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1794: Robert Watt, British Conventioner

Add comment October 15th, 2019 Headsman

Our old familiar the Newgate Calendar supplies us with this narration of a Scottish Jacobin to pop the powdered wigs from Edinburgh to Westminster. A published version of the trial in question is available here, and a last-speech broadside awaits you here.

Watt is the only monument in Executed Today‘s pages to the attempted creation of a British National Convention to mirror the operations of that same body across the channel in revolutionary France. If successful, this body would have tended towards displacing the sovereignty of king and parliament, and it laid plains accordingly for an armed insurrection; in the event, it sat briefly and then was broken up with alacrity by ministers who fancied their own necks better than Mr. Paine‘s tongue.

Many members of this movement’s Scottish core were (as the text below eventually notes, just before it devolves into complaining about hostile press) sent not to the gallows but to the new penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. You’ll find several of them — not including our executed Robert Watt — commemorated at Edinburgh’s Political Martyrs’ Monument.


(cc) image from Kim Traynor.

ROBERT WATT and DAVID DOWNIE

Convicted of High Treason, at Edinburgh, with Particulars of the Execution of a Traitor in Scotland

We are now arrived at an alarming period at the modern history of our country. Just engaged in the ruinous war with France, which continues with increasing obstinacy, to the very hour in which we write. Perplexed by treason at home, and threatened with invasion by our enemy, the nation was in a critical situation. Confederate bodies of dissatisfied men, were formed, from London to Edinburgh, pursuing a systematical course of treason, and corresponding with each other, until Government stretched out its powerful arm to crush the traitors. Many writers charge the ministry with oppression, but at such a time as this, better, surely, to support the constitution, corrupt as may be its administration, than suffer its subversion, and see ourselves thrown into that anarchy and confusion, sought for by such men as we shall soon bring before the reader.

Watt and Downie were principals in the Scottish Conspiracy, and were convicted of the crime of high treason. Their trial brought to light the particulars of the plot, to overthrow the constitution of Great Britain; and from which we shall, therefore, make a copious extract.

Their trial came on before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh, on the 3d of September, 1794, when Mr. Anstruther stated the case on the part of the Crown. He began, by observing, that such was the peculiar happiness of this country, that we had been unacquainted with the law of treason for nearly half a century. It was not his intention, if he possessed the powers, of inflaming the passions of the Jury against the prisoner: his object, was to give a plain, a dry narrative of the facts, and a succinct statement of the law.

The laws of treason were now the same in England and Scotland, and the duty of the subjects of both kingdoms should be the same. Scotland, in this instance, had reaped much benefit by the Union, as her laws of treason, previous to that period, were much more severe. The act of Edw. III. stated three distinct species of treason: 1. Compassing and imagining the death of the king; 2. Levying war against him; 3. Assisting his enemies. He would not trouble the Court or Jury with the two last: the single species of treason charged in the present case, was the compassing and imagining the death of the king; which was defined by the conceiving such a design; not the actual act, but the attempt to effect it. But the law which thus anxiously guarded the sovereign, was equally favourable to the subject: for it does not affect him until that imagination is fully proved before “men of his condition.” An overt act of treason is the means used for effectuating the purpose of the mind: it is not necessary to prove a direct attempt to assassinate the king: for the crime is the intention, and the overt act the means used to effect it. He wished not that these sentiments might be held as the opinion of counsel: they were founded on the construction of the ablest writers, Chief Justices Foster, Hale, &c, and, whatever could be proved against the prisoners, which may endanger the kings person, was an overt act of high treason, in the language of the ablest writers. After explaining more fully the distinct species of treason which applied to the present case, Mr. Anstruther said, he trusted that if he could prove any design whereby the king’s person is in danger, that was an overt act; if he was wrong, the judges would correct him. He would now state the facts on which these principles of law were to be laid.

The present conspiracy was not that of a few inconsiderable individuals: it had risen, indeed from small beginnings; from meetings for pretended reforms. It had been fostered by seditious correspondence, the distribution of libellous writings, and had, at last, risen to a height, which, but for the vigilance of administration, might have deluged the country, from one end to the other, with blood. The proceedings of these societies, calling, or rather miscalling themselves Friends of the People, were well known; their first intention was apparently to obtain reform; but this not answering their purpose, they proceeded to greater lengths. He meant to detail the general plans and designs formed among the seditious, and then to state how far the prisoners were implicated in them.

The first dawning of this daring plan was in a letter from Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, to Skirving, the Secretary to the Friends of the People, here. He writes, that as their petitions had been unsuccessful, they must use separate and more effectual measures. Skirving answered, and admitted the necessity of more effectual measures; that he foresaw the downfall of this government, &c. Here also was the first notice of a convention; a measure which it is no wonder they were fond of, when they saw its effects in a neighbouring kingdom (France.) They meant not to petition Parliament, but to proceed in their own plan, and supersede the existing government of the country; and, in that case, the king’s life was put in danger.

Soon after, a convention, a body unknown to the laws of this country, met; and in this there would have been little harm, had their views been peaceable; but their objects were avowedly unconstitutional, and their intention to carry on their plans by force, and thus virtually to lay aside the prerogative of the king. This convention accordingly met, using all the terms, regulations, &c. adopted by the convention of another country, in which it might be said there was in reality little harm, but it was surely a marking proof of their designs. They meant not to apply to Parliament; for whenever that was mentioned, they proceeded to the order of the day. They resolved to oppose every act of Parliament, which they deemed contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, and were determined to sit, until compelled to rise by a force superior to their own. The Convention, indeed, was dispersed by the spirited conduct of a magistrate, (Provost Elder,) whose merit everyone was forward to acknowledge, and to whose active exertions the country was so much indebted; but another Convention was attempted to be called, who were to frame their own laws, and to be independent of the legislature; or, as they say, independent of their plunderers, enemies, and oppressors, meaning the King, Lords, and Commons: their resolutions will prove that they meant to create a government of their own, to do away the authority of what they called hereditary senators, and packed majorities; all which prove the intention of putting the king’s life in danger.

But what, it may be said, is all this to the prisoner at the bar? who, surprising as it may appear, about two years ago wrote letters to Mr. Secretary Dundas, offering to give information as to certain designs of the Friends of the People. These letters were answered by that right honourable gentleman with that propriety which has ever, marked his public conduct. The prisoner then corresponded with the Lord Advocate, the particulars of which would appear, as his lordship was subpoenaed. Since September 1793, this correspondence has ceased. Previous to that period, the prisoner was not a member of the Society of Friends of the People, nor of the British Convention; but his accession since to its measures, and the calling of another Convention, could be substantiated.

The Convention, indeed, though dispersed, did not cease to exist. In fact, a Committee of Correspondence, of which the prisoner was a member, was instituted, the object of which was to carry into effect the views of the last British Convention, and to elect delegates to a new one. Mr. Watt attended this Committee, and coincided in its measures, which were expressly to supersede the legislature: The prisoner had moved for a Committee of Union; and another was appointed called the Committee of Ways and Means, of both which he was a member. This last was a Secret Committee, kept no minutes, was permanent, and empowered to collect money to support “the great cause.” Mr. Downie was appointed treasurer, and it was to be the medium through which all instructions and directions were to be given to all Friends of the People throughout the kingdom, and was to procure information of the number of those that would spare no exertions to support the great cause. They corresponded with Hardy, respecting the calling of a new Convention, which was to follow up the purposes of the old one; and, as the prisoner was present, he was in this way coupled with the British Convention.

Their next attempt was to debauch the minds of the soldiers, and to excite them to mutiny; for which purpose a paper was printed, and circulated among a regiment of Fencibles then at Dalkeith. This paper, which was evidently seditious, would be brought home to the prisoner, for the types from which it was printed were found in his house, and a copy traced from him into the hands of a soldier.

The next charge to be brought against the prisoner, and the Committee of which he was a member, was a distinct and deliberate plan to overturn the existing government of the country. The plan proposed was this: — A fire was to be raised near the Excise Office, (Edinburgh,) which would require the attendance of the soldiers in the castle, who were to be met there by a body of the Friends of the People, another party of whom were to issue from the West Bow, to confine the soldiers between two fires, and cut off their retreat; the Castle were next to be attempted; the judges (particularly the Lord Justice Clerk) were to be seized; and all the public banks were to be secured. A proclamation was then to be issued, ordering all the farmers to bring in their grain to market as usual; and enjoining all country gentlemen to keep within their houses, or three miles from them, under penalty of death. Then an address was to be sent to His Majesty, commanding him to put an end to the war, change the ministers, or take the consequences. Such was the plan of the Committee of Ways and Means, as proposed by the prisoner.

Previous to this, it should have been mentioned, that all the Friends of the People were to be armed; for which purpose, one Fairley was dispatched round the country to levy contributions, and disperse seditious pamphlets; for which purpose, he got particular instructions from the prisoner. Reports were spread through the same channel, that the Goldsmith’s Hall Association were arming, and that, it was necessary for the Friends of the People to arm also, for they would be butchered either by them or the French. It would be proved, that the prisoner gave orders to Robert Orrock to make 4,000 pikes; and also orders to one Brown for the same purpose. These were to be used for completing the great plan; and Fairley’s mission was to inform the country of these intended proceedings. Another representative body was also formed, called “Collectors of Sense and Money,” who were to have the distribution of the pikes, and to command the different parties. In one instance, a person had been desired to carry some pikes to the Collectors; who made answer, that he could not do it, for the Collectors were not to be trusted yet.

Mr. Anstruther then recapitulated shortly the different heads, and concluded an elaborate and most clear and distinct pleading, of more than two hours and a half, by requesting the jury to lay no farther stress on what he had said than it should be proved, as it was meant merely as a clue to the evidence which should be brought before them.

The first witness called, was Edward Lauzon, a king’s messenger. Upon being asked if he was employed last summer to search the house of one Hardy, in London, Mr. Hamilton, counsel for the prisoner, objected to the question, and insisted that, before proving any other matter whatever, some direct overt act committed by the prisoner must be proved. Mr. Anstruther answered, that, before proving the prisoner guilty of being concerned in a particular plot or conspiracy, it was surely necessary first to prove that such plot or conspiracy existed. In the trials in the year 1745, before any particular overt act was attempted to be proved against any of the accused, there was always evidence adduced to prove the existence of a rebellion. The Court over-ruled the objection. The witness then swore, that he seized several papers in Hardy’s house, particularly a letter signed by one Skirving, and several others: also a printed circular letter, signed, “T. Hardy, Secretary.” These letters the witness produced. Mr. William Scott, Procurator Fiscal for the shire of Edinburgh, gave an account of the seizure of Skirving’s papers in December, 1793, and of the after-disposal of them. He produced several of these papers, particularly one intituled, “Minutes of Debate in the General Committee;” also several papers that were found in the lodgings of Margarot, Gerald, and [John] Sinclair. Mr. Scott swore to his being present at the dispersion of the Convention. The letter by Skirving and Hardy being authenticated by Mr. Lauzun, who swore he found it in Hardy’s possession, was then read.

John Taylor, of Fleet-street, London, was then called. He swore he was a member of the London Corresponding Society, and was acquainted with Mr. Hardy, who was Secretary to that Society. Being shown several letters and papers, he believed them to be Hardy’s hand-writing. The Society consisted of several divisions, about fourteen, he thought, in number; there were several Committees, particularly a grand one, which consisted of a member from each division, a Committee of Secrecy, and a Committee of Emergency. The latter was formed in May last. He attended a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern, on the 20th of January last, about one thousand were present. So great was the crowd, that the floor gave way, and the meeting adjourned to the Assembly Room, where the secretaries read the resolutions, which were afterwards printed. An address, founded on these resolutions, was afterwards carried by a show of hands. One of the resolutions was, that the motions of Parliament were to be watched over; and if troops were to be brought into the country, or the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, &c. that force ought to be repelled by force. The witness produced a copy of these resolutions, which he got from a person of the name of Muir, in the presence of Hardy. He saw several other copies about the room. The witness was also present at another meeting, held at Chalk Farm (about two miles from London) on the 14th of April last. The meeting was of the same nature as the former; there were about three thousand persons present, and, among others, Mr. Hardy.

Henry Goodman, clerk to Mr. Wickham, London, was present at the meeting at Chalk Farm, and heard the resolutions read. The resolutions now shown to him were, as far as he recollected, the resolutions passed at the meeting. He understood that it was the intention of the society to arm themselves, to protect the members in the same way that the National Convention of France had been protected by the citizens of Paris; that he heard this talked of in different meetings.

Alexander Atchison was a member of, and Assistant Secretary to the British Convention, and wrote part of their minutes: he deposed, that the papers now shown in Court to him, he had often seen before; that he took down the minutes as accurately as he could; that he recollected Mr. Callandar making several motions in the Convention; and particularly an amendment to a motion which was referred to a Committee. This amendment was read: it related to the agreement in the Convention to continue permanent, and watch over the motions of Parliament, &c. &c. that he knew Mr. Watt, the prisoner; and was, together with him, a member of the Committee of Union. That Committee met in January last, the Convention being previously dispersed in December — The purpose of this Committee was to keep up a spirit of union among the Friends of Reform, and that he was sent there by the Division of Cannongate. The great object of the Committee was to obtain the same kind of reform sought for by Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond, about twelve years ago. That he was a member also of the Committee of the Ways and Means which was instituted for the purpose of paying past debts, and to defray the expense of future delegates to another Convention, to be held somewhere in England, which second Convention was meant for the same purpose as the British Convention, namely, obtaining the Reform first proposed by Pitt and Richmond; that he has often had conversations with different persons on the subject of Reform; that he recollected having seen a pike in the house of George Ross, in the presence of several blacksmiths, which was shaped like the head of an halbert. Being asked whether he ever gave a different account of what he had now sworn at any other place, he believed he never did; if he did it, it must be contrary to truth, and this he should say, though he should be guillotined for it.

Mr. W. Erskine, also counsel for the prisoners, here stopped the witness, who was removed. He said, that it was an established point in the law of Scotland, that a witness could not be affected by anything he had before said relative to the present subject of his examination; nor could it hurt him in any degree. Mr. Anstruther said, that this did not exist in the law of England. The Lord President observed, that it appeared to him there was really a discrepancy in the law in this respect. Mr. Anstruther here said, that to put an end to the dispute, and, as Atchison had conducted himself in such a manner, he would, so far from laying any stress on his evidence, request the jury to throw out of their minds every syllable he had used.

George Ross authenticated the minutes of Convention, and other papers; knew the prisoner at the bar, and had seen him at his own house.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the pikes being brought from Watt’s, and the fount of types, of which he had got an impression taken in the precise state they came from Watt’s house.

[Paper read — An Address to the Fencibles.]

James Sommeville, a printer, deposed as to the casting off the impression from the types.

William Watson, of Dalkeith, once saw Watt at his own house, but could not say whether the prisoner at the bar was the man. Remembered a Fencible regiment in Dalkeith, which was about the time he met with Mr. Downie, who carried him to Watt’s, to get a hand-bill about the Fencibles, which he had heard of, and was curious to see, but could not get it there; and went to one Kennedy on the South Bridge, from whence he received several copies.

The Lord Advocate said, that, except those (Downie and Stock,) against whom bills were already found, he meant to bring no other person to trial for treason.

Arthur M’Ewan, weaver, of Leith, a member of the British Convention, and also of the Committee of Ways and Means, of which last Watt was a member, deposed, that, at one of their meetings, Watt read a paper, proposing to seize the judges, bank, &c. to decoy the soldiers by a fire, &c. but did not know what was to be done with the persons seized, nor whether it was to be done in the day or night. Commissioners were to be appointed to take charge of the cash, but knew not what was to follow this. Deposed as to the proclamation to corn-dealers, and country gentlemen, and the address to the king to put an end to the war, &c. Watt asked him to accompany him to Orrock’s, to whom he (Watt) gave orders to make pikes as fast as he could, as he had 4000 to send to Perth, besides what he had to distribute in Edinburgh. Orrock made a draft of one: a gentleman’s servant asking what was their use, was told, that they were for mounting a gate. Knew that Fairley was sent into the country, and had visited a number of places; that he reported Paisley to be in a state of great readiness, but did not know what that meant. The witness disapproved of these proceedings, and would consent to nothing that would disturb the peace, or shed the blood of his countrymen; and he thought the plan proposed would have that tendency. Watt produced, at one of the meetings, a paper containing what was called fundamental principles, which he knew but little of. William Bonthorn was a member of the Society of the Friends of the People, but had resolved to withdraw, as things had passed he disapproved of. Watt, at one of their meetings, read a paper, of which he did not remember the particulars, as it confused him. The paper contained something about seizing the castle, raising an alarm by fire, &c. upon the supposition that numbers could be got to assist them. Remembered nothing of particular persons being intended to be seized; but thought the bank was mentioned; this paper frightened him much; it mentioned also the seizing the guard-house; recollected no numbers that were mentioned to carry this plan into effect. M’Ewan showed an opposition to it. The circular letter of the Committee was written by Mr. Stock.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk deposed as to the finding sundry papers in Watt’s house, one the drawing of a pike, and the paper sworn to by Atchison, in the Sub-Committee.

John Fairley, of Broughton, a delegate to the Convention, deposed, that his constituents met after the dissolution of that body. Heard that pikes were making, and Watt informed him of this, or rather showed him one. Watt said, that they were only intended for self-defence, and that none were to get them but those who applied and paid for them. Measures of government might drive them to despair, and cause bloodshed; but Watt said, he hoped there would be none, as the obnoxious or active against the cause of the people would be imprisoned. The soldiers would be glad of freedom, and deputations might be sent them. Watt proposed to show the arms to the collectors, which the witness objected to, as hazardous. In going to the West country, a parcel was left for him by Watt, containing paper for distribution, which he left at Stirling, St. Ninion’s, Kirkintulloch, Glasgow, Paisley, &c. On his return to Edinburgh, he went to the Committee of Ways and Means; that Watt, Downie, and M’Ewan were there, to whom he reported the result of his journey, Returned the instructions to Watt; they mentioned, he recollected, something about a plan, and Britain being free, Downie paid him the expenses of his journey.

Dr. Forrest, at Stirling, gave an account of Fairley’s calling on him, showing him his written instructions, &c. In these instructions there was a blank, which he supposed was to be filled up “arms.” Showed him the figure of a weapon like a halbert, which was preparing for defence, and that these weapons could be furnished by a person who he understood was about Edinburgh. Something passed about arming the people, and disarming the soldiers.

Robert Orrock, smith, first heard arms mentioned in G. Ross’s house in March last. In April Watt applied to him to make a pike, and he brought one to Ross’s, where Watt and other members of the committee were, and he left it at Watt’s desire. In May, Watt desired him to make more of that pattern, and some of a different kind. While making them, a person (Martin Todd) called and showed a form of a pike, which he refused to make. Brown also called, and told him he was making pikes for Watt, and that 1000 were wanted: but spoke of this as a secret, which alarmed the witness. The extent of his order was five dozen which were ordered by Watt, but paid for by Downie. He was told, if enquired about, to say they were for the top of a gate: never had an order for pikes before; but had made one for his own defence, without being employed by any person.

Martin Todd, smith, deposed as to calling on Orrock, to enquire about the pikes.

William Brown, a smith, said one Robertson called on him to bespeak several spears of a particular shape, for Watt; and at another time, he made fourteen spears for Mr. Watt, like mole spears. Recollected the conversation with Orrock, but did not say that such a number of pikes would be wanted.

John Fairley was re-examined, at his own desire. He recollected Watt saying, that the banks and public offices were to be seized. The most active against them were to be imprisoned, and couriers sent to the country to announce this. The Magistrates of Edinburgh were particularly spoken of.

Walter Miller, Perth sent money to Downie, for relief of distressed patriots in the cause of reform; never had authority for supposing that the new Convention had any object but reform by legal means.

Here the evidence of the Crown was closed.

Defence of Watt.

Mr. W. Erskine, junior counsel for the prisoner, said, that as the Court had sat so long, he would not trouble them with many words. He would rest his defence upon the correspondence carried on between the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, and the prisoner, by which it would appear, that he had attended the meetings of the Friends of the People, with no other view than a design to give information of their proceedings. A letter from the prisoner to Mr. Secretary Dundas was read, which stated in substance, that, as he did not approve of the dangerous principles which then prevailed in Scotland, and was a friend to the Constitution of his country, he thought it his duty to communicate to him, as a good subject, what information he could procure of the proceedings of those who styled themselves Friends of the People. From an acquaintance with several of the leading men among them, he flattered himself he had this in his power; and then went on to mention some of the names of those leading men in Perth, Dundee, and Edinburgh. In the first of these places, he said, he had been educated, and had resided in the two last for a considerable number of years. It concluded with enjoining secrecy.

To this letter an answer was returned which was also read. It acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Watt’s and, after expressing a hope that things were not so bad as he represented, desired him to go on, and he might depend upon his communications being kept perfectly secret Another letter from Mr. Dundas to Mr. M’Ritche, the prisoner’s agent, was next read, in answer to one from Mr. M’Ritchie, requesting of Mr. Dundas what letters he had of the prisoner’s. The answer bore, that all the letters he had received from Mr. Watt had been delivered to the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Sheriff Clerk authenticated the letter of Mr. Dundas.

The Lord Advocate being sworn, in exculpation, he gave a distinct account of the transactions which he had had with the prisoner. He had conversed with him several times at his own lodgings; and he had at one time given him some information which he thought of importance. This was respecting the disaffection of some dragoons at Perth, which upon enquiry, turned out to be ill-founded. In March, 1793, his lordship said, an offer had been made to him to disclose some important secrets, provided he would give the prisoner 1000l. This he absolutely refused. However, sometime after, the prisoner having informed him that he was much pressed for money to retrieve a bill of 30l. his lordship, who was then in London, not wishing he should be distressed for such a small sum, sent him an order for the payment of it. All this happened previous to the meeting of the Convention; since which time, at least since October last, he did not recollect seeing or having any connection with the prisoner.

Mr. Hamilton contended, that the prosecutor had failed in bringing the most criminal part of it home to the prisoner. He dwelt long on correspondence between Mr. Dundas and Mr. Watt. He said, the prisoner had not deserted the service in which he had engaged; but had not had an opportunity of exercising it until the very time he was apprehended. He contended, that he was a spy for government; and it was well known that a spy was obliged to assume not only the appearance of those whose secrets he meant to reveal, but even to make part in their proceedings, in order to prevent a discovery. He alluded to spies in armies, and mentioned a melancholy circumstance which happened to one last war, a gentleman with whom he had the honour of being acquainted. A spy in an army, he said, was obliged not only to assume the uniform of the enemy, but even to appear in arms; and it would be exceedingly hard indeed, if taken in a conflict, that he should be punished for discharging his duty. He concluded with hoping the jury would bring in a verdict, finding the charges not proved.

The Lord President, after clearly defining the laws of treason, summed up the evidence, narrating and explaining the various parts with much candour; leaving it entirely to the jury to return such a verdict as their judgment should direct.

The jury withdrew about half-past five o’clock in the morning, and in about five minutes, returned with a verdict — Guilty.

The trial lasted nearly twenty-two hours. The jury were upwards of forty minutes considering the case of Downie: the majority agreeing among themselves that he was guilty, they reconciled themselves to this verdict a last, by unanimously consenting to recommend him to mercy, which they did in a very strong manner. Shortly after the following awful sentence of the court was passed upon these unfortunate men.

Robert Watt and David Downie, you have been found guilty of High Treason by your Peers. The sentence of the Court is, therefore, that you be taken from the place, whence you came, from thence you shall be drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, on Wednesday, the 15th of October, there to hang by your necks till you are both dead; your bowels to be taken out, and cast in your faces; and each of your bodies to be cut in four quarters, to be at the disposal of his Majesty: and the Lord have mercy on your souls!

[such gory sentences were no longer conducted in practice, as we shall see. -ed.]

The unfortunate prisoners received the dreadful sentence with much firmness and composure, and were, immediately conducted to the castle. Robert Watt was ordered for execution, but a respite came for David Downie: as soon as it was intimated to Downie, he started, as from a dream, and exclaimed, “Glory to God, and thanks to the king, for his goodness: I will pray for him as long as I live.” After which tears of gratitude flowed. He was transported for life.

About half past one o’clock on the 15th of October, the two junior magistrates, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., the Rev. Principal Baird, and a number of constables, attended them the town officers, and the city guard lining the streets, walked in procession from the Council Chamber to the east end of Castle-hill, when a message was sent to the sheriffs in the Castle, that they were there waiting to receive the prisoner. The prisoner was immediately placed in a hurdle, with his back to the horse, and the executioner, with a large axe in his hand, took his seat opposite him, at the further end of the hurdle. The procession then set out from the Castle, the sheriffs walking in front, with white rods in their hands, white gloves, &c., a number of county constables surrounding the hurdle, and the military keeping off the crowd. In this manner they proceeded, until they joined the magistrates, when the military returned to the Castle, and then the procession was conducted in the following order:

The City Constables;
Town Officers, bare-headed;
Bailie Lothian and Bailie Dalrymple;
Rev. Principal Baird;
Mr. Sheriff Clerk and Mr. Sheriff Davidson;
A number of County Constables;
THE HURDLE,
Painted black, and drawn by a white Horse,
A number of County Constables.

The city-guard lined the streets, to keep off the multitude.

When they had reached the Tolbooth door, the prisoner was taken from the hurdle, and conducted into the prison, where a considerable time was spent in devotional exercise. The prisoner then came out upon the platform, attended: by the Magistrates, Sheriffs, Principal Baird, &c. Some time was then spent in prayer and singing psalms; after which the prisoner mounted the drop-board, and was soon launched into eternity.

When the body was taken down, it was stretched upon a table, and the executioner, with two blows of the axe, severed off the head, which was received into a basket, and then held up to the multitude, while the executioner called aloud, “There is the head of a traitor, and so perish all traitors.” The body and head were then placed in a coffin, and removed. Never was any execution conducted with more solemnity and order. The procession advanced with slow step, and the prisoner exhibited a most melancholy spectacle. He held a bible in his hand; his eyes remained in a fixed posture, upwards, and he was not observed to make one movement, or cast a single glance upon the multitude. He was much emaciated, and his countenance so pale, that, while on his way to the place of execution, he appeared almost lifeless; but, when he came upon the platform, he seemed to be somewhat revived, and behaved himself, during the awful solemnity, with due resignation and humble fortitude. The impression the situation had made upon himself seemed truly astonishing, as those who had ever seen him before, declared, they could not have known him to be the same person. His appearance was dirty, muffled up in a great coat; and he showed signs of peculiar agitation and remorse for the crime for which he was then going to suffer.

The surrounding multitude, during the execution of the awful proceeding, did not discover any other emotion than is usual upon occasions of any other executions. The town-guard, attended by the constables, lined the streets.

Robert Watt was born in the shire of Kincardine, and was, at the time of his execution, about thirty-six years old. He was the natural son of a Mr. Barclay, a gentleman of fortune and respectability; but like most other children of illegitimate parentage, he was brought up and educated under the name of his mother. He was, at about ten years of age, sent to Perth; where he received a very good education. Being sixteen he engaged himself with a lawyer at Perth; but being of a religious disposition, he was disgusted at this profession, and soon withdrew from the desk of his master. Soon after he went to Edinburgh, and engaged as a clerk in a paper-warehouse, where he lived happily and respectably for some years. His only complaint was a deficiency of salary. Having a desire to share in the profits, as well as the toils, of the business, he wrote to his father, and prevailed upon him to assist him with some money, to enable him to procure a partnership with his master. He then made proposals to the above purpose; these were, however, rejected by his employer. Being provided with money, he entered into the wine and spirit trade. His success in business continued very promising, until he was almost ruined by the commencement of the war. At this period, his acquaintance with the Friends of the People commenced.

Several other leaders of this conspiracy in Scotland were seized. Of those where convicted, the Reverend T. Fishe Palmer, William Skirving, Thomas Muir, Maurice Margoret, and Joseph Gerald, who were transported to Botany-bay. Numbers, to avoid the avenging arm of justice, fled to the United States of America, where, with impunity, they disseminated their treason, and poured out volleys of abuse against their native land. These renegades were no sooner landed in a new world, than they rallied round the footstool of faction there, by commencing editors of, and scribblers in, newspapers, which swarm in that boasted land of liberty. In their filthy columns, they extolled the murderous revolutionists of France, and laboured to incense Americans against their own injured country. It is fit these apostates should be pointed at. John Thompson, of Scotland, printed one of these inflammatory sheets, at Richmond, in Virginia: Matthew Duane, of Ireland, another in Philadelphia. John Dinmore, late an apothecary, at Walton, in Norfolk, planted his literary annoyance in Columbia, the seat of the American government, and, for his extraordinary scurrility against England, the Gallic-American President, Jefferson, made him State Printer, and, heaven forefend, a Justice of the American Peace. This inflammatory sheet he called “The Expositor.” In order to give the reader an idea of the infamy of the abandoned scribblers, we shall quote a note from Mr. Janson’s History of America. Speaking of Denmore, says Mr. Janson, “Among the vile scurrility of his Expositor, last summer, was the following: After noticing the introduction of the American minister, Mr. Monroe, to the king, he adds, ‘For once an honest man had appeared at the Court of St. James’s.'” Another paper, printed by Mr. S. Snowden, at the same place, and preferring England to France, makes this observation upon the paragraph, “It is, no doubt, difficult for an honest man in the Doctor’s (apothecary Dinmore’s) estimation of the word, to get admission there; yet, he cannot have forgotten, that he himself was within a cable’s length of having his name announced to his Britannic Majesty — not by Sir Stephen Cotterell, but by the Recorder of London, and Ordinary of Newgate, as joint Masters of the Ceremonies.”

Cooper, the bosom-friend of the hoary apostate, Priestley, the bitterest foe we had in the new world, so greatly misused the press, that the country of his adoption threw him into a prison.

Inferior scribblers against Britain, are almost without number.

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1732: Edward Dalton, brotherly hate

Add comment October 9th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1732, Tyburn groaned with 13 men (no women) hanged en masse for various crimes — the most eye-catching of whom per the account of the ubiquitous Newgate Ordinary is surely

Edward Dalton, 26 Years of Age, Born in London, [and] Brother to James Dalton the famous Robber and Evidence, who was Executed last Year, as was thought upon the false Evidence of the infamous Waller

We have previously met in these pages that villainous brother, James Dalton. Jemmy was a serial robber and highwayman as sure as hemp is strong, but part of the lethal charge laid against him came courtesy of this “infamous Waller” who made his bones as an unscrupulous thief-taker, offering testimony fit to swing other fellows in order to secure reward purses.

James Dalton even in acknowledging several other charges that were plenty enough to hang him took violent exception to the mugging alleged by John Waller — for the latter was

a Man of a vile Character, that he was a common Affidavit Man, and was but lately, before the time charg’d in the Indictment, come out of Newgate himself; that though he himself had done many ill Things, and had deserv’d Death many times, yet not for this Fact, he being Innocent of it; and said, the Prosecutor was as great a Rogue as himself, and there was never a Barrel the better Herring

About a year later — with the elder Dalton already in his tomb — the magistrates came to the same conclusion in a different case, convicting Waller for perversion of justice “for endeavouring to defraud John Edlin of his good Name, his Life, his Goods, and Chattels, by making before Mr. Justice Gifford, on the 28th of January last, a false Information in Writing, by the Name of John Trevor, charging the said Edlin and another Person with assaulting him the said Waller on the Highway.”

Waller was condemned to stand in the pillory as a result — a punishment that under the brickbats of the London mob could easily exceed ritual shaming and imperil life and limb. At least seven people died in the pillory in the 18th century. One of them was the hated Waller, upon whom Edward Dalton visited his brother’s revenge after the stool pigeon had stood exposed for only “about two or three Minutes.” That’s when, according to a witness, Dalton and a goon named Serjeant Griffith(s) (“very honest in all his Dealings, and never wrong’d any Body” but given to a “particular Pleasure in mobbing and pelting Persons appointed to stand upon the Pillory”)

got upon the Pillory Board, Griffith took hold of Waller’s Coat, and Dalton of the Waisthand of his Breeches, and so they pulled his Head out of the Pillory, and he hung a little while by one Hand, but pulling that Hand out they threw him on the Pillory-board. [William] Belt took him up and endeavoured to put him in again, but the hung-an-Arse, upon which Belt gave him a Knock or two over the Back, with his Hand, (for I can’t say that he had any Weapon) and I believe to get him into the Pillory, but the other two Prisoners and a Chimney Sweeper laid hold of Waller, and stripped him as naked as he was born, except his Feet, for they pulled his Stockings over his Shoes and so left them; then they beat him with Collyflower-stalks, and threw him down upon the Pillory-board. The Chimney-Sweeper put something into his Mouth, and Griffith ramm’d it down his Throat with a Collyflower-stalk. Dalton and Griffith jumpt and stampt upon his naked Body and Head, and kick’d him and beat him with Artichoke and Collyflower-Stalks, as he lay on the Pillory-Board. They continued beating, kicking, and stamping upon him in this manner, for above 1/4 of an Hour, and then the Mob threw down the Pillory, and all that were upon it. Waller then lay naked on the Ground. Dalton got upon him, and stamping on his Privy Parts, he gave a dismal Groan, and I believe it was his last; for after that I never heard him groan nor speak, nor saw him stir.

William Belt was acquitted in this affair, but both Edward Dalton and Serjeant Griffith went to Tyburn’s gallows on October 9, 1732.

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2004: Ken Bigley, Iraq War hostage

Add comment October 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 2004, the British civil engineer turned hostage Kenneth Bigley was executed by his captors in one of the Iraq War‘s ghastly beheading videos.

Bigley was kidnapped on September 16 along with two American roommates from their shared house in the Mansour district; the whole trio was employed by a Kuwaiti contractor on construction projects in U.S.-occupied Baghdad.

The Zarqawi-led terrorist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad issued immediate demands on these three men’s lives for the release of women prisoners held by Iraq’s occupiers, and released videos of the beheadings of the Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, when those demands went unanswered.

Bigley’s situation dragged on much longer, and embroiled Tony Blair’s British government in a damaging political spectacle. The terrified Bigley was made to plead for his life in multiple videos released by his captors. In one, dressed in an orange jumpsuit echoing the notorious American prison at Guantanamo Bay, the 62-year-old prisoner denounced the P.M. with the words, “Tony Blair is lying. He doesn’t care about me. I’m just one person.”

Despite this charge, there were indeed several attempts to free Bigley, short of the red line of actually meeting the ransom demand. The Irish government, which importantly had not dirtied its hands by participating in the war, discovered that Bigley had a claim on Irish citizenship; thinking it might thereby have greater credibility to intercede, Dublin issued Bigley a passport and sent Gerry Adams on the diplomatic offensive, to no avail. It’s also been reported that Bigley was nearly extricated by an MI6 operation that got so far as to load him, armed, into an escape vehicle before the ride was intercepted at a militants’ checkpoint.

Instead, on October 7, the militants read a statement denouncing the occupation of Iraq and then cut off Bigley’s head for the cameras, to great grief in Bigley’s home city of Liverpool. The footage has circulated online.

The Spectator provocateur and (already) M.P. for Henley Boris Johnson — who today occupies Blair’s old digs at 10 Downing Street thanks in no small part to New Labour’s eagerness for the Iraq blunder — filed an editorial notable for its incendiary meanness on the topic of (so the title says) “Bigley’s Fate”, somehow absurdly tied to a shot at Bigley’s hometown for a 1989 crowd crush disaster at a football pitch.

A request by the authorities for a minute’s silence [at a football match] in memory of Mr Ken Bigley, the news of whose murder by terrorists in Iraq had broken the previous day, was largely and ostentatiously ignored. Yet the fact that such a tribute was demanded in the first place emphasised the mawkish sentimentality of a society that has become hooked on grief and likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood …

we have lost our sense of proportion about such things. There have, as a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph pointed out this week, been no such outbreaks of national mourning whenever one of our brave soldiers is killed serving his country in Iraq.

The extreme reaction to Mr Bigley’s murder is fed by the fact that he was a Liverpudlian. Liverpool is a handsome city with a tribal sense of community. A combination of economic misfortune — its docks were, fundamentally, on the wrong side of England when Britain entered what is now the European Union — and an excessive predilection for welfarism have created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians. They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it. Part of this flawed psychological state is that they cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their misfortunes, but seek rather to blame someone else for it, thereby deepening their sense of shared tribal grievance against the rest of society. The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat, and the Sun newspaper a whipping-boy for daring, albeit in a tasteless fashion, to hint at the wider causes of the incident.

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1912: Sargent Philp

Add comment October 1st, 2019 Headsman

The junction between workplace, home, identity (here masculinity), social welfare (or the lack thereof), and partner violence has rarely been so poignantly encapsulated as in the case of Sargent Philp — whose October 1, 1912 hanging for the embittered slaying of his wife is spotlighted by our friends at Capital Punishment UK.

33 year old Philp had been married to 35 year old Rose for 11 years and they had six children ranging from seven months to nine years. Philp was to loose [sic] his right eye in an accident at work and in the early 1900’s there was no compensation for industrial injury and no social security. He was fired as he could no longer do his job. This caused serious financial hardship for the family and in June 1912 Rose took her baby and moved in with her sister, Alice, at 31 Morby Road in the Old Kent Road area of London.

Philp went right round the bend to stalker territory trying to get Rose back: the wife’s understandable insistence on his securing a home played to his ear like the dunning of creditors, until a madness of possessiveness subsumed every familial tenderness.

According to the British National Archives,

Sargent Philp saw Rose Philp several times after the Police Court proceedings, and he told her that he wanted her back, however, she said that she wouldn’t come back until he had a home.

On one visit to Rose Philp’s mother’s house, Sargent Philp said, ‘If she has done this to get money out of me, she is mistaken’, and then added words to the effect that he would rather swing or go to the gallows.

… on Friday 26 July 1912 at about midday … [Rose] came into the kitchen where her sister was already, with Sargent Philp standing at the door, and Sargent Philp said, ‘I’ve got some news for you’, to which Rose Philp asked, ‘Have you got any work?’. Sargent Philp then replied, ‘I’ve got a job to go to on Monday, a good job’, but Rose Philp replied, ‘That’s no news, you are always getting good jobs’. Sargent Philp then asked, ‘Will you come back to me?’ and Rose Philp replied, ‘When you get a home’.

Sargent Philp then ran at Rose Philp, but she dodged round the table and called out for her sister to get a policeman. The sister then ran out for help and Rose Philp ran out of the house and along the street and then into an area of the next house, followed by Sargent Philp who had a shoemaker’s knife in his hand.

He was soon after seen leaning over her as she lay on the ground in the area of the next house. He had cut her throat, severing her windpipe and jugular with a stabbing motion. Rose Philp also had a cut on the left side of her jaw, a severe cut on her left wrist, and several cuts on her left hand and fingers.

Sargent Philp was then at once seized by two men, and he said, ‘I’ve done it, and meant to do it, and if her mother had been here I’d have done her the same. She has been the cause of all my trouble’.

The mother came up a few minutes after, and Sargent Philp repeated either to her or the sister, ‘If you had been here, I should have done you the same’.

It was noted that as Sargent Philp was seized by the two men as he was leaning over Rose Philp, he appeared to have started an attempt to cut his own throat, but his hand was seized.

Other remarks that he was said to have made included, ‘I told you what I would do, and I have done it’, and ‘I don’t care. I am glad I’ve done it. You don’t know what I have been through’.

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1733: Rebekah Chamblit

Add comment September 27th, 2019 Headsman

Below follows the full text the gallows ephemera by which print culture recalls for posterity a domestic tragedy of colonial Boston … whose arch phrasing (“sorry for any rash Expressions I have at any time uttered since my Condemnation … I have had more comfort and satisfaction within the Walls of this Prison, than ever I had in the ways of Sin”) strongly implies that it was foisted on her others or

My read of the “September 26” date that appears at the end is that the witnesses notarized the statement on the day prior to the execution.

The Declaration, Dying Warning and Advice of Rebekah Chamblit:

A Young Woman Aged Near Twenty-Seven Years, Executed at Boston September 27th. 1733. According to the Sentence Pass’d Upon Her at the Superiour Court Holden There for the County of Suffolk, in August Last, Being Then Found Guilty of Felony, in Concealing the Birth of Her Spurious Male Infant, of Which She Was Delivered When Alone the Eighth Day of May Last, and Was Afterwards Found Dead, as Will More Fully Appear by the Following Declaration, Which Was Carefully Taken From Her Own Mouth

BEING under the awful Appehension of my Execution now in a few Hours; and being desirous to do all the Good I can, before I enter the Eternal World, I now in the fear of GOD, give this Declaration and Warning to the Living.

I Was very tenderly brought up, and well Instructd in my Father’s House, till I was Twelve Years of Age; but alass, my Childhood off in vanity. However, as I grew in Years, my Youth was under very sensible Impressions from the SPIRIT of GOD; and I was awakened to seek and obtain Baptism, when I was about Sixteen Years of Age; and lived for some time with a strictness somewhat answerable to the Obligations I was thereby brought under. But within two or three Years after this, I was led away into the Sin of Uncleannes, from which tie I think I may date my Ruin for this World. After this, I became again more watchful, and for several Years kept my self from the like Pollution, until those for which I am now to suffer.

And as it be necessary, so doubtless it will be expected of me, that I give the World particular account of that great Sin, with the aggravations of it, which has brought me to this Shameful Death: And accordingly in the fear of GOD, at whose awful Tribunal I am immediately to appear, I solemnly declare as follows:

That on Saturday the Fifth Day of May last, being then something more than Eight Months gone with Child, as I was about my Houshold Business reaching some Sand from out of a large Cake, I received considerable hurt, which put me into great Pain, and so I continued till the Tuesday following; in all which time I am not sensible I felt any Life or Motion in the Child within me; when, on the fatal Tuesday the Eighth Day of May, I was Deliver’d when alone of a Male Infant; in whom I did not perceive Life; but still uncertain of Life in it, I threw it into the Vault about two or three Minutes after it was born; uncertain, I say, whether it was a living or dead Child, tho, I confess its probable there was Life in it, and some Circumstances seem to it. I therefore own the Jutice of GOD and Man in my Condemnation, and take Shame to my self, as I have none but my self to Blame and am sorry for any rash Expressions I have at any time uttered since my Condemnation; and I am verily perswaded there is no Place in the World, where there is a more strict regard to Justice than in this Province.

And now as a Soul going into Etern, I most earnestly and solemnly Warn all Persons, particularly YOUNG PEOPLE, and more especially those of my own Sex, the Sins which their Age peculiarly them to; and as the Sin of Uncleanness has brought me into these distressing Circumstances, I would with the greatest Importunity Caution and Warn against it, being perswaded of the abounding of that Sin in this Town and Land. I thought my self as secure, a little more than a Year ago, as many of you now do; but by woful Experience I have found, that Lust when it has conceived bringeth forth Sin, and Sin when it is finished bringeth forth Death; it exposes the Soul not only to Temporal, but to Eternal Death. And therefore as a Dying Person, let me call upon you to forsake the foolish and live: Do not accompany with those you know to be such, and if Sinners entice you do not consent. I am sensible there are many Houses in this Town, that may be called Houses of Uncleanness, and Places of dreadful Temptations to this and all other Sins. O shun them, for they lead down to the Chambers of Death and Eternal Misery.

My mispence of precious Sabbaths lies as a heavy burden upon me; that when I might have gone to the House of GOD, I have been indifferent, and suffer’d a small matter to keep me from it. What would I now give, had I better improv’d the Lord’s Day! I tell you, verily, your Sabbath will sit heavy upon you, when you come into the near prospect of Death and Eternity.

The Sin of Lying I have to bewail, and wou’d earnestly caution against; not that I have took so great a pleasure in Lying; but I have often done so to conceal my Sin: Certainly you had better suffer Shame and Disgrace, yea the greatest Punishment, than to hide and conceal your Sin, by Lying. How much better had it been for me, to have confess’d my Sin, than by hiding of it to provoke a holy GOD, thus to suffer it to find me out. But I hope I heartily desire to bless GOD, that even in this way, He is thus entring into Judgment with me; for I have often thought, had I been let alone to go on undiscovered in my Sins, I might have provok’d in to leave me to a course of Rebellion, that would have ripened me for a more sudden, and everlasting Destruction; and am fully convinc’d of this, that I should have had no solid ease or quiet in my mind, but the Guilt of this undiscover’d Sin lying upon my Conscience, would have been a tormenting Rack unto me all my Days; whereas now I hope GOD has discover’d to me in some measure the evil of this, and all my other Sins enabled me to repent of them in Dust and Ashes and made me earnestly desire and plead with Him for pardon and cleansing in the pecious Blood of the REDEEMER of lost and perishing Sinners: And I think I can say, I have had more comfort and satisfaction within the Walls of this Prison, than ever I had in the ways of Sin among my vain Companions, and think I woud not for a World, nay for ten Thousand Worlds have my liberty in Sin again, and be in the same Condition I was in before I came into this Place.

I had the advantage of living in several religious Famlies; but alass, I disregarded the Instructions and Warnings I there had, which is now a bitterness to me; and so it will be to those of you who are thus favoured, but go on unmindful of GOD, and deaf to all the Reproofs and Admonitions that are given you for the good of your Souls. And I would advise those of my own Sex especially, to chuse to go into religious Families, where the Worship and Fear of GOD is maintained, and submit your selves to the Order and Government of them.

In my younger Years I maintain’d a constant course of Secret Pray for some time; but afterwards neglecting the same, I found by experience, that upon my thus leaving GOD, He was provoked to forsake me, and at length suffer’d me to fall into that great and complicated Sin that has brought me to this Death: Mind me, I first left GOD, and then He left me: I therefore solemnly call upon YOUNG PEOPLE to cherish the Convictions of GOD’s Holy SPIRIT, and be sure keep up a constant course of fervent Secret Prayer.

And now I am just entring nto the Eternal World, I do in the fear of GOD, and before Witnesses, call upon our YOUNG PEOPLE in particular, to secure an Interest in the Lord JESUS CHRIST, and in those precious Benefits He has purchased for His People; for surely the favour of GOD, thro’ CHRIST, is more worth than a whole World: And O what Comfort will this yield you when you come to that awful Day and Hour I am now arriving unto. I must tell you the World appears to me vain and empty, nothing like what it did in my past Life, my Days of Sin and Vanity, and as doubtless it appears now to you. Will you be perswaded by me to that which will yield you the best Satisfaction ad Pleasure here, and which will prepare you for the more abundant Pleasures of GOD’s Right Hand for evermore.

Sign’d and Acknowleg’d in the Presence of divers Witnesses, with a desire that it may be publish’d to the World, and read at the Place of Execution.

Rebekah Chamblit.

September 26th, 1733

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1791: George Dingler, proved guilty

Add comment September 19th, 2019 Headsman

“every man is presumed to be innocent till proved guilty …”

-Whig barrister William Garrow, coining a soon-to-become-foundational juridical catchphrase in his unsuccessful defense of wife-murderer George Dingler, who was hanged at Tyburn on 19 September 1791

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1915: Augusto Alfredo Roggen, World War I spy

Add comment September 17th, 2019 Headsman

Uruguay-born World War I spy Augusto Alfredo Roggen was shot in the Tower of London on this date in 1915.

Like most German-on-British agents during the Great War — at least, the ones we know about! — he didn’t have much of a run. Although this son of a German national did it by the book by arriving legally and properly registering as a foreigner, he whistled on the security services’ frequency by sending a couple of postcards to a known-to-be-suspect address in the wartime espionage hub of Rotterdam.* The cards were copied and their sender was flagged.

After a few weeks of quietly monitoring his movements, British cops raided his hotel room while Roggen was on “holiday” at Loch Lomond. He had in his possession a revolver and equipment for writing in invisible ink; apparently he’d been intending to photograph facilities at Arrochar Torpedo Range.

Instead, he was tried at Middlesex Guildhall where he gave no evidence and made no defense. The intervention of the Uruguayan embassy on behalf of its national was to no avail.

* The Netherlands’ wartime neutrality made Dutch citizens — who could travel throughout Europe — natural spy recruits. The best-known monument of that era is the executed exotic dancer Mata Hari, who was actually a Dutchwoman named Margaretha Zelle.

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1917: Private John Abigail

Add comment September 12th, 2019 Headsman

Private John Abigail of the Royal Norfolk Regiment was shot on this date in 1917 for World War I desertion, at the village of Esquelbecq on the French-Belgian border.

He was a four-time offender, the last occasion judiciously ditching his post just before he was ordered over the top into the Passchendaele bloodbath.

Abigail’s name surprisingly appears carved on a war memorial plaque at St. Augustine’s Church in Norwich that long predates the humane 21st century rehabilitation of those shot at dawn. (See it here, at the very top of the right panel.)

The BBC has a short program about him available here.

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1731: Catherine Bevan, burned alive in Delaware

1 comment September 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1731, a double execution of 50-year-old Catherine Bevan and her young servant — perhaps lover — Peter Murphy was nightmarishly marred by Bevan’s burning alive.

Such was indeed the sentence upon her for “petty treason”, a now-archaic legal category that compassed the betrayal — in practice, murder — of an authority. (Compare to “high treason”, meaning the betrayal of the ultimate authority, the sovereign; the legal categories show that these offenses are analogues.) Quite often in such cases the authority in question was the man of the house, and so it was here too: Bevan and Murphy beat and throttled to death her husband, Henry Bevan. Both wife-on-husband and servant-on-master homicide qualified as petty treason.

Crucially for the American colonies, the latter category included slaves in resistance to their masters. Petty treason was an offense elevated beyond “mere” murder because it implied an attack upon the received order upon which all society depended; one expression of the heightened outrage accorded to petty treason was that women* thus convicted could be sentenced to burning, rather than “mere” hanging. This interesting Widener Law Library blog about the Bevan case notes that out of 24 documented burnings of women in early America, 22 were burnings of enslaved women. (Enslaved men were also subject to this fate for crimes particularly threatening to the stability of the Slave Power, like arson.)

Bevan was one of the two exceptions, although it must be noted that there were other prosecutions of white domestic murderesses in the colonial period that simply got the culprits hanged instead of burned. In the looser confines of the New World, the growing English reticence about sending [white] women to the stake predominated; in fact, when Delaware found itself with another spousal parricide on its hands in 1787, its legislature hurriedly amended the still-extant burning-at-the-stake statutes to provide for simple hanging instead.

One reason for the squeamishness was what happened to the widow Bevan.

It was design’d to strangle her dead before the Fire should touch her; but its first breaking out was in a stream which pointed directly upon the Rope that went round her Neck, and burnt it off instantly, so that she fell alive into the Flames, and was seen to struggle.

Pennsylvania Gazette, September 23, 1731

* “In treasons of every kind the punishment of women is the same, and different from that of men” who in some instances could be drawn and quartered, writes Blackstone. “For, as the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publickly mangling their bodies, their sentence (which is to the full as terrible to the sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows, and there to be burned alive.”

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1873: James Connor

Add comment September 8th, 2019 Headsman

The Capital Punishment UK Facebook page exhumes a ghastly artifact for us in the form of the September 8, 1873 hanging of James Connor at Kirkdale Gaol … and then his second hanging moments later.

A former boilermaker and sometime prizefighter, Connor had accosted a woman on the street with an aggressive proposition, then come to blows with the good Samaritans who attempted to intervene. One of them died from the blade wounds Connor dealt him; the other survived to firmly fix the identity of the rake.

That was on August 11, not even a full month before the man’s execution, and what was paid in haste was also surely paid in full after the stoical condemned instead of dropping to his death crashed into the side of the scaffold. According to the article shared by CPUK, it was not that the rope itself snapped but that “the splicing of the loop through which one end of the rope passes to form the noose had given way with the weight of the man.”

Either way, having built himself up to die game, Connor was somewhat unmanned at the horror spectacle of having his hood removed to behold prison officials scrambling to reset his gallows for a second pass. Per a broadside report,

After utterring [sic] a few deep groans he muttered to Warder Bradley, “What do you do this, do you call this murder?” The chaplain recommenced his ministrations, and entreated him in tremulous voice to keep up. At this point Connor, although suffering terrible physical pain, was heard to exclaim in a feeble voice, “After this you should let me off; surely this is enough. I stood it like a brick the first time.”

Of course, he had to stand it a second time too. Thankfully a third try was not required to accomplish the deed.

It was one of the last executions in the lengthy and botch-prone career of hangman William Calcraft, who was nearing his 73rd birthday at the time. Already he had was being surpassed in his art by the scientific professionalism of Marwood; by 1874, Calcraft was forced to hang up his brittle nooses for good.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder

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