many others, I was prevailed with to fall about it, and yet I am hopeful not altogether without some fruit, and if I durst say it without vanity, I never found so much of the presence of God upon my Spirit, as I have found in exercises of that nature, though I must still confess attended with inexpressible weakness, and this is the main thing for which I must lay down my Tabernacle this day, viz. That I did preach Christ and the Gospel in several places of this Nation; for which I bless him (as I can), That ever such a poor obscure person as I am, have been thus priviledged by him, for making mention of his grace as I was able.
Sixthly, Give me leave to add this word farther, that though there be great appearances, for spreading and preaching this Glorious Gospel, yet I fear there is a snare at the bottom, and poyson in that dish which may gender, and be productive, of not only greater Scarcity of Honest preaching and preachers, but a Real Famine of the Word, this I say is my fear, and I hope God will keep his servants and people from fomenting any thing to the detriment of the Gospel.
Seventhly, I am also afraid that the Lord is tending to multiply his stroaks upon the Land, we have walked seven times contrary to him, and therefore we may lay our account (unless Repentance prevent it) that he will walk seven times contrary to us, there is more and more grounds to fear that a Sword is Brandished in Heaven, a Glittering Sword, sharpned and forbished against the Guilty and Harlot Scotland.
Eightly, As for the Fifth Cause in my indictment, upon which my sentence of death is founded, (viz.) Presonal preference, Twice or thrice, with that party whom they call the Rebels; for my own part I never Judged them such: I Acknowledge and do believe there were many there that came in the simplicity of their hearts, like those that followed Absolom long ago, and I am as sure on the other hand there were a great party there that had nothing before them but the repairing of the Fallen work, and the restoring of the breach, which is wide as the Sea, and I am apt to think that such of these who were most branded with mistake, will be found to be most single: but for Rebellion against his Majesties person or Lawful Authority, the Lord knows my Soul Abhorreth the name and thing; Loyal I have been, and I wish every Christian to be so, and I was ever of this Judgment, To give to Caesar the things that are caesars, and to God the things that are Gods.
Ninthly, Since I came to prison, I have been much branded with many that I must call Aspersons whereof Jesuitisme is one, I am hopeful there was never one that did converse with me that had the least ground for laying this to my Charge, I know not how it comes to pass it is laid upon me now, except implacable prejudice that some have been prepossest with against me. I am not Ignorant that near two years ago, a person of some note in this Church while Living, was pleased to say, I was dyed in that Judgment: after he was better informed, he Changed his Note, and said it was misinformation: but now the Lord, before whom I must stand, and be Judged by and by, knows I have a perfect Abhorrence of that thing. And that it was never my Temptation directly nor indirectly. Though I must confess, some few years ago, some were very pressing upon me that I would conform, and imbrace Prelacy? But for Popery, and that Truth, it never came nearer my heart than the Popes Conclave, and the Alcoran, which my Soul Abhors.
Tenthly, I Have also been branded with factiousness, divisive, and seditious preaching, and practices. I must confess if it be so, it was more than ever I was aware of: according to the measure that God has given me, it was my endeavor to commend Christ to the hearts and Souls of the people, even repentance towards God and Faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the word of God, confession of faith, and Catechismes Larger and Shorter, yea I did press them, when God did cast it in my way to remember their former Obligations in Doctrine, worship, Discipline and Government, and that they would make it their work to stand to it, in substance and Circumstance, seeing it is so Cryed down in this day, and if this be divisive preaching, I cannot deny it.
Eleventhly, I am prest in Conscience to bear my Testimony to and Abhorrence of every Invasion, Usurpation, and incroachment that is made or has been made against Christs Royal prerogative, Crown, and Kingdome, Originate upon and derivate from that which they call the Supremacy. I was never free to say a Confederacy with those that I judge have in a great part said a Confederacy with that thing, and the Lord is my record, I was never free in my Conscience for that that is called indulgence, neither first nor second, as it was rendered by the Counsel, and as it was imbraced by a great many Godly men in this Land, yea it was never Laudable nor expedient to me, and in effect this is one of the main grounds, why I am rendred so Obnoxious to so many imputations, that I have been all along contrary to that indulgence in my Judgment. I confess I have been so, and I die in my Judgment contrary to it, and this I crave Leave to say without any Offence given to the many Godly and Learned, that are of another Judgment.
Twelfthly, I Judge it fit likewise in this Cafe to leave my Testimony against that Stent, Taxation and Cess, that has been so injustly imposed, so frivolently founded, and vigorously carried on by the Abettors of that contention, and meerly upon no other account imaginable, but to make a Final Extirpation of Christ, and his Gospel Ordinances out of the Land, and how Lamentable it is to consider how many professors did willingly pay it, and were most forward for inciting others to do the same.
In the next place, though to many I die desired, yet I know to not a few my death is not desired, and it is the rejoycing of my heart, that I die in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has loved me, and given himself for me, and in the faith of the Prophets and Apostles, and in this faith that there’s not a name under heaven by which men can be saved, but the name of Jesus, and in the Faith of the Doctrine and Worship of the Kirke of Scotland, as it is now established according to the word of God, Confession of faith, Catechisms Larger and shorter, and likewise I joyn my Testimony against Popery, Perjury, Profanity, Heresie, and every thing contrary to sound Doctrine.
In the Close, as a dying person, and as one who has obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful, I would Humbly leave it upon godly Ministers to be faithful for their Lord and Master, and not to hold their peace in such a day, when so many ways are taken for injuring of him, his name, way, Sanctuary, Ordinances, Crown and Kingdome, I hope there will be found a party in this Land, that will continue for him, and his Matters, in all Hazzards, and as faithfulness is called for in Ministers, so professors would concern themselves that they Countenance not, nor abet any thing inconsistent with former Principles and practices. Let the Land consider how Neuteral and indifferent we are grown in the matters of God, even like Ephraim long ago, a Cake not turned.
Next how far we are fallen from our first love, how far we are degenerated from the noble Vine into which the Lord did once plant us; Lamentable it is how far we are gone in the way of Egypt, drinking the Waters of Sichar, &c. [i.e., drunkenness -ed.]
Again, What a woeful Spirit of bitterness is predominate in this Land, in this our Age, Ephraim vexing Judah, and Judah Ephraim, Manasseth Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseth, the growing dogedness of this temper almost amongst us all, portends terrible things from the Lord against Scotland.
Fourthly, Reformation neither designed nor practiced, what means all this deformity that is come to pass in these days, instead of the contrary? how many of us are pulling down that which we have been building up; how many of us calling good evil, and evil good, dis-owning and dis-favouring that which sometime we judged our honour to testifie for and to avouch.
Fifthly, A Publick Spirit in contending for God in his matters, in substance and circumstance, according to our Vows and Obligations, is much wanting amonst us at this day.
Farther I am prest in Conscience to make honourable mention of all those glorious things that God has done in Scot. since the year 1638. the abundant measure of his spirit that has been power’d out upon his people.
Here he spoke much concerning the Solemn League and Convenant; and afterwards proceeded as followeth.
And moreover I bear my Testimonies against all other Confusions, Imprisonment and Blood, that is or may be intended against those of the Land that desire to keep their Garments clean, whether in Prison or out of Prison.
6thly, As concerning that which is the ground of my death, viz. Preaching here and there in some Corners, I bless my God I have not the least challenge for it, and though those that Condemned me are pleased to call such Preachings Rendezvouses of Rebellion, yet I must say this of them, they were so far from being reputed such in my Eyes, that if ever Christ had a People or party wherein his Soul took pleasure, I am bold to say these Meetings were a great part of them; the shineing and Glory of God was eminently seen amonst these Meetings, the convincing Power and Authority of our Lord went out with his Servants in those blasphemously nick-named Conventicles; this I say without reflection upon any. I have a word to say farther, that God is calling persons to Repentance, and to do their first work; Oh that Scotland were a mourning Land, and that Reformation were our practice, according as we are sworn in the Covenant.
Again, that Christians of Grace and Experience would study more streightness and stability in this day, when so many are turning to the right hand, and many to the left; he that endureth to the end shall be saved; he has appointed the Kingdom for such as continue with him in his Temptations.
Next, if ever you expect to have the Form of the House shewed you in all the Laws thereof, goings on thereof, and comings in thereof, then think it no shame to take shame to you for all that has been done, sitting down on this side Jordan is like to be our bane. Oh when shall we get up and run after him till he bring us into the promised Land, let us up and after him with all our heart, and never rest till he return.
I recommend my Wife and young one to the care and faithfulness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God that has fed me to this day, and who is the God of my Salvation, their God and my God, their Father and my Father, I am also hopeful, that Christians, Friends, and Relations, will not be unmindful of them when I am gone.
Lastly, I do further bear my Testimony to the Cross of Christ, and bless him that ever he counted me worthy to appear for him in such a lot as this: Glory to him that ever I heard tell of him, and that ever he fell upon such a method of dealing with me as this, and therefore let none that loves Christ and his Righteous Cause be offended in me.
And as I have lived in the faith of this, that the three Kingdoms are married Lands, so I dye in the faith of it, that there will be a resurrection of his Name, Word, Cause, and of all his Interest therein, though I dare not determine the time when, nor the manner how, but leave all these things to the infinitely wise God, who has done, and will do all things well. Oh that he would return to this Land again, to repair our breaches, and take away our back sliding, and appear for his work: Oh that he were pacified towards us; Oh that he would pass by Scotland once again, and make our time a time of Love, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Himself hasten it in his own time and way. The Lord is my light and life, my joy, my song, and my salvation; the God of his chosen be my Mercy this day, and the inriching comforts of the holy Ghost keep up and carry me fair through, to the Glory of his Grace, to the edification of his people, and my own eternal advantage. Amen.
August, 14th. 1679.
Tolbooth, Ante horam Septimam.
Heath was one of the most notorious British killers of the mid-twentieth century. Although his victims numbered only two (the other being 21-year-old Doreen Margaret Marshall), he stood out from the pack by his brutality and sheer sadism. The Murders of the Black Museum, 1870-1970 provides this graphic description of the terrible injuries he inflicted on Doreen:
She had been struck several times on the back of her head. There were also abrasions on her back, a bruise on her right shoulder and an area of redness around the left collar-bone, as if someone had knelt on her. The left side of her chest was bruised and a rib had fractured, piercing the left lung. Her left arm was bruised, as were both wrists, which appeared to have been tightly tied; they also bore finger-nail imprints of her assailant. The fingers of both her hands were badly cut on the inside, as if she had seized a knife in self-defence. All these injuries had been inflicted before she died, her death itself having been caused by a haemorrhage resulting from two deep knife-cuts across her throat.
After death a nipple had been bitten off and her body had been mutilated. A jagged series of slashes reached from her vagina vertically up to her chest, where they were joined by a deep diagonal cut from each nipple to the centre of her body, forming a Y. A rough instrument, possibly a branch, had also perforated and torn her vagina and anus.
Heath came from a respectable, lower-middle-class background. His parents scraped together enough money for him to attend a private Catholic school, where early on he developed as a reputation as a bully.
As an adult he fell into crime, but there was nothing on his record to suggest he was capable of such gruesome acts; his previous convictions had been for offenses such as fraud, forgery, burglary and deserting the military.
In between stints in jail, he married a woman from a wealthy, prominent family and they had a son. By 1945, however, they were divorced.
Margery, Heath’s first victim, was separated from her husband at the time of her death. She had a masochistic predilection for bondage and flagellation, but even so, Heath was too much for her. In May 1946, they checked into a hotel together and he was so violent that she got scared and had to be rescued by hotel security.
Incredibly, however, when Heath called her to ask her out on another date, she agreed and they met again on June 20. They got drunk at a nightclub and took a cab to a hotel. No one heard any unusual noises during the night, but the next morning Margery’s bound, gagged and mutilated corpse was found in her fourth-floor room.
She had horrific injuries, all inflicted while she still lived, including cuts on her face, arms and back in an unusual criss-cross pattern. The cause of death was suffocation.
There was no sign of Heath, but within a day or two he’d been identified as a possible suspect and was sought for questioning.
Heath’s fiancee read about the murder in the papers and asked him about it. He told her he’d stumbled across the scene after Mrs. Gardner was already dead, and promised to go to the police and make a statement. He never did, but he did send a letter to the chief inspector, saying he’d lent his hotel key to Mrs. Gardner because she had nowhere else to sleep. She went to bed with a man named “Jack” but told Heath to come to her room after 2:00 a.m. to spend the rest of the night with her.
When he did, he wrote, “I found her in the condition of which you are aware. I realized that I was in an invidious position, and rather than notify the police, I packed my belongings and left.” Heath said he had the murder weapon and was mailing it to the police station in a separate package. He never did.
Instead, he went to Bournemouth and checked into the Tolland Royal Hotel under the name Rupert Brooke, after one of Britain’s most famous poets.
There he met Doreen Marshall.
Heath encountered Doreen on July 3 and asked her to have tea with him. She agreed. Tea turned into dinner, and the date didn’t end until almost midnight. At this time Heath said he would walk Doreen home, although she wanted to take a taxi instead. She was never seen alive again.
On July 5 she was reported missing and the Tolland Royal Hotel staff, knowing she’d dined with Heath, asked him to get in touch with the police. He did so, identifying himself by his alias Rupert Brooke. He told the story about their date and saying he’d left her on the pier and walked back to the Tolland Royal alone.
One of the police officers interviewing him about Doreen Marshall recognized Heath as the man wanted for questioning about Margery’s murder and confronted him, saying, “Isn’t your real name Heath?”
“Rupert Brooke” denied this, and when the police said they were detaining him for further questioning, he asked to be allowed to go to the hotel and get his coat. He’d come back right away, he said.
The cops were not that stupid and sent one of their own officers to fetch the coat. Inside was half a train ticket in Doreen Marshall’s name, as well as a cloakroom ticket issued at a train station on June 23. The police went to the train station to fetch what their prisoner had stored there: it turned out to be a suitcase containing several incriminating items, including clothing monogrammed with Heath’s real name, a bloodstained scarf and handkerchief, and a bloodstained riding crop woven in a criss-cross pattern that, it turned out, matched the marks on Margery’s body.
On July 8, Heath was formally charged with Margery’s murder. At around the same time, Doreen’s body turned up: she’d been dumped, naked, in a clump of bushes about a mile from the Tolland Royal Hotel.
At his trial, none of Heath’s friends or family members came to testify on his behalf. Given the evidence against him, his defense attorney could hardly argue that their client was innocent. Instead they claimed he was insane: only a madman could have committed such acts.
But Heath’s calm, composed manner, and his obvious efforts to cover up his crimes, went against the insanity defense and the jury had no trouble convicting him.
In his final letter to his parents, he wrote, “My only regret at leaving the world is that I have been damned unworthy of you both.” Just before his hanging, he was offered the customary drink of whiskey. He agreed and added, “Better make it a double.”
This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”
What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.
He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.
Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.
Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”
Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.
On this date in 1955, Barbara Graham was gassed at California’s San Quentin Prison, along with two confederates in the brutal murder of an elderly widow.
Following the classic sob-story vector from orphan to juvenile delinquent to petty criminal, Graham found her calling as femme fatale.
She entered adulthood with World War II, and spent the war years alternating between failed marriages and the working-girl beat for Pacific military bases.
“Sure, I was a prostitute — and a damn good one,” she later confided to a reporter. “Why do people make so much of sex anyway? It’s part of our natural make-up, like getting hungry for food. If you want to eat, you go to a grocery store or a restaurant. If you need sleep, you sleep. If you want sex, why not get it?” (Source, a thorough .doc file)
Police made a bigger deal of perjury when she unwisely tried to help out some underworld friends by swearing to a demonstrably bogus alibi for them. She did some real time, tried to go straight in a boring Nevada town, and inevitably — for the likes of this site — returned to the siren lures of California.
It was back to the familiar job servicing the familiar hunger … but now with a new hunger of her own: heroin.
And heroin meant a now-ravenous appetite for cash.
Barbara Graham’s trip to the gas chamber and to California crime history began when she and some fellow-addicts tried to satiate that latter craving by burgling the Burbank home of Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to live alone with a lot of portable valuables.
The job was a botch from beginning to end: someone bludgeoned the crippled woman to death, but nobody found the supposed boodle. And as the police investigation led back towards the culprits, two of them flipped on their confederates.
(The first of them was kidnapped and murdered to prevent his testimony while everyone was still on the lam. The second happily took his place as the stool pigeon once everyone was in custody. Graham, proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, got caught on a wire trying to suborn perjury on her own behalf, dramatically destroying her alibi defense mid-trial.)
Shock murder authored by vamp courtesan? (The informant would testify that Graham personally pistol-whipped the victim into a bloody heap.) Hellooooo, California noir.
In its day, Graham’s case prompted all the moralistic hand-wringing familiar to the condemned-hottie tableau down to our present age. And at least that much unconcealed voyeurism. On the eve of her death, the Los Angeles Times palpitated:
“Nothing can be done now — I’m lost,” Mrs. Graham sobbed yesterday when told that Federal judges here and in San Francisco had turned down the latest bids for a stay of execution …
Two years in prison waiting for death have taken their toll of the once attractive convicted murderess.
Her reddish-blond hair has reverted to its natural black color. She has lost about 30 pounds. She is gaunt, tense and near hysteria.
The two men who shared her crime, her sentence, and her fate, did not endure a similar public microscope. Why would they? Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins — and this is the first we’ve even bothered to name them in this post — were just two dude hoods from central casting. Three hours after “Bloody Babs” succumbed to the fumes,* Santo and Perkins were gassed together as the forgettable postscript, “chatt[ing] amiably” with one another in the little metal shed while San Quentin’s personnel did all the preparatory business. (Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1955)
Graham’s persistence with a decreasingly plausible innocence story similarly amplified the pathos of her situation.
After Christopher Newton’s death in Lucasville, Ohio by lethal injection on this day in 2007, his attorney read a prepared last statement that apologized for the murder of a fellow inmate: “If I could take it back, I would.”
But the evidence of the “bizarre” execution says Newton was right where he wanted to be.
From the time the obese career criminal (pdf) garroted his cellmate in 2001,* he cooperated with investigators only to the extent that cooperation would grease the wheels of that so-called machinery of death. The entire thing was engineered to get Newton his last parole.
It still took him over five years to land on a gurney, but if you think that’s inefficient, get a load of the execution itself.
For going on two hours, the injection team poked and prodded at Newton’s veins in vain, trying to squeeze a lethal shunt into its gargantuan subject.
“We have told the team to take their time,” read a sign that a prison spokesperson held up in the hush-hush viewing chamber an hour into this discomfiting procedure. “His size is creating a problem.”
Minutes later, the 19-stone condemned man got a bathroom break during his own execution.
So far as anyone could see, the delay was anything but agony for Newton, who was generally observed smiling, laughing, and chatting it up with the prison personnel who were struggling to kill him. Finally, they managed to do it — an achievement which Ohio has latterly demonstrated is by no means a given.
* And allegedly drank some of Jason Brewer’s blood to boot, though this claim proceeding from a man who was intentionally pursuing a death sentence merits skepticism.
Exeter, April 8. Friday last were executed at Heavitree-gallows, William Snow, alias Skitch, for breaking the house of Richard Adams, in the parish of Romansleigh, and stealing a quantity of plate thereout; and James Waybourn, for robbing farmer Stokes, near Bickley-wood. They were perfectly resigned to their fate; yet it was with difficulty that Waybourn was induced to answer any questions respecting his guilt.
The behaviour of Skitch manifested how little there is in the approach of death, when the human mind is brought into a calm and pious disposition, by serious meditation on the attributes of an all powerful and gracious Deity. He declared that day to be the happiest of his life; and exhorted the spectators to avoid his errors. He had hung but a few seconds, when the rope slipped from the gallows, and he fell to the ground. It is impossible to describe the feelings of the multitude at the thought of his being again suspended; yet was this painful interval less afflicting to the magnanimous sufferer than to the spectators. Skitch heard their sorrowful exclamations, and said, with an air of compassion, “Good people, be not hurried; I can wait a little:” and the executioner wishing to lengthen the rope, which had slipped, Skitch calmly waited till Waybourn was quite dead, when the rope was taken from the deceased’s arms, in order to compleat the execution of Skitch, who was a second time launched from the cart amidst the tears of thousands.
The royal couple were ultimately destined to escape this palatial dungeon only to the guillotine.
But in Mahy’s day, it was possible to dream of counterrevolution. And that terrifying machine of the revolution hadn’t even been invented.
For that matter, the machinery of revolutionary justice had also not been born; this was Lafayette‘s year, the revolution in its moderate phase.
It was ancien regime jurists of the Chatelet who were here appointed to judge the enemies of the nation. Having just acquitted the guy who commanded monarchist forces in Paris on Bastille Day, these establishment magistrates proceeded to throw the revolutionary left a bone by condemning Favras to the democratic capital expiration of … hanging. (Back in the good old days, he would have had the right to a beheading. Plus ça change.)
The crowd was said to be quite enthusiastic.
“Thomas de Mahy, Marquis of Favras Making Honourable Amends before Notre-Dame,” engraving by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (French link).
Little less interested in Favras’s elimination — he was executed the day after sentence — were his fellow conspirators and other sympathetic members of the royalist party. (Future-Louis XVIII hurriedly washed his hands of the scheme.) These were quite pleased to suppress any wider exploration of
the project that this lost child of royalist enthusiasm had formed in the interest of the royal family. Among those participating in this project, but with a cowardice that is well known, were persons that an important consideration prevented from naming at the time.*
You’ve got to look forward, not back.
Despite the mob scene surrounding him as he carried his damning information to the grave, Favras had the sang-froid to remark upon being handed a copy of the order for his execution, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”
“It can be said,” wrote Camille Desmoulins, “that all the aristocrats have been hung through him.”
And since they did such a metaphorically comprehensive job through this single unfortunate, it’s no wonder that Favras was the only aristocrat executed for counterrevolutionary activity during the entire first three years of the Revolution.*
* Barry Shapiro, “Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition,” French Historical Studies, Spring 1992.
A decade and a half’s passage finds her a young woman wed to one Franz or Frans Joost/Jooste/Joostens, to whom she bore two sons … and, evidently, a homicidal grudge.
Early in 1714, Maria and her lover, a slave named Titus Bengale, murdered Frans, in consequence of which crime,
[s]he [Maria] is sentenced to be half strangled, after that to be scorched,* and after that strangled unto death. Titus to be empaled and to remain so, until death. After that his head and right hand are to be cut off and fixed on a pole, beyond the limits of his late master’s property. Fortuin, an accomplice, is also to have his right hand cut off, and without receiving the coup de grace, is to be broken on the wheel. After that he is to be placed on a grating until death takes place. After that his head is to be cut off, and with his hand placed on a pole, together with the head and hand of Titus. After that the bodies are to be taken to the outside place of execution, and there left exposed to the air and the vultures.
She’s the only white woman to be executed in 18th century South Africa.
September 3 — The slave Titus, above mentioned, died about midday, having lived in his misery about 48 hours; something horrible to think of, to say nothing of personally beholding the misery. It is said that 4 hours after his empalement he received a bottle of arrack from which he drank freely and heartily. When advised not to take too much, lest he should get drunk, he answered that it did not matter, as he sat fast enough, and that there was no fear of his falling. It is true that whilst sitting in that deplorable state, he often joked, and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman. A way of dying, lauded by the Romans, but damnable among the Christians.
* Literally, blaker. “To ‘blaker’ someone,” notes Nigel Penn in “The wife, the farmer and the farmer’s slaves: adultery and murder on a frontier farm in the early eighteenth century Cape,” Kronos, vol. 28 (2002), “was to hold burning straw to their face and to blacken it … a reference to the earlier practice of burning at the stake victims found guilty of heresy, witchcraft and sodomy. Surely we may also see, in the case of the blackening of Maria Mouton, a reference to her crime of cohabiting with slaves.”
** After another slaveowner was murdered later in the year, the chronicle laments that “crime is rapidly assuming large dimensions, in spite of the means used to prevent or suppress it. A clear proof that this Colony mainly consists of evil disposed, head-strong slaves and the refuse of convicts.”
Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.
Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.
Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.
Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo
If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.
But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …
Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.
The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.
Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: “At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint.” -ed. ]
Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.
Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)
If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.
I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.
Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.
The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)
But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)
* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.
The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.