Posts filed under 'England'

1950: Norman Goldthorpe, knot botch

Add comment November 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.

Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.

Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.

Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.

Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”

The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”

A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.

“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”

Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.

Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.

Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”

Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”

After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.

In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.

Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”

It was the last hanging Harry Kirk ever worked.

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1784: Richard Barrick, Massachusetts highwayman

Add comment November 19th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

I then went to Boston, and got in company with one John Sullivan … we went to Winter’s-Hill, and there robbed one Mr. Baldwin, for which crime Sullivan and myself are to suffer Death, as being the just reward of our demerits.

— Richard Barrick, convicted of highway robbery and murder, hanging, Massacusetts. Executed November 18, 1784

Richard Barrick was born in Ireland in February 1763 and brought up in the Foundling Hospital. He was an apprentice to a silk-weaver and lived with him for three years. But during those years, he was treated poorly and so he eventually left the silk-weaver and joined a gang of thieves. When he was caught, the authorities agreed to pardon him if he entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships. After arriving in New York, Barrick and some others robbed many people and became a notorious and wanted man. He was an accomplice to murder of a man they first robbed. He was eventually caught by a British Colonel and convicted.

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1698: Sarah, for her whoredoms

1 comment November 17th, 2015 Cotton Mather

(As this blog has often enough bestowed its disdain on Puritan holy roller Cotton Mather, one of the never-apologetic architects of the Salem witch trials, we thought it only fair to permit the man to vindicate himself in his own words. What follows his Mather’s own accounting of the sermon he thundered in Boston at an unreceptive infanticide known only as Sarah. The text — presented with only some slight tidying and added line breaks — derives from Mather’s own histories, here and here. -ed.)

On November 17, 1698. There was executed in Boston, a miserable Young Woman, whose Extraordinary circumstances rung throughout all New England.

On this Day of her Execution, was Preached the Sermon: Because the last passage of that Sermon, gave a summary Narrative, of what it is fit the publick should know concerning that Criminal, I have Transferr’d them, into this place. The Sermon Concluded in these words.

Be astonished, O Congregation of God; Stand astonished, at the Horrible Spectacle, that is now before You: This House, and perhaps this Land, never had in it a more Astonishing Spectacle.

Behold, a Young Woman, but an Old Sinner, going this Day to Dy before her time, for being Wicked over much! Behold, One just Nineteen Years Old, and yet found Ripe for the Vengeance of a Capital Execution. Ah, Miserable Soul, With what a swift progress of Sin and Folly, hast thou made Hast unto the Congregation of the Dead!

Behold a Person, whose Unchast Conversation appear’d by one Base Born Child many months ago! God then gave her a Space to Repent, and she repented not: She repeated her Whoredomes, and by an Infatuation from God upon her, She so managed the matter of her next Base Born, that she is found Guilty of its Murder: Thus the God, whose Eyes are like a Flame of Fire, is now casting her Page into a Bed of Burning Tribulation: And, ah, Lord, Where wilt thou cast those that have committed Adultery with her, Except they Repent! Since her Imprisonment, She hath Declared, That she believes, God hath left her unto this Undoing Wickedness, partly for her staying so profanely at Home sometimes on Lords-Dayes, when she should have been Hearing the Word of Chirst, and much more for her not minding that Word, when she heard it.

And she has Confessed, That she was much given to Rash Wishes, in her Mad Passions, particularly using often that ill Form of speaking, “He be Hang’d,” if a thing be not thus or so, and, “I’ll be Hanged,” if I do not this or that; which Evil now, to see it, coming upon her, it amazes her! But the chief Sin, of which this Chief of Sinners, now cries out, is, Her Undutiful Carriage towards her Parents. Her Language and her Carriage towards her Parents, was indeed such that they hardly Durst speak to her; but when they Durst, they often told her, It would come to This. They indeed, with Bleeding Hearts, have now Forgiven thy Rebellions; Ah, Sarah, mayst thou Cry unto the God of Heaven to Forgive Thee! But under all the doleful circumstances of her Imprisonment, and her Impiety, she has been given over, to be a prodigy of still more Impenitent Impiety.

A Little before her Condemnation, she Renewed the Crimes of her Unchastity: she gave her self up to the Filthy Debauches, of a Villain, that was her Fellow-Prisoner; and after her Condemnation, her Falshoods, and her Furies have been such, as to proclaim, That under Condemnation she has not Feared God. Was there ever seen such an Heighth of Wickedness? God seems to have Hanged her up in Chains, for all the Young People in the Countrey, to see, what prodigies of Sin and Wrath it may render them, if once they Sell themselves thereunto. Behold, O Young People, what it is to Vex the Holy Spirit of God, by Rebelling against Him. This, This ’tis to be Given over of God! And yet after all this Hard-hearted Wickedness, is it not possible, for the Grace of Heaven to be Triumphantly Victorious, in Converting and Pardoning so Unparallel’d a Criminal? Be astonished, Miserable Sarah, and Let it now break that Stony heart of thine, to Hear it; It is possible! It is possible! But, O thou Almighty Spirit of Grace, do thou graciously Touch, and Melt this Obstinate Soul, and once at last, mould her Heart into the Form of thy Glorious Gospel. The Glorious Gospel of God, now utters unto thee, Undone Sarah, that Invitation, Tho’ thou hast horribly gone a Whoring, yet Return unto me, saith the Lord, and I will not cause my Anger to fall upon thee. The Lessons of this Gospel have been both privately and publickly set before thee, with a vast variety of Inculcation. If all the Extraordinary pains that have been taken for the softening of thy Stony Heart, be Lost, God will dispense the more terrible Rebukes unto thee, when He anon breaks thee between the Milstones of His Wrath.

Oh, Give now a great Attention, to some of the Last Words, that can be spoken to thee, before thy passing into an astonishing Eternity.

The Blessed Lord JESUS CHRIST hath been made a Curse for Us; there has been a most Acceptable Offering and Sacrifice, presented by the Lord Jesus Christ unto God, for all His Chosen: there is a Fountain set open for Sin and for Uncleanness: and thou, O Bloody Sinner, art Invited unto that Open Fountain. Such is the Infinite Grace of God, that thou mayst come as freely to the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the Forgiveness of thy Sins, as they that have never Sinn’d with a Thousandth part of so much Aggravation; Come, and Welcome, says the Lord, who Receiveth Sinners. If God Enable thee Now, to Lay Hold on the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, tho’ thy Faults are Infinite, thou wilt yet before Sun-set Stand without Fault before the Throne of God. Thy Soul is just sinking down, into the Fiery Ocean of the Wrath of God, but the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, is cast forth unto thee, once more, for thee, to Lay Hold upon.

Oh! Lay Hold upon it, and Live! If God help thee, to do so, Then, as it was said, “The Mary whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her,” So it shall be said, “The Sarah, whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her!” Then, as it was said, Rahab the Harlot perished not, so it shall be said, Sarah the Harlot, perished not! Tho’ the Blood of thy murdered Infant, with all thy other Bloody Crimes, horribly Cry to God against thee, yet a louder and better Cry from the Blood of thy Saviour, shall drown that formidable Cry. Yea, then, There will be Joy in Heaven this Afternoon among the Angels of God; the Angels of Heaven will stand amazed, and say, “O the Infinite Grace, that can bring such a Sinner unto Glory!”

But if ever the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, be applied unto thy Heart, it will immediately Dissolve that Heart of thine; it will cause thee to Mourn for every Sin, to Turn from every Sin, to give thy self entirely unto God. It will be impossible for thee, to Go on in any Known Sin, or to Dy with a Ly in thy mouth: No, thou wilt rather Dy than commit any Known Sin in the World. If this Disposition, be not produced in thee, before Three or Four short Hours more are Expired, thy Immortal Spirit, will anon pass into Eternal Torment: thou wilt before To morrow morning be a Companion of the Devils and the Damned; the Everlasting Chains of Darkness will hold thee, for the Worm that never dies, and the Fire that never shall be Quenched: thou shalt fall into the Hands of the Living God, and become as a glowing Iron, possessed by his Burning Vengeance, throughout Eternal Ages; the God that made thee, will not have mercy on thee, and He that formed thee will show thee no Favour. But for his Mercy, and Favour, while there is yet hope, we will yet Cry unto Him.

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1765: Patrick Ogilvie, but not Katharine Nairn

Add comment November 13th, 2015 Headsman

“So great a concourse of people has perhaps not been seen”* at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket as assembled on this date in 1765 for the execution of Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie.

It was, naturally, scandal that brought them out of the woodwork. Lt. Ogilvie’s older brother Thomas in January of that same 1765 had married a young woman named Katharine Nairn. She had barely half of Thomas’s 40 years.

Katharine soon took a shine to the more age-appropriate sibling, just back from his dashing adventures in the East Indies. Within weeks of the marriage, the two people closest to Thomas were making a fool of him in his very own home. Their eventual indictment charged Katharine and Patrick with “yielding to your inordinate desires … in the months of January, February, March, April, May, and June … at different times, and in one or other of the rooms of the house of Eastmiln, and in the out-houses adjacent thereto,” not to mention (we’re guessing during the warmer spring weather) “in the fields.”

Thomas himself seems to have been wise to the cuckoldry rather early on, but either from weakness or inclination made only token attempts to abate it. Great was the astonishment of the neighbors that Patrick wasn’t banned from the house or Katharine disallowed his company.

At length, Thomas died of poison. The suspicions were only natural.

In fact, maybe they were a little bit too natural.

It has been suspected that the true author of Thomas’s destruction and the lovers’ too was not their own unnatural passion but the greed of yet another party in the nest of family vipers living under the eldest brother’s roof: Anne Clark.

The lover of the youngest Ogilvie brother, Alexander, Anne was known as a woman of easy virtue, but she had regardless her sexual continence a potentially compelling motive to be rid of Thomas, or rid of Patrick, or both: as both Thomas and Patrick were childless, the family scandal figured to pour all the family’s estates into the puckish hands of her own man. Patrick and Katharine tried vainly to impugn her at trial as a malicious witness

So when Anne supplied a story that the lovers had openly quarreled with Thomas and even vowed in her presence to murder him — and when Anne plied the court with lurid accounts of creeping up the stairs to listen in on Patrick and Katharine romping in his alcove bed — do we hear the voice of a master villain? That reputed prostitute gave bodice-popping evidence at very great length against her incestuous would-be family —

Mrs. Ogilvie was frequently in a room by herself with the Lieutenant … upon Sunday the nineteenth day of May last, all the family went to church, excepting the two pannels and the deponent [Clarke] … the two pannels left the deponent in the low room, and went up stairs together to the east room above stairs … [and Clarke] in order to discover what was passing, went up the stair, and as the bed in the Lieutenant’s room was an alcove ed, the back of which came to the side of the stair, and there was nothing betwixt the bed and the stair, but a piece of plaster and the timber of the bed, so that a person standing in the stair could hear distinctly what passed in the bed, she stood and listened; and from the motions that she heard, is positive that they were in bed together, and abusing their bodies together, by which she means, they were lying carnally together.

You can read the whole of Anne Clark’s testimony among 130-odd pages of details from the proceedings here.

Ogilvie would hold to his innocence through multiple royal reprieves and all the way to the gallows. When the rope slipped on the first hanging attempt, he was not so daunted by the proximity of the eternal that he feared to repeat the claim: “I adhere to my former confession [profession of innocence], and die an innocent man.”

He also died alone.

His former paramour and possible confederate Katharine had delayed her hanging by pleading her belly — truthfully so, for it seemed that her many springtime frolics had in fact quickened her womb.

She delivered early in 1766 and was bound for execution a few weeks later. But Katharine’s wit supplied what crown sentiment would not and she slipped out of prison in the wardrobe of an old family servant one evening.** She had such a considerable head start before her absence was noted the next day that she reached London, hired a boat to the Netherlands, was blown back to Old Blighty by a gale, and hired another boat for Calais before anyone could catch up to her. She alit on French soil, and vanished into the safety of historical obscurity.

“Such were the different fates of two people, who, as far as we can judge of the affair, appear to have been involved in the same crime,” remarks the Newgate Calendar in an expansive vein. “The one dies, avowing his perfect innocence; the other escapes the immediate stroke of justice, which was suspended over her by the most slender thread.

“Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and, in the language of Scripture, ‘past finding out;’ but it is for mortals humbly to submit to all its dispensations.”

* London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Nov. 19, 1765.

** Hanoverian gaols had a major security hole where cross-dressing escapees were concerned.

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1800: Thomas Chalfont, postboy

2 comments November 12th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1800,* a seventeen-year-old mail sorter named Thomas Chalfont was hanged at Newgate for theft.

Chalfont “feloniously did secrete a letter, or packet, directed to Messrs. Bedwells, St. John’s-street.” Said letter, or packet, had contained three £10 notes; it arrived to Messrs. Bedwells late and containing only two such notes. The accompanying letter had also been altered to correspond to the diminished enclosure.

The recipient complained to the post office, and Chalfont was found out.

He was the second post office employee to be executed for the same offense; almost a year earlier, John Williams had faced the hangman for taking money — it was even the same amount, £10 — out of a letter in his charge.

According to Susan Whyman, the royal mail was a frequent locus of property crime throughout the 18th century: “armed robbery, overcharging for postage, forging franks, wilful destruction of letters, and embezzlement of enclosed bills or money.” Chalfont’s variant here seems downright banal, but it was commonplace enough that one correspondent Whyman cites in 1787 defeated sticky-fingered mail sorters by tearing a £10 Bank of England note in half and mailing the two halves to his wife separately.

The Newgate Calendar sighed,

We greatly lament to find young men gratuitously placed in trust in the Post-office, frequently abusing the confidence reposed in them, disgracing their friends, who necessarily must have used much interest in obtaining such places for them, and then bringing themselves to an ignominious fate.

Four others died alongside Chalfont: Thomas Douglas, a horse-thief; John Price and John Robinson, burglars; and William Hatton, who took a shot at a watchman.

In the Derby Mercury edition (Nov. 13, 1800) reporting the quintuple execution, the very next news item underscored the post’s continuing security problems:

A singular attempt to intercept the passage of the letters into the Post Office, at Durham, was fortunately discovered on Sunday evening last, before any mischief had been effected by the stratagem. A piece of sheet iron, so modelled as to fit the entrance of the box, had been introduced, so as that it could be withdrawn with any letter that might be put into it.

* The Newgate Calendar supplies the date of November 11; this appears to be erroneous, as the period’s reporting confirms a Wednesday, Nov. 12 execution.

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1483: Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Add comment November 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded at Salisbury for rebelling against Richard III.

Shakespeare’s treatment of Buckingham’s death in Richard III:

“Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday.
This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies

Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”

Buckingham — Henry Stafford by name — resided firmly in the 1% of the 1% for 15th century England: a dangerous neighborhood since the War of the Roses was afoot, felling noblemen hither and yon. (Henry Stafford became the Duke of Buckingham as a toddler when his father was mortally wounded at the Battle of St. Albans.)

Our Buckingham could count five Kings of England among his close relations; he himself was married right into Edward IV‘s household when he was wed at age 10 to Catherine Woodville, the seven-year-old sister of the commoner-queen Elizabeth Woodville. That made Buckingham uncle to the two sons and possible heirs of Edward IV.

But every family has its black sheep. Buckingham wasn’t keen on the Woodvilles despite his presence on their Christmas card list, and when King Edward died relatively young in 1483, Buckingham backed the succession in power not of the Woodvilles, but of Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester — the man who indeed became king as Richard III.

Technically, Richard started out as Lord Protector on behalf of the boy-king Edward V and his little brother Richard, before he had the twerps declared illegitimate and disappeared them in 1483 into the Tower of London. Buckingham himself is one of the lead suspects for the man who urged or even carried out the murder of these Princes in the Tower.

The prospect that Buckingham’s alliance with Richard III extended all the way to regicide makes quite curious the former’s turn later that same year to rebellion — for as Thomas More would write, “hereupon sone after [the murder of the princes] began the conspiracy or rather good confederacion, between ye Duke of Buckingham and many other gentlemen against [Richard III]. Thoccasion wheruppon the king and the Duke fell out, is of divers folks diverse wyse pretended.”

Buckingham’s right to the marquee of the autumn 1483 “Buckingham’s Rebellion” has been doubted, for leadership of the various uprisings in southern England and Wales appears to belong to those “other gentlemen” of the gentry.

“Buckingham’s” rebellion was easily defeated but it augured a much deeper threat to Richard’s crown than one peer’s enmity — for the rebellion declared in favor of Henry Tudor, a last-gasp, exiled Lancastrian claimant descended from a Welsh courtier.

Buckingham himself was captured, condemned as a traitor, and publicly beheaded at Salisbury on November 2, 1483. He was one of numerous principals in the rising to go to the scaffold, but Henry’s cause continued to accumulate adherents — until not two years later, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In Shakespeare’s treatment, the ghost of the executed Buckingham aptly appears to Richard III on the eve of this climactic moment of English history to prophesy his former ally’s defeat:

The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!

Buckingham left a five-year-old heir, Edward Stafford, who was spirited into hiding from the vengeful King Richard. This third Duke of Buckingham would in the fullness of time grow to to be executed by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII.

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1761: Richard Parrott

Add comment October 26th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1761, Richard Parrott, a middle-aged man from Harmondsworth, was hanged for the murder of his wife.

According to witness accounts, it all started over “a trifling dispute first arose between the prisoner and the deceased, whether their son or daughter, should go to the field for a cow.”

Parrott later claimed his wife, Anne, had “told a great many lies of him.” The end result was that he beat her and then cut off a large chunk of her tongue. The policeman who responded to the scene later described what he saw in graphic terms:

She lay on the bed, leaning over one side, spitting blood, but could not speak. Her mouth was swelled, and battered in such a manner, there was no such thing as seeing her tongue, She was so swelled and black, she looked like a blackamoor; I should not have known her, though I had known her from a little girl, being born in the same parish.

The assault had knocked out several of Anne’s teeth and badly bruised her. The swelling in her mouth was such that she could eat only broth, and that with great difficulty.

She died a few weeks later.

Before the tragic incident Richard had claimed his wife put “brimstone” in his clothes in an attempt to kill him. To save himself from the supposed brimstone he’d torn off the garments, cut them into pieces and buried them. Witnesses reported he had been “barbarous cruel” to his wife. Anne had told their son he was paranoid and “out of his mind,” and said she was afraid of him.

Nothing was done about it, however, until it was too late.

As the Newgate Ordinary’s account opined,

Nothing but the defence made for the prisoner, viz. Insanity, (supposing it to have a real foundation) can extenuate this horrid and most inhuman fact: nothing but the supposed madness of the perpetrator, can rescue it from being ranked among the most cruel deeds, that ever was perpetrated …

But these circumstances put together don’t remove the probability of the prisoner’s being insane when the fact was done. Subtilty and craft are known to attend this unaccountable distemper, in carrying on any mischief or outrage. The affections are generally inverted; love is turned into hatred, suspicion, jealousy, and rage; and the dearest object of love, is doomed to be the first victim of the perverted passions. The excuse he made when apprehended for this outrage, shews something like this, viz. That she had told lies of him, and he would prevent her doing the like again. Probably he resented her representing and declaring him to be out of his mind, as it appears on the trial she did, when she sent one of her sons for another of them twelve miles, to come and take care of his father, as being in that case. Nothing can provoke a madman more than to be thought or called mad; they are the last, generally speaking, who are sensible of it; and it is the last thing they will acknowledge. Happy had it been for his family, his friends, his neighbours, and parishioners, had they secured and put him under care for this fatal malady; they might have prevented this sad event to the deceased, this reproach to the survivors, who are in any degree blameable for this gross and dangerous neglect.

Found competent to hang by his jury, Parrott “seemed calm, sensible, and resigned” at the Tyburn gallows, where he hanged with three other people: thief Edward Garnet; infanticide Esther Rowden; and a grossly incompetent forger named Donald Campbell who was detected in his craft “by misspelling the names, and the inconsistency of placing 200l. at the top, and writing one hundred pounds in the body of the bill.”

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1668: Two men and a woman, too early for Samuel Pepys

1 comment October 23rd, 2015 Headsman

The L.P. Hartley saw about the past as a foreign country might roll a few eyes at the neighborhood history department, but one cannot dispute that the march of time has fundamentally altered many particulars of our everyday life.

Public executions are among the phenomena that ancestor generations once reckoned a routine fixture of the world, but for most of us are little but the stuff of fantastic nightmares. It requires an act of conscious imagination to project oneself into a world where expiring convicts propped up on breaking-wheels are just a part of the scenery — as in this absurd episode from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

This date’s entry arrives courtesy of the pen of intrepid 17th century English diarist Samuel Pepys, whose faithful daily journals frequently record the public deaths occurring here and there like so many matinees.** Pepys at one level is a very accessible figure as he hustles through bourgeois banalities; that people are strung up and butchered around him and the fact rates nothing but a stray subordinate clause rudely injects that foreign past into his narrative.

On October 23, 1668, Pepys worked the day’s hanging right into an industrious calendar of business and social calls. (He attended Tyburn in the company of a surgeon, which made it a possible business trip for his companion.) Like the rest of us, Pepys wound up so pinched for time that he ran late and ended up missing the execution full stop, but he didn’t let the snafu perturb his day one bit.

Up, and plasterers at work and painters about my house. Commissioner Middleton and I to St. James’s, where with the rest of our company we attended on our usual business the Duke of York. Thence I to White Hall, to my Lord Sandwich’s, where I find my Lord within, but busy, private; and so I staid a little talking with the young gentlemen: and so away with Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, towards Tyburne, to see the people executed; but come too late, it being done; two men and a woman hanged, and so back again and to my coachmaker’s, and there did come a little nearer agreement for the coach, and so to Duck Lane, and there my bookseller’s, and saw his moher, but elle is so big-bellied that elle is not worth seeing. So home, and there all alone to dinner, my wife and W. Hewer being gone to Deptford to see her mother, and so I to the office all the afternoon.

After which Pepys turns as if to the our guilty-pleasure TMZ bookmark, and begins gossiping about the bawdy shenanigans of the royal court.

* Of course, the question depends on place as well as time; public executions are still routine in a few locales today — such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

** Viz., the regicides as a successful sequel to the Charles I show:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

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1773: Four convict labor escapees in Maryland

Add comment October 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We owe this date’s post, as with a number of others on this site, to Anthony Vaver, proprietor of the superb (albeit recently dormant) Early American Crime blog.

Vaver wrote the book on pre-Revolutionary War convict transportation to the Americas, and we were directed to the men featured today in a post Vaver ran on one of the most common resistance strategies — running away.

Being shipped out of Britain to the American colonies where they faced years of involuntary labor and the prospect of being bought and sold like slaves, convicts could hardly fail to ponder the advantages of escape.

Many did more than ponder: colonial newspapers are rife with adverts for absconded convict laborers, whose descriptions of the fugitives also make for a rich source on the everyday accoutrements of the 18th century working class. Pictured here are a very few arbitrarily chosen samples of the genre:

Such self-liberation did not always entail slipping away in an unsupervised moment: more direct means were occasionally employed, a fantasy that many surely entertained counterpoised by the threat of violent state reprisal. The four men who hanged together at Frederick, Maryland, made bold to put the dream into bloody actuality.

These men had been purchased by a merchant specializing in the convict labor trade — part of “a parcel of convicts” as the New York Gazetteer matter-of-factly described it (Aug. 5, 1773) which Archibald Moffman obtained “in order to dispose of them again to advantage.”

Instead it was Moffman who was disposed of. As Moffman and his nonplussed workingman retinue traveled through Maryland,

about two or three miles on the other side of Frederick-Town, one of the servants told his master that he was too much fatigued to go any further; they therefore all rested themselves on an old tree by the side of the main road. After some time, Moffman told them they must proceed on their journey, but they refused and immediately threw him backwards over the tree, dragged him about five steps into the woods, and then cut his throat from ear to ear; took his pocket book and then went over the mountain, calling at every tavern on the road.

But while the proximity of wilderness and the mutability of identity in the 18th century potentially facilitated escape, the colonies’ sparse habitation also made it harder to disappear into the obscurity of plain sight. Maryland was one of the most populous of the New World jurisdictions with barely 200,000 souls in 1770. It wasn’t that everybody knew everybody, but at such scales one could only go so long without engaging by chance the recognition of some acquaintance or busybody.

Seen in this light, the decision of our murderous fellows to call at every tavern on the road looks a mightily ill-considered course of action for men who ought to have felt the scourge of desperation at their backs. At one of these watering-holes, someone who had seem these convict laborers on the road recently as they accompanied the yet-unkilled Moffman now ran into them sans oversight, and made inquiries — justifiably skeptical of the “parcel’s” story that their owner was following a few leisurely clicks behind. Failing to find Moffman on his way down the road, he sent up an alarm and the cutthroat tipplers were soon detained. Confession, conviction, and execution all followed within a matter of weeks.

The newspaper stories about this quartet do not so much as mention their names.

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1677: John S., William Fletcher, and Robert Perkins

Add comment October 17th, 2015 Headsman

The Confession and Execution of the Three Prisoners suffering at Tyburn on Wednesday the 17th of October, 1677

At the Sessions of Oyer and Terminer for London, and Gaole-delivery of Newgate begun at Justice-Hall in the Old Bayly, 10 Octob. and ending on the 12 of the same Month, there were in all (as by a Printed Narrative you may already have heard) Five persons, who being Convicted on fair Tryals (per Patriam) of several capital Crimes, received Sentence of Death: But Two of them, whose Crime was stealing of two horses, appearing to be objects of mercy, as having never been concern’d in any such offences before, and seeming now extremely penitent for the same, obtained a Gracious Reprieve. The other Three were this present Wednesday 17 Octob. carryed to the place of execution, and by a shameful death surrendered their unhappie lives as Victims duely forfeited to the Justice of the Law.

These were all three old notorious offenders; two of them (taken in Gardiners-lane, Westminster) had long followed the Padd, as they called it, that is, Robbed upon the Highway: The other had made it his trade to break open houses, and pilfer away peoples Goods, being burnt in the hand but two Sessions ago: So that if such Malefactors should have longer been endured, honest Subjects would not be able either to sleep securely in their Dwellings, or travel abroad with safety on their lawful occasions; but both within doors and without, been liable to the spoils and outrages of these barbarous Savages.

To assist these poor wretches for the good of their Souls after the time of their Condemnation, the Sheriffs not onely manifested their pious Charity in sending them able Divines to instruct them, and especially Mr. Ordinary, who very laboriously discharges his weighty office on such occasions, but likewise several godly Ministers of their own accord, in Christian-compassion to their perishing condition, were pleased to visit them. Who laid before them the miserable state they were in; That now their days we [sic] numbered, nay their very hours and minutes which they had to live in this world; and yet these few minutes were all the time and opportunity they had to provide for eternity. That they were doom’d by Justice to a certain death; and though ’twas vain for them to flatter themselves with hopes of longer life in this world, yet there was means left, by a speedy, thorow, sincere and hearty repentance of their sins, and fleeing to Christ for mercy and forgiveness, to secure themselves, by vertue of his merits and righteousness, of a most happy and everlasting life in the world to come. That to such vile and sinful wretches as they had been, it was unspeakable mercy that they had yet a little space left, wherein to make peace with their God: for they might have gone on still in riot and wickedness, and been suddenly snatcht away in the very acts of their impiety Etc. These and many other pressing exhortations, together with severe threatnings to affright them and sweet promises to allure them, taken from the Word of God, were made use of, to bring them to a due sense of their sins, and to cry mightily to God for salvation. But the deaf adder refuses the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely All this good seed could take no root, or produce very little visible fruit on the stony ground of two of these Prisoners obdurate hearts; they not seeming (to outward appearance at least) to take that due and sensible notice of this most important counsel, as might be expected from persons in their condition. But the Spirit bloweth where it listeth. The third seemed much affected with this pious advice, and was very earnest and frequent in bewailing his sins, and condemning himself bitterly for having so wickedly mis-spent his precious time heretoforr. He acknowledged to some, that he had several years been a Thief, but not till of late upon the High-way: that at fust his Conscience would after every fact severely check him; but since custom of sinning taking away the sense, he had run on from one degree of wickedness to a greater without controul. He was very frequent in Prayer, wherein he has been heard to express himself to this effect.

Most dreadful and glorious God, though then hatest all the workers of iniquity, yet through the Mediation of they blessed son, with pity behold me a miserable sinner. Had I lived according to thy Commandments, or submitted to the Gospel of thy son, I might approach thee with the confidence of a childe: but I have been a Rebel against thee from my youth up, forgetting the God that made me, and the saviour that redeemed me, quenching and grieving the holy spirit, and slighting the endless Glory which thou hast prepared for me. Oh the precious time which I have lost, which all the world cannot call back; the wonderful love which I unthankfully rejected! How have I lived in continual acts of all kinde of Profaneness, all kind of Debanchery, whoring, swearing, Drunkenness, and especially Theft, which now has brought me to this woful, forlorn, condemned case wherein I am a shame to my friends, and burden to my self; and thou, O God, art my Terrour, who shouldot be my onely Hope and Comfort. Lord, thou knowest my secret sins, which yet are unknown to men, and all their Aggravations. Mine iniquities, Lord, have found me out; my fears and sorrows overwhelm me: a shameful death expects me in this world, and endless torments are ready to receive me in the other. But, Lord! thy Goodness is equal to thy Greatness, thy Mercy over all thy works. Good God, be merciful therefore unto me, the vilest of sinners: save me for thy abundant mercy, for the merit of thy Son, and for the promise of forgiveness which thou hast made through him; for in these alone is all my trust. Thou who didst patiently endure me when I despised thee, Oh do not refuse me now I seek unto thee, and in the dust implore thy mercy. Lord, I ask not for longer life in this world, but for life eternal; not for liberty to sin again, but for deliverance from this sinning nature, and that body of death which overwhelms me. To this purpose Lord give me thy grace to improve these few minutes, and prepare me for death and Judgement; that when I leave this world with Shame, I may be received into glory, and yeeld my departing soul with joy into the faithful hands of my Redeemer. Amen.

He behaved himself very penitently in the Cart, Prayed a considerable time by himself privately at the place of Execution; desired all people to take warning by him to avoid Idleness and Ill Company, which brought him to this Ignominious End. The other joyned in the publick Prayers, but said very little that could be heard. But all of them together suffered very patiently, and with submissive acknowledgements of the Justice of the Sentence.

(Via the invaluable Old Bailey Online)

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