Posts filed under 'England'

1743: James Hunt and Thomas Collins, Pepper-Alley sodomists

Add comment August 25th, 2016 Headsman

This date’s post arrives via Rictor Norton‘s rich Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England sourcebook. We have cited this page before, notably in connection with London’s “molly houses”, a subject upon which Norton literally wrote the book.

His online “Sourcebook” compiles a vast trove of primary records capturing the prevailing views of early modern England’s sexual dissidents. Many of these records are legal proceedings, though most of those do not end at the gallows. Whatever their various fates, the misfortune to come under the court’s scrutiny preserves for us a snapshot of their circumstances.

Hunt and Collins were caught in a liaison at a house on Pepper-Alley, which once gave access to one of London’s innumerable little stairways into the Thames from which watermen would ferry passengers across and along the river.

To the frustration of the Ordinary they persistently denied it. Indeed, Hunt, a 37-year-old barge builder and “one of the most unaccountable Men that was ever under the like Misfortune” insisted quite violently that he had been stitched up by perjuring witnesses. As an Anabaptist, the threats to his soul that the C-of-E prelate delivered did not much bother him.

“He was one of the most morose, il-natur’d, surly Creatures that could breathe, and was never at Peace one hour, but continually railing against his Prosecutors,” we find. And even when an Anabaptist pastor was brought in to persuade him, “he answered, ‘Say no more to me about it; I’ll forgive no Body, for I’ll die harden’d.’ — This was a most shocking Speech for a Man who had but a few Hours to live; but he continued to the last Moment in the same Manner.”

A bit more polite about it was Thomas Collins, who had returned to England after spending a career as a soldier in the army of Emperor Charles VI. Still, Collins would not own any actual rendezvous with Hunt, saying only that the two had met by accident on Pepper-Alley and gone to the “Necessary House” (an outdoor toilet) where they “had not been there much above a Minute before two Men came and said they were Sodomites, and pull’d him off the Seat, and turned his Pockets inside out” but finding no money stomped off, complaining “here is no Feathers to pluck.”

The Ordinary was highly dissatisfied with their behavior.

Where two Men who were convicted of such an attrocious [sic] Crime, upon the fullest Evidence that was ever given in any Court of Justice, should prevaricate so much, and behave in so indecent a Manner as they (especially Hunt) have done ever since their Condemnation; the World must be left to judge, whether they were Innocent or Guilty.

Held in Southwark Gaol, they were executed at Kennington Common alongside three other men and a woman (crimes: housebreaking, returning from transportation, murder, murder) where both “continued quite obstinate” with Hunt even refusing to kneel for prayers. While Hunt had friends or money enough to have a coach ready to carry his corpse away from the surgeons who haunted hang-days in search of prey for their anatomy theaters, one final posthumous indignity still awaited Mr. Collins — described by the Ipswich Journal in its September 3 edition:

LONDON, August 27.
The Body of Thomas Collins, executed on Kennington-Common for Sodomy, that was carried off by the Surgeons, being, on Examination, found to be infected with the Venereal Disease, was carried back to the Gallows and there left naked.

Read the full account at Rictor Norton’s site here, or peruse the rest of the Sourcebook including his Grub Street resources on all manner of commoner life and literature (LGBT-related and not) for the 18th century British.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Sex

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1774: Not Patrick Madan, saved at the death

1 comment August 19th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1774, convicted robber Patrick Madan and two other men went to Tyburn to be hanged for their crimes. Madan, however, was reprieved at the literal last minute.

He was standing at the dread triple tree with the noose already around his neck, the final prayers over, when a man in the crowd, Amos Merritt, cried out that Madan was innocent.

Confounded, the authorities ordered a short stay. For almost an hour the condemned men stood at the gallows with the ropes draped over their necks. Finally Madan was returned to prison and the others were hanged.

When brought before the magistrate, Merritt claimed he himself was guilty of the robbery Madan was convicted of. Madan was pardoned and Merritt was charged with the crime instead.

As recorded in Emma Christopher’s A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution:

Quite what had happened remained a mystery. Many claimed that Amos Merritt, hardly the repentant suddenly feeling the weight of his conscience as another man stood ready to be hanged for his crime, was really one of Madan’s own criminal crew who had put his neck on the line for his gang leader. Others maintained that Merritt really was guilty and had been forced by the many underworld characters who admired Madan to come forward and save him.

The saga did not end there. As it turned out Amos Merritt would not be required to make the ultimate sacrifice on this occasion, as when the case was retried at the Old Bailey, Merritt was acquitted. By then it was impossible for any jury to know who to believe.

If Merritt learned a lesson from this escapade it seems to have been overconfidence in his ability to game the system. Within a month of his release he committed another robbery, and was hanged less than five months later.

As for Patrick Madan, Christopher says, he “returned triumphantly to his gang, now a criminal celebrity.” His brushes with the law continued; according to Atlantic Biographies: Individuals and Peoples in the Atlantic World, Madan was eventually transported to Africa and there disappeared, amid never-substantiated rumors that he had made an escape to the New World or slipped back to London.


There’s another public domain life-of-Madan pamphlet available free from Google Books here.

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1741: Juan de la Silva, Spanish Negro

Add comment August 15th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 saw the hanging of Juan de la Silva for the slave plot to torch New York.

This second-last execution in that bloody affair takes us to a side plot we have not yet explored in our running series: the “Spanish Negroes”.

New York in 1741 was a distant outpost of the British empire, which itself had seized the colony from the Dutch not eighty years before. The ongoing Atlantic war that Britain was then fighting against Spain and France, winsomely christened the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was serious and frightening business out on the fringe of the wilderness.

The prospect of slave rebels doubling as a fifth column surely helped to stoke the coals under the stakes in 1741. When the Irish soldier William Kane was forced by the threat of execution into giving obviously specious testimony about the plot, he reported that the conspirators’ “design was to wait for the French and Spaniards, whom they expected; and if they did not come in six Weeks, then they were to try what they could do for themselves.” In fact, Spain had even published an offer of “Freedom to all Negroes, and other slaves, that shall Desert from the English Colonies.”

And it just so happened that there were men in New York at that very moment whose own persons straddled the threats within and without.

The previous year, a New York privateer named John Lush had gone adventuring in the Caribbean and returned home with two Spanish prize ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Vittoria and the Solidad … along with about 100 Spanish prisoners.

Among them were 19 dark-skinned men whom Lush described as Negroes or mulattoes and auctioned accordingly. The slaves or “slaves” protested in vain that they were free Spanish subjects, but having no evidence they could produce to that effect they were sold off to various households around the city, and obviously nonplussed about it.

On April 6, 1741, no fewer than four New York homes caught fire, and one of them was the next-door neighbor to one of those Spanish Negroes — to our man, in fact, Juan de la Silva. Someone put two and two together and by evening a cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” echoed around Manhattan. A mob descended on de la Silva and hauled him to jail, along with a number of other Lush imports.

Accusations against these Spanish Negroes have more than the usual ration of absurdity, and not only because of the language gap with the witnesses who “overheard” them. At one point, nine of them were brought in turn before two of the major crown witnesses, the slaves Sarah and Sandy, who variously described each as present or not present at the committee meetings; in only three instances did Sarah and Sandy produce the same answer about a Spaniard. They’d have done better flipping pieces of eight.

Investigation of the “Spanish Plot” angle would ultimately zero in on six of these prisoners-made-slaves.

One luckless fellow, named Francis, was tried among an early batch of (non-Spanish) slaves and wound up burned at the stake on June 12, an undercard attraction that day to the hanging of the supposed arch-villains John and Sarah Hughson. Francis spoke little English but this did not inhibit the Hughsons’ monolingual serving-girl Mary Burton from impeaching him: in Daniel Horsmanden‘s account, she tells the court that “She saw [Francis] often at the Meetings at Hughson’s when they were talking of burning the Town and killing the People; and he seemed to be consenting; he spoke a little English, and some other Language she did not understand.”

The very next day after Francis burned, the main body of “Spanish Negroes, lately imported into this City as Prize Slaves, were put to the Bar; and arraigned upon an Indictment for the Conspiracy.”

Though strangers in an enemy kingdom, Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito would fight their corner as ably as any who came before New York’s courts in that terrible year, and four of the five apparently lived to tell the tale.

Brought to trial on June 15, they ferociously renewed their protest against their enslavement. Horsmanden, who was both junior judge and senior investigator in this matter, noticed what a savvy approach this was. The bulk of evidence was slave testimony, and by the court’s rules slaves could only testify against other slaves. Getting themselves ruled free would be the colonial equivalent of having the DNA evidence suppressed.

They complained (as ’tis supposed, they were advised) that they had great Injustice done them by being sold here as Slaves; for that, as they pretended, they were Freemen in their own Country, and gave in their several Sir-names.

The Indictment was grounded upon an Act of Assembly which enumerated several Offences; and Conspiracies amongst the rest; and made one Slave Evidence against another; so that this Fetch might probably be calculated to take off the Negro Evidence: The Prisoners all protested they could not speak English; and as Mary Burton was the only white Evidence against them, and should it be credited that they could speak only in a Tongue which she did not understand, how could she tell what passed between them in Conversation at Hughson’s? Thus their Advisers might think they would stand the best Chance for the Jury to acquit them.

This was indeed an awkward argument. New York’s Supreme Court took a two-day adjournment to mull how to counter the gambit.

Its solution was quite bizarre. In a single trial, with a single jury, it would try the five men on two different indictments for the same crime: one indictment charged them as slaves; the other, as free men. Even their names varied with their station: from “Juan, Sarly’s” the slave locution indicating Juan’s owner, into the more dignified “Juan de la Sylva”.

This did allow the jurors to hear all the Negro evidence, from the several slaves who (like the Irishman Kane) were made to name whatever names the prosecutors demanded as the price of escaping a gallows of their own — plus, of course, Mary Burton, that ubiquitous accuser who said her late master had informed her that the Spanish Negroes “would burn Lush’s House, and tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.”

Still, the Spaniards mounted a resourceful defense.

They summoned no fewer than twelve witnesses, all white men and women; each also had his New York owner speak in defense. Four of those owners positively insisted that after a brutal winter their man had been confined at home with an ailment of some kind at the time he was alleged to be out making revolution. The fifth, Juan de la Silva’s master Jacob Sarly, could not posit an ailment but noted that Juan was not permitted out of the house at night and that Juan himself had discovered one of the fires and faithfully called the alarm to Salary’s wife. Sarly even acknowledged “that he heard that his Negro was free.”

Through an interpreter, each man also spoke in his own defense, generally insisting that they were not slaves and had not kept slaves’ company in New York.

The jury convicted them all just the same — “in about half an Hour,” as Horsmanden recalls it.

And then … something happened.

The Spanish Negroes all but disappear from the record for two months, months when New York conducted numerous additional executions but seemingly did not lay a hand on these condemned foreigners. What was afoot?

Two weeks after their conviction — during which time an offer of executive amnesty came and went — we catch sight of them again when they are brought out of the city dungeon for sentencing. The court’s translator was instructed to advise them to this effect:

1st. THAT they were taken with some Spaniards by an English Privateer; were brought into this Port, and condemned as lawful Prize, being suppos’d to be Slaves belonging to the Subjects of the King of Spain; and Nothing appear’d to the Court of Admiralty (which is the Court, to which Jurisdiction concerning Things of this Nature does properly belong) to shew that they were Freemen; and they having made no Pretence or Claim in that Court to be such, they were therefore adjudg’d to be Slaves.

2dly. That the Court of Admiralty having so adjudg’d them to be Slaves, they had been severally sold and disposed of; by which means they were discharged from Confinement in Prison; and thereby have had the Opportunity of caballing with other wicked, mischievous and evil disposed Persons, as well White-Men as Slaves, and have confederated themselves with them, in a most diabolical Conspiracy, to lay this City in Ashes, and to murder and destroy all the Inhabitants; whereas had they appear’d to have been Freemen, they would have been prevented this Opportunity of venting and gratifying the Rancour of their Hearts, by being closely confined as Prisoners of War.

3dly, If notwithstanding they were Free-men, they ought in all Reason to have waited the Event of the War, and suffer’d patiently under their Misfortune; and when Peace should have been concluded, they might have made the Truth of their Pretensions appear, and then Justice would have been done them.

But now, as they are found Guilty of this most horrid and villainous Conspiracy, by the Laws of our Land, Nothing remains but to pronounce Sentence of Death against them.

Accordingly they were Sentenced to be hanged.

Had they been offered the amnesty, but refused it — whether pridefully or tactically? How comes it that these are the very last words, in Horsmanden or anywhere else, that we have of Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito? One infers that these four must have been pardoned and transported out of New York like scores of other condemned slaves in that period, though these pardons are themselves extensively recorded by Horsmanden. Perhaps they were quietly handled another way — able to buy their freedom or return to Spanish hands in some prisoner swap. Maybe their anonymous helper was able to orchestrate something.

Only Juan de la Silva makes it from sentence to execution, and he with unnervingly little comment. Six more unwritten weeks after his condemnation, he was brought back to court for a pro forma hearing to order his hanging, his comrades now nowhere to be found.

He was supposed to join John Ury on the gallows; our series will meet this man in its next post. But Ury was respited, leaving “Wan” to a strange, lonely death far from his kith and kin — and one single sentence from Horsmanden to dispatch the strangest sub-plot of a sordid story.

Juan, alias Wan de Sylva; the Spanish Negro, condemned for the Conspiracy, was this Day executed according to Sentence: He was neatly dressed in a white Shirt, Jacket, Drawers and Stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kiss’d a Crucifix, insisting on his Innocence to the last.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore speculates that the attorney James Alexander might have given the Spanish Negroes advice. Although he would have been seated at the prosecutors’ bar in this trial — defending any of the accused terrorists was politically impossible for any of the city’s lawyers — Horsmanden never records Alexander speaking or taking any other active part in the prosecution, and Lepore thinks that might indicate that he was becoming silently disenchanted with events.

Alexander did have the dissident chops to play this part: it was he who “anonymously” penned the scathing attacks on the previous governor that led to the arrest of the man who printed them, Peter Zenger, and thence to Zenger’s acquittal in a landmark freedom of the press case.

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1891: Bir Tikendrajit, Patriots’ Day martyr

Add comment August 13th, 2016 Headsman

August 13 is marked as Patriots’ Day in the Indian state of Manipur for the execution on that date in 1891 of Prince Bir Tikendrajit.

The Kingdom of Manipur numbered among scores of “princelystates” — nominally independent tributaries of the British Raj.

Part of the deal for these princely states was that the British guaranteed the throne and the succession of the cooperating ruler, but the British waffled when the warrior chief Tikendrajit deposed Manipur’s raja in the fall of 1890 and for several months the revolution appeared to be a fait accompli. Eventually, Lord Lansdowne decided to let the transfer of power to the ex-raja’s brother stand, but marched 400-500 Gurkhas into Manipur to demand surrender of Tikendrajit for punishment.

This intention met unexpectedly fierce resistance, and Manipuri soldiers eventually overwhelmed the British, slaughtering most of the soldiers as well as the expedition’s leader, J.W. Quinton, High Commissioner for neighboring Assam.

Tikendrajit had the honor of commanding Manipuri’s forces in the brief ensuing conflict: the Anglo-Manipur War. It lasted only a few weeks, as the British scaled their punitive deployments to “overwhelming” and by the end of April hoisted the Union Jack over Kangla Palace.

Tikendrajit was hanged on the evening of August 13, 1891, along with an aged general named Thangal, on the polo grounds of Imphal. Today that place is known as Bir Tikendrajit Park, in honor of a man remembered as a patriotic hero.

Three other Manipuri leaders were hanged for the rebellion, and 22 suffered penal transportation.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1844: William Saville, brutalising scene

1 comment August 7th, 2016 Headsman

From the Leeds Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, Aug. 10, 1844;

NOTTINGHAM, AUGUST 7. — This morning (Wednesday) being the day fixed for the execution of Wm. Saville for the murder of his wife and three children, the town was thrown into an unusyal [sic] state of excitement.

At an early hour, crowds were assembled in front of the County Hall; and at a few minutes to eight o’clock there could be not less than twenty thousand people present, anxiously waiting to behold the inhuman spectacle.

At eight o’clock Saville made his appearance on the platform, accompanied by the sheriff, chaplain, and the executioner. He seemd to display great firmness., and looked around him quite cool and unconcerned. He nodded to a few friends whom he distinguished in the crowd, and not more than two minutes could elapse from the time of his arriving on the scaffold to the fatal bolt being drawn.

He was much convulsed; but in a few minutes, all his troubles in this world were at an end.

Proceedings of a more painful nature have to be narrated as the result of the brutalising scene of “hanging.”

At the time the drop fell, the rush was so terrific, some anxious to get a sight of the wretched man, whilst others wished to be released from the pressure of the crowd, that a great number of persons of all ages and both sexes, were precipitated down a flight of steps leading from the High Pavement, down to Garner’s Hill; and notwithstanding every caution of the Mayor and other inhabitants, great numbers were forced down upon those already lying in a mangled state.

Seven persons were taken up quite lifeless, and a great number more much injured.

The dead and those that had sustained the most serious injuries, were conveyed to the Mayor’s Yard, whilst others were conveyed directly to the General Hospital. Sedans, chairs, and various suitable vehicles being put in requisition for the purpose.

The Mayor’s Yard presented a spectacle the most appalling. Never did human eye behold a more heard-rending [sic] sight than there presented itself. The wailings and mournings of parents for the loss of their children, husbands lamenting the fate of their wives, wives the fate of their husbands, together with the crimes and moans of the injured and dying, were truly horrifying.

Every countenance seemed agitated; whilst parents and relatives were running in all directions to discover those most dear to them.

Every facility was afforded (as soon as suitable arrangements could be made) to allow parties to visit the mangled bodies, for the purpose of recognizing their friends and relatives. Great praise is due to the mayor and town police for the kind manner in which they conducted themselves towards the afflicted friends of the unfortunate dead and injured, whilst I am sorry to say the “rurals” did not evince a like spirit.

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1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion

1 comment August 5th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1549 was disgraced in England by one of the bloodiest battlefield atrocities in that realm’s history: the Clyst Heath massacre.

On Whitsunday of that year, two-plus years after the Catholic-except-for-the-Pope king Henry VIII had taken to the grave his restraining orthodoxy, the late king’s reformist archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced to English churches his magnum opus: the Book of Common Prayer.

Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.

Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.

“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.

We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.

That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*

At dawn on August 4, rebels mounted an unsuccessful attack on Lord Russell’s encampment near a windmill on Woodbury Common. We turn here to the open-source The Western Rebellion of 1549:

A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —

notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)

Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.

As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.

Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.

The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.

As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.

And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.

Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.

The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.

* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,God,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1415: Thomas Grey, Southampton Plotter

Add comment August 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1415, about to set sail from Southampton for the invasion of France that would define his reign, King Henry V favored the Bargate with the beheading of Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry V at this moment was just two years on the throne, the son of a usurper who had deposed and murdered Richard II. That he was now off to venture his life in the field, leaving no wife or child, could have placed his line with but a small mischance in the way of extinction.

The Southampton Plotters had a mind to be that small mischance.

Their idea was to topple King Henry in favor of Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March — who had been Richard II’s heir presumptive at the time Richard was deposed, and whose claim to the throne should have preceded that of Henry’s own family were such matters decided by lawyers alone.

Henry’s coup d’etat and the aspirations thereafter descending respectively from Henry IV and from Richard II were the dynastic font of the Wars of the Roses. Those wars occurred well after the events of today’s post but the opposing factions were already now beginning to wend their ways towards Bosworth Field.

Mortimer was a seven-year-old when Richard was dethroned. He grew up in confinement, albeit honorably treated. Despite his family’s understandably rocky relationship with the new regime, Mortimer himself didn’t cross Henry V, and Henry guardedly admitted him first to his liberty and then to the privileges his rank entailed.

Although Mortimer was rapped over the knuckles for a disapproved marriage, he had never yet ventured any apparent act of treason. By appearances, the Southamptom Plot might have been the moment he went all the way to the brink and then chickened out, for it was Mortimer himself who (without admitting any involvement) personally finked out the plan to King Henry on August 1, 1415. All three of its principal authors spent that very night in the dungeons: Henry, Baron Scrope, a longtime friend and confidante of the king; Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a somewhat impoverished peer of the realm; and our man, the knight Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry gratefully agreed to the pretense that this plot had been a terrible surprise to Mortimer and pre-emptively pardoned him of any taint arising from it.

Gray, the only commoner in the bunch, went on trial the very next day, which was a Friday — and his sentence was executed before suppertime.

The two lords were able to insist on a trial by their peers, which bought them only the weekend: an ample quorum of lords was conveniently on hand preparing to embark for France with the king. They too were condemned that Monday, and like Grey they proceeded straight from court to the block.*

Duly satisfied, Henry sailed for France on the 11th.

And that was that … for the time being.

In gratitude for keeping his own head, Edmund Mortimer kept that head down for the few years remaining him before he died, childless. Cambridge’s young son Richard would eventually inherit not only his father’s claims but also those of his uncle, the Duke of York (slain at Agincourt) and those of Mortimer too, Voltroning his various heritages into a mighty estate. This Richard, Duke of York would bear Mortimer’s rival regal claim into posterity and eventually captain the Yorkist (of course) side at the outset of the Wars of the Roses. His sons were the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.**

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a rather brief interlude in Act 2, Scene 2 introduces and disposes of the Southampton conspirators before Hal weighs anchor for Normandy where he will come of age by executing his buddy and then butchering the French on St. Crispin’s Day. (Shakespeare unfairly positions the Southampton plotters as traitors bought by French gold and entirely omits the role of Mortimer, who is not a character in the play at all.)


Trumpets sound. Enter KING HENRY V, SCROOP, CAMBRIDGE, GREY, and Attendants

KING HENRY V

Now sits the wind fair, and we will aboard.
My Lord of Cambridge, and my kind Lord of Masham,
And you, my gentle knight, give me your thoughts:
Think you not that the powers we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of France,
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them?

SCROOP

No doubt, my liege, if each man do his best.

KING HENRY V

I doubt not that; since we are well persuaded
We carry not a heart with us from hence
That grows not in a fair consent with ours,
Nor leave not one behind that doth not wish
Success and conquest to attend on us.

CAMBRIDGE

Never was monarch better fear’d and loved
Than is your majesty: there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.

GREY

True: those that were your father’s enemies
Have steep’d their galls in honey and do serve you
With hearts create of duty and of zeal.

KING HENRY V

We therefore have great cause of thankfulness;
And shall forget the office of our hand,
Sooner than quittance of desert and merit
According to the weight and worthiness.

SCROOP

So service shall with steeled sinews toil,
And labour shall refresh itself with hope,
To do your grace incessant services.

KING HENRY V

We judge no less. Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.

SCROOP

That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.

KING HENRY V

O, let us yet be merciful.

CAMBRIDGE

So may your highness, and yet punish too.

GREY

Sir,
You show great mercy, if you give him life,
After the taste of much correction.

KING HENRY V

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished. And now to our French causes:
Who are the late commissioners?

CAMBRIDGE

I one, my lord:
Your highness bade me ask for it to-day.

SCROOP

So did you me, my liege.

GREY

And I, my royal sovereign.

KING HENRY V

Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours:
Read them; and know, I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will aboard to night. Why, how now, gentlemen!
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?

CAMBRIDGE

I do confess my fault;
And do submit me to your highness’ mercy.

GREY, SCROOP

To which we all appeal.

KING HENRY V

The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
See you, my princes, and my noble peers,
These English monsters! My Lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appertinents
Belonging to his honour; and this man
Hath, for a few light crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practises of France,
To kill us here in Hampton: to the which
This knight, no less for bounty bound to us
Than Cambridge is, hath likewise sworn. But, O,
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practised on me for thy use,
May it be possible, that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger? ’tis so strange,
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Treason and murder ever kept together,
As two yoke-devils sworn to either’s purpose,
Working so grossly in a natural cause,
That admiration did not whoop at them:
But thou, ‘gainst all proportion, didst bring in
Wonder to wait on treason and on murder:
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence:
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colours, and with forms being fetch’d
From glistering semblances of piety;
But he that temper’d thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason,
Unless to dub thee with the name of traitor.
If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions ‘I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.’
O, how hast thou with jealousy infected
The sweetness of affiance! Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnish’d and deck’d in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practises!

EXETER

I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Richard Earl of Cambridge.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Henry Lord Scroop of Masham.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland.

SCROOP

Our purposes God justly hath discover’d;
And I repent my fault more than my death;
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,
Although my body pay the price of it.

CAMBRIDGE

For me, the gold of France did not seduce;
Although I did admit it as a motive
The sooner to effect what I intended:
But God be thanked for prevention;
Which I in sufferance heartily will rejoice,
Beseeching God and you to pardon me.

GREY

Never did faithful subject more rejoice
At the discovery of most dangerous treason
Than I do at this hour joy o’er myself.
Prevented from a damned enterprise:
My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign.

KING HENRY V

God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person,
Join’d with an enemy proclaim’d and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt
And his whole kingdom into desolation.
Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death:
The taste whereof, God of his mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences! Bear them hence.

Exeunt CAMBRIDGE, SCROOP and GREY, guarded

Now, lords, for France; the enterprise whereof
Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.
We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously hath brought to light
This dangerous treason lurking in our way
To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen: let us deliver
Our puissance into the hand of God,
Putting it straight in expedition.
Cheerly to sea; the signs of war advance:
No king of England, if not king of France.

Exeunt

* The History of England podcast deals with this in episode 144 (skip to 26:48).

** And, their irritating and rebellious brother George, whom Edward had drowned in a butt of malmsey.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1767: Obadiah Greenage, colonial gangster

Add comment July 31st, 2016 Headsman

From the Newport (R.I.) Mercury, September 7-14, 1767:

CHARLESTOWN, South-Carolina,

August 3. The gang of villains from Virginia and North-Carolina, who have for some years past, in small parties, under particular leaders, infested the black parts of the southern provinces, stealing horses from one, and selling them in the next, notwithstanding the late public examples made of several of them, we hear, are more formidable than ever as to numbers, and more audacious and cruel in their thefts and outrages.

‘Tis reported, that they consist of more than 200, form a chain of communication with each other, and have places of general meeting, where (in imitation of councils of war) they form plans of operation and defence, and (alluding to their secrecy and fidelity to each other) call those places Free-Masons Lodges.

Instances of their cruelty to the people in the black settlements, whom they rob or otherwise abuse, are so numerous and shocking, that a narrative of them would fill a whole gazette, and every reader with horror.

They at present range in the Forks between Broad, Saludy, and Savannah rivers. Two of the gang were hanged last week at Savannah, viz. Lundy Hust, [sic] and Obadiah Greenage: Two others, James Ferguson and Jeffe Hambersam, were killed when those were taken.

The Georgia Gazette of August 5, 1767 confirms the date of the execution for Obadiah Greenage at Savannah, but noted that Lundy Hurst was in fact not hanged, but reprieved by the governor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Organized Crime,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1741: Not Sarah Hughson, “stubborn deportment”

Add comment July 29th, 2016 Headsman

Supreme Court: WEDNESDAY, 29th JULY.

PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.

The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.

THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.

-Daniel Horsmanden‘s The New York conspiracy: or A History of the Negro plot

On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.

Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.

Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”

One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.

A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.

The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.

This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.

But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.

Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.

Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?

On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records

THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.

She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.

A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.

“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”

Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”

Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.

Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”

Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)

And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.

The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.

But that is a story for a different post.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Women

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1741: Othello, Doctor Harry, and five other New York slaves

Add comment July 18th, 2016 Headsman


New-York Weekly Journal, July 20, 1741.

On this date in 1741, six slaves named Othello, Quack, Venture, Frank, Fortune, and Galloway were hanged, and a seventh, “Harry the Negro Doctor”, burned — all casualties of the ongoing investigation into the purported slave plot to torch colonial New York.

A truly horrific day in the city’s history. However, as we have noted in our entry about the last prior mass execution of this affair, these July bloodbaths surprisingly turn out to be all about the court extricating itself from a potentially limitless investigation into the servile classes.

With the return of the Chief Justice James De Lancey from New England on the first day of the month — taking control of the court from the implacable inquisition of his junior partner Daniel Horsmanden — the whole judicial momentum turns away from compounding arrests upon accusations and towards disposing of cases already in hand and tying up loose ends.

But there were a lot of loose ends … and some of them could only be tied up with hemp.

For some of the nearly 100 slaves in the city dungeon when De Lancey returned, the evidence was so scanty that they were outright released. Most of the rest were disposed of through an almost shameless wink-nod arrangement: the slaves pleaded guilty to the terrorist plot (vindicating the court’s diligence, and also the blood it had already shed), and in exchange were not executed but approved for convict transportation (sparing life and limb for the slaves, and financial injury for the owners).* Almost every weekday the court would open nominally in a proceeding against six or ten or twelve black men and women only to hear all plead guilty and promptly adjourn upon the court’s recommendation of mercy. Under “inbox zero” De Lancey, these people were not pressed to name more names, and when they did so those potential new arrestees were often left unmolested. (We shall arrive shortly at a notable exception.)

On July 15, 1741, De Lancey actually held court. True, there were 14 more Negroes, “most of which had been made Use of as Witnesses,” who were on this occasion recommended for pardon and sale abroad. But our doomed seven plus an eighth man, Tom, were the last ones in the jail who were refusing to plead guilty. (Tom was convicted with the rest, but his sentence was abated.)

It reads like a principled stand but if so, their integrity was unequalled by their trial strategy. They simply “said nothing material in their Defence, but denied all alledged against them.”

Unfortunately with everyone singing from De Lancey’s hymnal as the price of their own necks, there were a good many witnesses prepared to alledge. For this trial, six black slaves described the accused hanging around arch-plotter John Hughson, “talking about the Conspiracy to set the Town on Fire, and to kill the white People.” Besides the slave evidence, two white people also denounced the prisoners: Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ former servant whose ever-growing became the ubiquitous crown witness in all cases; and, William Kane, an Irish soldier who had been named as the plot’s inside man at the fort by the slave Will when the latter burned at the stake.

Kane was just the second white person in all this time to join Mary Burton on the prosecution’s witness list — and he was obtained with chilling ease.

The very night that Will burned, July 4, Kane was taken up. Examined the next day he denied knowing anything about the plot or even where Hughsons’ tavern was located.

But, Horsmanden recorded in his journal of the proceedings, “while Kane was under Examination, the Under-Sheriff came and informed the Judges, that Mary Burton had declared, that she had often seen him at Hughson’s, amongst Hughson, his Wife, &c. and the Negroes, when they were talking of the Conspiracy, and that he was one of the Confederates.”

A dramatic moment ensued, gut-wrenching even in Horsmanden’s few sentences.

Chief Justice De Lancey, “who was a Stranger to the Transactions concerning the Detection of the Conspiracy” and could therefore still be shocked by the casual way this teenager rolled into her conspiracy stories whomever some frightened prisoner had recently implicated, “thought proper to admonish the Witness in an awful and solemn Manner, concerning the Nature of an Oath, and the Consequences of taking a false one, more especially as it affected a Man’s Life.”

Would the girl fluster under this magisterial caution? Would De Lancey himself dare to press it so far as to discredit the one witness his court had depended upon for prosecuting the conspiracy thus far?

No. “She answered, she was acquainted with the Nature of an Oath very well, and that she would not take a false one upon any Account.” De Lancey dropped the point, and Mary Burton was sworn in, saying

That she had seen the said Kane at Hughson’s very often, talking with Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, Peggy Salingburgh alias Kerry, Caesar, Vaarck’s; Galloway, Rutgers’s; Prince, Auboyneau’s, and Cuffee, Philipse’s, Negroes; and the Discourse amongst them was, That they would burn the Town; the Fort first, the Governor and all his Family in it, and kill all the white People; and that she heard the said William Kane say, that he would help them all that lay in his Power.

Kane, “his Countenance changed, and being near fainting,” called for a glass of water. Kane was no fool, and when the court explicitly confirmed to him “the Danger he was in, and told [him] he must not flatter himself with the least Hopes of Mercy, but by making a candid and ingenuous Confession” he duly swallowed the draught prepared for him — albeit “after some Pause” and “tho’ at the same Time he seemed very loth to do it.” There was no way out — not for the court, not for Mary, and not for Kane — but for the soldier to corroborate her story. He numbly did so, although one would rather know how he spoke about this episode of his life under the seal of the confessional.

There is a deadening similarity to these stories, of course; it is not merely retrospective interpretation that surfaces the perverse incentives newly-arrested slaves faced — it is remarked a few times via the comments of slaves themselves in Horsmanden’s own record. “Moore’s Cato advised him and Pedro, to bring in many Negroes, telling Pedro, that he would be certainly burnt or hanged if he did not confess,” in one description … “but that if he brought in a good many, it would save his Life; for he had found it so himself; and must say, he was to set his Master’s House on fire, which would make the Judges believe him.” Why this day’s crop refused to take their out we don’t really know. Maybe they were stubborn — or had a care for their soul — or more than death feared being sold out of the place that had become their home, and onto some backbreaking sugar plantation in the West Indies.

But two of our group merit notice for more unusual profiles.

“Doctor Harry” was an unauthorized medical practitioner on account of his race and station, and so had been driven out of New York City years before. He made his home thereafter on Long Island, forbidden from venturing into New York on pain of flogging. The physician’s addition to the plot segued into the frightening prospect of a poison angle to the race war.

“A smooth soft spoken Fellow, and like other Knaves, affected the Air of Sincerity and Innocence” in Horsmanden’s words, Harry was already on the judges’ radar when a slave named Adam accused him. (Soon joined by the reluctant William Kane.) That he was on their radar as someone who was not allowed in the city does not seem to have counted a great deal. “He stifly denied all, and declared, that he never was at Hughson’s, nor had he been in Town since he was ordered out by the Magistrates.”

Othello had also been out of town during events — not by banishment, but because he was Chief Justice De Lancey’s own slave, and had accompanied his master’s New England mission during the spring when New York went arson-crazy.

Aptly for his name, Othello reads in Horsmanden’s narrative as a tragic figure who unlike Doctor Harry was ready to say what he had to say to save his own life but hanged because he couldn’t reconcile himself in time to the urgency of his situation.

Horsmanden, who also would have been Othello’s personal acquaintance, clearly respected the slave; in the judge’s estimation, Othello “had more Sense than the common Rank of Negroes” and was one of “the Head Negroes in Town.” Maybe Othello counted too highly the weight of his association with the judges, or maybe since he was out of town he simply did not have the right feel for the witch-hunt dimensions the arson investigation had taken. Reading bulletins from his city, De Lancey had questioned Othello about the plot and Othello had denied any knowledge of it. Did the slave suppose that a Head Negro in Town could be above suspicion?

De Lancey disabused him of any such hope in late June when the Chief Justice received word that Othello had been denounced in the investigation, and promptly shipped his slave back to New York in chains.

He arrived in the last days of the governor’s official amnesty window for slave confessions, having heard God knows what of proceedings from his distance. His accuser Adam gave him sound advice in the city hall’s then-teeming basement prison: “to confess … [as] a Means of getting him[self] off.” But Othello at first refused to do so, even when warned that he had little time remaining to take advantage of the amnesty.

Othello being asked, Why he so positively denied on Saturday, that he knew any Thing about the Plot; though he was warned of the Proclamation, and that the Time therein limited for the Confederates to come in and make voluntary Confession and Discovery, would expire as Tomorrow; and notwithstanding he was told, that there was full and clear Evidence against him, Why he did not take the Recorder’s Advice, and confess then what he had done now? He answered with a Smile,

Why, Sir, I was but just then come to Town.

The reluctance is easy to understand. Othello was the Man Friday to a colonial oligarch: it was worth a risk to defend that position against the loss in stature and comfort that would surely result from being sold abroad. Besides that, he needed time to get his bearings: who was accusing him of what? What cards did he hold?

Othello soon understood that advancing a strong claim of innocence would be a nonstarter, so on the eve of the amnesty’s expiration he tried to claim it by offering a “confession.” It’s the first of several that would be extracted from him; each is a noticeably minimalist contrivance to fit his circumstances of the moment — too cute by half, a cruel observer might say. In late June, Othello simply named a bunch of names that others had already named with few additional details. The judges could see very well that this was no better than a token submission.

Come July 12th, having been issued a summary death sentence upon the guilty plea he had committed to, Othello expanded that confession. Now he detailed a longer intimacy with John Hughson — but one in which Othello, although aware of the plot, repeatedly refused to swear hiimself to it. The plot as the court understood it required its adherents to promise to kill their own masters. By insisting he had never sworn, Othello wanted to avoid going on record with any intent to slay James De Lancey. He was a week from execution at this moment, and still he dreamed that maybe De Lancey would one day take him back.

But the privilege Othello clung to might have already begun to cut against him. As an appearance-of-propriety issue vis-a-vis his white neighbors, was De Lancey, the highest judge in the colony and the wealthiest man in the colony, going to spare his own property from the full rigor of the law when his court had so readily destroyed other men’s slaves? The judges considered where Othello stood with his late and cloying “confessions”, and on July 16 recommended against extending him a pardon.

Still Othello tried one last time — on the very morning of his execution. On that occasion, Horsmanden took down one last, expanded confession … and even at this desperate hour, Othello was trying to thread the needle where his master’s life was concerned.

That Adam persuaded him, since he came in Jail, to say, that he had agreed to kill his Master and Mistress; and that by saying so, he would get clear: But this was all false, he never engaged to do any such Thing, nor was it ever proposed to him by Hughson, or any one else; only Hughson told him, he must rise with the Mob, and kill the People in general, as the rest were to do.

No doubt poor Othello had invested many of his last hours going over this decisive confession, trying to calibrate it precisely. Unfortunately, it showed.

For Horsmanden and his fellow judges, what Othello had provided was “neither voluntary nor free, but came from them very unwillingly, and after much Persuasion” and Othello as with his fellow-prisoner Quack only “acknowledged their Guilt in general, by their Plea, and by their Confessions, in a few Particulars, thinking thereby, as it may well be inferred, to come off as cheap as they could.” Horsmanden does not seem far from the mark in this observation, much as posterity might doubt his certainty that “both had it in their Power to make very considerable Discoveries.” At any rate,

The Judges could by no Means think them proper Objects of Mercy; and had they recommended them to the Governor as such, and his Honour had pardoned them, such Lenity towards them, might have been deemed Cruelty to the People.

As ghastly as this was for Othello and his mates, this date essentially finished the court’s business with the Negro Plot.

Does that mean we have reached the end of our series? Alas, the court’s bloodthirst had not quite been slaked. … for in the course of winding down, Horsmanden et al had opened one last line of inquiry, in hot pursuit now for a true arch-villain to lurk behind the passe conspiracies of slaves, an enemy dread enough to equal the advertised danger to New York City.

“The Old proverb has herein also been verifyed,” a satisfied Horsmanden would eventually report of this last phase that was even then opening up “that there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.”

* This was also the explicit preference of acting governor George Clarke, who on June 20 wrote to London that he “desired the Judges to single out only a few of the most notorious for execution, and that I would pardon the rest … whereby their masters will transport them out of hand.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recently Commented

  • Kevin M Sullivan: Lol! No, Teddy wouldn’t like...
  • Paul: And yet, he STILL cared about what people thought...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: Just think: he was planning his second...
  • Kevin M Sullivan: Yes, it is extremely tiny. I hear you....
  • Paul: IN the shed? Kevin, have you seen the size of it?...