January 14, 1730, was the date appointed for the public hanging in Philadelphia of James Prouse and James Mitchel for burglary.
Prouse, for his part, admitted the crime but insisted that James Mitchel had nothing to do with it — and Mitchel insisted the same. This ultimately generated considerable support for clemency which the authorities did not seem inclined to act upon.
Naturally the young newspaperman Benjamin Franklin — just turning 24 in January 1730 — was keen to publish this affecting story in his Philadelphia Gazette. Through the magic of public domain, he’s generously allowed us to republish his account from the January 20, 1730 Gazette as our guest post today.
We think our Readers will not be displeased to have the following remarkable Transaction related to them in this particular Manner.
Wednesday the 14th Instant, being the Day appointed for the Execution of James Prouse and James Mitchel for Burglary, suitable Preparations were accordingly made. The tender Youth of one of them (who was but about 19) and the supposed Innocence of the other as to the Fact for which they were condemned, had induced the Judges (upon the Application of some compassionate People) to recommend them to His Honour‘s known Clemency: But several Malefactors having been already pardoned, and every Body being sensible, that, considering the great Increase of Vagrants and idle Persons, by the late large Importation of such from several Parts of Europe, it was become necessary for the common Good to make some Examples, there was but little Reason to hope that either, and less that both of them might escape the Punishment justly due to Crimes of that enormous Nature. About 11 o’Clock the Bell began to Toll, and a numerous Croud of People was gathered near the Prison, to see these unhappy young Men brought forth to suffer. While their Irons were taken off, and their Arms were binding, Prouse cry’d immoderately; but Mitchel (who had himself all along behaved with unusual Fortitude) endeavoured in a friendly tender Manner to comfort him: Do not cry, Jemmy; (says he) In an Hour or two it will be over with us, and we shall both be easy. They were then placed in a Cart, together with a Coffin for each of them, and led thro’ the Town to the Place of Execution: Prouse appear’d extreamly dejected, but Mitchel seemed to support himself with a becoming manly Constancy: When they arriv’d at the fatal Tree, they were told that it was expected they should make some Confession of their Crimes, and say something by Way of Exhortation to the People. Prouse was at length with some Difficulty prevailed on to speak; he said, his Confession had been taken in Writing the Evening before; he acknowledged the Fact for which he was to die, but said, That Greyer who had sworn against him was the Person that persuaded him to it; and declared that he had never wronged any Man beside Mr. Sheed, and his Master. Mitchel being desired to speak, reply’d with a sober compos’d Countenance, What would you have me to say? I am innocent of the Fact. He was then told, that it did not appear well in him to persist in asserting his Innocence; that he had had a fair Trial, and was found guilty by twelve honest and good Men. He only answer’d, I am innocent; and it will appear so before God; and sat down. Then they were both bid to stand up, and the Ropes were order’d to be thrown over the Beam; when the Sheriff took a Paper out of his Pocket and began to read. The poor Wretches, whose Souls were at that Time fill’d with the immediate Terrors of approaching Death, having nothing else before their Eyes, and being without the least Apprehension or Hope of a Reprieve, took but little Notice of what was read; or it seems imagined it to be some previous Matter of Form, as a Warrant for their Execution or the like, ’till they heard the Words PITY and MERCY [And whereas the said James Prouse and James Mitchel have been recommended to me as proper Objects of Pity and Mercy.] Immediately Mitchel fell into the most violent Agony; and having only said, God bless the Governor, he swooned away in the Cart. Suitable Means were used to recover him; and when he came a little to himself, he added; I have been a great Sinner; I have been guilty of almost every Crime; Sabbath-breaking in particular, which led me into ill Company; but Theft I never was guilty of. God bless the Governor; and God Almighty’s Name be praised; and then swooned again. Prouse likewise seemed to be overwhelmed with Joy, but did not swoon. All the Way back to the Prison, Mitchel lean’d on his Coffin, being unable to support himself, and shed Tears in abundance. He who went out to die with a large Share of Resolution and Fortitude, returned in the most dispirited Manner imaginable; being utterly over-power’d by the Force of that sudden Turn of excessive Joy, for which he had been no Way prepared. The Concern that appeared in every Face while these Criminals were leading to Execution, and the Joy that diffused it self thro’ the whole Multitude, so visible in their Countenances upon the mention of a Reprieve, seems to be a pleasing Instance, and no small Argument of the general laudable Humanity even of our common People, who were unanimous in their loud Acclamations of God bless the Governor for his Mercy.
The following are Copies of the Papers delivered out by Prouse and Mitchel the Evening before, with little or no Alteration from their own Words.
I James Prouse was born in the Town of Brentford in Middlesex County in Old England, of honest Parents, who gave me but little Education. My Father was a Corporal in the late Lord Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, (then named the said Lord’s Blues) and I was for some Time in the Care of an Uncle who lived at Eling near Brentford aforesaid, and who would have given me good Learning; but I being young would not take his good Counsel, and in the 12th Year of my Age came into Philadelphia, where I was recommended to one of the best of Masters, who never let me want for any Thing: But I minding the evil Insinuations of wicked People, more than the good Dictates of my Master, and having not the Fear of God before my Eyes, am deservedly brought to this wretched and shameful End. I acknowledge I justly merit Death for the Fact which condemns me; but I never had the least Design or Thought of the like, until often press’d, and at length seduced to it by John Greyer, who was the only Person that ruined me. He often solicited me to be guilty of other Crimes of the like Nature, but I never was guilty of any such, neither with him or any one else; neither did I ever wrong any Man before, save my too indulgent Master; from whom I now and then pilfer’d a Yard or the like of Cloth, in order to make Money to spend with the said Greyer. As for James Mitchel who dies for the same Fact with me, as I hope to receive Mercy at the great Tribunal, he the said James Mitchel is intirely innocent, (*) and knew nothing of the Fact until apprehended and taken. I am about Nineteen Years of Age and die a Protestant.
(*) N. B. He declared the same Thing at the Bar just before he received Sentence.
The Speech or Declaration of James Mitchel written with his own Hand.
I James Mitchel, was born, at Antrim in the Kingdom of Ireland, of good and honest Parents, and brought up with them until the Age of 13 Years, and had a suitable Education given me, such as being taught to read and write English, with some Latin; and might have been further instructed, but at my earnest Request was bound Apprentice to a Book-binder, and served 4 Years to that Trade; after which I left the Kingdom and went for England in order to be further improved in my Business; but there had the Misfortune to be press’d on board the Berwick Man of War, commanded by the Honorable George Gordon, and having been at several Parts abroad, returned to England in Octob. 1728. where I was by Sickness reduced to a very sad Condition, through which I came over to this Country a Servant; here I was it seems unfortunately led into bad Company, and one Evening by James Prouse was raised out of my Bed to go and drink with him and one Greyer, the which Greyer after parting gave to the said James Prouse Six-pence, which was all the Money I saw that Night and till next Morning, and then James Prouse took out of his Pocket a 15 Shilling Bill, and desired me to get it changed for him, in order to spend some of it; but coming unto Town I was apprehended for the robbing of Mr. George Sheed, and now am to die for the same. I die a Protestant.
The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.
But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazettefulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)
James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.
Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.
Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.
Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.
While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.
at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.
All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.
Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!
Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!
In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.
* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.
On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.
With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.
Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.
Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.
Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).
The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.
When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.
Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.
Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”
On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.
When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.
Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.
His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.
The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.
He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.
Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.
Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.
On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.
Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.
This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.
The investigation went nowhere.
On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.
What happened next is unprintable.
Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.
As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.
As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.
At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”
Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.
When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”
Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.
The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.
(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)
At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.
Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”
Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.
The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.
In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.
Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.
Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.
So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.
He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:
Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.
He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.
In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.
His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”
He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.
On this day in Kentucky in 1827, a plainly guilty murderer who was on to his third trial received an unconditional pardon. His name was Isaac Desha and his father, Joseph, was the state governor.
The murder was committed in 1824. Isaac Desha had separated from his wife, who was reportedly “terrified” of him, and was staying in Richard Dogget’s roadside tavern/inn on the border of Fleming County. On November 2 of that year, Francis Baker showed up and checked himself into the inn. A newspaperman from Mississippi, he was en route to New Jersey where he planned to get married. He was well-dressed and had a lot of luggage with him.
Baker wanted to visit a local man whom Desha also happened to know, and Desha volunteered to take him there. The two men set off together, Desha riding his bay horse and Baker on a gray mare, carrying two saddlebags.
They never arrived at their mutual acquaintance’s home.
Two hours later, a neighbor named Milton Ball noticed a gray mare, with saddle and bridle but no rider, wandering aimlessly on the highway. He caught it and was trying to find the owner when he encountered another riderless horse. This one he recognized as Desha’s. It had a saddle but no bridle.
Milton Ball got his brother, who took the horse to Desha’s residence. No one was home and he left it there.
As Ball was still trying to identify the gray horse’s owner, he came upon Isaac Desha walking down the road carrying two saddlebags. Desha identified the mare as his own property and took it from Ball, and they parted ways.
Awhile later, Francis Baker’s saddlebags were found empty and abandoned. The man never returned to the inn. The locals put two and two together and looked warily at Desha, but there was no hard evidence of foul play and he was the governor’s son, after all, so they said nothing.
That hard evidence turned up within a week, in the form of Francis Baker’s brutalized corpse — partially stripped, and hidden behind a fallen tree only yards from where Desha had been seen carrying the saddlebags. He’d been beaten with some blunt object and his throat was slit, and he had unusual stab wounds that were “four-square” shaped.
Fragments of a horse bridle and a whip were recovered from the scene; Desha owned a horse whip with a heavy handle that could have inflicted the injuries that killed Baker. Desha also owned a dagger that, it turned out, precisely matched the oddly shaped stab holes in Baker’s shirt.
The circumstantial evidence continued to pile up: the mare Desha had claimed as his own turned out to be Baker’s horse, and he also had Baker’s gold watch and the clothing and money that had been packed in Baker’s saddlebags. Desha claimed he’d randomly encountered two unknown men who’d sold the horse to him, and that he didn’t recognize it as stolen property, even though he’d been riding with Francis Baker only hours beforehand.
As for the watch, money and clothes, Desha didn’t even try to account for those.
He was arrested, and tried for murder in January 1825. The case was sensational and they had to move the trial elsewhere because the court determined Desha couldn’t get a fair trial locally. His father hired the finest defense attorney that there was, but the jury took only an hour to convict and recommended a death sentence.
Desha’s attorneys immediately appealed the verdict and sentence. One of the issues was that the sheriff had stayed with the jury during their deliberations, something Desha’s defense said was improper. The sheriff had presumably watched over the jury because a number of them got anonymous notes threatening to burn them in effigy if they voted to convict.
(Not threats to burn the jurors, mind. Threats to burn their effigies.)
The appeals court judge, one George “Peg Leg” Shannon, agreed with the defense and overturned the verdict. The fact that he was good friends with Desha’s father the governor had nothing to do with it, he said, and the outrage among the citizenry and angry editorials in the newspapers would never make him admit otherwise.
Desha got his second trial in September 1825 and got convicted and sentenced to death again. Once again the case was overturned on appeal, this time because the prosecution had not proved Francis Baker’s murder took place in Fleming County like the indictment said.
The local papers called the trial a “farce” and ranted about corruption within the judiciary. The Winchester Gazette editorialized, “It would seem that justice has either bade adieu to Kentucky, or that her judges are the most corrupt and desperate men living.”
But there was nothing to be done about it: Desha would have to be tried a third time. He was, in February 1826, well over a year after the murder, and the third jury convicted him too.
Desha despaired over his third conviction and attempted suicide in July of that year, slitting his throat in his cell. He very nearly succeeded, and the surgeon who brought him back from the brink had to put in a silver tube to reinforce his severed windpipe. For the rest of his life he could speak only in a whisper. The tube needed to be removed regularly for cleaning, and every time this happened Desha endured a terrible feeling of suffocation.
whereas the whole of the evidence against the said Isaac B. Desha being circumstantial, and from much of it being irreconcileable, I have no doubt of his being innocent of the foul charge; therefore is an object worthy of executive clemency.
Now, know ye, that in consideration of the premises, and by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution, I have thought proper, and do hereby grant to the said Isaac B. Desha a full and free pardon for the supposed offence, as alleged against him in the bill of indictment …
Given under my hand at Frankfort, on the 18th day of June, A.D. 1827, and in the 36th year of the Commonwealth.
By the Governor.
Desha’s murder conviction was once more under appeal, but his suicide attempt had left him in such poor health that a sympathetic doctor signed an order saying keeping him in jail was endangering his life. He was released on bond pending the outcome of his appeal.
In March 1827, his lawyers tried to get the murder case dismissed on procedural grounds. Request denied. In June they filed for dismissal again, because the court had failed to seat a full panel of impartial jurors. (Desha used all his juror challenges to help keep the count down.)
Request denied again, and what’s worse, the court decided Isaac Desha’s health had improved enough that he could withstand the rigors of jail. He was remanded into custody.
Governor Desha still had one last card up his sleeve, and it was a trump. On June 18, the same day Isaac was ordered back behind bars, his father rose in court and issued him an unconditional pardon on the spot.
Joseph Desha committed political suicide when he pardoned his son. Isaac’s crime, and the obvious favors afforded him by the justice system, severely damaged the governor’s reputation.
Contrary to popular belief, Joseph didn’t resign after pardoning his son. He quietly finished out his term, retired to his farm and never entered politics again. He died in 1842.
As for Isaac Desha, there’s a legend that he moved to Honduras or Hawaii and has descendants still living there. In fact, although he did head west after his release from jail, he never made it further than Texas.
Like a lot of pioneers, he surely hoped he could put his former troubles behind him. But Isaac Desha carried trouble with him: in Texas, he allegedly robbed and killed a fellow traveler in a crime remarkably similar to Francis Parker’s murder. He was charged with murder yet again and this time he didn’t have an influential father to protect him.
Desha escaped the death penalty one last time, though, by dying of a fever on August 13, 1828, the day before his murder trial was supposed to start. He was twenty-six.
On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.
Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*
Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.
After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.
The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.
One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.
A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.
The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.
The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.
As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.
The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.
De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.
* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.
Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilization and for use in gunpowder and explosives.
In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.
Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.
But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.
The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.
Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.
“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.
They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.
Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.
Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.
Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*
However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.
Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.
* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.
This date in 1899 was the one appointed for the Roseburg, Ore. hanging of a miner named J.M. Olberman for murdering his partner-in-prospecting.
But as described in this April 28, 1899 story from the Portland Oregonian (transcribed in its entirety), a governor willing to “take a larger and less restricted view” of a case than the courts would do spared Olberman on the eve of his hanging.
SALEM, April 27. — The sentence of J.M. Olberman, who was to have been hanged in Roseburg tomorrow for the murder of J.N. Casteel, his mining partner, near Myrtle Creek, last year, has been commuted to life imprisonment. At 5 o’clock this afternoon Governor Geer sent a telegram to Sheriff Stephens, of Douglas county, advising him of the commutation. When asked tonight to give his reasons for extending clemency to Olberman, Governor Geer said:
I finally concluded to commute Olberman’s sentence to life imprisonment for the reason that there were many extenuating circumstances that remove his crime from the class of deliberately planned murders. His victim had not only viciously warned him the night before that he would kill him when he was least expecting it, but had refused to go to bed, lying on the lounge al lnight, and muttering his threats long after Olberman had retired. Reputable citizens of Mytle Creek have proven to me that Casteel had not only threatened Olberman’s life, but that of several other men, and that he was a ‘bully’ by natre, and a dangerous man. I have petitions signed by 62 citizens of Myrtle creek, where the tragedy occurred, stating that Casteel ‘frequently threatened to kill people, drove his son-in-law from home by threats to kill him; that he threatened to kill Olberman, and we believe he would have carried the threat into execution had he not himself been killed.’
To my mind, these facts, which are well established, make a wide distinction between Olberman’s crime and that which is committed by a highwayman, who deliberately murders for gain, or the brute who takes human life purely for revenge, and there should be a distinction between the degrees of punishment following their commission.
Courts are sometimes prohibited from going outside the forms of law and the record, although convinced, perhaps, that the equities of the case would warrant a different finding. It is to correct such conditions that the right to take a larger and less restricted view of the circumstances surrounding a case is given to the executive. It is great power to place in the hands of one man, and should be used very sparingly and rarely.
I have an abundance of testimony from Myrtle Creek and Portland, where he lived for four years, that Olberman is a man of steady habits, and of a peacable disposition, and has never associated with the criminal class. The commutation of his sentence was asked by most of the people in the vicinity where the murder was committed, and the same request was made by letter to me by both the daughters of the murdered man, one of his sons-in-law, and three of the trial jurors.
Olberman committed a great crime, but the provocation surrounding him makes him less guilty, in my judgment, than the other man who deliberately murders for either gain or revenge; and his crime being less his punishment should be less. I do not think I have erred in saving this man’s life, but if I have it has been on the side of mercy, and to do so is sometimes a positive virtue.
Among those who signed petitions and sent personal letters to the governor in Olberman’s behalf were Governor Bradley, of Kentucky; a member of congress from Kentucky; United States Senator Joseph Simon, H.M. Martin, William Flocks and George McDougall, three of the trial jurors, and Mrs. May Stewart and Mrs. June Reynolds, daughters of the murdered man.
A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.
In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)
Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.
* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)
The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.
The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.
If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.
Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.
Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”
13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.
In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:
“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.
The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”
And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.
Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.
“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.
By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.
At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.
“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.
Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.
The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar
So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.
And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”
And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”
So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.
Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.
Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.
Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)
The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.
Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”
Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.
* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.
On this date in 1835, John Smith and James Pratt (sometimes reported as John Pratt) were hanged outside Newgate Prison for (in the exhausting fulminations of the Old Bailey trial records) “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”
These men were the last put to death anywhere in the realm under the ghastly Tudor-era Buggery Act,* and indeed among the last to die at Newgate for any crime other than murder or attempted murder.
“The grave will soon close over me,” Smith allegedly wrote to a friend before his hanging, “and my name [be] entirely forgotten.”
But that’s not altogether true.
Unbeknownst to the sufferers, they were destined for literary preservation by a young writer on the make, one Charles Dickens: Smith and Pratt make an appearance in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, an 1836 compilation of London scenes of which “A Visit to Newgate” is perhaps the best-known.
This description of the author’s visit to Newgate Prison narrates a visit made, according to William Carlton’s “The Third Man at Newgate” (The Review of English Studies, Nov., 1957), on November 5, 1835. Dickens would write in subsequent correspondence that the experience left him “intensely interested in everything I saw.”
Prisons and the threat or reality of execution would loom large in that redoubtable author’s canon. “You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death,” the perspicacious 23-year-old told his publisher.
So too did the still-living apparitions of the condemned Smith and Pratt occupy Dickens’s reflections in “A Visit to Newgate”; they comprise a good third of the essay.
In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. ‘The two short ones,’ the turnkey whispered, ‘were dead men.’
Smith and Pratt, of course, were the “dead men.”
Their third companion, otherwise unconnected with them, was a soldier named Robert Swan, convicted of robbery. Swan was indeed reprieved, a few days before the execution. “Boz” sketched the aspect of these men as he observed them:
The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.
If we have Dickens to thank in part for this unexpected glimpse of these poor fellows in the shadow of death, we also can hardly help but notice that — and this is in keeping with Smith’s forecast of posthumous anonymity — he does not name them, nor breathe a word about their scandalous crime. Only the man destined for the reprieve has animation; Smith and Pratt, immobile and affectless, are … but are little else besides. “Dead men,” like that turnkey said. This is not necessarily implausible, but it is also very pat for the literary construction of “A Visit to Newgate,” and we might be entitled to wonder how close to journalistic accuracy the writer has really come here, or regret the details Dickens has discarded that might have salvaged their humanity for a later readership.
Dickens’ party proceeded from these characters to a tour of the physical cells in which these doomed “statues” passed their last sleepless nights.
A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder’s report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o’clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o’clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner’s execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.
We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.
A year after Sketches‘ February 1836 publication, Dickens’ serialized novel of the London underclass Oliver Twist began its run. That story’s heart-wrenching denouement of the thief Fagin awaiting execution in Newgate seems to owe a debt to Dickens’ meditation in Sketches on the dolorous condition of Smith, Pratt, or any doomed prisoner facing death in these awful cells.
“A Visit to Newgate” concludes:
Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual Fagin in Newgate – Cruikshank consoler; and, now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied, and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can alone avail.
Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually, and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul’s strikes – one! He heard it; it has roused him. Seven hours left! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his forehead, and every muscle of his frame quivering with agony. Seven hours! He suffers himself to be led to his seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand, and tries to read and listen. No: his thoughts will wander. The book is torn and soiled by use – and like the book he read his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago! He has never bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a child: and yet the place, the time, the room – nay, the very boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they were scenes of yesterday; and some forgotten phrase, some childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark! Two quarters have struck; – the third – the fourth. It is! Six hours left. Tell him not of repentance! Six hours’ repentance for eight times six years of guilt and sin! He buries his face in his hands, and throws himself on the bench.
Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An insupportable load is taken from his breast; he is walking with his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them, and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side – how different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking – not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her – long, long ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks, and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection – and he does NOT strike her now, nor rudely shake her from him. And oh! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart! The scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is – what a sea of heads – with a gallows, too, and a scaffold – and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.
The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.
A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.
Lotta books about Dickens
A magistrate with the Dickensian name of Hesney Wedg(e)wood appealed vigorously for clemency for Smith and Pratt — pointing out that the only reason these two had been doomed among the rather many enthusiasts** for this victimless offense was that they were penurious enough to have to pursue their desires in a lodging-house rented by a friend where they were easily spied-upon.
(The testimony lodged against them in court came from the nosy landlord who got suspicious, and with his wife peeped through the keyhole on “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.” The landlord burst in on the sodomites and put a stop to the fondness right away.)
“There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor,” wrote Wedgwood.
It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without. (Quoted here)
* The first executed under the Buggery Act shared his scaffold with Thomas Cromwell almost 300 years before. Although there were no further executions for sodomy after Smith and Pratt in 1835, that penalty remained theoretically available for the “crime” until 1861.