Nineteen days before, two slaves named Caesar and Prince had hanged, nominally for theft but believed by the populace (and the court) primary instigators of a taggering plot to put New York to the torch, murder the city’s whites, and reign as kings on the ashes of their masters’ city.
Cuffee was, alongside those already-executed Caesar and Prince, part of a trio of slaves known to hang about together at the house of barkeep and fence John Hughson. Already notorious about town for a gin-robbing incident that had seen all three publicly whipped in 1738, and had again burgled a linen store that February. (That’s the crime for which Caesar and Prince were executed.)
The evidentiary chain linking these commonplace prowlers to a spate of fires whose intent must be the annihilation of the city leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the burning spring of 1741 helped solder them together in part thanks to a white New Yorker spying Cuffee in what he thought was a suspicious position during a fire and raising the alarm. Cuffee fled, back to the home of Frederick Philipse — his owner, and also the judge who would eventually condemn him — where a crowd of incited freemen chased him down and hauled him to gaol, “borne upon the People’s Shoulders.” His skulking seemed to confirm a widening suspicion, spiced by the mother country’s going war against dusky Spaniards, that the city’s Negroes must surely lurk behind a fortnight’s infernos. From this point on it appears as if New Yorkers — or at least the city’s elites — determined by consensus that they “must necessarily conclude, that [the fires] were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”
Now, this appearance of consensus is an impression nearly three centuries distant, and is heavily shaped by the circumstance that there’s one predominant voice surviving the ravages of years to document for us the official proceedings: Daniel Horsmanden, who both judged and investigated the case and is thus heavily invested in its outcome. His A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction With Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America and Murdering the Inhabitants is Horsmanden’s record of how the plot or “plot” was uncovered; it was assembled in 1742 and presents trial and deposition records curated by Horsmanden with a view to persuading “such as have a Disposition to be convinc’d, and have in Reality doubted, whether any particular Convicts had Justice done them or not” — for by this time such doubts were dogging Horsmanden’s court, having hounded 30-odd people to death on evidence that was already viewed as highly impeachable.
There had been some wanton, wrong-headed Persons amongst us, who took the Liberty to arraign the Justice of the Proceedings, and set up their private Opinions in Superiority to the Court and Grand Jury; tho’ God knows (and all Men of Sense know) they could not be Judges of such Matters; but nevertheless, they declared with no small Assurance (notwithstanding what we saw with our Eyes, and heard with our Ears, and every one might have judg’d of by his Intellects, that had any) That there was no Plot at all!
Whether the entire slave conspiracy to burn New York was a phantom, or whether it did indeed reflect in whatever distorted way a some real mode of resistance, is a factual question that is permanently unanswerable.* But the cases certainly took on a witch hunt quality, and they bore many hallmarks of wrongful conviction that are familiar even today.
Our first two hangings, Caesar and Prince, were doomed by the decision of John Hughson’s teenage serving-girl to turn state’s evidence and denounce them. As Cuffee and Quack would be the first people formally tried for the arson wave, her evidence was buttressed in this case by another common prosecutor’s cheat: the prison snitch.
A (white) petty thief named Arthur Price, who was being held in New York’s dungeon along with the growing ranks of suspected terrorists, helpfully began informing on the people around him. It’s likely he was a longstanding underclass crony of the purported plotters.
At any rate, the civic-minded Price, “having been found by experience to be very adroit at pumping out the Secrets of the Conspirators … was ordered to put Cuffee (Mr. PHILIPSE’s Negro) into the same Cell with him, and to give them a Tankard of Punch now and then, in order to chear up their Spirits, and make them more sociable.” What do you know but the next morning, Price was ready to report that his inebriated cellmate had admitted the conspiracy to him, and had implicated Quack as the man who actually fired the fort.
Quack was promptly arrested. Arthur Price would give evidence against both at their trial, but having made himself an obvious stool pigeon his use as an informant was at an end since nobody would go near him any longer.
More key information against Cuffee and Quack came from two other slaves, whose “Negro evidence” — a distinct class of (significantly derogated) proof in New York courts — would also have been controversial. The crown’s attorney prosecuting the case felt obliged to go out of his way to justify to the jury the unsworn testimony of “Pagan Negroes” on the grounds that without such, “the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity.” But pagan or no, both Sandy (a minor) and Fortune were also men who were suspect in the plot. Perhaps as black slaves their king’s evidence could not be as strong as that of the white servant Mary Burton — but it might still be strong enough to save their lives. Sandy spent a week in the dungeon amid his alleged confederates, after which he was hauled before the grand jury and leaned upon until he cracked.
They told him, if he would speak the Truth, the Governor would pardon him, though he had been concerned in them; and this was the Time for him to save his Life by making a free and ingenuous Confession; or in Words to this Purpose. He answered, That the Time before after that the Negroes told all they knew, then the white People hanged them. The Grand Jury assured him, that it was false; for that the Negroes which confessed the Truth and made a Discovery, were certainly pardoned, and shipped off: [which was the Truth] And upon this Assurance he began to open, and gave the following Evidence.
Quack, Sandy said, had solicited Sandy to help him burn down Fort George — and Cuffee “said, D–m him, that hang him or burn him, he would set fire to the Town.” Fortune was among the numerous other names he named — whose “Design was to kill all the Gentlemen, and take their Wives, and that Quack and Cuffee were particular Persons that talked so.”
Strangely, before they suffered at the stake Cuffee and Quack were suffered to conduct a hopeless defense of their own — “indulged with the same Kind of Trial as is due to Freemen, though they might have been proceeded against in a more summary and less favourable Way,” in the crown’s summing-up. This was more than they were entitled to as slaves, and they used the court’s liberality to summon ten witnesses in an attempt to establish good character and alibi; notably, Quack’s owner John Roosevelt avowed that “Quack was employed most Part of that Morning the Fort was fired, from the Time they got up, in cutting away the Ice out of the Yard; that he was hardly ever out of their Sight all that Morning, but a small Time while they were at Breakfast; and that they could not think he could that Morning have been [from] their House so far as the Fort.” But even from a white property owner, these words were far too little against a consensus that had been shaped seemingly from the belly of the conspiracy — from Mary Burton’s evidence and Arthur Price’s evidence and Sandy’s and Fortune’s evidence: that Quack’s were the hands that set the most damaging fire in the arson campaign, and that Cuffee’s, along with Caesar’s and Prince’s, were the hands that directed him.
Their condemnation was a mere formality, albeit one whose rhetorical opportunities the court did not mean to neglect.
You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet you are all far, very far, from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.
I know not which is the more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy; for as to any view of liberty or government you could propose to yourselves, upon the success of burning the city, robbing, butchering, and destroying the inhabitants; what could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction? And as the wickedness of it, you might well have reflected, you that have sense, that there is a God above, who has always a clear view of all your actions, who sees into the utmost recesses of the heart, and knoweth all your thoughts; shall he not, do ye think, for all this bring you into judgment, at that final and great day of account, the day of judgment, when the most secret treachery will be disclosed, and laid open to the view, and everyone will be rewarded according to their deeds, and their use of that degree of reason which God Almighty has entrusted them with.
Ye that were for destroying us without mercy, ye abject wretches, the outcasts of the nations of the earth, are treated here with tenderness and humanity; and, I wish I could not say, with too great indulgence also; for you have grown wanton with excess of liberty, and your idleness has proved your ruin, having given you the opportunities of forming this villainous and detestable conspiracy; a scheme compounded of the blackest and foulest vices, treachery, blood-thirstiness, and ingratitude. But be not deceived, God Almighty only can and will proportion punishments to men’s offences; ye that have shewn no mercy here, and have been for destroying all about ye, and involving them in one general massacre and ruin, what hopes can ye have of mercy in the other world? For shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Let me in compassion advise ye then; there are but a few moments between ye and eternity; ye ought therefore seriously to lay to heart these things; earnestly and sorrowfully to bewail your monstrous and crying sins, in this your extremity; and if ye would reasonably entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, ye must shew mercy here yourselves, and make what amends ye can before ye leave us, for the mischief you have already done, by preventing any more being done. Do not flatter yourselves, for the same measure which you give us here, will be measured to you again in the other world; ye must confess your whole guilt, as to the offences of which ye stand convicted, and for which ye will presently receive judgment; ye must discover the whole scene of iniquity which has been contrived in this monstrous confederacy, the chief authors and actors, and all and every the parties concerned, aiding and assisting therein, that by your means a full stop may be put to this horrible and devilish undertaking. And these are the only means left ye to shew mercy; and the only reasonable ground ye can go upon, to entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, before whose judgment seat ye are so soon to appear.
Ye cannot be so stupid, surely, as to imagine, that when ye leave this world, when your souls put off these bodies of clay, ye shall become like the beasts that perish, that your spirits shall only vanish into the soft air and cease to be. No, your souls are immortal, they will live forever, either to be eternally happy, or eternally miserable in the other world, where you are now going.
If ye sincerely and in earnest repent you of your abominable sins, and implore the divine assistance at this critical juncture, in working out the great and momentous article of the salvation of your souls; upon your making all the amends, and giving all the satisfaction which is in each of your powers, by a full and complete discovery of the conspiracy, and of the several persons concerned in it, as I have observed to ye before, then and only upon these conditions can ye reasonably expect mercy at the hands of God Almighty for your poor, wretched and miserable souls.
Here ye must have justice, for the justice of human laws has at length overtaken ye, and we ought to be very thankful, and esteem it a most merciful and wondrous act of Providence, that your treacheries and villainies have been discovered; that your plot and contrivances, your hidden works of darkness have been brought to light, and stopped in their career; that in the same net which you have hid so privly for others your own feet are taken: that the same mischief which you have contrived for others, and have in part executed, is at length fallen upon your own pates, whereby the sentence which I am now to pronounce will be justified against ye; which is,
That you and each of you be carried from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you and each of you shall be chained to a stake, and burnt to death; and the lord have mercy upon your poor, wretched souls.
That sentence came down on May 29.
It was implemented the very next day, amid a mob scene.
With Quack and Cuffee staked to their pyres, they were harried to admit the plot with the promise of a reprieve from their horrible sentence. Even if mercy would only amount to moderating death by burning into death by hanging, it would be well worth having — and the frightened slaves grasped at the small succor left them.
The spectators at this execution were very numerous; about three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder. The criminals shewed great terror in their countenances, and looked as if they would gladly have discovered all they knew of this accursed scheme, could they have had any encouragement to hope for a reprieve. But as the case was, they might flatter themselves with hopes: they both seemed inclinable to make some confession; the only difficulty between them at last being, who should speak first. Mr. Moore, the deputy secretary, undertook singly to examine them both, endeavoring to persuade them to confess their guilt, and all they knew of the matter, without effect; till at length Mr. Roosevelt [Quack’s owner, who testified for his alibi -ed.] came up to him, and said he would undertake Quack, whilst Mr. Moore examined Cuffee; but before they could proceed to the purpose, each of them was obliged to flatter his respective criminal that his fellow sufferer had begun, which stratagem prevailed: Mr. Roosevelt stuck to Quack altogether, and Mr. Moore took Cuff’s confession, and sometimes also minutes of what each said; and afterwards upon drawing up their confessions in form from their minutes, they therefore intermixed what came from each.
Thus induced by prevaricating confessors amid a mob baying for their blood, both Quack and Cuffee implicated Hughson as the originator of the plot, and themselves as early principals, and named a good many others besides. (Quack also at last claimed responsibility for firing Fort George, as the court had found.)
But the quid for their quo was not the promised abatement of their sufferings. As Sandy had worried to the grand jury in a different context, white men’s reassurances to slave rebels whom they meant to destroy could prove … unreliable.
After the confessions were minuted down (which were taken in the midst of great noise and confusion) Mr. Moore desired the sheriff to delay the execution until the governor be acquainted therewith, and his pleasure known touching their reprieve; which, could it have been effected, it was thought might have been means of producing great discoveries; but from the disposition observed in the spectators, it was much to be apprehended, there would have been great difficulty, if not danger in an attempt to take the criminals back. All this was represented to his honour; and before Mr. Moore could return from him to the place of execution, he met the sheriff upon the common, who declared his opinion, that the carrying the negroes back would be impracticable; and if that was his honour’s order it could not be attempted without a strong guard, which could not be got time enough; and his honour’s directions for the reprieve being conditional and discretionary, for these reasons the execution proceeded.
* For contrasting perspectives, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present this as a real instance of working-class rebellion in The Many-Headed Hydra, while Jill LePore’s New York Burning approaches it as mostly a concoction.
We meet these men, as we often do in this period, through the cheap hang-day publications that were hurried to press to sell for the occasion, and since in this instance we have two such brochures for the same event, it is a handy occasion to turn our gaze upon these ubiquitous ephemera.
Then as now, publishing was a perilous hustle forever beckoning its practitioners to shady expedients further to enhancing narrow margins.
Public executions — especially those of particularly notorious offenders — were pretty much the clickbait of broadside printers, and this one weird trick they could resort to was hawking rival pages each purporting to be the “last words and confession” of the poor sap on the gallows. Competition for access to a condemned fellow was intense, and where there could be the least question as to authenticity (for formulaic plausibilities could easily be hung around the handful of publicly discoverable facts) printers made free to use these solemn partings to take astonishingly vituperative shots at their commercial rivals* — a sure irreverence entirely in keeping with the carnivalesque orgies for which public hangings became infamous. Here a huckster whose main purpose is to use a dying man’s last passion to retaliate a rival scribbler’s previous libel, there a future gallows-bird relieving a gawker’s pocket of the penny he meant to waste on the tabloid.
Well might we latter-day ghouls thank these unprincipled pushers: their scandalous documents, be they ever so compromised and artless, constitute a rare and precious glimpse into the criminal class of the early modern world.
We are indebted in this instance to James Kelly’s fascinating Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland, a book we have previously cited, for the two rival, contradictory, and mutually recriminatory broadsides recounting this execution. As Kelly’s own introduction notes, the mere existence of multiple competing reports — which we here humbly present for the reader’s discretion — does underscore “that public demand could sustain this volume of publication in individual instances.” And that fact alone would surely make the list of 26 secrets to make it as a printer in the the 18th century.
The True Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of
Mr. James Stevens and Account of Patrick Barnwell
who are to be executed at St. Stephen’s Green, on Wednesday the 25th Inst. May, 1726, being condemn’d for feloniously taking from Mr. Philip Kennersly of Dame-street, a Glas-case, Value 50l.
If it were not usual for Men of every Degree, in my unfortunate Circumstances to make a Kind of Declaration at their Death of their past Behaviour, I shou’d not, as at this Day, nor even should the above mention’d Considerations move me to make this, my Only and Last, were I not sensible of the many Villanous [sic] Falsities, which might be publish’d concerning my unhappy Fate, by Persons of the vilest Characters themselves; such as one Hoy in Pembroke-Court, who publish’d a scandalous and wicked Paper on the last poor Wretches that suffer’d, under the name of G.F. or George Faulkner, a Person known to have no Being in this Kingdom, this long Time past, altho’ make his Tool and Screen for scandalizing the Chiefest of our Just and Good Governours, as vilely as the poor undone Wretches: Beside him, there is another as notorious for the like Villainy, living at the Rein Deer in Montrath-Street, unworthy, and noted for the above named wicked Practice. On these Considerations only, then I say, I the unhappy and unfortunate James Stephens, have thought fit to tender to Richard Dickson of Dame Street, Printer, THIS, for Publication, as he thinks proper.
FIRST, Then, since I see it is the Will of the most High God, whose Name be for ever Blessed, That in this World I should be brought from my Former happy, to this Wretched state, I submit, beseching [sic] humbly for his most Gracious mercy and Forgiveness for my manifold Transgressions in the Follies of my youth, and misspent Time, which began in the City of London, where I first Drew my Breath, being an entire Stranger here, of Creditable and Honest Parents, who Bred me Tenderly and well, till I was able to go Apprentice, which Time I serv’d to an Image-maker, after I had done with him, I Work’d for my self, and growing worth money, after I had spent some of my untainted Youth, in the Service abroad, belonging to the Ordnance, I set up to keep Hire-Horses, for the Court, in Nature of the great Mr. Blount, in the Parish of St. James, having Licenc’d coaches, and dealing for upwards of 500l, a year, till many Misfortunes comming [sic] on me, I was oblidg’d to leave my Native Country, and on a Woful [sic] Day, I came for Ireland with some small matter of Money, about a year since, where I follow’d making Images, till I came acquainted with the vile Woman Eleanour Fenly, who to save her Life at Tryal falsly [sic] said she was my Wife, Poverty forceing me to keep first with her, she pretending to have Friends who would make my Fortune, which alas! they have, it being her Brother, Fernando Fenly, and his Accomplice who swore my Life away, in declaring That about the 25th of March, last I have a Box of Goods, which were Mr. Kennersly’s, afterwards found in his Custody, and that I paid him 2 Shillings for carryage from the Sun Inn, in Francis Street, to Ross, which I vow all False, nor was I e’er Guilty of what was sworn, tho’ for it I must dye, having no Friend to appear for me, yet with the Constancy of a Christian who can accuse himself, of no great Crimes I go to meet my Fate, Dying in Charity with the World.
But this I further for my Innocency declare, I ne’er had Intention to rob Mr. Kennersly, nor e’er sold any of his Goods, but going into the Country with the Aforemention’d Eleanor Fenly to her Brother’s in Loghreagh, where he lives well; she came in Company with one Byrn, a Fellow [I] did not like and who resolv’d I suppose to do us an Injury, upon which I quarrel’d, and happening to be damag’d by some People in Caterlogh. I resolv’d to get Justice of which, being by ‘em suspected, they got me apprehended on Suspicion of an idle Person, and Nell Fenly getting some Toys to sell there, she was discover’d at that time, on which her Brother made the Examination aforesaid, against me, which caused me to be transmitted and tryed upon it, to save his own Life; she as I before said, escaping by alledging she was my Wife &c. I may likewise add, that had not my Fellow Sufferer hop’d to have sav’d his Life, he cou’d have clear’d me, for which I pray God forgive him, And now Dear Christians, I have nought to say, but heartily beg that some of you, who shall see me dye, out of mere Pity to my unhappy State, (an entire and poor Stranger) will cover me with Earth, an Hindrance to those Men whose Business it is, to keep forlorn Wretches from their Graves, for private Practice o’er their mangled Bodies. I now conclude begging your Prayers to God for my Forgiveness, being about 37 Years of Age, A Protestant Member of the Church of England.
PATRICK BARNEL Who is to dye with Mr. Stephens, on the Persuasion of some Friends has declin’d making further Confession, than to his Ghostly Father, which he desires so might be forth, lest any imprudent Person should pretend he had made any Speech, giving no further Account of himself, than that he was pritty [sic] well educated, and when young, that he serv’d Major Arthur, to whom he owns great obligation, that after he left him, he went to serve a Weaver, whose Business he after, follow’d, dating his Misfortunes to begin in being concern’d in Mr. Kenerslys Robbery; to whom he afterwards gave up several Things in hopes to save his Life. He Dies a Roman Catholick, begging the Prayers of All good Christians.
Mr. Gray having by Gracious Mercy, obtained a Reprieve, ’tis hop’d no notice will be taken of the absurd Pieces, design’d and publish’d, by the said Hoy in Pembroke Court, or under any feign’d Name whatever, which is notoriously known to be intended by Hoy, who surely will cheat the Publick with some scandalous and lying Paper, intitled a Speech to the abovenamed unfortunate Men, in prejudice and defamation to the Printer hereof, who unwittingly gall’d hiim, in saying th’other Day, He look’d like Death, when a Person affirm’d to his Face, in the open street, he said he was a MOLLY, (term well known for Sodomite) a charge so bold, that it might be wished, before he strives to taint another’s, he’d clear his own Character, from that Aspersion, if so it may be term’d.
Printed by Richard Dickson, and Gwyn Needham in Dames-Street.
The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words, of
Patrick Barnel, and James Stephens
who are to be executed at St. Stephens Green, this present Wednesday, the 25th of this Inst. May, 1726. For the Robbery of Mr. Kinnersly in Dames-Street.
The Speech of James Stephens.
I James Stephens, was born at Cheswick, about five Miles from London: my Parents put me to a free School to learn to write, where I had the Character of an unlucky Boy. At 14 Years of Age, I was entertained by the celebrated Jonathan Wilde, under whom I arrived to such Dexterity in Picking Pockets and Impudence in bare-fac’d Robberies, that I robb’d on a Play Night in Drury Lane Edward Martin, Esq, of 75 Guineas and a Gold Watch. My honest Master for the sake of a Reward of ten Pounds for the Discovery of the Persons who committed the Robbery, made Oath that I was the Person.
But I having Timely notice of it, fled to France, where I with some others Rob’d and Murder’d Mr. Lock, and the English Gentlemen in his Company, then I took Shipping at Calais, and landed at Cork, where Information in a little Time was given against Me, for several Robberies; this obliged me to come to Dublin, where I most impudently perform’d that unparalleled Roguery of Stealing a Glass Case with Rings, Silver Spoons, Snuff-Boxes, &c. to the Value of Seventy Pounds from Mr. Kinnersly Goldsmith in Dame Street. I heartily and sincerely repent of my horrid Crimes, and desire the Prayers of all my Fellow Christians. I dye an unworthy Member of the Church of England.
The Speech of PATRICK BARNWELL
Good Cristians, [sic]
I Patrick Barnel was born in the County of Dublin of Poor, but Honest Parents; their mean Circumstances was in a great Measure, the Cause of my Present Misfortune, for they could not give me any Education, and I was often obliged to take away from the little Children of the same Town their Victuals to satisfie my Hunger, when I was a Boy, I stole several little Things, and escaped without Punishment.
I was induced to commit great Rogueries; I became acquainted with a Gang of Tories who kept their Rendevouz [sic] in the County of Kerry with whom I committed such Cruel and Barbarous Actions, that we were all Obliged to disperse and shift every one for himself, it was my Fate to come to this City where I had not been above Six Months, before I introduced into the Company of my ellow-Sufferer, who was the Head of a Gang of about a Dozen, having no Manner of Subsisting myself.
I committed several petty Thefts with him and others, and at last that most notorious one for which I now die, I cannot deny that I am guilty, but having a true sence of my Crimes, I repent of them, and I desire your Prayers for my soul, I die a Member of the Church of Rome in which I was bred, and the Lord have mercy on my poor Soul.
N.B. On Sunday last, one Dickson a Printer who publishes Papers under the Name of G Needham, came to us in Newgate, and we not thinking him a proper Person to make any thing publick from us. We desire the publick be aware buying any Speech of ours from him, for whatever is printed by him is an Imposition of the Town, and can only be excused by his saying, He is a poor Boy, and must endeavour to better his miserable Circumstances, and maintain himself and his little Family. He had already advertised, that he has the Speech of one who is not to die.
Dublin: Printed by G.F. in Castle Street.
* The emoluments available for intermediating the sentiments of the hanged become quite obvious through the lucrative quasi-monopoly the Ordinary of Newgate was able to establish around his privileged access to London’s condemned.
The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.
The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Peggy Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.
Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.
This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!
They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.
And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.
Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.
This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.
Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,
1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.
2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had heard them (the negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the fly and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
3. “That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.
4. “That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.
6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, that when they set fire to the town, they would do it in the night, and as the white people came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.
8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.
9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”
This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.
By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.
Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.
The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.
I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.
And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.
The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.
MONDAY, MAY 11
Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.
These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.
* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.
** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.
† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.
Colonial counterfeiter Owen Syllavan (Sullivan) was executed in New York on this date in 1756.
An Irish runaway, Syllavan followed an indenture to the North American colonies and wound up enlisted in the army during the French and Indian War. As a militia armorer, he picked up the smithing skills with which he would later turn out plates to to clone the colonies’ bills of exchange.
On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.
That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.
Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800
Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)
The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.
On this date in 1791, a man named William Jones hanged in Newark, N.J.
Jones cut an apologetic figure at his public execution, and a confession he signed off in the hours before was widely reprinted in New England newspapers. (This transcription is from the Boston Independent Chronicle of May 26, 1791.)
Knowing that without repentance there can be no salvation, and without a sincere confession of our public transgressions, there can be no true repentance, therefore I would give glory to God, exonerate and ease my own wretched mind; and as far as possible, afford that satisfaction to the public, by confessing my crimes, that others may take warning by my awful but just end, and be preserved from such horrid iniquities. This is the only reparation I can make to society, for the evil I have done, for which I am righteously, in the midst of my days, cut off from among men.
I confess I have been exceedingly wicked from my youth. I have been habitually addicted to Sabbath breaking, swearing, keeping evil company, gaming, drinking to excess; and when in liquor, passionate and quarrelsome, and have indulged myself to a high degree in other base and horrid abominations.
But the crime for which I am now to die, I would, with the greatest exactness relate. — I solemnly declare, I never intended to kill Mr. Shotwell, nor had I, at any time, as far as I know, murderous intentions in my heart against him, yet, I was the unfortunate man, that, to gratify my wicked passions, was the occasion of his death. I had long had a spite against Shotwell, because I looked upon it, that he & another man had injured me much, and were the cause of my being obliged to settle a civil prosecution, commenced against me, greatly to my wrong. Therefore I had often said, I would whip, beat or flog Shotwell, but as I never had a thought in my heart to murder him; as a dying man, I never said, I would kill him.
On the evening of Friday the 1st day of April, about or a little after sun down, I saw Samuel Shotwell pass my mother’s house driving cattle or a pair of oxen. In sometime, afterwards, I arose, went out into the road, and followed after him. I met Letts and stopped and talked with him for some minutes perhaps six or eight; then we parted and I followed after Shotwell. I crossed the fence in order to cut off a crook in the road and re-crossed the fence into the road still behind him. About three quarters of a mile from where I had seen Letts, I overtook Shotwell, and, without speaking a word to him, or he to me, I knocked him down with my fist, and there kicked him in the face and head, having on a pair of strong heavy shoes. I then passed the fence into the field opposite to where Shotwell lay. In a short time I saw him rise and go on the road, and I went along in the field. I had thoughts of going to a certain house, at no great distance before us, but before I came to the house, I altered my purpose, and so passed the fence into the road before Shotwell and going back along the way, I presently met him. I knocked him down again with my first, and again kicked him, and left him, and went on the road home. After sitting by the fire a little while, I went to bed, but was very uneasy lest I had beat Shotwell too much.
With regard to the club, of which much was said in the course of my trial, I never had it in my hand, nor did I ever see it, till the next day at the Coroner’s inquest. It was not the weapon I made use of nor had I any weapon whatsoever; but by knocking down Shotwell and kicking him in the manner related, I was the unhappy cause of his death.
I leave this testimony and confession, that my awful conduct may be a warning to others, that they by my dreadful fate, may be admonished to refrain from evil company, and from allowing themselves in drunkenness, wrath, malice or intemperate passions. My wickedness has brought me to this just and awful doom. May all others hear and fear!
A sad end for Messrs. Jones and Shotwell both; readers of the 21st century as well as the 18th ought to hear and fear.
But to the end of this awful but uncomplicated tragedy, we have this curious broadsheet published later in 1791.
What to make of this artifact?
One notices at first blush that as the document was printed in broadsheet form, it was presumably intended for the enrichment of its publisher … and we might suppose treacherous albeit not unpassable footing on the route from anyone actually party to such an occult missive in real life to a hustler harvesting gawkers’ pennies on the incredible secret. Indeed, it would be a profoundly ill turn for Jones or his correspondent, for no better reason than a gloat, to expose the physician of his deliverance to the sanctions that might attend unmasking. If this pamphlet’s remarkable claims were recapitulated in any other media at the time, I have not been able to locate it.
Even presuming that we have a sensational forgery, our bulletin does have something to say to us yet, and not only about the evergreen human fascination with surviving an execution.
This is a document from the Enlightenment, an interval where the vaunting progress of human ingenuity designed even to steal a march from the reaper himself by reviving the drowned or reanimating the dead.
Hangings weresurvivedsometimes — not commonly, but often enough that the phenomenon was familiar and occasionally the enterprising condemned even schemed to accomplish it intentionally. Such a scenario necessarily inspired artists, whose fabulisms would only have reflected the fancies of their audiences. The scaffold was already being given over routinely as the portal to spiritual escape for the penitent knave crushed by his sin … why not the escapism of the flesh, too?
Maybe our broadsheet publishers took inspiration from the fantastic story a couple of years prior of a different man living through his hanging in Massachusetts. Though that earlier tale was perhaps more overtly crafted for moral instruction, the particulars of the harrowing procedure are much the same: the assistance of an obligingly altruistic doctor, the agonizing pain of resuscitation, and the convenient vanishing into unverifiable distant anonymity. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne would allude via a minor character in The Blithesdale Romance to the legend that an English banker executed in the 1820s had duped the hangman — and not unlike our William Johnson, Hawthorne judged that living phantom and his stolen years “a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, … [who] seemed to leave no vacancy.”
On this date in 1770, the King of Yorkshire counterfeiters hanged (along with one of his subjects) at York’s Tyburn gallows.
Hartley was the chief of a band of currency manipulators who achieved surprising success and longevity operating from the haunting moors of England’s north.* Known (in order of least to greatest geographical specificity) as the Yokrshire, or West Riding, or Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was a straightforward shaving precious metal from coins but found its edge — so to speak — in their lair’s remoteness from the capital.
Illustration of the coining tools for Portuguese money seized from King David’s band, from The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783. (Portuguese coins, a Cragg Vale specialty, were in active and legal circulation in England at this time, along with other continental coinage.)
According to this public domain volume about the criminals, the first recognition of their activities by law enforcement occurred in 1767, when a coin-clipper named Greenwood “confessed who learnt him the art of clipping in your neighbourhood” — which makes it sound like those artists were already both numerous and practiced. The next year, a man named Joseph Stell hanged for the crime, but the Leeds Intelligencer editorialized in 1769 against “the number of Sweaters and Filers of Gold coin [who] still continue to infest the Western part of this County with impunity” because “if they are suffered to go on a few years in this public and daring manner, it is supposed the current gold coin of the nation in general will be reduced a fifth part.” (A parliamentary inquiry in 1773 found that the overall weight of the country’s coinage came up a full 9% short of its face value: certainly not entirely the work of Cragg Vale, but an alarming state of affairs.)
The business had an undeniable appeal despite the occupational hazard of the gallows. With England awash in the whole world’s specie as the dominant mercantile power, the West Riding became a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs. It’s thought their number might have ranged into the hundreds.
Gold Coin, which has heretofore been so scarce among us as to command a large Premium against Bills of Exchange, flows in upon us with great Rapidity from all parts of the Island; and by the Hocus Pocus Touch of a Number of experimental Philosophers and Chymists (not by an addition to its weight, but by an ingenious Multiplication of its Numbers) is so greatly increased, that all Payments in Paper will soon be at an end … [they] are in a fair Way of drawing Half the Gold in the two Kingdoms into this happy Country … If you wish to be rich, and can sacrifice a few nonsensical Scruples to that Deity, make haste hither, and you may soon be instructed in these Mysteries, which, (with great Ease and Pleasure) will enable you to convert a thousand of your old-fashioned Guineas into Twelve Hundred, and, with a moderate Industry, to repeat the Process every Week.
-Letter from Halifax, July 14, 1769
This letter reflects an alarming situation: not merely the extent of the operation but the degree to which it had become normalized, winked-at, and even integrated into Yorkshire’s economic circuits. “It had become a common practice of the moneyed people — the merchant and manufacturers of the Parish of Halifax — and of those by which that Parish was surrounded, comprising a large portion of the West Riding of the County of York, to carry on a somewhat lucrative business with the Coiners,” one observer wrote. “The central body, if such it may be called, with, for a time, ‘King David’ at its head, was constituted into a kind of Banking Company, with whom certain capitalists deposited large amounts in the shape of guineas.” After all, this bank could offer steady guarantees of investment return.
But bubbles are blown for the bursting, and however many Yorkshiremen had been looking the other way while chymists multiplied guineas, it was about this time that officers of the law started putting the screws to the Yorkshire coiners. (Needless to say, the illicit bank’s merchant customers weren’t handled quite the same way.)
Confrontation came into the open with the 1769 arrests of our man David Hartley (nicknamed “King” for self-evident reasons) and at least a half-dozen others. York Castle’s bowels began to fill up with coiners and collaborators, courtesy of a crown excise officer named William Dighton (or Deighton). Dighton bgan rolling up the gang in a very modern way: starting with bribes to obtain informants and then using their information to smash through the cells.
But so vaunting were the Yorkshire coiners that David Hartley’s brother Isaac put up a £100 reward for the murder of William Dighton — and two guys duly ambushed him in a dark lane in Halifax in November 1769 and shot Dighton dead. This gambit by Isaac was much more loyal than it was wise, for the effrontery to murder an agent of the state invited a ferocious counterattack. (It also didn’t help David Hartley in the least: there was no plan to break him out, only vindictiveness against his persecutor.) the Marquess of Rockingham — the once (1765-66) and future (1782) Prime Minister — was dispatched to the scene to avenge the murdered Dighton, and had 30 coiners in custody by Christmas.
The coiners were done shooting back by this point, and the remaining tales form a tissue of outlaw desperation — flight from manhunts, maneuvering to mitigate death sentences, informing on one another. (Its particulars, and the evidence marshaled against various coiners, can be read in detail at the public domain history already cited.) David Hartley was brought up on capital charges at the next assizes;** his former comrades, including the assassins of Dighton, were hunted to ground. Soon, such counterfeiters as might still be found were reduced to their customary posture, in hidey-holes leaching a few dank groats from the neglected plumbing under the economy, rather than as retail concerns with banking ledgers and armed toughs.
But they left countless others besides — passive co-conspirators, whose wealth their shaving and filing had enlarged and who like King Charles‘s regicides could never fully be brought to book. And they’re not done to this very day: a coiners’ museum is reportedly in the works to capture a few tourist dollars, too.
** Death sentences came down liberally at the assizes, but were (almost) as liberally reprieved — including, for the instance at hand, all of the following: “Thomas Harrison and Benjamin Smith, for Burglary; Benjamin Parkinson, for returning from Transportation; Richard Whitfield, for stealing Linen Cloth from a Bleaching Field; William Dalby, and Robert Moor, alias William Moor, for Horse-stealing; William Owen, George Carr, and John Tunningly, for Cow-stealing; and Robert Allerton, for Sheep-stealing.” (London Public Advertiser, April 13, 1770.)
Infamous Swedish murderer Maria Romberg and three accomplices were beheaded in the city of Boras on this date in 1725.
Romberg (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) was the daughter of a magistrate in that town and given in an arranged marriage to a merchant 27 years her senior. Anders Boberg was said to be an abusive drunk; it’s a sure bet that even at his best he had quite a bit less in common with his wife than did her childhood friend Haqvin Wijndruf. These two carried on a years-long affair heedless of appearances; when later implicated in murder, numerous servants and confidantes were availiable to paint the adulterers in scarlet, as did the 500-odd love letters that they had helped the pair shuttle back and forth.
By December 1724, Maria and Haqvin had been trying for going on two years to get rid of the sot. Once again evincing a mind-boggling want of discretion, they had enlisted two other outsiders into the plot: a maid named Karin Andersdotter, and a folk magician named Romans Ingeborg (who was initially hired to bewitch Haqvin to his death, but got to stay in the game even when her sorcery proved unequal to assassination).
Three days after Christmas, the three women in the conspiracy — Maria, Karin, and Romans — simply crept into Anders’s bedroom and battered him to death as he slept, afterwards positioning the body in an attempt to make it look like he had simply fallen near the fireplace and cracked open his head.
Forensic science wasn’t exactly CSI quality in the 1720s, but it was good enough to see through that story. The lovers and killers had not the wit or steel to throw up a veil of silence, and at the first cock of an inquisitorial eyebrow, they all started blabbing and pointing fingers.
According to this Swedish blogger, the site where they all lost their heads is a placid hill on a biking path near Lake Ramnasjön.
A (lengthy) gallows broadsheet via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland. Almost all the [bracketed] content is exactly as Kelly has rendered it, interpolating wherever possible damage to the document that obscures small bits of text.
The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Words of Mr. J. Dunbar
who was Try’d and Condemn’d, for High Treason against his Majesty King George; at the Assizes, of Oyer, Terminer, or Goal Delivery, holden, at Carrickfergus, for and in the County of Antrim, the 17th Day of Ma. 1725. And was Executed Saturday, April 10th for the same together with his last Advice to his Children prov’d by Scripture Texts, &c. As it was taken from his own Mouth in the Goal, and desir’d to be Printed.
Into whose Hands those my Dying Words shall come; they may not be look’d upon as a Form, because it is Customary, for unfortunate Persons under my Fate so to do; No, but with a sincere Heart to clear my Conscience, as I am a Dying Man. First to my Creator & Redeemer, by whom and thro’ his great Mercy I hope to merit Salvation.
I JAMES DUNBAR, was born in the Town land of Grogan, in the Parish of Drummal, near Ronaldstown, in the County of Antrim of honest Parents; My Father was a Farmer, Liv’d in the fear of God, attended the Meetings constantly with his Family, doing to the best of his Knowledge as became a Man in his Station; brought up all under his care in the fear and service of God. To this Day I well remember when I was about Eleven years of Age, I had amongst others learned a great Word to swear by my Conscience, and in his hearing, he finding it became practice took an opportunity to Chastize me for it, but with that pleasant Fatherly Correction, that he perfectly sham’d me out of it, the same was so imprinted in my mind, be in what Company soever, I never was any way addicted to that Sin of Swearing to this Day. He taught me the Catechism and Psalm Book; brought me up to the Age of Sixteen, then I stray’d away from him and Listed in the Service, where in Flanders and Ireland I served seven years under King William, in which time I receiv’d three Wounds, during my whole Travels my mind was always bent upon the Genuine part, casting Molds of several sorts, each exceeding the other.
Upon my return I settled, Marry’d a Wife, and got things necessary about me: But in process of time, hearing such a Character of New England, what great Advantage was to be made by those that could carry some Money with them, I resolv’d for that place: In order thereunto I made Sale of all I had, & proceeding forward at Newtown-Stuart chang’d my Mind, which I now dearly repent. Settles again there about three Years. At Leisure times to recreate my self with an Innocent Pleasure I took delight in Fishing; but once too often, for by an unhappy fall, there was a Knife with the point Towards me, stuck into and gave me a Wound six Inches deep, the same I lay by sixteen Weeks. Even upon my Recovery, came three Idle Fellows, knowing me to be an Ingenious Artist, desired me to make them a Crown Molud in Steel for the use of Coyning, I told them in Horn, Brass, Pewter, Silver or Gold I could; but because I had never try’d in Steel I should spoil it, they not fearing told me that I should have twelve pence per Day if I did, not being of Steel as I said, I did notwithstanding they paid me twelve Shillings. Sometime after they came to me again to do the same the which I dextrously Perform’d to a truith, and [for] the same receiv’d forty Shillings; Some of the same 3 [men] have been Executed on that Head since: As for In[stance] David Denniston at Omey the last Assizes. For my [own] part my Genious so far exceeded other Men that I have [no] occasion for help but for Company sake; I ca[n make] Molds and could Perform all that Art requir’d; [but because] the Laws of the Land are so strict I must own an[d confess] myself Guilty of what is laid to my Charge, a[nd I am] willing to resign my Vital Breath and Soul to hi[m, my God,] for the same, in whom I trust thro his great Me[rcy, with] sincere Repentance I have made my Peace, and s[eek out] the ingdom of Heaven, forsaking this Life for [that of the etern]nal. I Die in Charity with all People, freely fo[rgiving] those that was the cause of this my untimely Dea[th and any] others that ever wrong’d me in Thought Word [or Deed] and for all those that I have wrong’d Directly or [Indirectly] I ask Pardon and Forgiveness. First of my Grea[t and Glo]rious GOD, the which I hope to obtain for all [my off]ences; next of them, hoping they will do the s[ame, I] do expect to be forgiven at the latter Day.
My dear Friends and Countrey-Men, and all [people that] hears of my Unhappy Fall to take Warning in t[his; let it] be an Example to all; especially Young People, w[hatever walk] of Life it is the[y] go on in, and to their utmost En[deavour] shun all lewd Company. Besure [sic] first choose the [compa]ny, than their Liquor, and then not to Debauch […] with it, so as to be bereft of Sense; it is the f[irst step to] Destruction. Next to shun all lewd Women, […] Total Overthrow, and nothing but the Works [of the Devil] proceeds from them. Thirdly be not Covetous of […]stance. And fourthly, If the LORD is pleased to [endow us] with a Talent to be more Ingenious than any other [to put] it to that Use that the great Giver of all Design[s ordains.] I leave behind me one Son and three Daughters [; Grant] them Grace to lead their Life and Conversation u[ntroubled be]fore God and Man. I hope there is no Person w[ill put] either upon my Wife or them after my Decease. T[o] all that knew me in my Settlement in the County of Derry; and all others, that knew me else where, what a Value and Esteem all People had for me, for my Ingenuous Performances in that Trade of Horning. How I lived in my Family is well known for many years together, performing the Duty as becometh a Professor or Christian to do, I could inlarge: But let no Man boast in his own Strength least he Fall, they are well kept whom the LORD keeps.
I have laid down some Scripture Proofs to shew the Error of Man, and the Scourage [sic] that attend it, which I hope may prove of some Use after my Decease, as follows
V. 17. Be not a terrour unto me thou art my hope in the Day of evil. V. 18. Let them be confounded that presecute [sic] me, but let not me be confounded. Let them be dismayed bring upon them the day of evil and destroy them with double Destruction.
I will look unto thee O Lord for Deliverance from all my Troubles: For there is no Power like unto thy Power, who delivered thy People from all the Power of Egypt, and with a strong Hand brought them through the Red Sea.
Mat 9.10[-13]. And it came to pass as Jesus sat at Meat in the house behold many Publicans and Sinners came and Sat down with him and his Disciples; And when the Pharisees saw it they said unto his Disciples, Why eateth your Master with Publicans and Sinners. But when Jesus heard that he said unto them, They that be well need not a Physician, but they that are sick. Now go ye and learn what that meanet, I will have Mercy and not Sacrifice; for I am not come to call the righteous, but Sinners to Repentance.
[Some] Advice from a Father to his Children, when he was near to his Death.
[My] Son James Dunbar, I Charge thee in the Name of [the L]ord thy God, that thou keep thy self from the Unlaw[ful, Lewd] Women strong Drink, and Sabbath breaking for [they d]raw away thy Heart from the Lord thy God, & [follow the w]ay of his Commandments.
[Proverbs 5:]3. For the Lips of a strange Woman drop as a Hon[eycomb an]d her Mouth is smoother than Oil. V. 4. But her [end is bitter] as Wormwood, sharp as a two edged sword. V. 5. [Her feet go] down to Death, her steps take hold on Hell. V. 6. [Lest thou sh]ouldest ponder the path of Life, her ways are move[able th]ou canst not know them. V. 7. Hear me therefore, [o sons], and depart not from the Words of my Mouth re[move thy way] far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house.
[Keep thy]self from all Woman kind, except thy own [wife (if] you live to have one) for that Unlawful Use of [them an]d strong Drink hath been the Ruin of me, and [others], and so it will be of thee and thine, if ever thou [follow that pr]actice.
[Hear m]e my dear Children, hear the Instruction of your [dying Fa]ther, from the Word of God, receive them and [take them dee]p in your Hears [sic], for they will be an Ornament […] to your Hands, and Chains of Gold about your [wais]t as They will render you Beautiful and Accept[able to Go]d and good Men. When you are in Trouble, God [hears y]our Cries when ye pray unto him, and will deliv[er you ou]t of all your Distresses, if you be not in the wrong; [These a]re the Troubles that Afflict the Just but the [good be]ereth them out of them all. My dear children, [let your e]yes be fixed on the Lord your God in all your [actions;] if you offend in one you are guilty of all; there[fore keep e]qual Regard and Respect to them all, and when [you have d]one all that you can, say you are Unprofitable […].
[But] be not Lifted up, nor High in your own Eyes, but fear least ye be Tempted to Sin and God be provoked to cast you down again, as he has justly done to me. Therefore I beseech you for your Saviour’s sake, beware of vain Glory and high Mindedness but Contrarywise of be Humble and Meek and Lowly, and God will lift you up, but if he do not be Content he is well worth the trusting for he is not Unrighteous to forget your Work and Labour of Love for when he seeth you Diligent and Sincere in your Christian Course he will help you with his Blessing in the Work of your Hands and he will encourage you and strengthen your Hearts with the gracious of his Spirit, but if it be his Will to keep you Low and Mean in the World be Content and do not fret nor repine at the Dispensations of God, for that is the way to keep you Low and Mean still, but contrarywise be thankfull, and say with Paul I have learned in whatsoever State or Condition I am therewith to be content. [Philippians 4:11 -ed] For if you be content and have but a Morsel of dry Bread or Herbs you have a good Feast. For Contentment is great gain, Likewise I beseech you my dear children set your Hearts to seek the Lord with all your might.
Thess. 5:16,17. Rejoice evermore Pray without ceasing. V. 18. in every thing give thanks, for this is the Will of God in Christ Jesu,concerning you. V. 19 Quench not the Spirit. V. 20. Dispise not Prophesying. V. 21. Prove all things hold fast that which is good V. 22. Abstain from all appearance of evil, V. 23. And the very God of Peace sanctifie you wholly, and I pray God your whole Soul and Body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ &c.
Consider my Chidlren, these words, Pray without Ceasing. It is not that you should always be upon your Knees at Prayer, but that you shall be always in a Praying Flame of Spirit. But more particularly, dear Children see that ye neglect not to Pray in secret every Morning, and at Night, for that is the Duty of all others. That you may pour foth [sic] your Hearts to God, in the most familiar way without Bashfulness or Confusion, and expect most of the Presence of the Holy Ghost.
Eph. 6 16, [sic: he means Ephesians 6:18] Praying always with all prayer and Supplication in the Spirit and watching thereunto with all Perseverance and Supplication for all Saints.
And now my dear Children, I might have Recommended you to many more Places of Scripture, but I rather Recommend you to the search of the whole Old and New Testment, [sic] which is able to make you Wise unto Salvation.
I humbly beg leave of thee, O Father, of Heaven and Earth, to return thee my hearty thanks, for inspiring an Spirit of Remorse & Pity, into the Hearts and Minds of those Learned Gentlemen the Clergy of the Presbytery of the Town of Belfast &c. Who was pleas’d to remember me in their publick Service, joyn’d with their Congregations, on Sunday last. Humbly rendering their Prayers to thee O GOD to have Mercy on me, a poor lost Soul, without thy help; hoping thou was pleas’d to hear the same, and that I may find the Sweetness, Joy and Comfort of it, at this my Sudden Departure; altho’ I was no ways deserving of such a Compassionate Christian Favour, being a fallen Member and Transgressor of the same; That they will be pleased to receive this as in obedience of thanks Paid to them as true Professors obedient to God’s Holy Word, and Teachers of the same; and all those that joyn’d with them in that Charitable Act.
Also those Worthy Gentlemen of the Church of England, who hath since offered up their Prayers for me.
My time is spent my Glass is run, sweet Saviour open thy Arms of Mercy, for unto thee I come. O Lord, shut not thy Gate against me stretch forth thy Almighty Hand, and take me to thy self and let not SATAN have Power over me; now I launch into Eternity in full Hopes of Assurance to be with thee in thy Heavenly Kingdom, there to remain with thee and thy holy Angels, World without end.
I Die in the Presbyterian Communion, and upwards of Fifty Years of Age.
Have Mercy on me O LORD sweet JESUS I COME. I COME, Mercy I crave at this my last Minute, Grant it for thy dear Son’s sake Amen.
On this date in 1721, six men hanged at Tyburn. One, John Cobige, was condemned for highway robbery. The other five were all sent to the gallows for returning from convict transportation.
Although forms of penal transportation dated back as much as a century before this time, 1721 was early years for the regime of systematically shipping convicted criminals to the New World.* The enabling legislation had been implemented only three years before.
Convict transportation allowed condemned prisoners’ death sentences to be remitted for labor service in the British colonies, typically 14 years. One could argue that this second chance at life was a mercy, even if the convicts themselves didn’t always see it that way.
But there was a distinct second category of transported convicts, besides the death-sentenced ones: petty crooks, whose crimes were not capital, who now could be directly sentenced to transportation for a term of 7 years. This was an essential innovation of the Transportation Act, one begged after by London magistrates who perceived a crime wave in the 1710s and wanted tougher measures to purge even minor criminals from the city.
In effect it was an interval of civic death, enforced by the threat of bodily death; its design bears some resemblance to the condition of prisoners in Thomas More‘s Utopia. Returning to England before the full term meant the noose — for both classes of transported convicts, including those whose initial crime was so petty that it didn’t merit execution even in Bloody Code England. This circumstance describes four of the Tyburn hangings on the third of April, 1721:
Of our date’s group, only John Filewood, who had posed as a porter to steal a valuable portmanteau, slashing its owner’s hand in the process, had received an initial death sentence commuted to transportation.
The prospect that a body could be shipped to the New World’s frontier for indentured labor over a handkerchief and executed for the “crime” of returning to hearth and home naturally chafed at the sense of justice. In 1721, the whole convict transportation arrangement was still so new that nobody had become inured to the horror of it. It’s plain from the sermon the Ordinary preached at them that the prisoners in question took their fates quite hard.
I took Occasion to mention to the Malefactors, the Returning from Transportation, which not one of them could be made to believe was sinful. I endeavour’d, to the best of my Capacity, to convince them that they were not faultless and unblameable in the following Manner: If the disobeying the higher Powers, even every Ordinance of Man, be sinful, as forbidden, (1 Pet. 2. 13, 14, and 17, &c.) Then their particular Offence, which is disobeying the Orninence of Man, must be forbidden in Scripture and be sinful.
Another way, that it may be shown is thus. Not only Robbing and Stealing, but whatsoever else is detrimental to the Society we are Members of, is a Sin: Now this particular Action is detrimental to the Nation, (both in the Practice, and also in the Example); and therefore is sinful.
I told them, if they could not be convinc’d that they had sinned, because they were possest of the Notion that the Legislative Power was in this particular too severe; they might read, 1 Pet. 2. 18. Be subject to your Masters, not only to the Gentle, but also to the Froward: But that this was not their Case.
Struggling to supercharge their repentance, the Ordinary arranged to have his resentful charges “carry’d constantly to the Chapel” — twice a day. But
they could not be convinc’d they had done any Harm in Returning from Transportation, [and] scarce any one of them could believe he should dye for it. Henry Woodford in particular undertook (as he had declared in Chapel he would) to demonstrate to me, That the returning to his Wife and young Children, in order to keep them from Starving in his Absence, was so far from being a Crime, that it was his Duty so to act; and that no Law could disingage him, or any thing but Death, from the great Duty of providing for his Family.
Out of all the doomed, Henry “seem’d most to resent his Dying” and complained that they ought better to have been overtly sold as slaves if this was their condition.
Still other terrors stalked these men. The highwayman Cobige, who at age 50 was the only one among them not in the spring of youth, “was in very great Passions of Grief some Days before his Death, because his second Wife, as he told me, was gone away from his Children.” His hanging would thus orphan a 14-year-old daughter and her three siblings all under 10 years of age. John Filewood, an admitted career criminal, regretted “having brought so much Disgrace to his good Mother and Sister, and not taking Warning at the untimely Death of his Brother, who was taken off much earlier in his Sins.”** And Martin Gray, a 22-year-old illiterate fisherman,
was greatly frighted, least his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death, and had sent his Wife to his Uncle to obtain some Money to prevent it. I cannot mention much of his good Behaviour; but before he died, he seem’d very much concerned; and told me, he had taken all Opportunities to hear his Fellow Prisoners read, and to pray with them; and that he hoped God would take Pity on him, a poor ignorant and foolish Fellow, and not throw him into Hell.