On March 23, 1761, British highwayman Isaac Darkin — “Dumas” by a dashing alias — hanged at Oxford for robbery.
It might be Darkin’s misfortune to have been born just too late for the mythmaking golden age of highwaymen; a generation or two earlier he might have forged a reputation alongside a Dick Turpin. He was one of the last road agents whose career and genteel pretensions might have suited him for the firmament.
The suave outlaw, noted for his natty attire and correct address, first passed under the shadow of the noose in 1758 around age 18, when a death sentence earned for his first legal brush was respited in favor of conscription into the Seven Years’ War.
Darkin took the deal, but not the troop transport to Antigua: instead he devised a route to early retirement from the infantry by bribing the captain of a merchantman anchored nearby in the Thames to stow him away.
And then, quoth this history of highwaymen, our man “rioted all through the West of England, robbing wealthy travellers and gaily spending his takings on what he loved best: fine clothes and fine ladies. He was so attentive to business that he speedily made a name for himself, the name of a daring votary of the high toby.”
Arrested in Salisbury in 1760 for the famous robbery of a Lord Percival, Darkin beat that charge — but not before becoming a favorite of the city’s ladies who were reported to crowd his cell with callers and coo over him at fashionable tea-times. When “Dumas” escaped the noose on a technicality, some Salisbury women dedicated their enchanting Duval a come-hither ode.
Joy to thee, lovely Thief! that thou
Hast ‘scaped the fatal string,
Let Gallows groan with ugly Rogues,
Dumas mut never swing.
Does thou seek Money? — To thy Wants
Our Purses we’ll resign;
Could we our Hearts to guineas coin
Those guineas all were thine.
To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded Pockets carry;
Thou ne’er again shall tempt the Road,
Sweet youth! if you wilt marry.
No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee — We’ll ensure them:
To us thou shalt consign thy Balls
And Pistol; we’ll secure ‘em.
Yet think not, when the Chains are off,
Which now thy Legs bedeck,
To fly: in Fetters softer far
We’ll chain thee by the Neck.
Alas for its swooning authors, the handsome bandit had no interest in the bonds of matrimony, and just as well — for he would have left his mate a hempen widow.
A mere six weeks after this merry escape, he was snapped up again in Oxford, having returned inevitably to his career and calling.
This time there was no hope of escape and no technicality to hang his hat on.
There was nothing for it but to die “game” — that is, fearless of death — an underworld virtue Darkin carried almost to a fault. He spent his last days “with reading the Beggas’s Opera” and “said it was always his Determination, whenever he should have the ill Fortune to be taken, ‘to suffer without discovering the least Dread of Death; never to betray his Connections, but to die like a Hero.'”*
So indeed he did, as attested by a letter from Oxford published in the London Evening Post (March 21-24 1761) — hurling himself off the gallows without the hand of the executioner.
His Behaviour was extremely undaunted; for when he came out of the Gaol to the Ladder, he ascended it with the greatest Resolution; and the Cord being tied up by his own Desire over the Gallows before he came, he instantly went up four Steps higher than that on which he stepped off to hang himself, put the Cord round his own Neck and placed it, then descending the four Steps down, pulled out a white Handkerchief, tied it round his Eyes and Face, and went off without saying one Word.
His Body was ordered to be brought back into the Castle, to be conveyed to the Museum for Desection [sic]; but he declaring that he valued not Death, but only the Thoughts of being anatomized, a large Gang of Bargemen arose, took him a Way in Triumph, carried him to the next Parish Church; and while some rung the Bells for Joy, others opened his Belly, filled it full of unslick’d Lime, and then buried the Body.
* From Andrea McKenzie’s “Martyrs in Low Life? Dying Game in Augustan England” in the Journal of British Studies, April 2003. For more on the subject, also see the same author’s book-length treatment, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775.
On this date in 1791, the Inquisition in Rome condemned magician Alessandro Cagliostro to death — a sentence immediately commuted to imprisonment for the remainder of his life, which turned out to be only four more years.
Cagliostro’s rich career as European courts’ thaumaturge of choice might have been decreed by the stars right down to his pitch-perfectly sinister moniker. Is this the shadowy diabolist whom the title character of in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is meant to evoke?
In fact, his birth name was Giuseppe Balsamo.
Naughty by nature from the time of his youthful expulsion from the Order of St. John, Balsamo — the hobgoblin familiar haunting the adult prophet’s cimmerian shadows — hailed originally from apenniless Sicilian family. (Though Cagliostro claimed for himself a suitably exotic childhood in Arabia and Egypt)
What he wanted in native wealth he more than made up for in enterprise — both for self-education in sorcery, alchemy, and other forbidden arts, and for leveraging his expertise in lustrous capers.
Hopping from court to court, Cagliostro carved out a career moving forgeries of spiritual or temporal potency alongside his legitimate profession as a doctor and chemist and his growing public profile as an influential spiritualist. He broke through as a young man in the train of a cardinal in Rome, using this in to market on the side fake artifacts alleged to have been pilfered from the Vatican’s mysterious Egyptian troves, as well as to seduce a local girl named Serafina whom he married at age 18. Serafina would be his lifelong companion on his adventures.
Cagliostro turned up over the ensuing two decades in Russia, Poland, Germany, and England, where he was inducted into the Freemasons in 1776. He’s been credited with creating masonry’s Egyptian Rite, and with energetically propagating it in the 1780s;* indeed, it was his adherence to Freemasonry — and his sacreligious boldness opening a masonic lodge in Rome under the nose of the pontiff — that led to his 1789 arrest.
His seances and magic potions made him a great favorite of the Versailles court for a number of years, until a glancing association with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace so damaging to the reputation of Marie Antoinette forced Cagliostro’s expulsion from France.
Considering his Mephistophelian** reputation, now very well known in Europe, Cagliostro’s return thereafter to the belly of papal power seems most unwise. Perhaps (as this biographer supposes) it was the influence of Serafina, homesick after so many years separated from her native haunts. Cagliostro’s next ports of call were the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo and (after an escape attempt) the lonely Fortress of San Leo — and even his end was so shrouded in mystery and conjecture that the subsequent conqueror Napoleon commissioned an official investigation to convince everyone that he’d really shuffled off the mortal coil.
Giuseppe Balsamo, attainted and convicted of many crimes, and of having incurred the censures and penalties pronounced against heretics, dogmatics, heresiarchs, and propagators of magic and superstition, has been found guilty and condemned to the said censures and penalties as decreed by the Apostolic laws of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, against all persons who in any manner whatever favour or form societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, as well as by the edict of the Council of State against all persons convicted of this crime in Rome or in any other place in the dominions of the Pope.
Notwithstanding, by special grace and favour, the sentence of death by which this crime is expiated is hereby commuted into perpetual imprisonment in a fortress, where the culprit is to be strictly guarded without any hope of pardon whatever. Furthermore, after he shall have abjured his offences as a heretic in the place of his imprisonment he shall receive absolution, and certain salutary penances will then be prescribed for him to which he is hereby ordered to submit.
Likewise, the manuscript book which has for its title Egyptian Masonry is solemnly condemned as containing rites, propositions, doctrines, and a system which being superstitious, impious, heretical, and altogether blasphemous, open a road to sedition and the destruction of the Christian religion. This book, therefore, shall be burnt by the executioner, together with all the other documents relating to this sect.
By a new Apostolic law we shall confirm and renew not only the laws of the preceding pontiffs which prohibit the societies and conventicles of Freemasonry, making particular mention of the Egyptian sect and of another vulgarly known as the Illumines, and we shall decree that the most grievous corporal punishments reserved for heretics shall be inflicted on all who shall associate, hold communion with, or protect these societies. (Source)
Nor have his grander poses entirely wanted for supporters in posterity, particularly among adherents to the still-extant Masonic rite he initiated. (Aleister Crowley also suggested that he might have been Cagliostro in a previous incarnation.)
W.R.H. Trowbridge’s 1910 biograhy Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic is in the public domain and available free online.
** “Mephistophelian” might be the literally applicable word. When the mysterious Cagliostro’s possible identity as the exiled Sicilian swindler Balsano was first exposed, eventual Faust author Johann von Goethe happened to be in Palermo — and he took it upon himself to investigate personally by calling on Balsano’s family. (“You know my brother?” “All Europe knows him.”)
Two inconsistent versions of a mass-murderer’s moniker in this American colonial news dispatch* can hardly detract from the horror of Jamaica’s first serial killer. The Scots emigre Lewis Hutchinson owned an isolated estate along the only byway connecting the north and south sides of Jamaica.
“The Mad Master of Edinburgh Castle” sought the most dangerous game in this creepy defile, and as many as 40 or 50 passing travelers might have become his prey when they came calling in need of a bed for the night at his sinister donjon.
Extract of a letter from Kingston, in Jamaica, April 1.
The 16th of last month was hanged at Spanish Town, one James [sic] Hutchinson, the most detestable and abandoned villain, that ever disgraced the human species.
He was a naive of North-Britain, and had a pen in Pedro Valley, in St. Ann’s parish: when any of his neighbours cattle strayed on his lands, he always secured them as his own, and by that means had acquired a little fortune, and it is imagined that many people had been murdered by him for demanding their property, and this conjectue seems but too well founded as you’ll observe in the sequel.
A Mr. Callender (whose land joined Hutchinson’s) had lost a Jack-ass, and seeing him in this wretch’s pasture, went to him and requested that the Ass might be turned in the highway, when he would take care he should trespass upon him no more.
Hutchinson told him this command should be immediately complied with, and when Callender had turned his back and was going away, the villain took a gun, and killed him on the spot. A man then lying sick at Hutchinson’s hearing the report of a gun, crept out of his bed, asked what firing that was, and said, I believe you have shot the man that I heard enquiring about the Ass.
The villain replied, go instantly to your bed, or I’ll serve you the same sauce.
The sick man however in the evening, found means to get privately out of the house, and immediately lodged a complaint, upon which Hutchinson, was apprehended, and by the information of one of his negroes, the place was discovered where he had conveyed the head of Callender, and where near 20 other human skulls were found, the body was thrown into a cockpit (as is here called) a place deemed inaccessible, being down a perpendicular rock, that had been split by an earthquake, or so formed by nature, the bottom of which could not be discerned, hanging however upon a point of the rock which jetted out, the unfortunate man’s body was seen, and well known by his cloaths; by some daring contrivance, a person went down a considerable length, and discovered a great number of human bones, but no skulls, so that it is to be supposed, this merciless villain had always taken off the heads of those he had murdered, in the same manner he did with poor Callender.
At his trial, he had several of our most eminent council to plead for him, and during the whole time for his commitment to his execution, he behaved with the greatest insolence, he employed the whole day before he died, in writing, and told the people he had made his own epitaph, and left a 100l. to have it engraved on his tomb stone. It is long and ill wrote, but he concludes it in these words, speaking of the Courts and Jury,
Their sentence, pride, and malice I defy,
Despise their power and like a Roman die.
Lewis Hutchinson, hanged at Spanish Town the 16th of March, 1773, aged forty years. — Thus was the world rid of this detestable and most execrable monster.
* It was printed many places; the Salem, Mass. Essex Gazette of May 25, 1773 is the specific one I’ve transcribed from.
Martha Stracey or Tracey hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1745 for assaulting a man named Will Humphreys and robbing him of one single guinea a few months before.
Stracey, about 18 or 20 years old, was a prostitute and pickpocket — “a perverse, vicious Girl, void of all good Dispositions, and wholly untractable and unadviseable, giving herself up to the vilest Company on Earth, both of Men and Women,” the Newgate Ordinary judged. The Ordinary’s accounts are a reliable feast of purple prose and do not disappoint in discoursing on the young bawd and her fall.
Having no interest in honest work and “renounc[ing] every thing resembling Goodness or Virtue,” she “went idling her Time away on the Streets with her hellish wicked Companions, who induc’d her to commence Whore, upon which she turn’d a meer reprobate-Creature” and “became known to all the Constables, and inferior Officers of Justice in that End of the Town.” Stracey, says the Ordinary, “own’d she was naturally inclined, and not over-persuaded by others, as some of them may or do alledge in Extenuation of their Guilt.”
During the night of Dec. 22-23, Humphreys testified, Stracey and Humphreys met on the Strand. According to Humphreys, she approached him unbidden, and when Humphreys insulted her, two men clobbered him as Stracey skillfully went through his pockets in a few seconds and plucked out the gold coin.
Stracey claimed the affair began when Humphreys “pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.”
No other eyewitnesses could testify to the substance of their rendezvous, but Humphreys’s story about the mysterious male accomplices who after thumping him went on their own way and left Stracey alone with him mid-robbery has the definite whiff of a cover story. The jury — perhaps searching for some grounds to avoid sending the woman to the gallows* — even asked the arresting constable, William Dunn, whether Humphreys’s clothes were really dirty, since he claimed to have been knocked down in the scuffle. (The constable didn’t know.)
But the simple fact was that Stracey did have Humphreys’s gold guinea, whether she achieved by main force or plucked it during a roadside assignation. With the convenient disappearance of her supposed goon squad, Humphreys was now able to seize the hustler on the spot and drag her to the watch. Constable Dunn had someone “search her behind and before (I ask pardon, my Lord)” and finally found the guinea under Martha’s profane tongue.
Before her execution, Stracey did confess that she had stolen the gold piece, under the circumstances that Humphreys’s shady account might lead one to infer:
Martha own’d the Fact she died for, that meeting a Man in the Street in the Evening, about Nine or Ten o’Clock, they speedily came to speak of an Agreement about a certain Affair; and as they were adjusting Matters, Martha thought fit to examine the Gentlemen’s Pockets, and amongst other Things, finding a Guinea, she robb’d him of it, as he Swore against her, and upon this she was convicted of a Street-robbery, one of the greatest Crimes in the Eye of the Law. She did not well remember the Circumstances of this robbery, as being very Drunk, which all of them generally are, when attempting to perpetrate so soul and black Crimes in an audacious manner.
Martha owned her committing of several robberies of this Kind before, she being a constant Street-walker , but did not well remember the Circumstances of the Robbery, she died for, nor the others which were conceal’d, it being impossible to recollect them, for the was always dead Drunk when they were committed. She was very ignorant of Religion, and what Things pertained to the state of her Soul; I endeavoured to instruct her, as the Brevity of Time allow’d, but she was of a mean Capacity and slow of Understanding, and had been so accustomed to do Evil, that she could scarce do any Thing that was good.
On this date in 1715, the legendary outlaw Filip Mengstein was broken on the wheel in Dresden’s marketplace, along with four henchmen.
With the wiseguy nickname “Lips Tullian”, our cutthroat’s gangland derring-do cuts a truly timeless profile. But it happens that Lips did his cutting in the environs of Saxony and Bohemia, exploiting for many years lax domestic security in the Holy Roman Empire occasioned by the preoccupations of the Great Northern War. Legend has it that he was a former dragoon forced to take to the road around 1702 when he slew a comrade in a duel.
From wilderness haunts — there’s still a “Lips Tullian Hill” in Saxony’s Tharandt Forest — Tullian’s “Black Guard” gang sallied into towns to raid prosperous homes and churches. When caught, he had a knack for the dramatic breakout, returning again and again to his gang.
Alas, it was an unsuccessful escape attempt in 1713 that finally caused his captors of the day to realize who they had and put him to torture and, eventually, the brutal breaking-wheel execution.
Immortalized in subsequent folklore, especially in Bohemia, Lips Tullian is best noted recently as the subject of a popular 1970s Czech comic published (until Communist authorities suppressed it) by Mlady Svet. The illustrator Kaja Saudek based his Lips Tullian on the romantic 19th century interpretation of Kvidon de Felses — presenting him as a gold-hearted rogue with an impressively chiseled physique.
Joseph Richards was arraigned for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, milkman, in Kentish Town. The deceased’s widow deposed, that the prisoner was formerly a servant to her husband; that he was discharged for negligence; that he had frequently threatened vengeance on the deceased; that on the morning the murder was committed, she was awakened by a noise, and on entering the room her husband slept in, she found him sitting up in the bed, and as far as his waist in blood; that a stick which the prisoner had cut some time before, lay in the room, and an iron bar, covered with blood; that her husband was mangled in a shocking manner: — he lingered a few days, and died a shocking spectacle.
Four other witnesses were examined, whose testimony proved certain corroborating circumstances; such as, being from his lodging the night the murder was committed, being seen to melt lead, and to pour it into the stick that was found in the deceased’s room, &c.
The prisoner confessed the murder to one of the magistrates who committed him for trial; but pleaded Not Guilty at the bar.
The jury, after a few minutes’ consideration, brought in their verdict Guilty.
Mr. Recorder pronounced judgment. He said the voice of innocent blood cried to heaven for vengeance. He dwelt upon the atrociousness of the crime of murder, observing, that the Divine Law had ordained, that whoever sheddeth man’s blood, &c., and then expatiated on the peculiar circumstances of the murder, the murder of an innocent master, to whom he owed duty and reverence.
The sentence was then passed as usual, that he be hanged till dead, and anatomized; and an order of Court was made out, to execute him on Monday, at Kentish Town, as near as possible to the house of the deceased.
Joseph Richards, a youth about eighteen, who was convicted on Friday last, for the wilful murder of Walter Horseman, with whom he lived servant, was executed at Kentish Town, opposite the house where the horrid fact was perpetrated. The malefactor came out of Newgate about twenty minutes before eight o’clock, and with some alertness stepped into the cart, which conveyed him through Smithfield, Cow Cross, and by the two small-pox hospitals to the spot, where he was removed from that society of which he had proved himself a most unworthy member, at a time of life when such atrocity of guilt as he possessed has been seldom known to degrade humanity. In his way to the place of execution, the convict appeared to be in a state of mind bordering upon stupefaction; he had no book, nor did he employ that short remnant of time in those preparations for eternity which his miserable situation rendered so indispensably necessary.
Before being turned off, the prisoner desired to see the widow of the decreased; she was sent for to her house, but was gone to London; he declared he had no accomplice in the fact, and that he was induced to the perpetration thereof by the supposition, that after the decease of his master he should succeed to his business as a milkman. Just before coming to the village, he burst into tears and when he came to the place of execution, wept bitterly; his expressions of sorrow and contrition being only interrupted by fervent appeals to Heaven for mercy till the last moment of his existence.
Nicknamed for her strawberry blond hair, the Golden Boos had an ingenious scam that required every bit of her Bunyanesque strength: she would wander the countryside and check into inns with a large chest or pack. Intimating that the parcel contained something of great value, she would insist upon its overnight safekeeping in a very secure room.
Once the inn had tucked in for the night, a diminutive accomplice would emerge from the trunk, plunder the lonely room of its valuables, and the two would escape into the night. Evidently, secure rooms in 18th century Liechtenstein were never secured from the inside.
She admitted to 17 such thefts. Liechtentein, whose population at the present time numbers fewer than 40,000 souls, had to import the executioner to chop off Barbara Erni’s Golden Boos on a public scaffold in Vaduz on February 26, 1785.
Liechtenstein officiall abolished the death penalty in 1987.
On this date in 1745, Orange County, Virginia was darkened by the smoke from a stake where a slave named Eve died for poisoning her master, Peter Montague.
As accused, Eve, “not having God before her eyes nor considering the obedience to the said Peter Montague, her master, but led and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force of arms and her malice forethought, feloniously and traitorously did mingle and poison milk … did give it to the said Peter Montague, which he did taste, eat, drink and swallow down … and did languish until the 27th day of December. Eve falsely, traitorously and feloniously of her malice forethought with the poison … did kill, poison and murder.” (Quoted here.)
Eve asserted her innocence to no avail at her trial on January 23. The court condemned her to “be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there to be burnt.”
John Price Posey grew up near the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation and was a frequent guest there. After he completed his education, Washington helped him find a job. When Jacky Custis reached legal age, he appointed Posey as steward of his plantation in New Kent County.
All went well for awhile. Posey even became justice of the peace and served in the house of delegates between 1780 and 1781.
The situation soured, however, after Jacky died in November 1781. George Washington learned that his deceased stepson’s erstwhile friend had been embezzling money from Jacky’s estate. He had sold off some of Jacky’s slaves and pocketed the profits, and later on he was caught stealing a cow from the plantation. For this “abuse and misapplication” of his duties, Posey was fined a total of £225 and removed from his position as justice of the peace. In his correspondence, General Washington referred to him as a “Superlative Villain.”
In June 1787, Posey was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentenced to a month in jail. On July 12, he escaped. Three days later, he and an accomplice, Thomas Green, returned to the jail with two slaves called Sawney and Hercules. The four men set fire to the jail, went two miles up the road and then set the county clerk’s office on fire. It burned to the ground and all the county records stored within were destroyed.*
Posey was back in custody within a day of the arson attacks, and after his arrest, Thomas Green confessed to his role in the affair. Posey was brought to Richmond in chains to stand trial for arson, which was a capital crime at the time. Convicted on October 1, he filed an appeal. On January 18, 1788 the Virginia Court of Appeals voted nine to one to reject his petition for clemency, and told him he must die.
The unfortunate and most unhappy John Price Posey begs that a further indulgence of a few days could be allowed him — Hopeful that it would be attended with giving further relief to the peace of mind that your unfortunate petitioner is now in search of.
This bought him a week’s stay. On January 25, he was hanged on Richmond’s gallows alongside James M’Connell Fox, a murderer. His body was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in the Mount Airy area.
Virginia law allowed the state to confiscate a person’s property in cases of capital convictions, but in this case, unusually, the Virginia legislature returned everything to Posey’s widow, Anne Kidley Posey. She ultimately remarried.
As for his partners-in-crime: Thomas Green was never tried for his role in the arson attacks, and the slaves Sawney and Hercules were ultimately pardoned and given back to their owner, Posey’s brother-in-law.
* New Kent County’s archives also held colonial-era records for several other counties. Posey’s spiteful torch wiped out a trove of invaluable colonial-era records and is still lamented by historians and genealogists whose work touches that period as “the greatest loss”.