On this date in 1827, a “Carnival of Death” in Richmond saw the hanging of three Spanish pirates who had but recently perpetrated an infamous slaughter all their own.
These men had shipped aboard the brig Crawford out of Matanzas, Cuba. The Crawford was bound for New York, but these Spaniards and a French-born American with the unfortunate name Tardy had a different idea: they had brought aboard a set of Spanish papers for the vessel that would show her under their command, sailing for Hamburg.
One night on the seas, the four rose up and murdered most of the rest of the crew. A cook and a French passenger were spared, as was the mate Edmund Dobson who convinced the hijackers that he could be of service navigating their prize.
The ship’s original papers vanished into the waves, along with Captain Henry Brightman of Troy, Mass., and eight other crew and passengers whose deaths make pitiable reading. Oliver Potter scampered up a mast to escape the mutineers, but having been gashed by their blades he eventually became “exhausted by the loss of his blood, [and] fell to the deck and expired.” Two other men lept overboard and begged for their tormenters to allow them some piece of debris that would keep them afloat, “but the demons regarded [them] not.” (both quotes from the North Carolina Sentinel, June 30, 1827).
It would afterward emerge that Alexander Tardy was a veteran terror of the Atlantic lanes, and had been in the words of a Philadelphia Gazette report widely reprinted around the republic
many years on our coast, and in our cities, planning and executing his black and hellish deeds with all the coolness of a demon, and after having been suffered by the mildness of our laws to escape the gallows, and repeat his murders, when in many other Christian countries he would long since have hung in gibbets … his early execution would have saved hundreds of lives, and certainly the eight lives on board the brig Crawford.
“Hundreds” seems quite a bit on the exaggerated side, but by accounts Tardy had committed several seaborne murders and escaped from hard prison time in Virginia and South Carolina.
The Gazette gives us sneaky murders by poison, rather than slaughterous main-force ship seizures, and it appears that for all his accomplishments in the field of homicide, Tardy seems to have rarely or never actually managed to commandeer a prize: perhaps this was the margin that kept him off the gibbets all those years.
He was not destined for the gallows in this instance, either.
Since our quartet purposed to reroute the Crawford from a run up the coast to a cross-Atlantic voyage, they needed to augment her provisions. To this effect, at the suggestion of the heroic and unusually persuasive mate Dobson,* the Crawford put in at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia capes. There, Dobson was able to slip the pirates and row to shore. By the time he returned with authorities, the Spaniards had put ashore in a vain attempt to flee, while Tardy had cut his own throat.
It was the eventual understanding of the federal (not Virginia) court that tried them before a standing-room crowd that the Galician Felix Barbeto was Tardy’s equal in the plot, and that Barbeto and Tardy had hired the other two Spaniards: Couro (aka Jose Morando) and Pepe (aka Jose Hilario Casaris) both addressed their comrade as “Don Felix”.
Hanging in chains having fallen well out of favor by this date, Tardy “was buried at the low water mark near Old Point Comfort, with his face downward, and every mark of ignominy.” (Alexandria Gazette, July 24, 1827) A few hours later, someone thought to obtain his specimen for the quack science of the day and “he was disinterred, his head taken off, and dispatched to Baltimore, for the inspection of the Galls and Spurzheims of that city. They will probably find the organ of distructiveness [sic], finely developed.”
This was not the last of the Frankenstein stuff, either in medicine or in law. After the Spanish were conducted through Richmond to a public gallows before a vast throng of curious Virginians,* their three corpses were given over to the mania for galvanicexperimentation.
“I happened to be in Richmond the day on which the Pirates were hung,” an anonymous correspondent wrote to the National Intelligencer a few days later.
In an attempt to obtain their bodies for galvanic experiments, &c. a very ludicrous evidence was given of the mania prevailing about State rights. Doct. — who had prepared the galvanic battery, was unapprised that the act of Congress, relative to criminals, authorised the court in certain cases, to consign the bodies for dissection; he, of course, omitted to make the necessary application for the Pirates. But, on the day of execution, finding that the Marshall had no authority to permit the bodies to be taken from the gallows before interment, the Doctor was advised to apply to Governor Giles for permission to take them. He concluded to do so, and knowing there was some difficulty in the case, deemed it advisable to approach his Excellency delicately, and if practicable, get him mounted on his hobby. To that end the Doctor broached the subject of State Rights, and suggested a doubt whether the authority of the Federal Court extended to the right of burying. The Governor caught at the idea, and, without hesitation, told the Doctor that there was no doubt in his mind but that, without permission of the State authority, the Marshal, acting under the authority of the Union, had no right to turn an inch of the soil; he therefore saw no difficulty in the Doctor’s taking possession of the bodies the moment they were cut from the gallows. — This the Doctor felt as sufficient authority, and proceeded to the place of execution.
This date in 1741 saw the hanging of Juan de la Silva for the slave plot to torch New York.
This second-last execution in that bloody affair takes us to a side plot we have not yet explored in our running series: the “Spanish Negroes”.
New York in 1741 was a distant outpost of the British empire, which itself had seized the colony from the Dutch not eighty years before. The ongoing Atlantic war that Britain was then fighting against Spain and France, winsomely christened the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was serious and frightening business out on the fringe of the wilderness.
The prospect of slave rebels doubling as a fifth column surely helped to stoke the coals under the stakes in 1741. When the Irish soldier William Kane was forced by the threat of execution into giving obviously specious testimony about the plot, he reported that the conspirators’ “design was to wait for the French and Spaniards, whom they expected; and if they did not come in six Weeks, then they were to try what they could do for themselves.” In fact, Spain had even published an offer of “Freedom to all Negroes, and other slaves, that shall Desert from the English Colonies.”
And it just so happened that there were men in New York at that very moment whose own persons straddled the threats within and without.
The previous year, a New York privateer named John Lush had gone adventuring in the Caribbean and returned home with two Spanish prize ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Vittoria and the Solidad … along with about 100 Spanish prisoners.
Among them were 19 dark-skinned men whom Lush described as Negroes or mulattoes and auctioned accordingly. The slaves or “slaves” protested in vain that they were free Spanish subjects, but having no evidence they could produce to that effect they were sold off to various households around the city, and obviously nonplussed about it.
On April 6, 1741, no fewer than four New York homes caught fire, and one of them was the next-door neighbor to one of those Spanish Negroes — to our man, in fact, Juan de la Silva. Someone put two and two together and by evening a cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” echoed around Manhattan. A mob descended on de la Silva and hauled him to jail, along with a number of other Lush imports.
Accusations against these Spanish Negroes have more than the usual ration of absurdity, and not only because of the language gap with the witnesses who “overheard” them. At one point, nine of them were brought in turn before two of the major crown witnesses, the slaves Sarah and Sandy, who variously described each as present or not present at the committee meetings; in only three instances did Sarah and Sandy produce the same answer about a Spaniard. They’d have done better flipping pieces of eight.
Investigation of the “Spanish Plot” angle would ultimately zero in on six of these prisoners-made-slaves.
One luckless fellow, named Francis, was tried among an early batch of (non-Spanish) slaves and wound up burned at the stake on June 12, an undercard attraction that day to the hanging of the supposed arch-villains John and Sarah Hughson. Francis spoke little English but this did not inhibit the Hughsons’ monolingual serving-girl Mary Burton from impeaching him: in Daniel Horsmanden‘s account, she tells the court that “She saw [Francis] often at the Meetings at Hughson’s when they were talking of burning the Town and killing the People; and he seemed to be consenting; he spoke a little English, and some other Language she did not understand.”
The very next day after Francis burned, the main body of “Spanish Negroes, lately imported into this City as Prize Slaves, were put to the Bar; and arraigned upon an Indictment for the Conspiracy.”
Though strangers in an enemy kingdom, Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito would fight their corner as ably as any who came before New York’s courts in that terrible year, and four of the five apparently lived to tell the tale.
Brought to trial on June 15, they ferociously renewed their protest against their enslavement. Horsmanden, who was both junior judge and senior investigator in this matter, noticed what a savvy approach this was. The bulk of evidence was slave testimony, and by the court’s rules slaves could only testify against other slaves. Getting themselves ruled free would be the colonial equivalent of having the DNA evidence suppressed.
They complained (as ’tis supposed, they were advised) that they had great Injustice done them by being sold here as Slaves; for that, as they pretended, they were Freemen in their own Country, and gave in their several Sir-names.
The Indictment was grounded upon an Act of Assembly which enumerated several Offences; and Conspiracies amongst the rest; and made one Slave Evidence against another; so that this Fetch might probably be calculated to take off the Negro Evidence: The Prisoners all protested they could not speak English; and as Mary Burton was the only white Evidence against them, and should it be credited that they could speak only in a Tongue which she did not understand, how could she tell what passed between them in Conversation at Hughson’s? Thus their Advisers might think they would stand the best Chance for the Jury to acquit them.
This was indeed an awkward argument. New York’s Supreme Court took a two-day adjournment to mull how to counter the gambit.
Its solution was quite bizarre. In a single trial, with a single jury, it would try the five men on two different indictments for the same crime: one indictment charged them as slaves; the other, as free men. Even their names varied with their station: from “Juan, Sarly’s” the slave locution indicating Juan’s owner, into the more dignified “Juan de la Sylva”.
This did allow the jurors to hear all the Negro evidence, from the several slaves who (like the Irishman Kane) were made to name whatever names the prosecutors demanded as the price of escaping a gallows of their own — plus, of course, Mary Burton, that ubiquitous accuser who said her late master had informed her that the Spanish Negroes “would burn Lush’s House, and tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.”
Still, the Spaniards mounted a resourceful defense.
They summoned no fewer than twelve witnesses, all white men and women; each also had his New York owner speak in defense. Four of those owners positively insisted that after a brutal winter their man had been confined at home with an ailment of some kind at the time he was alleged to be out making revolution. The fifth, Juan de la Silva’s master Jacob Sarly, could not posit an ailment but noted that Juan was not permitted out of the house at night and that Juan himself had discovered one of the fires and faithfully called the alarm to Salary’s wife. Sarly even acknowledged “that he heard that his Negro was free.”
Through an interpreter, each man also spoke in his own defense, generally insisting that they were not slaves and had not kept slaves’ company in New York.
The jury convicted them all just the same — “in about half an Hour,” as Horsmanden recalls it.
And then … something happened.
The Spanish Negroes all but disappear from the record for two months, months when New York conducted numerous additional executions but seemingly did not lay a hand on these condemned foreigners. What was afoot?
Two weeks after their conviction — during which time an offer of executive amnesty came and went — we catch sight of them again when they are brought out of the city dungeon for sentencing. The court’s translator was instructed to advise them to this effect:
1st. THAT they were taken with some Spaniards by an English Privateer; were brought into this Port, and condemned as lawful Prize, being suppos’d to be Slaves belonging to the Subjects of the King of Spain; and Nothing appear’d to the Court of Admiralty (which is the Court, to which Jurisdiction concerning Things of this Nature does properly belong) to shew that they were Freemen; and they having made no Pretence or Claim in that Court to be such, they were therefore adjudg’d to be Slaves.
2dly. That the Court of Admiralty having so adjudg’d them to be Slaves, they had been severally sold and disposed of; by which means they were discharged from Confinement in Prison; and thereby have had the Opportunity of caballing with other wicked, mischievous and evil disposed Persons, as well White-Men as Slaves, and have confederated themselves with them, in a most diabolical Conspiracy, to lay this City in Ashes, and to murder and destroy all the Inhabitants; whereas had they appear’d to have been Freemen, they would have been prevented this Opportunity of venting and gratifying the Rancour of their Hearts, by being closely confined as Prisoners of War.
3dly, If notwithstanding they were Free-men, they ought in all Reason to have waited the Event of the War, and suffer’d patiently under their Misfortune; and when Peace should have been concluded, they might have made the Truth of their Pretensions appear, and then Justice would have been done them.
But now, as they are found Guilty of this most horrid and villainous Conspiracy, by the Laws of our Land, Nothing remains but to pronounce Sentence of Death against them.
Accordingly they were Sentenced to be hanged.
Had they been offered the amnesty, but refused it — whether pridefully or tactically? How comes it that these are the very last words, in Horsmanden or anywhere else, that we have of Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito? One infers that these four must have been pardoned and transported out of New York like scores of other condemned slaves in that period, though these pardons are themselves extensively recorded by Horsmanden. Perhaps they were quietly handled another way — able to buy their freedom or return to Spanish hands in some prisoner swap. Maybe their anonymous helper was able to orchestrate something.
Only Juan de la Silva makes it from sentence to execution, and he with unnervingly little comment. Six more unwritten weeks after his condemnation, he was brought back to court for a pro forma hearing to order his hanging, his comrades now nowhere to be found.
He was supposed to join John Ury on the gallows; our series will meet this man in its next post. But Ury was respited, leaving “Wan” to a strange, lonely death far from his kith and kin — and one single sentence from Horsmanden to dispatch the strangest sub-plot of a sordid story.
Juan, alias Wan de Sylva; the Spanish Negro, condemned for the Conspiracy, was this Day executed according to Sentence: He was neatly dressed in a white Shirt, Jacket, Drawers and Stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kiss’d a Crucifix, insisting on his Innocence to the last.
* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore speculates that the attorney James Alexander might have given the Spanish Negroes advice. Although he would have been seated at the prosecutors’ bar in this trial — defending any of the accused terrorists was politically impossible for any of the city’s lawyers — Horsmanden never records Alexander speaking or taking any other active part in the prosecution, and Lepore thinks that might indicate that he was becoming silently disenchanted with events.
Alexander did have the dissident chops to play this part: it was he who “anonymously” penned the scathing attacks on the previous governor that led to the arrest of the man who printed them, Peter Zenger, and thence to Zenger’s acquittal in a landmark freedom of the press case.
On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.
Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham
inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.
By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.
The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.
“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.
It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:
STROUDSBURG, Pa., Aug. 11, 1869. — Charles Orme, one of the murderers of Theodore Brodhead, the killing of whom at the hands of Orme and a companion of his named William Brooks, near the Delaware Water Gap, on the 25th of September last, created intense excitement in this vicinity at the time, paid the penalty of his heinous crime to-day, by hanging by the neck until he was dead.
Public vengeance here is but half satiated and stern justice has only been one-half administered by the execution of Orme, for Brooks, who bore an equal part in the bloody deed, has escaped the clutches of the law, and has thus far defied pursuit.
A narrative of the murder, a sketch of the murderers, an account of the rial, the subsequent escape, and the final closing scene of the terrible tragedy is appended: —
Theodore Brodhead, the murdered man, was a gentleman universally respected and esteemed, and was a brother of Thomas Brodhead, the proprietor of the Brainerd House, where the robbery occurred. He was formerly engaged in the lumber business, and was about 45 years of age.
The history of the murderers is as follows: —
William Brooks is a Scotchman by birth, 24 years old. He had been in the country one year and a half at the time of the murder. He landed at New York, and worked there a while, and then went wandering to get employment. He worked on railroads and at anything else, and was considered a hard case. Subsequently he turned up at Scranton and worked there. He said he was never arrested before on any charge, and that he could not remember firing the shot that killed Theodore Brodhead, as he was drunk at the time, and has no knowledge of having a pistol. He appeared much dejected and anxious to know if he would be convicted of the murder. He said he had been in Philadelphia and traveled a good deal.
Charles Orme was born in Ireland. He told contradictory stories about himself; said he was in the army, and worked two or three years in New York, and then as a brakeman on the Camden and Amboy Railroad. He was in trouble once “for covering swag.” He lived at Camden, and was familiar with Philadelphia. He was greatly depressed in spirits when arrested, and feared Lynch law, being very anxious to know, when placed in the Stroudsburg jail, if one or both of the Brodheads were killed.
Orme was not as intelligent as Brooks, and did not create such a bad impression. It appears that both men left Scranton together on a freight train, but were put off at Stroudsburg during Thursday, September 24, 1868. They wandered about Stroudsburg, and took drinks at the principal hotels. During that night they robbed a hardware store at Stroudsburg, and stole a lot of tools and a coat, and placed the proceeds of the robbery in a carpet bag and proceeded towards the Water Gap.
They stopped at the Brainerd House and got in with two or three laborers on Saturday morning, about ten o’clock, and took drinks with them, when they were left in the bar-room alone. They waited until Thomas Brodhead went out, and then quietly robbed the drawer of eight dollars. They then went to Luke Brodhead’s tavern, near the Brainerd House, and took a drink, after which they walked a short distance along the road, when they were overtaken by Thomas Brodhead, followed by Theodore.
They were counting and sharing the money when the Brodheads came up. Thomas accused them of the robbery, when they threw the money down, and said “Take the money.” Thomas then told them they must go back with him, when one of them appeared willing at first, and then refused. Thomas then advanced on Orme and grabbed him.
Orme attempted to throw some money over an orchard wall, but a two-dollar note fell to the ground, and as Thomas Brodhead stooped to pick it up, Brooks leveled a pistol at his head. Theodore warned him not to fire, and he turned and shot him (Theodore) through the heart. A scuffle ensued between Thomas and the men, in which several pistol shots were fired, and the former was so badly beaten that he sank to the ground exhausted, whereupon they fled.
The Flight and Capture.
They went down in the Gap and up in the mountains, and after wandering around found they were headed off, the whole neighborhood by this time being in arms and scouring the country for them. Without knowing it they took a cut and came out near the scene of the murder, there being nobody about, the citizens being in the mountains hunting them. They were soon seen, however, crossing the road and wading through Cherry creek, when the alarm was given and the spot was soon surrounded. They hid in some underbrush, but, when summoned, came forth and surrendered. One of them pointed a pistol at the crowd just before the surrender, but did not fire, and both captives threw away their weapons before being caught. There was great trouble to prevent them being lynched by the incensed citizens; the Sheriff and his men saved their lives with great difficulty. After a period of great excitement both men were lodged in the Stroudsburg jail, and the prison was guarded day and night. This was the only murder which had occurred in that section of the country for many years.
The prisoners were arraigned for trial on the 29th of December, and several days were taken up by the cause. They were represented by able counsel, but a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree” was returned. An appeal was then taken to the Supreme Court, upon the ground that the Brodheads, being private citizens, and having no warrant, their death, resulting from resistance to the attempted arrest, was not murder, but manslaughter. This the Court below refused to affirm, and this formed the principal assignment of error. The point was argued at length, but was overruled by the Supreme Court, the opinion stating: —
The Prisoners Break Jail.
On Saturday morning, April 3, the citizens of Stroudsburg were startled by the ringing of the alarm bell at three A.M. It soon became known that the prisoners had escaped, and speedily there was gathered at the jail an excited multitude, armed and unarmed, on horseback and on foot, ready to scour the country.
The facts of the escape may be summed up as follows: —
It seems one of the prisoners feigned sickness, and at length tumbled down on the floor of his cell as if in a fit or spasm. The other one called to the old jailer, who was watching in the hall, and asked him if he would come in and help him to lift his companion on the bed. The old man unsuspectingly unlocked the door of the cell, leaving the keys sticking in the lock. The prisoners at once sprang to their feet, commanding the jailer to keep still at the peril of his life. Their hopples [hobbles] and handcuffs they had previously removed without keys by hammering them open, and they now sprang out, closing the cell door on the old jailer, and were soon at liberty outside the jail. They had failed to lock the jailer in, so in a few minutes after their escape the bells rang out the alarm, and at an early hour the chase began. Couriers on horseback were sent out in every direction, while those on foot took to the fields and woods. A blodhound brought from Jersey for the purpose seemed to indicate that the fellows had made for the Pocose Mountains.
An examination of the empty cell led to the discovery of an opening in the wall almost sufficiently large to have admitted their exit from thence. It was made by sawing out a piece from an oak plank, about twelve or fourteen inches wide by two inches thick, and then digging almost through the main wall of the building. The sawing seems to have been done in the usual prisoner style, with a case-knife filed for the purpose. It must have taken many hours of labor. The stones taken from the wall were hide in their bed. Why they chose to operate on the old jailer instead of this opening was a mystery.
Throughout Saturday the excitement was very great in Stroudsburg and vicinity, and business came to a halt equal to the day of the murder. The Sheriff had offered a thousand dollars reward, private individuals had added other hundreds to the offer, and the pursuit was vigorous and earnest. Up to Sunday morning nothing had been heard from the criminals. Many of the pursuers had returned, declaring the chase in vain. At length, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, it was rumored that they had been captured. Soon after, a crowd approached Stroudsburg, when it was found that the prisoner Orme, was in custody, while Brooks was still at large.
Not being accustomed to exercise, they had found it difficult to flee from their pursuers, and were found in a barn of Mr. Long, on Sunday morning, only a few miles from Stroudsburg. A boy had gone into the barn, and on getting hay for his horse, had come upon them. They asked him if he would betray them. He said no. Going to the house, he told his father, who came to the barn, and promised the same thing. He took them to the house, gave them something to eat, and while they were eating, Long set out for Stroudsburg, where he inquired if he would get the reward if he informed the authorities where the prisoners were. Being answered in the affirmative, he told the story, when a party hurried back to the scene. Arriving at Long’s it was found that not only were the fugitives gone, but Long’s horses also. The party followed hastily on, and soon came in sight of the fleeing convicts. These, seeing their pursuers, and not being accustomed to horseback riding, left the horses and the road, and took to the woods in opposite directions. Orme was soon overtaken, when he turned around, threw open his arms, and begged to be shot on the spot. But he was returned to the jail, and to-day forfeited his life for the heinous crime, which certainly created both a greater amount of indignation and excitement than any other which ever occurred in Monroe county.
A Plea for Respite Fails.
Last evening Mr. Ridgway, the Minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church here, and spiritual adviser of the condemned man, received a telegraphic despatch from Harrisburg, sent by some of the friends and sympathizers of Orme, who visited Govenror Geary to endeavor to get a respite, that there was no hope of a reprieve, and that the sentence of the law would certainly be carried into effect. Mr. Ridgway informed Orme of this, and he received the news without any particular emotino, having made up his mind for the worst.
An Attempt to Escape.
It was discovered last evening, about five o’clock, that Orme had been making secret preparations to escape for the last three weeks. Some time ago a woman who visited his cell, informed him that a well-known horse thief, who occupied the same cell, had managed to effect an escape by filing off his chains, and getting through the window on to the roof. She also said that the horse thief left some things in the cell, but the keepers had never been able to find the file.
This was a hint for Orme, and he quietly commenced hunting for the file in corners and crevices of his cell. At last he found it, stowed away in a crack of his cell window that looked into an adjoining sleeping apartment, and which room had recently been occupied nightly by two armed men, who kept watch on Orme, but who vacated the apartment during the day.
On securing the file, Orme commenced a systematic filing on the iron bars of the window mentioned, and had, by persistent efforts, succeeded in nearly severing two of the bars, and entirely cutting through the shackles that secured his feet. His plan was to free himself of his irons, pry off two bars of the window, and when the room mentioned was vacated, get by a stairway to the roof, and then effect his escape. The attempt, however, was frustrated, as follows: —
How the Plan was Foiled.
It was decided to hang the culprit in his cell, there being no jail yard to the prison, and the law provides that hanging must take place within the prison walls.
Late yesterday afternoon Sheriff Miller, accompanied by some other officials, entered Orme’s cell for the purpose of removing him prior to the erection of the gallows. The Sheriff informed him that he would be executed in his cell, and said he had prepared other quarters for him during the remaining short time of his life. When Sheriff Miller stooped down, key in hand, to unlock the chains that bound him, Orme, seeing that all was up with him, told the Sheriff that the use of the key was unnecessary, and giving his legs a shake, off dropped all the chains at once. Orme then showed the Sheriff the filed bars of the window, and related how he intended to escape, and expressed his chagrin at the unexpected interference with his plans. The prisoner was then removed to a cell directly opposite the one he had been confined in, and during the erection of the scaffold he could not only distinctly hear every nail hammered, but could see through the iron grating of his cell door the material used for the scaffold as the workmen carried it by.
The Prison Guarded.
During last night the prison was strongly guarded, both outside and inside, by armed citizens, and men with muskets and pistols were patrolling the streets all night.
Orme Contemplates Committing Suicide.
Last evening Orme was visited by a citizens of Stroudsburg, named Bell, who had shown him numerous kindnesses, and during the interview Orme asked him if, as long as he knew he was to die, it would be wrong for him to commit suicide. Mr. Bell told him it would be very sinful, when Orme, after a moment’s reflection, produced from his clothes a paper containing a considerable amount of morphin [sic], and handed it to his visitor, saying he had kept it to make away with himself, but concluded he would not commit self-destruction. It appears that from time to time morphin had been furnished Orme to make him sleep, but instead of using it he had been carefully keeping it with the intention of taking his own life.
A few days since Orme placed in the hands of Mr. Ridgway, his spiritual adviser, the following document, which has just been made public this morning: —
A Voice from the Prison Cell: or, the Evil of Intoxicating Drinks.
[This was also published under the title “The Wine Cup and the Gallows” -editor.]
STROUDSBURG JAIL, April 17, 1869. — I write this in the hope that it may be the means of arresting the attention, and saving some young man from the path that leads to death and hell — blights and ruins in this world and fixes destiny in the next, amidst the darkness of eternal night: for the sacred volume declares “no drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Oh! that I could only portray the horrors springing from the first glass, you would shun it as you would the road in which death in its most hideous form was lurking; would to God I had died before I knew the love of passion strong drink can bring to its poor deluded victims, for then I would have had kind friends to weep and think kindly of me, as in solemn silence they gazed into my tomb, but now my earnest prayer to God is that no one who ever knew me may ever hear anything about me. May God in his mercy grant that no more innocent people may suffer on my account.
Oh, young man, by all you hold dear, shun the cup, the fatal cup — if not for your own sake, in God’s name shun it, for the sake of those you hold so near and dear. You may think you are able to take a drink and leave it alone when you wish: let me entreat you, don’t try the experiment, for when it gets hold it rarely ever lets go. It not only destroys you, but friends must suffer also. It may bring a kind and loving mother to an early grave: make an old man of a kind, good father before his time — not to mention brothers and sisters, who must share the sorrow. These things are of daily occurrence; and this is not the worst, for it has incited the mother to murder her innocent babe, the husband to imbrue his hands in the blood of his wife, for whom he would have willingly laid down his own life. Pause! think well before you touch the cup! Remember, you not only venture your own prospects and happiness, but all you hold sacred are involved. Don’t say, I can take a drink and leave off: the chances are against you: and even if they are not, is it right? is it honorable to risk the happiness of others to gratify your own evil appetites? Would to God (that one year ago) I could have seen strong drink as it really is, stripped of all the ornaments thrown over it by those engaged in the traffic; could have seen it as a swift and sure road that was to lead to my present unhappy condition in a felon’s cell, with the prospect of a shameful death. Is it surprising that I would try to save others from the same fate? I know that I have neither the talent nor the education to plead the cause of temperance, but I can tell what the use of intoxicating drinks has brought me to. Can I do less, under the circumnstances, than give a word of advice to some thoughtless ones. Praying (if so great a sinner as I may pray) that God may bless it, and make its truthfulness do what hearing could not be the means of saving some from a drunkard’s end.
For one short moment let your fancy carry you to this lonely cell. You will see me write this with my hands ironed; irons are on my limbs and I am chained to the floor. Do you think what brought me here? I must say, whisy. Is it strange in me to lift a warning voice agianst that which has done me so much harm. Thank God I have not lost all feeling. There are those on the earth, separated from me by “the great waters,” who believe and trust (that whatever I am) I am honest and respected. God forbid that they should ever be undeceived. Oh! is it not hard to pray to God that your dear father and mother, brothers and sisters, your early playmates and friends may never hear about you, or you from them, when one word would be more precious than untold treasure.
A kind word from a stranger is treasured up as something precious, as God knows it is to me. To keep you from such a condition I write this, hoping you will take it in the spirit in which it is given. I write it earnestly and sincerely, trusting that God may bless it to your use. If you are ever tempted to drink think of this advice, and the circumstances under which it is given, and may heaen help you to cast the cursed cup from you. Don’t parley or you are lost. Say no! Stick to it. Once or twice will be enough. Tempers will see that you are firm, and respect you the more for it. Don’t be alarmed at being called a teetotaler. You may be greeted with a laugh or jeer. No matter, you win respect. How often have I wished I could say no, and stick to it, when asked to drink, but my “guess not,” or “think not” was always taken for yes, or if I said no, it was known that I did not always stick to it. A companion who worked by my side was never asked but once, for his “no” meant no! By the power of an emphatic no, when asked to do wrong is the advice of one who has lost all, for the want of a little firmness at first. If I only could tell you all I have lost — lost friends, character, home, all that makes life dear, through drink, by not saying “no,” when asked to do wrong. I could have said it. God gave me understanding. I knew right from wrong but I flattered myself I could go so far, and then let up: now I am lost. God in his mercy grant that this may keep some young man from trending the same path. “Taste not, touch not, handle not,” is the only safe course. Don’t believe in moderate drinking, there is too much danger in it. There is no drunkard living but thought he could leave off when he wished. As I write this I see a fond mother’s face, I hear her last words to me, low and sweet, as she bade her boy God speed, and aid — Be a good boy, shun bad company, and don’t drink.
I see a kind, good father, trying to keep bac the tears, as he gave the same advice, telling me at the same time to “be mindful of God and he would not forsake me.” Alas! all was forgotten, and the result is a felon’s cell, and soon, perhaps, a shameful death. Is it any wonder I should try and warn others? Say you, “that many drink and do not do what I have done?” All true; but none do as I did but what drink, not one. You say a man can take a drink, and not be a drunkard; for God’s sake don’t try it — that is what ruined me. All say at first — “Whisky shall not be my master — I am too much of a man for that.” God help them; how soon they find out that he who said, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging and that he that is deceived thereby is not wise,” knew moreabout it than they. Let a man write all his lifetime and he can utter no greater truths; it mocks all our hopes, blunts all the sensibilities and kind feelings that God has given us, and sinks us lower than the beasts that perish; whereas God made us in his own image. Is it not a mocker? It has ever done harm. The first recorded instance is that of Noah, the only man God saw fit to save with his family, when he destroyed the world. How sadly was he mocked by it, cursing his own son. There has always been a curse with it; the Bible is full of warnings against it. For God’s sake heed them, and “if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” Would to God that I could put on this paper what I feel.
I think some one would pause before taking that which steals away the senses. But my thoughts wander not where I want them; not to scenes of drunkenness and dissipation but to home — home! Would to God I could banish it from my mind. To-night I am a boy again; I see home as plainly as ever — a kind father, a dear mother, brothers and sisters, all rise before me, not only once, they are always with me now. Even in sleep I see them; pleasant thoughts you say. Oh! God, if I could only get rid of them. I think I could dwell on any others with some degree of comfort, to what I now feel; yes, even on the shameful death I am condemned to die; anything, but what I have lost; lost through drink.
Give an ear to this advice; it is the advice of a dying man — dying in his early manhood, through the accursed cup that “biteth like a serpent.” Think of your friends now, lest the time come when the thought of them will be worse than a scorpion’s sting. Oh! if you see any one treading the downward path, that leads to death and hell, speak kindly to him; you know not the power of a kind word. I do not forget one who has spoken kindly to me since I have been here: how heartily I think of them; a kind word first led me to hope that He who hates sin might yet be merciful to the sinner. I know you all hate the crime that brought me here; but when you saw I had none to speak kindly, though hating my great sin, you pitied me, a poor, wretched sinner, and showed me that mercy, divine mercy, could even reach one so vile.
Oh! young men of Stroudsburg — most of you have seen me, most of you have spoken kindly to me, and have acted as well as spoken. The offer of a book or a paper may be little to you, but to me it was a great kindness. Oh! do me the greater kindness still — take my advice kindly; it comes from a criminal, it is true, but my whole heart goes with it. It ought to be the more effective because coming from one who has run the course and has experienced its terrible results. I might tell you more of what I have seen whisky doing to its dupes, but my article would be too long. I close, giving you the advice a good mother gave me — “Keep out of bad company, and don’t drin.” Don’t let this pass unheeded, as I did. You see what it has brought me to. God keep all that read this in the right path, is the prayer of one who, for the sake of loved ones, prefers to sign himself,
He Bears an Assumed Name.
It will appear from the following letter that Orme is an assumed name. —
PRISON CELL, Aug. 7, 1869 — Mr. Martin
My reticence in relation to my connection I may have had with any person in this country, business or otherwise, arises entirely from the fact that I have shamefully abused great privileges which they have granted me; that I do not wish their names to figure in connection with mine. Moreover, any revelations of this kind would only be the means of making known to those that are near (and God only knows how dear to me), my disgraceful end.
The Instrument of Death.
The scaffold is erected in the eastern extremity of the cell recently occupied by the prisoner, and is a rather primitive looking affair, with a drop of about four feet. It consists of two upright posts and a cross beam, to which is affixed the rope and a drop made something after the model of a panel of a dining-table.
The Last Night.
Orme passed the night quietly, and was with his spiritual adviser until about ten o’clock, when he was left alone, but a strong guard remained in the entry near the cell door. He rose at an early hour this morning and partook of a light breakfast, consisting of coffee, eggs, &c. He says he slept during a portion of the night, but complained of a severe headache.
Preparing for Death.
About nine o’clock this morning the Rev. Mr. Ridgway administered the sacrament to the dying man, during which Orme was very devout and reverential. He then proceeded to take a bath in a tub or bucket of water which was placed in his cell, after which he deliberately commenced to dress himself for the terrible ordeal which in a few minutes he was to pass through.
Visitors to the City.
Before eleven o’clock Stroudsburg, particularly in the vicinity of the jail, presented quite a holiday appearance. Many hundreds of persons surrounded the jail, and dozens of vehicles of all kinds formed the cordon around the anxiously expectant populace, many of whom came for miles to only look at the blank walls of the jail. All the taverns and saloons were closed during the day by order of the authorities.
Where the execution took place is about twenty feet square, with a ceiling fifteen feet in height, affording sufficient altitude for the erection of the gallows.
The Time of Death Approaching.
Shortly before eleven o’clock Mr. Pearce, the Presbyterian minister of the Delaware Water Gap, entered Orme’s cell and engaged in earnest prayer, both the condemned man and the clergyman kneeling. Sheriff Mervine and the Rev. Mr. Ridgway then entered the cell, and Orme again partook of the Sacrament with Mr. Ridgway. sheriff Mervine then informed Orme that his time on earth was nearly ended.
Orme expressing his readiness, he was escorted from his cell across the corridor to the place of execution without parade or ceremony. The cell was crowded to excess with jurors, deputy sheriffs and officials generally, and was uncomfortably hot, there not being the least ventilation.
Orme entered the cell at five minutes of eleven o’clock, and proceeded up the rude steps of the scaffold with the greatest firmness and self-composure. He was dressed in a black frock coat, black pants and white shirt, and wore no vest. His thick black hair was well combed, and he made a very presentable appearance. The sheriff and the two ministers both ascended the scaffold after Orme, and after the latter was seated the sheriff read the death warrant, prefacing the same with a few remarks intended to cheer the dying man.
The Prisoner’s Speech.
Orme was then asked if he had anything to say, when he addressed those present in a perfectly cool and collected manner, as follows: —
I hardly know what to say, or rather, how to say anything as I would like. I protest in the first place, against my trial. I know that I was convicted on false evidence, and I am entirely innocent of murder, and God forbid that I should lie at a time like this. I trust in Christ, and am sorry for all crimes I have done, but I did no murder. The evidence was false. I don’t like to say anything against the people of Monroe county, for some of them have been very kind to me. I came here a stranger, and was told to hope in Christ, but was falsely convicted.
Thomas Brodhead made a statement on the night of the murder, and he is considered a gentleman of truth, and he made the same statement three times. After my arrest I was taken to the Water Gap to be identified by him, and he made a different statement. I think the District Attorney should have put both statements in evidence. Before the trial I had no friends; all were against me. I was put here and chained and never got a hearing. I got no change of clothing, not even a shirt, and I had to burn the vermin out with a candle.
At this time Sheriff Mervine interrupted Orme by saying, “Was not that before the trial, Charles?” Orme replied that it was, and continued —
I would like to direct attention to Thomas Broadhead’s evidence. He said I had to go back with him, and said Brooks was willing, and I told him not to go. He said he saw Brooks throw some money over the wall, and while stooping down he heard his brother say “Don’t shoot,” and on looking up saw Brooks pointing a pistol at his brother, and on wheeling around Brooks shot Theodore. After that he said he stooped down to pick up something rolled up like a little bill, and says he saw it was a two dollar bill, and swore to the number. Yet he never saw the bill, for I had not stolen it.
The prisoner the proceeded, in a sort of rambling manner, to say he knew nothing of the murder, and threw his pistol away while Thomas and himself were struggling, for fear he might shoot him. He said that Thomas struck him with a stick. Judge Barnard said that Thomas Brodhead’s evidence was not disputed, but after the trial he might have erred, and if he had said this to the jury, the verdict might have been different. He said he did not like to complain of the jury, but he thought he was very badly treated. He praised his counsel highly, and said he could die knowing that no man could say that he shot Theodore Brodhead.
At that part of Orme’s speech, in which he reflected on his treatment in jail before his trial, ex-Sheriff Henry, who had charge of him at that time, with exceeding bad taste and want of delicacy, advanced from the crowd to the foot of the scaffold, and, addressing the prisoner familiarly as “Charley,” asked him some question about his treatment and his case. Orme answered the question, when ex-Sheriff Henry asked others, and the two got into quite a controversy, which lasted until Mr. Henry was asked to stop. This matter was singularly inappropriate to the solemnity of the occasion. Such a scene has seldom if ever occurred at an execution before this, and should not have been permitted by Sheriff Mervine.
A Last Hope.
Immediate preparations for the execution were then made, when the Rev. Mr. Ridgway stated that Judge Barnard had notified him that he thought it would be proper to hold off the execution until the arrival of the one o’clock train, as it might possibly bring a reprieve from Governor Geary. The Sheriff, at first, did not seem to favor the idea, but Mr. Ridgway pressed it, and Orme, himself, turned to him and said, “Do grant me this short respite, Sheriff? It is the last favor I shall have to ask of you.”
A Short Respite.
The Sheriff, after some hesitation, consented, and the prisoner, who was just about being launched into eternity, was conveyed from the gallows back to his cell, while the spectators all retired from the building. Orme spent the time allotted him in praying and writing notes of thanks to his spiritual advisers and others, and the train arriving, with no reprieve, he was again taken from his cell.
On the Drop Again.
At twenty-five minutes past one o’clock Orme again ascended the scaffold.
The Execution — Orme Twice Hanged.
The Rev. Messrs. Ridgway and Pierce prayed with him until quarter of two o’clock, when the white cap was pulled over his head, and his arms and legs were pinioned with strips of muslin.
Orme stood firm, and moved his lips in prayer with half audible voice, while the Sheriff and ministers retired from the scaffold, and everything being in readiness, the drop fell, and to the intense horror of those huddled together in the cell, the rope broke, and Orme fell to the ground. He was picked up quickly in his half-strangled condition and helped upon the scaffold, when another rope was adjusted, amid a scene of sickening excitement, and again the drop fell and the body of the condemned man was dangling in the air.
The breaking of the rope caused a nervous feeling, which resulted in the noose being badly adjusted, and when the body fell the neck was not broken, and the poor wretch writhed and struggled fearfully. His contortions were heart-rending, and he died a slow death of strangulation. The whole scene was a most revolting one, and will never be forgotten by those who were present. This is the first execution that ever took place in Monroe country, which may be partially the reason for the bungling manner in which it was done.
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” In how many ways is this aphorism verified! Nowhere is it more strangely true than in the dark and mysterious records of crime. That a perilous sea, only occasionally visited by the ships of commerce and civilization, should witness the development of bands of pirates whose bold and cruel deeds have terrified the voyagers, and furnished themes with which the romancer could charm the morbid tastes of the lovers of the gruesome, is a thing to be expected. That a wild and sparsely settled region, abounding in fastnesses and hiding places, yet crossed by trains bearing rich treasures, should be the field in which a drove of dehumanized desperadoes carried on their nefarious trade, is in no way surprising. Storm-tossed, wreck-strewn seas and hurricane-swept prairies, nurture, or at least harbor, such characters as their appropriate children. There is nothing strange in the fact that wild regions should be the home of wilder men. The romancer can make his story as wild and improbable as he chooses; there is no one who will rise to contradict him.
It is strange, however, that such men should spring up amid peaceful surroundings. It is stranger still that a penchant for crime, carried out into deeds of more reckless daring than those of the wild and unrestrained West, should be nurtured in the quiet rural districts of Northwestern Ohio. Yet, strange to say, in this almost Arcadian corner of a great civilized state, a corner whose agrarian peacefulness was never broken by harsher sounds than the melody of church bells, or the cheerful call of the locomotive, there have been conceived and carried into execution crimes that would stand out boldly even on the pages of the wildest fiction. This corner of the state was the home of the now famous “Jack Page” band of arsonists, who terrorized the country a quarter of a century ago. Here, also, lived the man who furnished the occasion of this sketch, Frank Van Loon. Of his dare-devil deed let the reader judge.
The Supremacy of Nerve
On the seventh day of August, 1891, the village of Columbus Grove, Putnam County, Ohio, was startled out of its quiet, humdrum routine by a daring daylight robbery and murder. A young man, unknown to the few chance stragglers about the streets of the quiet village, entered a hardware store. By sheer force he compelled the person in charge to give him two loaded .38-caliber revolvers. With the dash of a true desperado, he rushed across the street to the bank. He entered the bank, broke the glass in front of the cashier’s desk, reached through and secured $1,365. The bank officials, terrified by the suddenness of the attack, dropped through a trap-door into the cellar. One of them, by venturing to look out of his hiding place, was shot by the nervy robber. The ball took effect in the shoulder, producing a painful, though not fatal wound. While the desperado was holding the bank employees at bay, an old man by the name of William Vandemark entered the bank to transact some business. Vandemark was ignorant of the fact that a desperate robbery was at that moment being committed. The robber, hearing some one enter, turned quickly and fired at the innocent intruder. The shot was fatal and Vandemark was instantly killed. As the desperate man rushed out of the bank, he shot at a man who was peacefully driving along the street. The daring young man made his escape across the fields without being recognized.
A Mother-in-Law’s Vengeance
Who this daring robber and murderer was might have remained an undiscovered fact, had it not been that a certain young farmer by the name of Frank Van Loon had, by his innate meanness, incurred the implacable hatred of his wife’s mother. Ever suspicious of her son-in-law, the woman entered his room on the morning of the day following his crime, noted that his boots were muddy, and found in his pockets the guns and the stolen money. This woman, having heard in the intervening time of the crime committed in Columbus Grove, reported her findings to the officers. The officers, knowing of the unhappy condition of things in the Van Loon home, for a time paid no heed to the advices which they received, thinking it was only a mother-in-law’s spite [at] work. But when the information had been several times repeated they concluded to investigate, and found things as the mother-in-law had reported. Van Loon was arrested. He was given a speedy trial, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to be hanged.
In the Palace of Death
Frank Van Loon, serial number 23,313, on the twelfth day of May, 1892, entered the Annex of the Ohio Penitentiary. It was his final leave-taking of God’s beautiful world of sunshine and fragrance. Never again was he to see the earth and sky meet. When he left that Place of Doom it would be as a lifeless body.
Through the law’s delay Van Loon was permitted to drag on a miserable existence between hope and despair for fifteen months. In these months of waiting he employed a part of the time in writing a history of his life. In this composition the natural selfishness and brutality of his nature were plainly manifest. It was evident from the underlying tone of his autobiography that he did not recognize that his fellow-man had any rights which he was bound to respect, especially if those rights stood in the way of his wishes being attained. His towering egotism was undoubtedly the soil which nurtured and brought to maturity the disposition which made possible his cruel crime. [editor’s note: my researches have failed to locate this interesting artifact for the modern reader’s edification.]
This egotism was constantly being made evident by his actions during his stay in the Annex. Much of the time during his waking hours was passed in quarreling with his keeper. These contentions one day led to a desperate struggle between Van Loon and Guard Bowman for the possession of an ice pick. When Van Loon had been let out of the cage for some purpose, he endeavored to get possession of an ice pick, as the only available weapon with which to kill the Guard. Both men being well developed and powerful, a desperate struggle ensued, in which the superior skill and greater endurance attained by careful training gave the victory to Guard Bowman.
The Deepening Shadows
Frank Van Loon’s long stay in the Annex was drawing to a close. The brief day of his earthly career was rapidly nearing the end. The shadows were growing deeper. Soon his sun would set in utter darkness. Van Loon had lived but twenty-three years of mortal life. They had, however, been years fruitful of enormous results in crime and meanness.
August 4, 1895, was his last day on earth. It was a dark and stormy night which preceded that day, but not more dark or more stormy than had been the young life that was that night to be taken as a forfeit to the State. Frank Van Loon’s life had been a rebellion against the laws of God and man. While the officers of human law were preparing to take satisfaction for the outrage that had been committed against it, the artillery of heaven was flashing defiance and thundering menaces and pouring down torrents of rain, as if to make it known to the universe that the sin-scorched soul which the laws of man had decreed should no longer dwell among the habitations of earth, should not rise into that world where “no wicked thing cometh,” but must turn away from heaven and wander forever in the “outer darkness.”
When the midnight hour had come, the march from the Guard Room began. Noiselessly the guards moved over the sawdust covered corridors to the Annex. The Warden, Hon. C.C. James, read the warrant to the condemned man. The same nerve that characterized the attack on the bank was manifest in this last and closing ordeal of his life. Unassisted and unfalteringly he mounted the steps to the gallows and and took his place on the trap.
While standing on the trap Van Loon sang in a strong, clear voice, “Nearer My God to Thee.”
There was no tremor in his voice, nor quaking in his limbs. Apparently without fear he gave voice to the familiar hymn. Strangely the music floated out on the midnight air, while the terrific electrical storm, raging without, seemed playing the accompaniment. The deep diapason of Nature’s orchestra, blending with the stentorian voice of the singer, echoed and reverberated through the adjoining corridors of the prison until many of the prisoners were startled from their slumbers. On hearing the hymn and its wild accompaniment, and remembering that it was the night of Van Loon’s execution, they listened with bated breath, scarcely knowing whether to attribute the unwonted disturbance to earth, heaven or hell; wondering whether the voice was that of man, angel or demon.
At the close of this strange oratorio, the trap was sprung; the body shot downward. The execution was a success. Frank Van Loon was no more.
From the Newport (R.I.) Mercury, September 7-14, 1767:
August 3. The gang of villains from Virginia and North-Carolina, who have for some years past, in small parties, under particular leaders, infested the black parts of the southern provinces, stealing horses from one, and selling them in the next, notwithstanding the late public examples made of several of them, we hear, are more formidable than ever as to numbers, and more audacious and cruel in their thefts and outrages.
‘Tis reported, that they consist of more than 200, form a chain of communication with each other, and have places of general meeting, where (in imitation of councils of war) they form plans of operation and defence, and (alluding to their secrecy and fidelity to each other) call those places Free-Masons Lodges.
Instances of their cruelty to the people in the black settlements, whom they rob or otherwise abuse, are so numerous and shocking, that a narrative of them would fill a whole gazette, and every reader with horror.
They at present range in the Forks between Broad, Saludy, and Savannah rivers. Two of the gang were hanged last week at Savannah, viz. Lundy Hust, [sic] and Obadiah Greenage: Two others, James Ferguson and Jeffe Hambersam, were killed when those were taken.
The Georgia Gazette of August 5, 1767 confirms the date of the execution for Obadiah Greenage at Savannah, but noted that Lundy Hurst was in fact not hanged, but reprieved by the governor.
PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.
The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.
THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.
On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.
Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.
Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”
One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.
A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.
The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.
This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.
But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.
Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.
Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?
On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records
THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.
She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.
A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.
“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”
Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”
Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.
Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.
Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”
Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)
And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.
The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.
On this date in 1912, George Shelton and his brother-in-law John Bailey were executed in Nashville, Tennessee for the murders of Ben Pettigrew and his two children. One of them can be identified as a daughter named Pearl. The other child’s identity is unclear; it may be another, unnamed daughter, or a son named Fred.
This is an unusual case because, in the Jim Crow South, these two white men had faced the death penalty for killing black victims, and their crime was characterized by many as a lynching.
Ben Pettigrew was a successful cotton farmer from Clifton, Tennessee. He had a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, “unequaled among the colored population of this section of the country.” In fact, he was “regarded as highly as any member of his race in the south.”
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1912
On December 5, 1911, Ben and his two children were taking a load of seed cotton to a cotton gin in Savannah, Tennessee when their wagon was ambushed on the road by four white men.
Accounts about the murder differ as to what exactly occurred: one story is that Ben was shot and his two children hanged, and their bodies put on top of the wagon and set on fire with the cotton. Another has it that all three victims were tied, alive, on top of the load of cotton and then it was set on fire.
Also unclear is the motive for the crime, if there was any motive at all. According to some stories, the killers may have been white land tenants angry that blacks were occupying their former homes. It’s possible that they were jealous of the Pettigrew family’s respectability and economic success.
Other farmers in the area saw the fire and hurried to extinguish it, arriving just in time to see the four suspects run off into the woods. A posse assembled to hunt down the killers; it started out with 50 men and quickly grew to over 300 volunteers, with bloodhounds. In due course two people were captured; the others got away.
Little is known about Shelton and Bailey, farmhands described by the NAACP as “friendless, ignorant white boys” — a label borne out by the garbled written confession they made:
To the, Publick, and the, honer, cort, of decaturville, Tenn; we was assoated with Mr. J.M. Hill he read the Bible, to us, and talked to us, about our soles, and, all so Read To Us in St. Mathews the 10th Chapter and the, 26 Verce, that thire was nothing covered but, what would, be uncovered and nothing hid what would, be knowen and, he talked to us about telling the truth at the blessed Jesues, said that to tell the truth and, bleave the truth and it would make us, free and we do know that we did a great rong but god has forvie us, as Mr, Hill, had us us to go to god and, he has forgive us, and now we with up stretched, ormes, ask the clemences, and mercies, of, the, People, and, the, cort, to do all the cane, for, us, as we, air both maried boyes and, i Georg Shelton aire onley 18 yares, old. and, never, Had, the, chence, to go to school and raised up by a Good Fother. And, Oh, My, Der, ole, Mother, and my, Wife, and, Little, Baby! If, i, Had Onley of, Knowen at the start what all this would of, cause, me, i would Not, of done, it, for aney amount, of, Money, But, Mr, Lige Scott, tole, me to; That ole Ben ort to be, Killed, and got, out, of, the neighborhood. And John Bailey, is, A Brothernlaw of, George Shelton, and, is 24, yares, old, and His Parints, Died, when he was a Little Boy, and, he, was raised up heare and, yonder, and, kik from Piller, to Post and, we Both, have, no Egacation, and never relised what a black Path, of, sin we have been travling, till Mr. J.M. Hill, Read, the Bible to us, And Praid, for and with us, and then we begin to Relise what we had done.
Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.
The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.
Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.
[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.
Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”
Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.
“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”
The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.
There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.
By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.
So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:
140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.
Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.
Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.
The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.
Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will
Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”
To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …
When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.
While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.
Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†
Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.
The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.
The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.
This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.
No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.
By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.
But they were not forgotten.
A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.
* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.
** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.
On this date in 1741, six slaves named Othello, Quack, Venture, Frank, Fortune, and Galloway were hanged, and a seventh, “Harry the Negro Doctor”, burned — all casualties of the ongoing investigation into the purported slave plot to torch colonial New York.
A truly horrific day in the city’s history. However, as we have noted in our entry about the last prior mass execution of this affair, these July bloodbaths surprisingly turn out to be all about the court extricating itself from a potentially limitless investigation into the servile classes.
With the return of the Chief Justice James De Lancey from New England on the first day of the month — taking control of the court from the implacable inquisition of his junior partner Daniel Horsmanden — the whole judicial momentum turns away from compounding arrests upon accusations and towards disposing of cases already in hand and tying up loose ends.
But there were a lot of loose ends … and some of them could only be tied up with hemp.
For some of the nearly 100 slaves in the city dungeon when De Lancey returned, the evidence was so scanty that they were outright released. Most of the rest were disposed of through an almost shameless wink-nod arrangement: the slaves pleaded guilty to the terrorist plot (vindicating the court’s diligence, and also the blood it had already shed), and in exchange were not executed but approved for convict transportation (sparing life and limb for the slaves, and financial injury for the owners).* Almost every weekday the court would open nominally in a proceeding against six or ten or twelve black men and women only to hear all plead guilty and promptly adjourn upon the court’s recommendation of mercy. Under “inbox zero” De Lancey, these people were not pressed to name more names, and when they did so those potential new arrestees were often left unmolested. (We shall arrive shortly at a notable exception.)
On July 15, 1741, De Lancey actually held court. True, there were 14 more Negroes, “most of which had been made Use of as Witnesses,” who were on this occasion recommended for pardon and sale abroad. But our doomed seven plus an eighth man, Tom, were the last ones in the jail who were refusing to plead guilty. (Tom was convicted with the rest, but his sentence was abated.)
It reads like a principled stand but if so, their integrity was unequalled by their trial strategy. They simply “said nothing material in their Defence, but denied all alledged against them.”
Unfortunately with everyone singing from De Lancey’s hymnal as the price of their own necks, there were a good many witnesses prepared to alledge. For this trial, six black slaves described the accused hanging around arch-plotter John Hughson, “talking about the Conspiracy to set the Town on Fire, and to kill the white People.” Besides the slave evidence, two white people also denounced the prisoners: Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ former servant whose ever-growing became the ubiquitous crown witness in all cases; and, William Kane, an Irish soldier who had been named as the plot’s inside man at the fort by the slave Will when the latter burned at the stake.
Kane was just the second white person in all this time to join Mary Burton on the prosecution’s witness list — and he was obtained with chilling ease.
The very night that Will burned, July 4, Kane was taken up. Examined the next day he denied knowing anything about the plot or even where Hughsons’ tavern was located.
But, Horsmanden recorded in his journal of the proceedings, “while Kane was under Examination, the Under-Sheriff came and informed the Judges, that Mary Burton had declared, that she had often seen him at Hughson’s, amongst Hughson, his Wife, &c. and the Negroes, when they were talking of the Conspiracy, and that he was one of the Confederates.”
A dramatic moment ensued, gut-wrenching even in Horsmanden’s few sentences.
Chief Justice De Lancey, “who was a Stranger to the Transactions concerning the Detection of the Conspiracy” and could therefore still be shocked by the casual way this teenager rolled into her conspiracy stories whomever some frightened prisoner had recently implicated, “thought proper to admonish the Witness in an awful and solemn Manner, concerning the Nature of an Oath, and the Consequences of taking a false one, more especially as it affected a Man’s Life.”
Would the girl fluster under this magisterial caution? Would De Lancey himself dare to press it so far as to discredit the one witness his court had depended upon for prosecuting the conspiracy thus far?
No. “She answered, she was acquainted with the Nature of an Oath very well, and that she would not take a false one upon any Account.” De Lancey dropped the point, and Mary Burton was sworn in, saying
That she had seen the said Kane at Hughson’s very often, talking with Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, Peggy Salingburgh alias Kerry, Caesar, Vaarck’s; Galloway, Rutgers’s; Prince, Auboyneau’s, and Cuffee, Philipse’s, Negroes; and the Discourse amongst them was, That they would burn the Town; the Fort first, the Governor and all his Family in it, and kill all the white People; and that she heard the said William Kane say, that he would help them all that lay in his Power.
Kane, “his Countenance changed, and being near fainting,” called for a glass of water. Kane was no fool, and when the court explicitly confirmed to him “the Danger he was in, and told [him] he must not flatter himself with the least Hopes of Mercy, but by making a candid and ingenuous Confession” he duly swallowed the draught prepared for him — albeit “after some Pause” and “tho’ at the same Time he seemed very loth to do it.” There was no way out — not for the court, not for Mary, and not for Kane — but for the soldier to corroborate her story. He numbly did so, although one would rather know how he spoke about this episode of his life under the seal of the confessional.
There is a deadening similarity to these stories, of course; it is not merely retrospective interpretation that surfaces the perverse incentives newly-arrested slaves faced — it is remarked a few times via the comments of slaves themselves in Horsmanden’s own record. “Moore’s Cato advised him and Pedro, to bring in many Negroes, telling Pedro, that he would be certainly burnt or hanged if he did not confess,” in one description … “but that if he brought in a good many, it would save his Life; for he had found it so himself; and must say, he was to set his Master’s House on fire, which would make the Judges believe him.” Why this day’s crop refused to take their out we don’t really know. Maybe they were stubborn — or had a care for their soul — or more than death feared being sold out of the place that had become their home, and onto some backbreaking sugar plantation in the West Indies.
But two of our group merit notice for more unusual profiles.
“Doctor Harry” was an unauthorized medical practitioner on account of his race and station, and so had been driven out of New York City years before. He made his home thereafter on Long Island, forbidden from venturing into New York on pain of flogging. The physician’s addition to the plot segued into the frightening prospect of a poison angle to the race war.
“A smooth soft spoken Fellow, and like other Knaves, affected the Air of Sincerity and Innocence” in Horsmanden’s words, Harry was already on the judges’ radar when a slave named Adam accused him. (Soon joined by the reluctant William Kane.) That he was on their radar as someone who was not allowed in the city does not seem to have counted a great deal. “He stifly denied all, and declared, that he never was at Hughson’s, nor had he been in Town since he was ordered out by the Magistrates.”
Othello had also been out of town during events — not by banishment, but because he was Chief Justice De Lancey’s own slave, and had accompanied his master’s New England mission during the spring when New York went arson-crazy.
Aptly for his name, Othello reads in Horsmanden’s narrative as a tragic figure who unlike Doctor Harry was ready to say what he had to say to save his own life but hanged because he couldn’t reconcile himself in time to the urgency of his situation.
Horsmanden, who also would have been Othello’s personal acquaintance, clearly respected the slave; in the judge’s estimation, Othello “had more Sense than the common Rank of Negroes” and was one of “the Head Negroes in Town.” Maybe Othello counted too highly the weight of his association with the judges, or maybe since he was out of town he simply did not have the right feel for the witch-hunt dimensions the arson investigation had taken. Reading bulletins from his city, De Lancey had questioned Othello about the plot and Othello had denied any knowledge of it. Did the slave suppose that a Head Negro in Town could be above suspicion?
De Lancey disabused him of any such hope in late June when the Chief Justice received word that Othello had been denounced in the investigation, and promptly shipped his slave back to New York in chains.
He arrived in the last days of the governor’s official amnesty window for slave confessions, having heard God knows what of proceedings from his distance. His accuser Adam gave him sound advice in the city hall’s then-teeming basement prison: “to confess … [as] a Means of getting him[self] off.” But Othello at first refused to do so, even when warned that he had little time remaining to take advantage of the amnesty.
Othello being asked, Why he so positively denied on Saturday, that he knew any Thing about the Plot; though he was warned of the Proclamation, and that the Time therein limited for the Confederates to come in and make voluntary Confession and Discovery, would expire as Tomorrow; and notwithstanding he was told, that there was full and clear Evidence against him, Why he did not take the Recorder’s Advice, and confess then what he had done now? He answered with a Smile,
Why, Sir, I was but just then come to Town.
The reluctance is easy to understand. Othello was the Man Friday to a colonial oligarch: it was worth a risk to defend that position against the loss in stature and comfort that would surely result from being sold abroad. Besides that, he needed time to get his bearings: who was accusing him of what? What cards did he hold?
Othello soon understood that advancing a strong claim of innocence would be a nonstarter, so on the eve of the amnesty’s expiration he tried to claim it by offering a “confession.” It’s the first of several that would be extracted from him; each is a noticeably minimalist contrivance to fit his circumstances of the moment — too cute by half, a cruel observer might say. In late June, Othello simply named a bunch of names that others had already named with few additional details. The judges could see very well that this was no better than a token submission.
Come July 12th, having been issued a summary death sentence upon the guilty plea he had committed to, Othello expanded that confession. Now he detailed a longer intimacy with John Hughson — but one in which Othello, although aware of the plot, repeatedly refused to swear hiimself to it. The plot as the court understood it required its adherents to promise to kill their own masters. By insisting he had never sworn, Othello wanted to avoid going on record with any intent to slay James De Lancey. He was a week from execution at this moment, and still he dreamed that maybe De Lancey would one day take him back.
But the privilege Othello clung to might have already begun to cut against him. As an appearance-of-propriety issue vis-a-vis his white neighbors, was De Lancey, the highest judge in the colony and the wealthiest man in the colony, going to spare his own property from the full rigor of the law when his court had so readily destroyed other men’s slaves? The judges considered where Othello stood with his late and cloying “confessions”, and on July 16 recommended against extending him a pardon.
Still Othello tried one last time — on the very morning of his execution. On that occasion, Horsmanden took down one last, expanded confession … and even at this desperate hour, Othello was trying to thread the needle where his master’s life was concerned.
That Adam persuaded him, since he came in Jail, to say, that he had agreed to kill his Master and Mistress; and that by saying so, he would get clear: But this was all false, he never engaged to do any such Thing, nor was it ever proposed to him by Hughson, or any one else; only Hughson told him, he must rise with the Mob, and kill the People in general, as the rest were to do.
No doubt poor Othello had invested many of his last hours going over this decisive confession, trying to calibrate it precisely. Unfortunately, it showed.
For Horsmanden and his fellow judges, what Othello had provided was “neither voluntary nor free, but came from them very unwillingly, and after much Persuasion” and Othello as with his fellow-prisoner Quack only “acknowledged their Guilt in general, by their Plea, and by their Confessions, in a few Particulars, thinking thereby, as it may well be inferred, to come off as cheap as they could.” Horsmanden does not seem far from the mark in this observation, much as posterity might doubt his certainty that “both had it in their Power to make very considerable Discoveries.” At any rate,
The Judges could by no Means think them proper Objects of Mercy; and had they recommended them to the Governor as such, and his Honour had pardoned them, such Lenity towards them, might have been deemed Cruelty to the People.
As ghastly as this was for Othello and his mates, this date essentially finished the court’s business with the Negro Plot.
Does that mean we have reached the end of our series? Alas, the court’s bloodthirst had not quite been slaked. … for in the course of winding down, Horsmanden et al had opened one last line of inquiry, in hot pursuit now for a true arch-villain to lurk behind the passe conspiracies of slaves, an enemy dread enough to equal the advertised danger to New York City.
“The Old proverb has herein also been verifyed,” a satisfied Horsmanden would eventually report of this last phase that was even then opening up “that there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.”
* This was also the explicit preference of acting governor George Clarke, who on June 20 wrote to London that he “desired the Judges to single out only a few of the most notorious for execution, and that I would pardon the rest … whereby their masters will transport them out of hand.”