[Richard Worley‘s] Reign was but short, but his Beginning somewhat particular, setting out in a small open Boat, with eight others, from New-York. This was as resolute a Crew as ever went upon this Account: They took with them a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, half a dozen old Muskets and Ammunition accordingly. Thus provided, they left New-York the latter End of September 1718, but it cannot be supposed that such a Man of War as this, could undertake any considerable Voyage, or attempt any extraordinary Enterprize; so they stood down the Coast, till they came to Delaware River, which is about 150 Miles distant, and not meeting with any Thing in their Way, they turn’d up the same River as high as Newcastle, near which Place they fell upon a Shallop belonging to George Grant, who was bringing Houshold Goods, Plate, &c. from Oppoquenimi to Philadelphia; they made Prize of the most valuable Part of them, and let the Shallop go. This Fact could not come under the Article of Pyracy, it not being committed super altum Mare, upon the High-Sea, therefore was a simple Robbery only; but they did not stand for a Point of Law in the Case, but easing the Shallop Man of his Lading, the bold Adventurers went down the River again.
The Shallop came straight to Philadelphia, and brought the ill News thither, which so alarm’d the Government, as if War had been declared against them; Expresses were sent to New-York, and other Places, and several Vessels fitted out against this powerful Rover, but to no manner of Purpose; for after several Days Cruize, they all return’d, without so much as hearing what became of the Robbers.
Worley and his Crew, in going down the River, met with a Sloop of Philadelphia, belonging to a Mulatto, whom they call’d Black Robbin; they quitted their Boat for this Sloop, taking one of Black Robin’s Men along with them, as they had also done from George Grant, besides two Negroes, which encreased the Company one Third. A Day or two after, they took another Sloop belonging to Hull, homeward bound, which was somewhat fitter for their Purpose; they found aboard her, Provisions and Necessaries, which they stood in need of, and enabled them to prosecute their Design, in a manner more suitable to their Wishes.
Upon the Success of these Rovers, the Governor issued out a Proclamation, for the apprehending and taking all Pyrates, who had refused or neglected to surrender themselves, by the Time limited in his Majesty’s Proclamation of Pardon; and thereupon, ordered his Majesty’s Ship Phoenix, of 20 Guns, which lay at Sandy Hook, to Sea, to cruize upon this Pyrate, and secure the Trade to that, and the adjoining Colonies.
In all probability, the taking this Sloop sav’d their Bacons, for this Time, tho’ they fell into the Trap presently afterwards; for they finding themselves in tolerable good Condition, having a Vessel newly cleaned, with Provisions, &c. they stood off to Sea, and so missed the Phoenix, who expected them to be still on the Coast.
About six Weeks afterwards they returned, having taken both a Sloop and a Brigantine, among the Bahama Islands; the former they sunk, and the other they let go: The Sloop belonged to New-York, and they thought the sinking of her good Policy, to prevent her returning to tell Tales at Home.
Worley had by this Time encreased his Company to about five and twenty Men, had six Guns mounted, and small Arms as many as were necessary for them, and seem’d to be in a good thriving sort of a Way. He made a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the Middle of it, and other Colours suitable to it.* They all signed Articles, and bound themselves under a solemn Oath, to take no Quarters, but to stand by one another to the last Man, which was rashly fulfill’d a little afterwards.
For going into an Inlet in North-Carolina, to clean, the Governor received Information of it, and sitted out two Sloops, one of eight Guns, and the other with six, and about seventy Men between them. Worley had clean’d his Sloop, and sail’d before the Carolina Sloops reached the Place, and steered to the Northward; but the Sloops just mentioned, pursuing the same Course, came in sight of Worley, as he was cruising off the Capes of Virginia, and being in the Offin, he stood in as soon as he saw the Sloops, intending thereby to have cut them off from James River; for he verily believed they had been bound thither, not imagining, in the least, they were in Pursuit of him.
The two Sloops standing towards the Capes at the same Time, and Worley hoisting of his black Flag, the Inhabitants of James Town were in the utmost Consternation, thinking that all three had been Pyrates, and that their Design had been upon them; so that all the Ships and Vessels that were in the Road, or in the Rivers up the Bay, had Orders immediately to hale in to the Shore, for their Security, or else to prepare for their Defence, if they thought themselves in a Condition to fight. Soon after two Boats, which were sent out to get Intelligence, came crowding in, and brought an Account, that one of the Pyrates was in the Bay, being a small Sloop of six Guns. The Governor expecting the rest would have followed, and altogether make some Attempt to land, for the sake of Plunder, beat to Arms, and collected all the Force that could be got together, to oppose them; he ordered all the Guns out of the Ships, to make a Platform, and, in short, put the whole Colony in a warlike Posture; but was very much surprised at last, to see all the supposed Pyrates fighting with one another.
The Truth of the Matter is, Worley gained the Bay, thinking to make sure of his two Prizes, by keeping them from coming in; but by the hoisting of the King’s Colours, and firing a Gun, he quickly was sensible of his Mistake, and too soon perceived that the Tables were turned upon him; that instead of keeping them out, he found himself, by a superiour Force kept in. When the Pyrates saw how Things went, they resolutely prepar’d themselves for a desperate Defence; and tho’ three to one odds, Worley and his Crew determined to fight to the last Gasp, and receive no Quarters, agreeably to what they had before sworn; so that they must either Dye or Conquer upon the Spot.
The Carolina Men gave the Pyrate a Broadside, and then Boarded him, one Sloop getting upon his Quarter, and the other on his Bow; Worley and the Crew, drew up upon the Deck, and fought very obstinately, Hand to Hand, so that in a few Minutes, abundance of Men lay weltering in their Gore; the Pyrates proved as good as their Words, not a Man of them cry’d out for Quarter, nor would accept of such, when offered, but were all killed except the Captain and another Man, and those very much wounded, whom they reserved for the Gallows. They were brought ashore in Irons, and the next Day, which was the 17th of February 1718-19, they were both hanged up, for fear they should dye, and evade the Punishment as was thought due to their Crimes.
* The origin of the skull-and-crossbones design we commonly associate with pirates is murky, but Worley is often credited as one of the earliest to sail under it. -ed.
On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British
They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.
Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**
The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.
Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.
But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.
Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:
Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger
Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.
McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”
The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.
Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.
* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.
** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.
Sach’s lying-in house in the north London suburb was a destination of choice for inconveniently pregnant women for a couple of years at the dawn of the 1900s, and there they could deliver discreetly and pay a surcharge for adoption services to place the child with a family.
Except, as the mothers must have understood, few if any of those children were destined to find a doting parent.
The baby farming business stood as cover for post-partum abortion in a society exacting penalties legal, medical, and social against single motherhood and terminated pregnancies alike. The solutions an unexpectedly pregnant maid might turn to were all desperate and unappealing, and in the absence of better provisions for orphans and mothers a significant pattern of infanticide was baked into Victorian* England.
Risky home-brew abortifacients like pennyroyal were another option.
The £25-30 donative solicited of mothers by the Goodwife Sach was not enough to maintain the little darlings surrendered to her care: only enough to ease the conscience to forgetfulness. After delivery under Sach’s eye, the infants would be spirited away by Annie Walters for “adoption.” In her hands, they’d be chloroformed or strangled.
Nobody knows how many souls who might have grown up to serve as cannon meat at the Somme were destroyed untimely by our subtle duo; in the end, they were only tripped up by Walters’s surprisingly careless decision to take one of her charges home — where a neighboring, and nosy, police officer noticed it before it mysteriously disappeared.
Their joint death was the most recent occasion Great Britain carried out a double hanging in which both of the executed were women. For a novelization of the case, pick up Nicola Upson’s Two For Sorrow (review).
George Beck, 20, George Hearson, 22, and John Armstrong, 26, were among twenty-plus alleged rioters arrested by the military whose intervention had been required to contain the disturbance. They were unlucky as much as anything, prey to statecraft’s requisites of resolve shown and examples made, for in the chaos of the riots the evidence gathered against these three as particular baddies resided at best on the arbitrary and dubious side. Such a public outcry arose against their punishment that officials made sure to delay the hanging until after the day’s post reached town, lest it bear along a last-minute pardon.
On 4 January Armstrong had been found guilty of causing the Beeston riot and the destruction of Lowe’s silk mill. The other two had been arrested later the same month and charged with involvement in the same crime. Unfortunately for Beck and Hearson, though, their convictions had been made on spurious identification evidence. No one at their trial had given irrefutable evidence to establish guilt and by the time they climbed on to the scaffold to join Armstrong some 24,000 people had signed petitions for their release and well over that number swelled the crowds which gathered to watch the executions. So nervous were the Nottingham officials that they called out the 15th Hussars, The Queens Bays, the 18th Foot and a significant body of special constables to block off High Pavement and prevent any outbreak of unrest.
From a contemporary news account:
On the day of execution (Wednesday February 1st), the condemned took a glass of wine. Both Hearson and Armstrong protested their innocence by saying “I am a murdered man”. Beck ascended the platform first and a cry of “Murder!” could be heard from the crowd. Despite his irons, Hearson ran quickly up and jumped on the scaffold, calling to friends in the crowd. He then twirled his cap around his hand, “as if in triumph”, followed by his neckerchief, to cheers from the crowd. He also did a little dance before being calmed, and before Armstrong ascended. The ropes had been adjusted, and the chaplain began the service. On uttering the words “in the midst of life we are in death”, the drop fell!
The blog Pallax View has an excellent entry about the riots and resulting trials and executions, focusing on Hearson in particular. He was a married lace manufacturer and an enthusiastic boxer, called “Curley Hearson” in the prize ring.
A poem about the injustice of the executions gained wide circulation:
Hark! The Trumps are mournful sounding,
Wafting souls to realms above,
Where there’s naught but bliss abounding,
Glorying too for Jesu love.
The reckless fate of these poor creatures,
Fills the town with sad dismay,
For Nottingham, with its bright features,
Could not check that dreadful day.
To see the prime of youth now wither,
‘Midst relations, friends so dear,
It makes one’s blood almost to shiver,
Who could stop the burning tear?
Hearson, Beck and Armstrong boldly,
Met their fates beneath the tree;
Villains swore against them coldly,
And their doom we all shall see.
A Rogue of a Soldier, who deserted from Johnny Gibson’s Regiment and turned Burglar. Executed 27th of January, 1697
GEORGE SEAGER, aged twenty-six years at the time of his death, was born at Portsmouth, in Hampshire, where, his father and mother dying, his sister took care of him for a while; but she, not being able to support herself, left it to the parish to keep him, the overseers whereof placed him out to spin packthread. After two years he left that employment and went to a silk-throwster for a year and a half, when, running away from his master, he took to bad courses, being addicted to gaming, swearing, drunkenness and theft; but a gang of the Ruby man-of-war pressing him, he went on board that ship to sea, where, robbing the seamen’s chests, he was often whipped at the capstan, put in the bilboes, and once keel-hauled. Keel-hauling a man is tying a rope round his middle, to which two other ropes are so fastened that, carrying him to the end of the main-yardarm on the starboard-side of the ship, he is flung from thence into the water and hauled under the ship by a man standing on the main-yardarm on the larboard-side, where a gun is fired over the criminal’s head as he is drawn up.
However, as no punishment would deter him from pilfering, the captain of the ship, rather than be plagued with him, put him ashore at Plymouth, from whence he begged his way to Portsmouth, where he enlisted himself into Johnny Gibson’s Regiment, to whom he was a continual plague. The first time he mounted the guard, being put sentry on the ramparts and ordered by the corporal not to let the grand rounds pass without challenging, he said he would take care of them, imagining that if he challenged them he must fight them too. So the grand rounds going about at twelve at night, with Johnny Gibson at the head of them, Seager, who had got a whole hatful of stones by him, because he chose to fight at a distance, cries out: “Who comes there?” Being told they were the grand rounds — “Oh, d —-n ye!” quoth George, “the grand rounds, are ye? Have at you then; for I have waited for you this hour and above.” So pelting them with stones as fast as he could fling, the grand rounds could not pass any farther till they called out to the captain of Lamport Guard, who sent the corporal to relieve him, in order to his being examined; but Johnny Gibson finding him to be a raw soldier, who had never been on duty before, he escaped any punishment inflicted on offenders by martial law.
After this George also ran the gauntlet several times for robbing the soldiers’ barracks of victuals, linen or anything else that he could find; but no punishment deterring him from his pilfering tricks, he was in a draft sent over to Flanders, where, going one day into a great church in Brussels, he espied a Capuchin friar confessing a young woman in a very private place; and as soon as the good old Father had given absolution to his penitentiary, he made up to him, under pretence of confessing his sins, for, as it happened, the friar was an Englishman. But, instead of confessing his manifold crimes, his intention was to commit more; for, pulling a pistol out of his pocket and clapping it to his breast, quoth he: “Reverend Father, I perceived the young gentlewoman, whom you just now confessed, gave you something; but, let it be more or less, unless you surrender it to me, who have most need of it, I will shoot you through the heart, although I were sure to be hanged this very moment for it.”
The friar, being much surprised at these dangerous words, and deeming life sweet, gave him what he had got from his female penitentiary, which was two louis d’or; then binding him hand and foot, in a corner adjacent to his confession box, he went away; and that same day, deserting his regiment, he made the best of his way to England, where he committed several most notorious burglaries in the cities of London and Westminster, and the outparts thereof. But at last being apprehended, and sent to Newgate, for breaking open the house of the Lord Cutts and taking from thence plate and fine linen valued at two hundred and forty pounds, he was hanged at Tyburn, on Wednesday, the 27th day of January, in the year 1697.
Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.
The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.
As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.
Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.
Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.
Their deaths were the consequence of the near-miss bid to bring down Morocco’s King Hassan II by bringing down his airplane, a plot to which Lt. Col. Mohamed Amekrane, the commander of the air base that launched fighters against the king’s convoy, was utterly pivotal. It’s no surprise that he’d be in the way of the royal revenge domestically after this incident; more surprising and controversial was the role the British would play in dooming the man.
As he discovered that the king’s passenger plane had somehow escaped the predations of his F-5s, Amekrane (it’s also sometimes spelled Amokrane) alertly requisitioned a helicopter and fled with another officer to British soil at nearby Gibraltar, where they requested asylum on Aug. 16.
This put Westminster in an awkward situation: repatriate the men to sure execution, or give refuge to the would-be assassins of a friendly head of state.* Still more was it a procedural twilight, where the power of bureaucratic discretion prevailed by declaring the form of the law in ambiguous circumstances.
After a flurry of consultations “at ministerial level” that also weighed “the possibility of repercussions with other governments,” (London Times, Aug. 18, 1972) the Heath government classified the fugitives as refugee illegal aliens and repatriated them within days, lamely explaining that Gibraltar, a small place, didn’t have much room for asylum claimants. And once they were fitted with the “illegal alien” hat it was simple: “they were returned to Morocco because that was the place from which they came.” (the Times, Aug. 19) Application, rejection, and deportation all took place within a mere 15 hours, purposefully too fast for anyone to get wind of what was happening or to mobilize resources in support of the Moroccans.
London’s legal chicanery drew a discomfited response from some other elites as well as members of the public or at least those with a propensity towards letters to the editor in the early 1970s. Parliamentarian Ivor Richard fumed that “there was surely no necessity in international law or in humanity deliberately to have sent them back to what appears to be their deaths.”
The Times would editorialize in that same Aug. 19, 1972 edition against the “haste and informality in the procedure which contradict Britain’s long tradition of care in such cases” — noting the irony that
the absence of an extradition treaty [might have been thought] would make it more difficult for the Moroccan authorities to reach out to fugitive offenders on British soil. In fact it has made it easier for them … because of British ministers’ willingness to use the power to deport aliens whose presence is judged undesirable in such a way as to achieve the result of extradition. And the exercise of that power is not subject to the same safeguards.
Amekrane had no safeguards at all once he was back in Moroccan hands. That November, he was condemned to die along with his companion on the Gibraltar caper Lt. Lyazid Midoaui, plus nine other members of the Moroccan Air Force complicit in the coup attempt; the whole batch was executed together on this date at a prison in Kenitra.
But in Britain his case outlived the fusillade. For the overhasty asylum refusal, Amekrane’s widow filed suit against the UK in a European Commission of Human Rights court, eventually winning a £37,500 settlement.
* The relations between the states in question went beyond mere chumminess: Franco’s Spain was maintaining a blockade against Gibraltar, in consequence of which the imperial outpost was heavily supplied by and from Morocco. The men’s lives were sold, so critics carped, for “lettuces.”
However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”
Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,
were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …
The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.
Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.
On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.
John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.
Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.
The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.
Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”
“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.
Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.
By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.
At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.
The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.
Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.
As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.
In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.
In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.
The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:
The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.
At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
At noon this date in 1824, upon a fresh-built black gallows adjoining Hertford Prison, John Thurtell hanged for one of regency England’s most infamous crimes.
Son of the Norwich mayor, John Thurtell was rubbish with money and had twice crashed his bombazine business into insolvency while stiffing his creditors. (John’s brother Tom served time for defrauding an insurance company with a suspicious warehouse fire.)
But these were merely business matters.
When Thurtell fell into a £300 gambling debt to thanks to Weare’s cheating at cards, maybe it was a matter of honor. Thurtell invited the Lyon’s Inn barrister to a gaming piss-up at Thurtell’s cottage in the village of Radlett. They’d be joined by Thurtell’s mates Joseph Hunt and William Probert, “Turpin lads” in Thurtell’s estimation.
Just short of their destination, on a street later to be known as “Murder Lane”, Thurtell shot Weare in the face. The shot scored only a glancing hit against his victim’s cheekbone, but Thurtell was in for a penny, in for a pound: he tackled the fleeing Weare, opened his throat from ear to ear, and pistol-whipped his skull into bloody-brained bits.
Whatever malice aforethought had moved Thurtell to this vengeful crime did not contain near enough calculation. “The whole history of the murder, and the scenes which ensued, are strange pictures of desperate and short-sighted wickedness,” Sir Walter Scott marveled.
Abandoning the gun at the scene — it was one of a paired set of which Thurtell owned the other — the killer and his friends hauled the corpse to a nearby pond, then proceeded unperturbed to the night’s revelry fresh from homicide, even donning Weare’s own clothes in subsequent days.
Worst of all from the perfect-crime standpoint, Thurtell had undertaken the crime himself (openly popping off, per the subsequent court record, “if Weare comes down, I will do him, for he has done me out of several hundred pounds”) and his companions turned on him when the investigation inevitably bore down on them. Probert went crown’s evidence immediately in exchange for immunity, even leading authorities to the body; Hunt stalled and lied for a while, but cracked soon enough.
To the nationwide outrage at this shocking callousness among obnoxious society rakes was added the whiff of scandal about Thurtell’s involvement in “the Fancy” — the semi-illicit sport of amateur boxing.
Frequented then as now both by underworld elements and society gentlemen, boxing was officially illegal but widely celebrated and openly advertised without much fear of police intervention. At the same time, the burgeoning sport — with its naked brutality, more-than-occasional fatalities, multiracial proletarian cast, and associations with various unsavory characters, had ample moral-panic potential. The Fancy, said a judge in 1803,
draws industrious people away from the subject of their industry; and when great multitudes are so collected, they are likely enough to be engaged in broils. It affords an opportunity for people of the most mischievous disposition to assemble, under the colour of seeing this exhibition, and to do a great deal of mischief; in short, it is a practice that is extremely injurious in every respect and must be repressed.
But many of his peers were there in the audience, laying their own mischievous wagers.
As magistrates it may have been their duty to discountenance, but as county gentleman it was their privilege to support, the noble champions of the art, especially when they had their money on the event.
Thurtell, briefly an amateur pugilist himself, was a trainer and promoter on the boxing circuit.
Detail view (click for full image) of “A correct view of the execution, taken on the spot by an eminent artist.” (Source)
Thurtell was anatomized after execution; a wax likeliness of the hated murderer stood in Madame Tussaud’s until the 1970s.
As for Thurtell’s confederates: Joseph Hunt’s cooperation was sufficient to cop a last-second commutation of his death sentence; he was transported to Australia instead. William Probert completely avoided prosecution thanks to his expeditious turn to crown’s evidence, but the career criminal (now practically disbarred from honest labor by dint of his nationwide infamy) found himself in hangman Foxen‘s hands not long thereafter for stealing a horse.
And Thurtell’s victim Weare did his own posthumous bit for the annals of English publishing when a printer multiplied its customary revenue stream on a Thurtell gallows broadsheet with a second edition headed “WE ARE alive”. Printed in such a way to intentionally make the first two words appear to read “WEARE”, its handsome sales to the gullible allegedly originated the term “catchpenny”.
There are a number of 19th century accounts of this case available in the public domain, including here, here and here.
From the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury, Jan. 17, 1823.
CONFESSIONS OF ROBERT HARTLEY
On the 2d instant, an immense concourse of people assembled at Penenden Heath, to witness the execution of Robert Stainton Hartley, convicted at the late Kent Assizes of stabbing Captain Owen, of the Bellerophon hulk,* at Sheerness.
He was of a bold and fearless disposition, and seemed to be little concerned at the thoughts of death. He had frequently observed, “I do not fear death, nor ought I to fear it. I have sought for it, and have got it; and I have got no more than I deserved.”
Previously to his execution, he made confessions, which, if they can be relied on (but those that knew him say that truth was a stranger to his nature), may be the means of bringing to justice the long-sought murderers both of Mrs. Donatty, and Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich.
Hartley confessed to the Rev. Mr. Winter having been concerned in upwards of two hundred burglaries, in Kent, Essex, Surry [sic], Middlesex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland, Durham, Lincoln, and Norfolk. He had been confined in sixteen different prisons, besides undergoing several examinations at the different police-officers; and he had gone by the following names: — Robert Stainton, Alexander Rombollon, George Grimes, Robert Wood, William Smith, George Croggington, and Robert Hartley.
Hartley’s father formerly kept an inn (the Sir John Falstaff), at Hull, in Yorkshire. He was put to school in that neighbourhood, but his conduct at school was so marked with depravity, and so continually did he play the truant, that he was dismissed as unmanageable. He then, although only nine years of age, began with pilfering and robbing gardens and orchards, till at length his friends were obliged to send him to sea.
He soon contrived to run away from the vessel in which he had been placed, and having regained the land, pursued his old habits, and got connected with many of the principal thieves in London, with whom he commenced business regularly as a house-breaker, which was almost always his line of robbery.
Hartley acknowledged that from his earliest days he was of a most vindictive and revengeful spirit. He had been punished when at school, and, in revenge, contrived to get from his bed in the night, and destroy the whole of the fruit-trees and every plant and shrub in his master’s garden.
At another time, having robbed a neighbour’s garden, he was detected and punished; when, in order to wreak his vengeance, he set fire to the house in the night, which was nearly destroyed, together with its intimates. He had adopted a plan to escape from his father’s house in the night-time without detection, which was done by means of a rope ladder, that he let down from his bed-room window, and after effecting his robberies, he used to return to his room in the same way.
Hartley had once before received sentence of death, and was not respited till within a few hours of the usual time of execution; he was then sent to Botany Bay, whence he contrived to make his escape, and afterwards entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships in the East Indies. Whilst at this station, he was removed to the hospital on shore at Bombay, on account of sickness; but even in this state he could not refrain from thieving.
His practice was to scale the walls of the hospital in the evening, and way-lay the natives, whom he contrived to rob, by knocking them down with a short ebony stick; and then seizing their turbans, in which their wealth was usually deposited, he stole off unperceived, whilst his victims were left weltering in blood, which always followed his blows.
Whilst on this station, a gentleman on board the ship missed a valuable box of pearls, and suspicion falling upon a native Indian, he was put on shore and dreadfully tortured (his finger and toe nails being torn out), to make him confess. A few days before Hartley’s execution, he confessed that he had been the thief, having stolen the pearls, and secreted them in a crevice in the ship’s side, where they had slipped down to the bottom, and he never could get at them again.
Hartley wrote an account of this circumstance to the commander of the ship, who came to Maidstone immediately, and recognized Hartley as having been engaged as an officer’s servant on board; and the latter assured him that the pearls still remained in the place where he had secreted them.
Hartley acknowledged that he was an accomplice in the murder of Mr. Bird and his housekeeper, at Greenwich, for which murder Hussey was executed in 1818, but that neither himself nor Hussey was the actual murderer. Hartley obtained admission into the house by presenting a note at the door, when himself, with Hussey and another person, whom he named, —, rushed into the house and shut the door.
Hartley instantly ran up stairs to plunder the drawers, and whilst there he heard a loud cry for mercy. He went to the top of the stairs, and saw Hussey pull Mr. Bird’s housekeeper to the floor, whilst — struck her repeatedly with a hammer. Hartley ran down stairs, and saw Mr. Bird lying dead on his back. The sight so affected him that he immediately threw on the table two watches which he had secured, ran out of the house, and never saw Hussey afterwards, nor had any share in the plunder.
Happy would it have been had his hands always been as free from blood; but he confessed that he afterwards met a gentleman on the highway and shot him dead; after which he took from his person a watch and 75l.
Hartley was also witness to another scene of murder which occurred in one of his midnight robberies. Himself and a companion had entered the house of a gentleman, who, being alarmed, seized a poker and made towards Hartley, who snapped a pistol, which missed fire. The gentleman seized him by the collar and drugged him to the floor, when Hartley’s companion plunged a knife into his heart, and he fell dead upon hartley.
Two ladies had followed the gentleman into the room, and at the horrid sight they instantly fainted, whilst Hartley and his companion made their escape. He has also frequent[l]y confessed that the murderer of Mrs. Donatty was the above-mentioned —, who he represented to be a most blood-thirsty villain.
In one of his midnight excursions with two of his companions, he had a narrow escape of his life. They had packed up the principal part of the plate in the lower rooms; when one of his companions, with horrid oaths, declared that he would proceed up stairs, in attempting which, he was shot dead at the side of Hartley, who with his other companion, made a hasty retreat.
This circumstance only served to harden him in iniquity, as he acknowledged that he was totally devoid of fear and natural affection. Feelings of remorse were, however, a little awakened a few days before his trial, by an affectionate letter from a sister imprisoned for debt, whom he had robbed of two hundred pounds by forging a power of attorney, by which he obtained possession of a legacy bequeathed to her by a distant relation.
He looked forward to the time of his execution with astonishing coolness; and, in order that he might have the day continually before him, he had drawn a circle on paper, to form a kind of dial, with an index pointing to the number of days yet remaining, and this index he moved daily as the days of life decreased. This monitor he fastened against the wall of his cell, where it was constantly in view. He was but twenty-five years of age, and about five feet six inches high.
That was curtains for the Bellerophon‘s career as well as the Corsican’s; the ship was converted into a prison hulk upon her return. Jams celebrating the ship by her nickname, “Billy Ruffian”, still live on to this day.