On this date in 1721, Joseph Hanno was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for the murder of his wife, Nanny.
He’d killed her “in a very barbarous manner” on November 10 the previous year: while she was getting ready for bed, he struck her twice in the head with the blunt end of an ax and then slit her throat. He made a feeble attempt to pass the murder off as a suicide, but the coroner’s jury was not fooled.
Perhaps surprisingly, Weiner believes the answer is yes:
In general, free black men received rather even treatment in the New England judicial system, at least at this period … They were entitled to the full range of legal rights, with the important exception of the ability to serve on juries. There also was no marked inequality between the punishments they received and those of white convicts. And though Hanno, in particular, certainly faced hostility and anger in the courtroom, in [Judge Samuel] Sewall, he was facing no irredeemably biased magistrate; in fact, years earlier, Sewall had written the first antislavery pamphlet published in the American Northeast.
Weiner notes that Hanno “had no defense counsel, for at the time the institution was almost unknown.” He may have hoped to beat the rap because there were no witnesses to the murder. But the jury convicted him and the judge pronounced the sentence of death.
Ultimately, Hanno himself admitted his guilt.
Other than her name, nothing is known about the victim in this case. But we know something about the perpetrator because of a sermon preached at the time of his execution and distributed in pamphlet form under the bombastic title of “TREMENDA: The DREADFUL SOUND with which the WICKED are to be THUNDERSTRUCK, Delivered upon the Execution of a MISERABLE AFRICAN for a most inhumane and uncommon MURDER.”
Hanno had been brought over from Africa on a slave ship as a child and grew up in slavery. He was freed in 1707, when he was about forty years old, and then settled down in Boston with his wife.
He was literate and his masters brought him up as a Christian, and he enjoyed “vain gloriously Quoting of Sentences” from the Bible. Indeed, when Cotton Mather offered spiritual counsel to the condemned, Hanno boasted, “I have a great deal of knowledge. Nobody of my color, in old England or new, has so much.”
Replied the minister (without apparent irony), “I wish you were less puffed up with it.”
Hanno himself seems to have subscribed to the “slippery slope” theory of criminality. A newspaper account of his execution says he
hoped that all Mankind would take warning by him to keep themselves from committing such Sin & Wickedness as he was guilty of, particularly, Sabbath-breaking and willful Murder, the one being the Ringleader to the other, for which last he was justly Condemned, which had he not been guilty of the first he might probably have never committed the second.
An aside: although he may have been the only person executed that day, Joseph Hanno didn’t stand alone on the gallows.
At the same time a white woman did public penance on the same gallows. Her crime: giving birth to a child of mixed race. This being considered the lowest depth of self-degradation (especially if the father was a Negro), the woman was made to sit on the gallows with a noose around her neck — a sign of extreme disgrace. Then she was whipped through the streets until her back was raw. (Source)
As criminals go, the Lennie mutineers were neither organized nor gifted. Indeed, they likely did not fancy themselves mutineers when they perpetrated a triple-murder of the officer corps on board the vessel during high seas.
Matteo Cargalis, Pascalis Caludis, George Kaida, and Giovanni Carcaris were hanged on this date for that “atrocious conspiracy” in Newgate prison’s largest mass execution behind closed doors.
As they say, you get what you pay for, and Captain Stanley Hatfield apparently didn’t pay too well. His ragtag crew of multinationals — Turks, Greeks, Dutch, Belgians, and possibly others (Hatfield himself was a Canadian) — was in it for the money when the vessel left Antwerp bound for New Orleans on 24 October 1875.
The circumstances of the mutiny’s start are hazy, but what is clear is that the entire ship’s complement excluding first officer, cabin boy, and steward were on deck in heavy seas about 10 days out. What seems to have been a minor labor dispute resulted in Hatfield and Second Mate Richard Macdonald being summarily dispatched by stabbing; the first mate, Joseph Wortley, was sought out below and shot in his quarters.
Since the crew was all in now, the murderers and a small group of associates pressed the remainder of the deckhands into service. The two remaining persons belowdecks were now let out. The Belgian steward, Constant von Hoydonck (spelled in various ways, but Anglicized in what seems to be the most popular way), and the cabin boy, Henri Trousselot, were given the option to join the rest of the crew.
To the now-leaderless and ill-educated rebellious deck crew, Von Hoydonck’s literacy made him was the best hope of finding safe harbor, and Von Hoydonck hammed it up like Mark Hamill going on about Tosche Station.
Trousselot was worth little (though he was also literate), and he gamely followed Von Hoydonck’s lead and elected to join the mutineers.
The rest of the tale reads like a Hardy Boys story, with an implausible plot built around incompetent characters.
Apparently, one of the Greek crew members knew someone back home that he felt would be interested in the vessel, so the crew now had a “plan”. All they needed was a quick trip through the Strait of Gibraltar followed by a trip across the Mediterranean, and they were home free! Von Hoydonck volunteered to navigate the course to the Strait, but rather than head southeast, he led the ship straight back toward the French coast.
The details of the voyage, embellished and colorfully littered with age-appropriate judgments about Greeks, were handled by the newspaper “The Age” in 1958:
When France was sighted he brazenly told them it was Spain, and sailed along the coast.
When they asked why he hugged the shore, he told them it was to avoid the chief traffic routes and the consequent danger of being hailed by another ship…
By November 14 he had navigated the Lennie between the Isle of Rhe and the French mainland. In spite of rough seas he brought the ship almost within hailing distance of the short and then calmly ordered the anchor to be let go.
This was carried out promptly enough by the slow-thinking mutineers, but after some ten minutes what intelligence they had started to function, and they swarmed round remanding to know why they were at anchor.
[Von Hoydonck] surveyed them coldly and pointed out that that the coast of Spain (which, of course, was some 250 miles away) was rocky and dangerous, and as they could not risk standing out into the traffic lanes they must anchor here until the heavy sea subsided.
The mutineers were not satisfied with this explanation and angrily threatened to send him after the ship’s officers.
[Von Hoydonck], playing his part superbly, indignantly informed them that as they seemed to have so little faith in his handling of the ship they could sail her themselves. He then went below, slamming the companion door behind him as if in a temper.
Von Hoydonck then had Trousselot write up notices of the mutiny in French, English, and Dutch; these letters were placed in a dozen or more bottles and slipped out a port hole, hopefully to quickly reach shore. Meanwhile, the mutineers decided they really needed that navigationally competent steward and urgently repaired relations with him.
The storm subsided during the night and Von Hoydonck got some sleep. By morning, the mutineers had taken the initiative, and they rounded the Isle of Rhe and traced down the Isle of Oleron toward a lighthouse that — to the geographically confused crew — looked mighty like the Pillars of Hercules.
Unfortunately, it failed to meet the one critical test: the pinch of island and shore lacked the distinctive Rock of Gibraltar.
Von Hoydonck offered the lame excuse that, instead of risking the Mediterranean, he had led them to a nearly uninhabited part of the French coast, where they could get off the boat without risk of being found out. Six of the more aggressive members of the mutineers took this bait, so they hopped a life boat and scuttled to shore.
Five mutineers now remained, and none of them was particularly big on the cause. So Von Hoydonck followed up his successful bluff by clambering up the rigging in the dead of night to raise the flag of distress. He then took to the deck with a pair of revolvers and waited for morning.
The bottles had done their job, and the French man-of-war Tirailleur was dispatched immediately when authorities heard of the trouble; her crew quickly spotted the Lennie.
The six who had gone ashore were almost as swiftly rounded up on the mainland.
In all, eight of the 11 on board were put on trial, and only the four implicated directly in the murders of the officers were found guilty* and sentenced to death.
At the time, the Lennie was quite well-known; the actions of Von Hoydonck were celebrated in the local press, and the crown awarded Von Hoydonck 50 pounds for his actions.**
Strangely, the ship’s story has slipped into obscurity,† perhaps because reality in this case sounds like a plot written for 8-year-olds.
* Though the vessel’s occupants had mutinied, the British had the crew extradited under charges of murder. Two of the defendants were released by the technicalities of the extradition treaty.
** Constant von Hoydonck went on to own a pub in Middlesex and was bankrupt by 1892. Henri Trousselot moved to New Zealand, where he and others are memorialized for attending to a double shipwreck in Timaru; he lived to 66.
† The Record of Yarmouth Shipping reports that the Lennie was refitted and carried on to New Orleans with a new crew.
Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.
Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.
When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.
He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.
Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”
Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.
But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.
In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.
What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?
For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.
Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?
On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.
Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.
Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”
Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.
The crimes of Mervyn Touchet (executed on May 14, 1631), second Earl of Castlehaven, caused a sensation in Stuart England.
Convicted of rape and sodomy by a jury of his aristocratic peers, his crimes were alleged to have taken place under his roof and against members of his own family. While all of the witnesses against Touchet stood to gain materially from his death and various household servants did present evidence which contradicted that of his wife and son (who testified against him), he, as household head, was clearly unable to maintain proper order and obedience within his own house and this was instrumental in ensuring his conviction.
In this sense, although his alleged crimes were themselves horrific, it was Castlehaven’s subversion of expected social roles and modes of conduct in the context of his disordered household which truly shocked contemporaries (as Cynthia B. Herrup has skillfully argued in her study of the Castlehaven case, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven).
Mervyn was born in 1593, the eldest son of Lucy Mervyn and George Touchet; the latter was Baron Audley in the English peerage and, from 1616 until his death a year later, first earl of Castlehaven in the Irish peerage. Details of the future Earl’s childhood are scant.
From the time he was seven, in 1600, his family appears to have lived largely in Ireland, first on their estates in Munster and later in county Tyrone and Armagh (although they were in England sporadically, such as in 1594 when the elder Touchets were present at an inn in Beaconsfield to see their daughter Maria clandestinely marry the heir of John and Joan Thynne, Thomas, initiating a prolonged feud between the two families).
In 1608, Mervyn’s father settled the family’s English properties on his son and, while he remained in Ireland, Mervyn took up residence in England in the counties of Somerset and Dorset. In keeping with his new status as a propertied gentleman, he was knighted in the same year.
Sometime in this period Mervyn also embarked on legal studies and, in 1611, he was admitted to the Middle Temple. Around this time he also began his first marriage, taking as his wife Elizabeth Barnham, the daughter (and one of the co-heirs) of Benedict Barnham, a London alderman.
Through this match Mervyn gained additional properties in Middlesex, Hampshire, Kent, and Essex. Roughly a year after the marriage ceremony, in 1612, the couple’s first son, James Touchet, was baptized. The pair went on to have two more sons, George and Mervyn, and three daughters, Lucy, Dorothy, and Frances.
Upon his father’s death in 1617, Mervyn inherited his lands in Ireland and the title of Earl of Castlehaven, becoming the second Earl. It is also possible that he converted to Catholicism during this period. While Castlehaven steadfastly denied this, most of his children later became active Catholics, perhaps as a result of their early upbringing in these years.
Following the death of Elizabeth in 1622, Castlehaven remarried in 1624, this time to Lady Anne Brydges, nee Stanley, who was born in 1580 and was to outlive her husband by sixteen years. The widow of Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos, Anne was roughly thirteen years older than her new husband but she also had several young children from her first marriage and the two families now became one.
This dynastic merger was further consolidated when Anne’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was married to Castlehaven’s heir, James, in 1628. Elizabeth was all of 13 years old at the time.
Both marriages proved to be disastrous. In particular, the marriage of Elizabeth and James was dismal affair and ultimately led to the Earl of Castlehaven’s execution. By 1629, James had left the family estate (and his teen wife) at Fonthill Gifford and Elizabeth had become involved with Castlehaven’s favoured servant, Henry Skipwith.
It remains unclear whether this was a consensual relationship or, as was later charged, Castlehaven arranged for Skipwith to rape his step-daughter and daughter-in-law. What is certain is that Castlehaven persisted in showing great favour to Skipwith, which resulted in a confrontation between James and his father and ended with James complaining to King Charles I about his father’s conduct.
With this complaint, a formal inquiry was launched into the allegedly disorderly environment of the Touchet home.
The results of this inquiry, conducted by the Privy Council, revealed abominable crimes, in particular rape and sodomy. On April 25, 1631, the Earl was put on trial, charged with committing sodomy with a servant and assisting another servant, Giles Broadway, with the rape of his own wife, Anne, the Countess of Castlehaven (Anne alleged that the Earl had restrained her while Broadway assaulted her).
Henry Skipwith was never formally charged for his affair with Castlehaven’s daughter-in-law but rumour abounded of Castlehaven’s involvement in this as well (either in terms of instigating the rape, if such it was, or as a panderer who encouraged the illicit affair).
Special scaffolding was erected in Westminster Hall to accommodate the huge numbers that turned up to witness the trial and news writers throughout the realm and as far away as colonial North America speculated about the case and the outcome of the trial. Charles I, who prided himself on his happy and close-knit domestic life, was particularly shocked by Castlehaven’s behaviour and remarked that he hoped the “obscene tragedy” would quickly pass.
At the trial itself, twenty-seven peers acted as both judge and jury against Castlehaven and the testimony of six witnesses, including that of the Countess of Castlehaven and her daughter, was recorded by the court.
Their testimony painted a vivid picture of the Castlehaven household at Fonthill Gifford as a den of sexual iniquity and debauchery.
According to the Countess, Castlehaven had sexually and physically abused her from the very beginning of their marriage and this had culminated with Broadway’s rape of her at with Castlehaven’s assistance. Anne revealed that, within a few days of their wedding, the Earl was consorting openly with prostitutes and household serving boys.
She reported that he had commanded the couple’s servants to expose themselves to her and goaded her into illicit relationships with his friends and favoured servants, whom he also encouraged to embezzle money from the estate. She also alleged that, following the marriage of her daughter to Castlehaven’s heir, James, the crazed Earl had concocted a scheme to have Henry Skipwith impregnate the girl with his bastard, whom James would be forced to recognize as his own.
Throughout the trial Castlehaven was described as unstable, erratic, dissolute, and utterly devoid of religious faith and piety.
In his defence, Castlehaven alleged that he was the victim of a plot orchestrated by his family to commit judicial murder and inherit his estate and wealth. The most he would admit was over-generosity to a few of his favoured servants. He countered the charges by accusing his wife of infanticide and adultery and charging his son and daughter-in-law/step-daughter with greed.
As he reminded the court, all the witnesses against him stood to benefit a great deal from his death. Likewise, he told the court that the testimony against him on the rape charges was logically inconsistent and the reports of sodomy did not prove penetration and, without that definitive act, the sodomy charges were not sustainable.
While he was accused of subverting the natural order and not properly governing his household, he painted himself as the victim of his inferiors, who were the ones truly guilty of threatening the natural order by plotting against him.
The preserved records from the trial demonstrate that the evidence against Castlehaven was spotty and ill-sustained. The jury took several hours to deliberate and reach a verdict and, ultimately, twenty-six of the twenty-seven peers voted to convict on the charges of rape but only fifteen were persuaded by the allegations of sodomy.
After his conviction, some members of Castlehaven’s natural family, including his siblings, petitioned the crown for a pardon based on the alleged corruption of the witnesses against him. But Charles I refused to consider it or to investigate the suspicions of corruption while Castlehaven himself refused to confess his guilt and seek a pardon on his own behalf.
When he was taken to the scaffold on Tower Green on May 14, Touchet orally protested the verdict while affirming his acceptance of the King’s right to try and execute him. He also made a final declaration of his loyalty to the Church of England.
Almost immediately after his execution, various broadsides and pamphlets describing the lurid details of the cases and the motivations of those involved began to circulate, ensuring that it remained a topic of discussion and rumour for years to come.
While several writers argued for Castlehaven’s guilt, others, including his sister, Eleanor, authored a number of tracts which proclaimed his innocence and decried the wickedness of his accusers.
In July, two of the Earl’s alleged accomplices were put to death (the household page who was alleged to have committed sodomy with Castlehaven, and Giles Broadway, who aided Touchet in the supposed rape of his wife).
While these two servants had confessed to their crimes (aware that, as Castlehaven had already been convicted and executed, there was little chance that they would be acquitted and confessing meant that some mercy in the manner of their deaths would be shown to them by the state), the details of their confessions offered some support to Castlehaven’s accusations of corruption on the part of his wife and son and so the question of his guilt remained unresolved for many.
With his father’s death, James Touchet had the title of Earl of Castlehaven and his father’s lands conferred upon him by the crown. The executed Earl’s widow did not remarry and James Touchet was never reconciled with his wife, whose alleged misconduct with the servant Henry Skipwith had initiated the prosecution against the Earl.
While the Castlehaven case is often cited as both a potent example of the dangers inherent in the subordination of household discipline and as a celebrated case in the history of the treatment of homosexuality, it also established an important precedent regarding the right of a wife to testify against her husband in cases of marital cruelty and rape.
On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.
A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.
He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.
Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.
The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.
On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:
Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well
Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”
In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.
This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.
Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.
Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.
Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.
Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.
The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.
Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.
The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.
At the time Richard came to grief at Bosworth Field, Edmund’s older brother John was the official (as designated by Richard) heir to the throne. John instead submitted to the victorious Henry VII, only to try his hand at Lambert Simnel’s ill-fated 1487 rebellion. John de la Pole died in battle.
Edmund de la Pole was about 15 years old at that point … and he had just become the potential leading Yorkist claimant.
Many years of on-again, off-again civil strife over the English throne had preceded this, and nobody in 1487 could say with confidence that many more such years might not lie ahead. Henry VII was proceeding cautiously, trying to keep former Yorkists in the tent.
But although the king permitted Edmund to succeed to his brother’s attainted Dukedom, the title was later stripped — leading Edmund to flee for the continent in 1501, and the fate of the knockabout pretender.
Sadly, his exile would end not in a tragically glorious failed invasion, nor a dastardly conspiracy foiled at the last moment. No, Edmund de la Pole wound up on the scaffold this way:
He was riding shotgun on the boat of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, en route to Spain on a journey having nothing to do with the Yorkist cause;
A gale forced the boat into an English port;
Henry VII forced Maximilian to give up Edmund de la Pole as his exit fee from that English port, although Maximilian extracted the promise that the Yorkist pretender would not be harmed, only confined;
Henry VII died and his hotheaded young successor Henry VIII decided that he wasn’t bound by dad’s promises.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
On this date in 1680, an unusual public execution took place in West Ham.
John Marketman (Manchetman) was a ship’s surgeon, which he spelled “chirurgeon” because it was olden days. Being away at sea gave him a lots of time to picture how his wife Mary Snerlin back home might be cuckolding him, and when he arrived back one time to apparent corroborating information, he went a little nutso.
According to the trial record from the spring 1680 Chelmsford Assizes,
the circumstances of the bloody Deed was sworn to as followeth, the Prisoner being newly come on Shore, having been at Sea for a considerable time, was informed that she had been over lavish of her Favours to a Neighbour of hers, being by profession a Shoemaker; he being newly come from Sea and coming home as it is said surprized her too familiar with the said Shoemaker, whereupon he in a Rage threatned [sic] her, yet notwithstanding the Rage of Jealousie, he seemed reconciled, but to the contrary retaining an inward hatred, which she perceiving, fled to a neighbours house, thinking to stay whilst his Anger was overpast, yet he with a seem’d Reconciliation, came to invite her home, and came up to her as if he would imbrace her, but with his bloody hands he stab’d her with a Knife under her Right Breast, about four inches deep,* of which Wound she in a little time died, only confessing her innocence, at his Trial he did not deny the Fact, and after his being convicted did confess his Rashness in proceeding on such Cruelty, without the least remorse, after he was found Guilty of wilful Murder and received Sentence of Death, he seemed exceeding Penitent, and did bewail his cruel Crime, shedding many Tears, that he had given himself over to the suggestions of the Prince of darkness, and so continued to the utmost.
There are somewhat different twists on the underlying facts of the case from different sources — like the profession of the alleged lover, and the question of whether Marketman caught them in flagrante delicto or merely heard town gossip, and the matter of whether he took revenge with cold calculation or in more of a drunken fury. Fill it out however you like; in outline we have one of the stock classics of homicide.
But at receiving his sentence, Marketman did something remarkable: he asked the judge to alter the sentence and be hung not at the usual execution spot in Chelmsford, but in West Ham — “the town where he did perpetrate the wicked act.”
Marketman, you could say, really went all-out from that very first moment to put on a full-dress, no-holds-barred scaffold performance par excellence. He should have been in the business of scripting deaths.
Besides hanging in West Ham, Marketman had his mother (“poor Soul drowned in Sorrow,” in the words of a pamphlet titled “True Narrative of the Execution of John Marketman”**) lead him personally to the gallows. There a minister preached on 2 Corinthians 7:9, “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” — demonstratively comforting Marketman that his imminent strangulation would stand “a monument to divine justice … in and thorow you, God sheweth the consequences of a sinful and wicked life.”
This was the evolving principle of executions as exemplary deterrence, and Marketman was ready to play the part in his final turn. He spoke for a long time, with the swooning mother right there as evidence, on how he
had been very disobedient to his too indulgent parents, and that he had spent his youthful days in profanation of the Sabbath and licentious evils of debaucheries beyond expression, and that he had been over penurious in his narrow observance of his wive’s ways, desirous that all should pray to the Eternal God for his everlasting welfare, and with many pious expressions ended this mortal life.
In focusing on the theatrical aspects of Marketman’s execution, we don’t mean to suggest that the sea-chirurgeon’s encounter with his death was in any way insincere: present-day executions too comprise a ritualized performance in which a good many dying prisoners are very willing to participate. (Modern American executions behind prison walls don’t map to the take-warning-from-my-fate discourse, but it’s quite common for those on the gurney to offer victims’ witnesses the “closure” shibboleth.)
The early-modern condemned were widely expected to give a pedagogical account of themselves before execution, and widely complied with the expectation. Marketman simply underscores the surprising extent to which a fellow will not only comply but actively assert his part in his own death. Marketman wanted his hanging to embody redemption, instruction, and the majesty of the law that hanged him. Maybe in his heart of hearts he even wanted that before he knifed poor Mary Snerlin.
The chirurgeon went so far as to write a prison letter to his supposed rival: “As for the injury you have done me, I freely from my heart forgive you, begging God to give you grace that you may unfeignedly repent of all your sins, that God may have mercy on your soul.”
See J.A. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past & Present, May 1985.
We wish well the restive shades of Patrick Rena, Thomas Dobbings, Thomas Walker, and Arthur Gibbons; the former two died for a violent robbery upon the roads, and the latter two for a violent robbery upon the Thames.
But our attention for this date is to the fifth man. Richard Coleman also drew the attention of those present, both for the monstrous crime he was accused of, and for his steady assertion of innocence. The minister assigned to salvage these wrongdoers’ souls, which was also a not entirely reputable marketing business in selling scaffold exclusives, knew a lead story when he saw one.
Coleman was executed for being part of a gang of three men who raped to death a woman named Sarah Green on the night of July 23, 1748. He was in no way implicated in this horrific crime for well over a month, a time when the victim lay precariously in hospital.
But by the next April, well … he was the man as far as the law was concerned. Coleman protested his innocence in vain, via Rev. Wilson; the latter’s hanging-day chapbook made Coleman the distinct feature attraction.
The following Paper was delivered to me at the Place of Execution, by Richard Coleman, which he earnestly desired I would publish.
To all Christian People.
The dreadful Sentence passed upon me, I shall meet with Cheerfulness, being in no Degree conscious of the least Guilt of that most inhuman and most unnatural Crime that I have been found guilty of.
I am very sensible that it is not in my Power to make the incredulous World believe me innocent. I leave the following Account with the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who I am very greatly obliged to, and return him my hearty Thanks, for the comfortable Relief I have received from him in a Preparation for a future State of Bliss, and I hope he will cause it to be published for m Satisfaction, that it may pass the impartial Examination of all Persons.
Here Coleman proceeds to give a detailed, almost hour-by-hour account of his activities on the night of the murder … and the activities of those around him.
Coleman was at pains to do this not only to assert his own innocence, but to decry a particular witness who ought to have supported his alibi but instead made it known “that if he was subpoenaed he should do me more Harm than Good … The Occasion of expressing himself in that severe Manner, I suppose, was owing to his being unluckily found by me with Mrs. B—t in very indecent Actions soon after her Husband’s Death; and having been often detected by me in the same Manner, it has caused ill Blood between us.”
Whether this man’s testimony would have made the difference one can only guess. At any rate, Coleman insisted,
On Monday the 25th of July I heard that a Woman had been used very ill by three of our Men, but no-body was taken up for it till a Quarrel happened between me and one [Daniel] T[rotma]n, at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse in Bandy-Leg Walk, which was as follows:
– On the 27th of August last … I was very much in Liquor; we had a Pint of Bumbo in the publick Room; and as I was stirring it with a Spoon, Trotman, an entire Stranger to me, very abruptly asked me what was done with the Pig, (meaning a Pig that our Men had taken and killed belonging to a Neighbour, and had been in Custody for it.) … I said to Trotman, Damn the Pig, what is it to me. He damn’d me, and I him; we gave each other very bad Language, and because it had been reported that three or four of our Men committed the Cruelty on Sarah Green, he made use of the following aggravating Words, namely (says he) Don’t you know Kennington Lane. I reply’d yes, I do, damn you, what of that? He said again don’t you know the Woman that was so cruelly treated, Yes, said I, Damn you what of that? Said he, was not you one of the Persons concerned in doing it; I reply’d if I was, you Dog what then, and immediately threw the Spoon at him. He returned it in the same Manner at me, and had it not been for the Persons present we should have fought.
The Morning after the Quarrel happened I called at the Queen’s Arms Alehouse; and Mr. C—t, who keeps the House, said to me Mr. Coleman you was silly last Night … and he repeated the Discourse aforesaid, and told me I did not consider what Advantage bad People might make of such unguarded Expressions. I reply’d that I was much in Liquor, and did not remember what I said.
But as prophesied, the offended Daniel Trotman and a woman in the pub who witnessed the exchange did indeed proceed on the basis of this “admission” to swear out an oath against Coleman who
was carried to the poor Woman in St. Thomas’s Hospital, to see if she knew any Thing of me; and when I came before her I was particularly pointed out by Mr. C— P—e, who laid his Hand on me, and said, is this one of the Men; which was not fair, for she should [not] have fixed upon me without being dictated. Upon that she said I believe he is one. I said to her consider well what you say, for my Life is at Stake. Will you swear I am one of the Persons. She reply’d, No I won’t, and likewise said if I was one of them we walked a good Way, and talk’d of indifferent Things, and you behav’d much like a Gentleman; but when she was assaulted, I ran away, which was not behaving like a Man.
Coleman’s story was that he wasn’t with Sarah Green as friend or foe at all that night. The justice of the peace clearly thought little enough of Green’s sketchy witness guesstimate that Coleman was released on his own word to return for more questioning.
The next scene at Sarah Green’s bedside begins with Coleman outside the room, and the victim asked
what sort of a Man Mr. Coleman was. She reply’d that he wore his Hair, and had a Carroty Beard. As to having my own Hair she was mistaken, for I have not wore it these 14 Years.
His Worship asked the Deceased if she could swear that I aided or assisted in the Assault. She said No, I cannot, for it was dark.
I was called in, and she made the following Information.
This Informant on her Oath says, that on Saturday Night the 23rd of July last between the Hours of 11 and 12 o’Clock, as she was going thro’ Newington Church-Yard to her Lodging in Bandy-Leg-Walk, she was assaulted and cruelly beaten by two Men to her unknown, and that R. Coleman was present in her Company at the Time she was assaulted and cruelly treated.
Coleman would say in his last publication that he believed Sarah Green was coached. Being conscious of innocence — we’ll come to that — the evidence aligning against him must have struck the young man as the product of an evil hand. Maybe it was just a lot of circumstantial stuff and half-mistaken witnesses falling into a terrible pattern.
The next mischance to befall the accused was that his victim/accuser succumbed to her injuries prior to the formal September 19 hearing.
This made the charge against him murder. Well, rape was already a capital crime, so no real change for Coleman … except that he had now lost the chance to confront openly a witness whose testimony sounds from the hospital interviews like it was eminently impeachable. Now, Green’s last affidavit was going to her final word on the matter.*
Coleman fled the warrant consequently taken out for him, which was read as evidence of guilt by neighbors who had the luxury of not reckoning their own survival odds upon a jury-box. Coleman says he tried to place an advertisement which a lily-livered editor rejected, reading
I, Richard Coleman, seeing myself advertised in the Gazette as absconding on Account of the Murder of Sarah Green, knowing my self not any ways culpable, do assert, that I have not absconded from Justice, but will readily and willingly appear at the Assizes, knowing my Innocence will acquit me.
From some combination of partiality, malice, and groupthink, some additional eyewitness testimony — people who think they might have seen him that night, people who swear they talked to Coleman and Green together but never thought to bring it up to the authorities until he was arrested, and alibi witnesses of his own whom jurors disbelieved — Coleman was judged guilty and doomed to the noose.
Basically, the evidence against him was that he’d popped off to Daniel Trotman while in his cups, Sarah Green (mostly) ID’d him, and some people thought he’d been seen with her in the dark that night while some of Coleman’s own friends and relatives claimed otherwise. There isn’t exactly going to be crime lab evidence here, nor was there an explicit threshold for jurors to require near-certainty to convict. It probably looked to the court like a pretty darn good case.
Coleman had no recourse but to commit his futile self-vindication to posterity.
I do also most solemnly protest, that I am not in any Manner of Degree guilty of that most inhuman Murder of Sarah Green, neither was I at Newington, or in Kennington-Lane that Night that the cruel Fact was committed on Sarah Green.
This I declare as a dying Man, and I sincerely believe (as the Rev. Mr. Wilson told me several Times) if I was either directly or indirectly guilty of that Murder, and should go out of the World with denying it, that eternal Damnation would be my Portion.
… I have the Satisfaction to declare myself to the World (as I have often done to the Rev. Mr. Wilson) that I never was so serene in Mind, or so easy in my Conscience in my Life, as I am at this Time, and I heartily wish that every wicked Sinner may have the Opportunity of so good a Divine as the Rev. Mr. Wilson has been unto me, which must be a great Means to the Enjoyment of eternal Bliss.
It is an inexpressible Pleasure to me, that I am soon to leave this very wicked World; and I hope that GOD Almight of his infinite Mercy and Goodness, will, through the Merits and Intercession of my blessed Redeemer, his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, pardon all my Sins, and receive my Soul into eternal Happiness …
There is nothing that gives me so much Concern as the Distress that I leave my poor Wife and two Infants in. She has been very good to me under my unhappy Misfortune and so have my poor afflicted Brothers. I hope that the Almighty will be the Guardian of my Wife and Children.
We’ve been speaking of Coleman as categorically innocent but presented only conflicting and doubtful witnesses.
The resolution of the matter did not come until two full years after Coleman serenely strangled to death. The rest of the story was incautiously blabbed by a gentleman named James Welch to a companion as they walked the road to Newington Butts.
“Their conversation,” says the Newgate Calendar, “happened to turn on the subject of those who had been executed without being guilty; and Welch said: ‘Among whom was Coleman. Nichols, Jones and I were the persons who committed the murder for which he was hanged.’”
Maybe he should have chatted about the weather.
In the course of conversation Welch owned that, having been at a public-house called Sot’s Hole, they had drunk plentifully, and on their return through Kennington Lane they met with a woman, with whom they went as far as the Parsonage Walk, near the churchyard of Newington where she was so horridly abused by Nichols and Jones that Welch declined offering her any further insult.
Welch’s companion informed on him, but upon arrest there was no better evidence against Welch, Nichols, and Jones than there had been against Coleman. Actually, this later case was much weaker: one guy’s alleged hearsay statement.
In a classic prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, John Nichols was finally persuaded to turn crown’s evidence on the other two before they turned on him, and his testimony to the vile end of Sarah Green got his former mates hanged.
“The poor woman was treated in a manner too shocking to be described,” our correspondent relates. And “it appeared that at the time of the perpetration of the fact the murderers wore white aprons, and that Jones and Welch called Nichols by the name of Coleman — circumstances that evidently led to the conviction of the unfortunate man of that name.”
The hangings in the case of Sarah Green — both the right ones and the wrong one — occurred at the acme of Britain’s “Bloody Code” days.
It’s instructive to note that the reality of wrongful executions seems to have been widely accepted. In the case at hand, the Newgate Calendar does not mince words in describing Richard Coleman as innocent.
And while doubt about individual defendants’ guilt often led jurors to acquittals or the ad hoc “pious perjury” downgrading of potentially capital charges, the existence of this or that wrongful execution in no way imperiled the capital statutes as a whole. It was merely another risk in a brutal world all too full of them.
Just a few months after Welch and Jones went to the gallows, another woman controversially on trial for her life received from one of her correspondents a lament that “We see nothing more frequent than Persons confessing the Crimes that others had suffer’d for before.”
* Although Green’s case was a bit different since she actually had time to swear a statement, the legal footing of “dying declarations” vis-a-vis the usual right of a defendant to confront an accuser has long remained a jurisprudential sticky wicket.
In the early 15th century, France had stacked upon the woes of the Hundred Years War those of a civil war — between Armagnacs and Burgundians.
Burgundy, doughty duchy of Nibelungenlied renown, stretched to the Low Countries and was a gestating wealthy merchant state that perhaps had more in common with the English than with feudal, agrarian France. What Burgundy and England demonstrably had in common from 1419 was an alliance. Together, they bossed the northern half of what is now France during the endless Hundred Years War.
Thanks to this timely arrangement, the English came to occupy Paris — in Burgundian possession since 1418, when said party had bloodily ejected the French royalist Armagnacs.
Into this very low ebb of Valois fortunes entered Joan of Arc.
It is true that the king has made a truce with the duke of Burgundy for fifteen days and that the duke is to turn over the city of Paris at the end of fifteen days. Yet you should not marvel if I do not enter that city so quickly. I am not content with these truces and do not know if I will keep them.
-Joan of Arc, in a letter to Reims
Late in the 1420s, the illiterate farm girl somehow reversed the failing fortunes of the southerly French court. Joan, of course, will die at an English stake … but it is the Burgundians who will capture her.
At any rate, in 1429, Joan showed up and the French suddenly began going from victory to victory, knocking English and Burgundian heads in north-central France and culminating with having Charles VII crowned at Reims … which is actually north (well, northeast) of Paris.
Although Joan’s attack on Paris failed, advancing French arms put the fear of Holy Maid in the city and also cut off quite a lot of its rural food supply. “The capital itself was in a frightful state. As a result of interrupted communication and exposed supply routes, together with harassment by brigands and peasants, many Parisians were starving.”
This naturally led some of the Armagnac-inclined citizens of Paris to think about ways to give the city back up to the French. We take up the narration of Anatole France, on a plot revolving around the “Seigneur de l’Ours,” or Jaquet Guillaume. (From here (HTML), or here (PDF).)
He was not of gentle birth and his arms were the sign of his hostelry. It was the custom in those days to give the title of Seigneur to the masters of the great Paris inns. Thus Colin, who kept the inn at the Temple Gate, was known as Seigneur du Boisseau. The hôtel de l’Ours stood in the Rue Saint-Antoine, near the Gate properly called La Porte Baudoyer, but commonly known as Porte Baudet, Baudet possessing the double advantage over Baudoyer of being shorter and more comprehensible. It was an ancient and famous inn, equal in renown to the most famous, to the inn of L’Arbre Sec, in the street of that name, to the Fleur de Lis near the Pont Neuf, to the Epée in the Rue Saint-Denis, and to the Chapeau Fétu of the Rue Croix-du-Tirouer. As early as King Charles V’s reign the inn was much frequented. Before huge fires the spits were turning all day long, and there were hot bread, fresh herrings, and wine of Auxerre in plenty. But since then the plunderings of men-at-arms had laid waste the countryside, and travellers no longer ventured forth for fear of being robbed and slain. Knights and pilgrims had ceased coming into the town. Only wolves came by night and devoured little children in the streets. There were no fagots in the grate, no dough in the kneading-trough. Armagnacs and Burgundians had drunk all the wine, laid waste all the vineyards, and nought was left in the cellar save a poor piquette of apples and of plums.
The Seigneur de l’Ours … was the proprietor of the house with the sign of the Bear (l’Ours). He held it by right of his wife Jeannette, and had come into possession of it in the following manner.
Fourteen years before, when King Henry with his knighthood had not yet landed in France, the host of the Bear Inn had been the King’s sergeant-at-arms, one Jean Roche, a man of wealth and fair fame. He was a devoted follower of the Duke of Burgundy, and that was what ruined him. Paris was then occupied by the Armagnacs. In the year 1416, in order to turn them out of the city, Jean Roche concerted with divers burgesses. The plot was to be carried out on Easter Day, which that year fell on the 29th of April. But the Armagnacs discovered it. They threw the conspirators into prison and brought them to trial. On the first Saturday in May the Seigneur de l’Ours was carried to the market place in a tumbrel with Durand de Brie, a dyer, master of the sixty cross-bowmen of Paris, and Jean Perquin, pin-maker and brasier. All three were beheaded, and the body of the Seigneur de l’Ours was hanged at Montfaucon where it remained until the entrance of the Burgundians. Six weeks after their coming, in July, 1418, his body was taken down from gibbet and buried in consecrated ground.
Now the widow of Jean Roche had a daughter by a first marriage. Her name was Jeannette; she took for her first husband a certain Bernard le Breton; for her second, Jaquet Guillaume, who was not rich. He owed money to Maître Jean Fleury, a clerk at law and the King’s secretary. His wife’s affairs were not more prosperous; her father’s goods had been confiscated and she had been obliged to redeem a part of her maternal inheritance. In 1424, the couple were short of money, and they sold a house, concealing the fact that it was mortgaged. Being charged by the purchaser, they were thrown into prison, where they aggravated their offence by suborning two witnesses, one a priest, the other a chambermaid. Fortunately for them, they procured a pardon.
The Jaquet Guillaume couple, therefore, were in a sorry plight. There remained to them, however, the inheritance of Jean Roche, the inn near the Place Baudet, at the sign of the Bear, the title of which Jaquet Guillaume bore. This second Seigneur de l’Ours was to be as strongly Armagnac as the other had been Burgundian, and was to pay the same price for his opinions.
Six years had passed since his release from prison, when, in the March of 1430, there was plotted by the Carmelites of Melun and certain burgesses of Paris that conspiracy which we mentioned on the occasion of Jeanne’s departure for l’Île de France. It was not the first plot into which the Carmelites had entered; they had plotted that rising which had been on the point of breaking out on the Day of the Nativity, when the Maid was leading the attack near La Porte Saint-Honoré; but never before had so many burgesses and so many notables entered into a conspiracy. A clerk of the Treasury, Maître Jean de la Chapelle, two magistrates of the Châtelet, Maître Renaud Savin and Maître Pierre Morant, a very wealthy man, named Jean de Calais, burgesses, merchants, artisans, more than one hundred and fifty persons, held the threads of this vast web, and among them, Jaquet Guillaume, Seigneur de l’Ours.
The Carmelites of Melun directed the whole. Clad as artisans, they went from King to burgesses, from burgesses to King; they kept up the communications between those within and those without, and regulated all the details of the enterprise. One of them asked the conspirators for a written undertaking to bring the King’s men into the city. Such a demand looks as if the majority of the conspirators were in the pay of the Royal Council.
In exchange for this undertaking these monks brought acts of oblivion signed by the King. For the people of Paris to be induced to receive the Prince, whom they still called Dauphin, they must needs be assured of a full and complete amnesty. For more than ten years, while the English and Burgundians had been holding the town, no one had felt altogether free from the reproach of their lawful sovereign and the men of his party. And all the more desirous were they for Charles of Valois to forget the past when they recalled the cruel vengeance taken by the Armagnacs after the suppression of the Butchers.
One of the conspirators, Jaquet Perdriel, advocated the sounding of a trumpet and the reading of the acts of oblivion on Sunday at the Porte Baudet.
“I have no doubt,” he said, “but that we shall be joined by the craftsmen, who, in great numbers will flock to hear the reading.”
He intended leading them to the Saint Antoine Gate and opening it to the King’s men who were lying in ambush close by.
Some eighty or a hundred Scotchmen, dressed as Englishmen, wearing the Saint Andrew’s cross, were then to enter the town, bringing in fish and cattle.
“They will enter boldly by the Saint-Denys Gate,” said Perdriel, “and take possession of it. Whereupon the King’s men will enter in force by the Porte Saint Antoine.”
The plan was deemed good, except that it was considered better for the King’s men to come in by the Saint-Denys Gate.
On Sunday, the 12th of March, the second Sunday in Lent, Maître Jean de la Chapelle invited the magistrate Renaud Savin to come to the tavern of La Pomme de Pin and meet divers other conspirators in order to arrive at an understanding touching what was best to be done. They decided that on a certain day, under pretext of going to see his vines at Chapelle-Saint-Denys, Jean de Calais should join the King’s men outside the walls, make himself known to them by unfurling a white standard and bring them into the town. It was further determined that Maître Morant and a goodly company of citizens with him, should hold themselves in readiness in the taverns of the Rue Saint-Denys to support the French when they came in. In one of the taverns of this street must have been the Seigneur de l’Ours, who, dwelling near by, had undertaken to bring together divers folk of the neighbourhood.
The conspirators were acting in perfect agreement. All they now awaited was to be informed of the day chosen by the Royal Council; and they believed the attempt was to be made on the following Sunday. But on the 21st of March Brother Pierre d’Allée, Prior of the Carmelites of Melun, was taken by the English. Put to the torture, he confessed the plot and named his accomplices. On the information he gave, more than one hundred and fifty persons were arrested and tried. On the 8th of April, the Eve of Palm Sunday, seven of the most important were taken to the market-place on a tumbrel. They were: Jean de la Chapelle, clerk of the Treasury; Renaud Savin and Pierre Morant, magistrates at the Châtelet; Guillaume Perdriau; Jean le François, called Baudrin; Jean le Rigueur, baker, and Jaquet Guillaume, Seigneur de l’Ours. All seven were beheaded by the executioner, who afterwards quartered the bodies of Jean de la Chapelle and of Baudrin.
Jaquet Perdriel was merely deprived of his possessions. Jean de Calais soon procured a pardon. Jeannette, the wife of Jaquet Guillaume, was banished from the kingdom and her goods confiscated.
Joan, for her part, had taken a noble prisoner named Franquet d’Arras. Anatole France says that after the plot was discovered, she attempted to exchange that hostage for Jaquet Guillaume. Having no affirmative reply, Joan proceeded to execute Arras shortly before her capture in May 1430 — a fact that was used against her at her trial.
On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.
That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.
The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.
The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.
Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.
Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.
Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.
Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.
While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.
Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.
Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.
She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.
By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.
One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.
When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”
As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.
A few days later he was dead.
Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.
When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.
‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.
Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:
The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.
Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”
There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.
The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.
In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.
There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:
With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.
Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.
Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.
Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.
She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.