Posts filed under 'Massachusetts'

1794: Edmund Fortis, in the hands of God

Add comment September 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Edmund Fortis was hanged in Dresden, Maine* — at the time still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Fortis was born a slave in Virginia but escaped and slipped into the wage economy by hiring out as a seaman on a ship bound from Alexandria, Va., to England. According to his dying confession he was a habitual petty thief; by the time he had made his way to Maine, “my life was dreadful — Drinking, stealing and gaming.”

Fortis admitted to, and even pleaded guilty to, the rape-murder of a young girl named Pamela Tilton whom he saw by chance and waylaid on a country road on May 18. This confession “the evidence of credible witnesses on oath … abundantly confirmed.” That’s from the sentencing oration of Justice Robert Treat Paine, via The Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth, N.H.), July 26, 1794, which continues with flourishes of hellfire —

This sentence, when executed, will remove you from this world, where you have proved yourself so unworthy an inhabitant, to a state of existence where you must reap the fruits of your past life; where you must appear before the awful tribunal of that holy Being, who cannot be deceived and who will not be mocked, and who will judge you for this and all the other sins in your life …

you have cast off the fear of God from your eyes, and all restraint of reverence to him from your thoughts, words, and actions, till your unbridled lust and malicious disposition had arrived to full ripeness, and urged you to the commission of crimes, at your own relation of which, nature revolts and the human heart is rent with agony. To what a pitch of brutal lust must you have arrived, that a person of your nation, your age, having a wife and children in the neighborhood, should so inhumanly assault and violate the chastity of that young girl in spight of her intreaties and remonstrances, and then with all the savage cruelty of a ruffian and an assassin, deaf to those cries and supplications which would have melted any heart but one lost to every humane feeling, you barbarously strangled to death the inoffensive victim of your lustful crime; thus in a short space of time destroying life, the first right of all mankind, and chastity, the second right of woman.

… repent and live … so, although your aggravated crimes must bring you to an untimely and disgraceful death, yet that you may escape that weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, that destruction from the face of the Lord, that bitterness of misery which cannot be discribed nor conceived, which will be inflicted on all the enemies of the holy Governour of the Universe, and that your soul may be happy forever in the heavenly world.

But Fortis did not need much convincing of his soul’s peril.

The bulk of his confession is taken up describing the transformative apparition of God’s grace as he awaited arraignment in prison — the appearance of which is precisely what induced him to plead guilty to the charge, lest he “lie against God.”

I could not rest, there was no comfort or peace for me: I tho’t no person was so bad as I, my whole life filled with sin, stealing, lying, whoring and drinking, and now murder. At length I got up, and endeavoured to pray, but my heart was hard as a stone, and it seemed bound up; still I thought I would keep praying to the Lord whether he had mercy on me or not.

On Saturday morning it seemed as if I had more desire to pray and plead with God than before; and in the afternoon it seemed as if my heart was in some degree melted, and there was some hope. I heard something like a voice, saying “verily, verily give him a new heart,” and it seemed as if a man was in me working downward, and clearing or cleaning my heart. I thought I could breathe out my heart to God, and could see a light shining from heaven, brighter than snow, and in the light it seemed as though a great many angels were singing, which drowned my groans and prayers; and I cried O Lord! and looked up, and I saw in a corner of the prison something red like fire, and thought it was the Devil. I found I had another feeling, and I cried to the Lord. I now felt relieved; but was doubtful whether it could be true that the Lord had mercy on me, and wanted to see the light again.

On Lord’s day morning I felt more contented; but could hardly believe what I saw, and felt. I looked out of the grates, and all things looked strange, as if in another place; the birds seemed to come near the Goal and sing. Putting myself in the same place where I first saw the light, I prayed, and said, O Lord, for thy dear Son Jesus’ sake, who died for sinners, have mercy on me! And immediately the same angels began to sing again; and I believed in the Lord, and loved every body. I felt cool and calm; all the dread and fear which I had suffered were gone.

When I was brought to the bar, a gentleman spoke to me, and advised me to plead not guilty: Oh! I thought he wanted me to lie against God; and I considered how dreadful it was for a man that could read to give such advice. When the indictment was read, and the judge asked me whether I was guilty or not guilty, I felt very calm, and answered, guilty. And when I was brought the next day to hear my sentence, I felt perfectly resigned and thankful to the court, God knows their sentence was just. I now wait for the last stroke of death. I can trust my soul in the hands of the Lord, and am willing to do, or suffer any thing God shall lay upon me; and if he should cast me off, it will be right for I deserve it.

However wondrous this gallows-foot conversion was for Edmund Fortis, it augured ill for some other residents of the Commonwealth.

A Henry McCausling (or McCaslane), whose own minister also tended to Fortis, took from this example the prospect of using the murder-repentance two-step as a back door into heaven.

It appears that M’Causling has lately become deluded in matters of religion. For some time he has principally associated himself with a party of baptists, living on a plantation back off Pittston, headed by one Stinson, and two or three others. In one of his paroxisms of religious insanity, he burnt an elegant church in the town of Pittston. He says that Stinson told him, that his brother Edmund Fortis, who was lately executed for the murder of Pamela Tilton, was certainly gone to heaven, and that the road to Heaven was marked with blood. M’Causling thought, that as Fortis had gone to heaven, he should go there too, provided he was to use the same means. (Boston Gazette and Weekly Republican Journal, Nov. 17, 1794)

Consequently, McCausling stalked a Mrs. Warren** “in a dark night, through woods and over rivers which were almost impassable by day” until he finally came upon her at her sick mother’s house, tending to her, and thereupon

he flung her back with his left hand, and with his right, drew a knife from his pocket, where he had concealed it, and instantly cut her throat, without her being able to say more than this — “M’Causling, are you going to murder me!” He immediately fled, but was soon arrested and committed to gaol, where he must remain for the sentence which awaits him.

Like his predecessor, McCausling also pleaded guilty to his crime; the court judging him quite mad, he was balked of his objective in this world at least: how he has fared in the next we dare not guess.

* The Pownalborough Court House, which doubled as a jail, can still be seen today. It’s where Fortis spent his last days, although he was not tried in that building.

** From the press accounts I have seen, she is identified only as “the wife of a Mr. Pelton Warren.”

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1902: John C. Best

1 comment September 9th, 2015 Headsman

From the Boston Morning Journal, Sept. 9, 1902.


Bailey’s Murderer Executed Just After Midnight.

Assisted the Guards and Uttered Never a Word.

Dreadful Current Did Work Swiftly and Surely.

John C. Best was put to death by electricity this morning at Charlestown State Prison at 12.22 o’clock, paying the supreme penalty of the law for the murder of George E. Bailey of Saugus on Oct. 8, 1900. He maintained the air of coolness, and even indifference, which has marked his conduct since his arrest, to the the [sic] last. He walked to the chair unassisted and without even being held by the guards in attendance; sat down composedly, as one would waiting for a train at a station; assisted the guards even in the operations of confining his hands and legs, and awaited the shock of the current in perfect composure.

He had no word to say at the end, uttered no groan, and was pronounced dead by the attending physicians at 12.27. The witnesses were Dr. Joseph F. McLaughlin, prison physician; Dr. Robert A. Blood, Surgeon General of the State; Dr. George Stedman, Associate Medical Examiner of the District; Deputy Sheriff William Cronin, the presence of whom is prescribed by the Statutes; Rev. I. Murray Mellish of Salem, attending to the spiritual wants of the prisoner, and a representative of the press.

The Crime of Best.

The crime for which Best was executed was the murder of George E. Bailey, the caretaker of Breakheart Farm, Saugus. The murder took place in October, 1900, and Best was condemned by the Superior Court sitting at Salem June 14, 1901.

In the early part of October, 1900, Bailey was missed. Best was employed on the farm, and his replies as to the whereabouts of Bailey gave the impression that the missing man had gone to Maine. Inquiry failed to locate him, and until the morning of Oct. 17 nothing definite was known of his whereabouts.

On that morning the dismembered body of a man was found in Floating Bridge Pond, the mutilated torso encased in a sack. Later the arms, legs and head were found and the body was identified as that of George E. Bailey.

Suspicion pointed toward Best, and he was arrested Oct. 18, the day after the gruesome find at the pond. He appeared in the Lynn Police Court Oct. 20, and was remanded to Salem Jail, pending the hearing, which was held Nov. 8.

Judge Berry of the Lynn Police Court after a prolonged hearing, found “probable cause,” and Best was sent to jail to await the action of the Grand Jury which, on Jan. 25 following, indicted him for murder.

In Superior Court.

Best was arraigned in the Superior Court Jan. 30, and entered a plea of not guilty. The trial began March 18, and continued until March 29, when a verdict of murder in the first degree was rendered. The prosecution was conducted by Attorney General Knowlton, District Attorney Peters and his assistant, Roland H. Sherman. Best was represented by James H. Sisk and N. D. A. Clark of Lynn.

The day after the verdict was returned, counsel for Best filed exceptions and offered a motion for a new trial. Oct. 18 counsel conferred with Presiding Justices Sherman and Fox, and on Nov. 23 the exceptions were approved and allowed to go to the Supreme Court.

A hearing was given in the Supreme Court Jan. 6, 1902, and on Feb. 27, a rescript overruling the exceptions was filed. March 29 other exceptions were taken to a denial of amotion for a new trial, and the Supreme Court heard the arguments on May 19.

On June 3, in a rescript, the Court said:

After the exceptions in this case were disposed of a motion for a new trial was made upon the ground that one of the jurors was deaf. Evidence was put in on the subject before the Judges who had taken part in the trial, a portion of the evidence being an examination of the juror himself. The motion was denied, the Judges stating that they were satisfied that the juror heard substantially all the evidence. The argument addressed to us is a pure argument of fact as to what the proper finding would have been, a question with which we have nothing to do, and upon which the Judges considered not merely the testimony reported but what they saw at the time, as it was proper that they should. Assuming every proposition of law that could be urged in favor of the defendant, there is no ground for an exception.

After the first motion had been overruled another motion was made that the hearing be reopened and the defendant be allowed to introduce further evidence, cumulative in character, being the testimony of a doctor who had been consulted by the juror a little more than three months before the trial. The Judges refused this motion on the ground that the doctor’s statement did not change their opinion. The defendant’s counsel again attempted to save an exception. Apart from what else might be said, the same answer may be made to this as to the other exception. It is perfectly plain that the defendant had no ground for bringing his case here a second time. Exceptions overruled.

Counsel’s Great Fight.

All that could be done by devoted counsel to save Best from death sentence has been done, save an appeal to the Governor for a commutation of the final decree of the Court this forenoon, and it is understood that this will be made.

Of late Best has had frequent conferences with his spiritual adviser, Rev. Isaac M. Mellish of Salem. He steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crime.*

* In a last letter to his parents that later hit the presses, Best maintained his innocence: “One thing I would like to impress on the mind of you, my father and mother, is that it is not God’s will that I lose this life that he has given me, but through the vengeance and ignorance of men … I am not afraid to die, but I would like to live. I don’t compare myself to Christ, our Savior, but my condemnation is on the same line as His, and I will meet death as calmly as he did. If these lines, my dear father and mother, will give you any comfort, I am well paid for writing them.”

This excerpt is from The Evening Times (Pawtucket, R.I.), Sept. 20, 1902 — which also reported that Best felt out the prison physicians as to the prospect of their attempting a post-electric chair reanimation experiment. (The doctors turned him down.)

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1701: Esther Rodgers, repentant

Add comment July 31st, 2015 Headsman

O my dear Friends — Take Warning by me. Here I come to Dy, and if God be not Merciful to my Soul, I shall be undone to all Eternity — If I do not turn by Repentance. I Bless God, I have found more Comfort in Prison, than ever before. O Turn to God now. O how hard it is to Repent; If you go on in Sin, God may give you up to a hard Heart. Oh! Turn whilst the Day of Grace lasts.

These, shouted to a crowd of thousands, were the last uttered by repentant sex worker and infanticide Esther Rodgers at her hanging in Ipswich, Mass., on this date in 1701. Esther Rodgers’s life story and jailhouse conversion in New England are richly explored by author and sometime Executed Today guest blogger Anthony Vaver on his site, Early American Crime. Take a look here.

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.

Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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1912: Rev. Clarence Richeson, minister, madman, and murderer

Add comment May 21st, 2015 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1912, a desexed preacher’s troubled concupiscence was at last abated by the Massachusetts mercy seat.

Some demon ruled Clarence Virgil Thompson Richeson‘s wayward footsteps through this life, and ere its last immolation saw Richeson alternate a serial pattern of abstinent betrothals with bouts of increasingly severe mental instability.

“Clarence had become deranged,” wrote one of the several theological seminaries he attended to his father, explaining why he couldn’t be kept.

Derangement for Clarence Richeson ranged from the merely embarrassing (wet dreams, three or four times a week) to the positively poltergeistian (bouts of raving, delirious lunacy). These foibles proved no obstacle to the charismatic Richeson’s repeated engagement — six or more young women by my count succumbed to his court — although he would later confess that these relationships, never consummated in matrimony, were almost never consummated in bed either. Richeson claimed to have remained a virgin until age 28, and then for most of the succeeding six years as well, even though a book of that period describes him as a “tall, handsome giant with the classic face of a Gibson hero.” On at least one occasion he besought a doctor to castrate him as he feared he could not keep his self-control around women.

Richeson’s strange proclivities kept interrupting the cursus honorum of Baptist pastorships that comprised his professional life: he had to resign from a church in Kansas City in 1904 after proposing to three different women, and a gig in El Paso was cut short when he fell into a spell of paranoid delusion.

1908 finds him a minister once again, now in Hyannis, Mass., and celebrating the birthday of 17-year-old Avis Linnell with an engagement ring. His “spells” or “fits” of madness were continuing as well, and numerous associates would later produce affidavits testifying to his violent outbursts. A doctor (who only quelled Rev. Richeson this night by morphine) recalled one incident:

I was called to see him at the residence of Mrs. Hallet, with whom he was boarding, and when I arrived I found there were with him two or three men whom I knew to be members of his church; he was acting violently and they were trying to control and quiet him both by words and by attempting to restrain him by physical force. He appeared at times to be partly conscious; then he would go into a state whereby he lost consciousness and was practically unconscious, apparently had no knowledge of what he was doing or saying. During this period of time he talked irrationally, raved incoherently, and physically manifested an abnormal degree of strength.

Parishioners decent enough to stand with their preacher would eventually find these private afflictions played out in lurid public detail. That was after Avis Linnell turned up dead at the Boston YWCA where she boarded while studing at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was 17 days before her scheduled Halloween, 1911 marriage to Clarence Richeson, and Miss Linnell was pregnant.

At first ruled a suicide, the case caught the eye of the Boston Post, whose swarm of reporters soon found a pharmacist who had sold Richeson cyanide days before the death of his betrothed. Richeson’s clemency petitions would eventually focus on his unbalanced mental state, but poison, of course, suggests the calculation of the pastor and not the outbursts of the madman within. (We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but doctors arguing for mercy also viewed Richeson as a prime research subject, whose maintenance behind bars could help to avert dangerous mental illnesses in others in the future.)

Matters went very quickly from this point.

Richeson resigned from his pastorship and, while lying in jail under indictment, slashed himself with a sharp piece of tin. Not his wrists, but his manhood — an attempted emasculation that was near enough successful that the physician responding to his shrieks was obliged to complete it in order to close up the wound. Richeson would later insist that he “shall think to my dying day that two men came in and did it” — apparitions of his mind’s creation.

The dying day was quick in coming. Two weeks after his self-mutilation, on January 5, 1912, Richeson withdrew his pretrial not guilty plea and simply copped to the murder. The death sentence was mandatory, but the plea also prevented any opportunity for a jury to rule on whether the killer’s instability lessened his criminal culpability. It was the opinion of some psychiatrists and not a few laymen that it was not simply a matter of Richeson’s state slipping between lucidity and delirium, but that his deterioration over the years had delivered him into a state of permanent derangement. Even Avis Linnell’s mother forgave her daughter’s killer “this dreadful thing” because “it is my belief he went to the electric chair an insane man and that he has been mentally irresponsible for some time past.”

On Sunday, May 19, a day and a half before he became the 14th client of the Massachusetts electric chair, Rev. Richeson conducted his last service — not in the prison chapel (against regulations) but from his own cell. “This is Sunday my last on earth,” he reflected. “If I had lived a righteous life I should today be delivering a sermon from the pulpit of my church in Cambridge instead of being caged here awaiting a felon’s death.”

It had not been so long ago in those environs that any execution would be a prayerful service, condemned together with the congregation. Matters by now were disposed of behind prison bars, but the electrocution of a clergyman was far too rich a theme not to fill New England’s actual pulpits that same day with topical exhortations; indeed, since the Richeson case made national headlines, these were preached all over. (The Olympia, Wash., Daily Recorder of May 20 notes a Presbyterian baccalaureate address that Sunday touching on Richeson as a cautionary example; the Grand Rapids, Mich. Evening Press of May 27 had a preacher at the Calvary Baptist Church declaiming against Richeson’s execution as an instance of anti-clerical prejudice.)

With the witnesses all gathered in the death chamber and just as the last straps were being adjusted the Rev. Herbert S. Johnson stepped forward and asked Richeson the following questions which he answered in a clear voice:

“Would you like to confess Christ as your Savior before these witnesses?”

“I do confess Christ as my Savior.”

“Have you the peace of God in your heart in this hour?”

“I have the peace of God in this hour.”

“Does Christ give you the strength you need in this hour?”

“Christ gives me the strength I need.”

“Do you repent of your sins?”

“I do.”

“Have you the peace of God in your heart?”

“God will take care of my soul and I pray for all.”

“Are you willing to die for Jesus’ sake?”

“I am willing to die.”

Just as he uttered the word “die,” Warden Bridges tapped the stone floor with his gold headed black cane which had been used so many times as a signal to the executioner who switched on the electric current and at 12:17 Drs. McLaughlin, McGrath and Butler pronounced Richeson legally dead. The penalty exacted by the laws of Massachusetts had been paid and all hope of studying this abnormal man for the purpose of aborting criminal tendencies in others of his kind was wiped out in a few seconds.

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1813: W. Clements, War of 1812 deserter

Add comment February 18th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for discovering the original June 1813 broadsheet we reprint here.)



W. CLEMENT’S: [maddening sic]

Who was SHOT for Desertion, on Fort Independence, Feb. 18
having been four times Pardoned, but having last Deserted his Post, was condemned to die.

The thoughts of death to every mind,
Most sad reflection’s [sic] brings;
But when man’s life is seek’d for crimes,
Then conscience gives its stings.

No cheering hope attends the soul,
Which with black guilt is stain’d;
The waves of trouble o’er it roll,
And seldom peace is gain’d,

Alas! that man should treasure woe,
And bring upon his head,
The curse of heaven, the curse of man.
To strike his comforts dead.

Ah! how the bosom of a wife,
Must throb with anxious care,
When once the object of her love,
Is caught in guilt’s dire snare.

His children raise their little hands,
Compassion to implore;
But oh! the father whom they love
Shall never see them more.

Condemn’d for crimes his life to pay,
The fatal hour draws nigh;
Stern justice heard no widow’s moans,
Nor heeds the orphan’s cry.

His comrads [sic] silent stand around,
And heave the mournful sigh,
Their bosoms heave with mingled grief,
No eye from tears is dry.

And now the solemn dirge begins,
They march towards the spot
Where he receives his crimes reward,
And meets his dreadful lot.

For him, perhaps a mother sighs,
And hopes relief to come;
He’ll never bless her longing eyes,
But hear the muffled drum.

And now the holy man of God,
To Heaven addresses prayer
And bids the poor unhappy man,
For his sad doom prepare.

And now the solemn drum rebounds.
His last funereal hymn,
Again the trumpet slowly sounds,
Each eye with grief is dim.

Advancing to the fatal spot,
Still sadder flows the strain;
Ah! now the dreaded scene is o’er,
The corps returns again.

See, see him welt’ring in his blood,
His spirit now has fled,
His life has paid the fatal debt,
He’s number’d with the dead.

Learn, then, ye who for Freedom fight,
To stand firm by your post,
To vindicate your country’s Right,
Nor let your fame be lost.

O! let poor CLEMENT’S [sic] awful fate,
A warning be to all,
Remember he who duty slights,
Will meet a dreadful fall.

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1774: William Ferguson, redcoat

Add comment December 24th, 2014 Headsman

On the morning of December 24, 1774, the British 10th Regiment encamped on Boston Common shot a 28-year-old soldier named William Ferguson for desertion.

The notable thing about Ferguson, obviously, is that he was in Boston in 1774 — his regiment of redcoats a most unwelcome interloper lately brought from Quebec where it had alit after being shipped overseas years before to fight in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War.

Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had escalated the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”

The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)

Among other things, these measures:

  1. Closed the port of Boston;
  2. Exempted British officials in the colony from trials before colonial juries for any excesses they might commit against American insurgents, instead removing administration of justice safely to Britain; and,
  3. Put Massachusetts under a military governor: General Thomas Gage

Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”

But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.

General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.

Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.

Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.

In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.

The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)

Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

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1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed, was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our own jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1715: Margaret Gaulacher, Cotton Mather ignorer

Add comment June 9th, 2014 Headsman

American poet Jill McDonough wrote this moving sonnet to the Irish servant Margaret Gaulacher (sometimes also called Margaret Callahan), who was hanged on this date in 1715 for the infanticide of her (ill-)concealed newborn.

June 4, 1715: Margaret Gaulacher
Boston, Massachusetts

The news that week includes a lyonefs
displayed, attacking Fowls and Catts. They watched
her feeding time, remarked on her mercilefs
cruelty. Meanwhile, Cotton Mather preached
against Hard-hearted Sinners, and Hardnefs of Heart.
He helped with her confession, which reflects
on attempts to destroy her unborn child, a part
of her Wicked crime, completed through Neglect.
Now hers is a Stony Heart, of Flint. Ah! Poor
Margaret, behold: the congregation calls
on your wondrous Industry, Agony, your death four
days off. Pray for a Clean, and a Soft Heart; don’t fall
from this fresh gallows to the Mouths of Dragons,
unconcerned, adamant, so little broken.

I believe the poet here may be getting “June 4″ here from the Espy file of historical U.S. executions. Unfortunately that date is not correct; it’s unequivocal in primary colonial news accounts that this hanging occurred on Thursday, June 9.*

But McDonough is spot on about the Cotton Mather vs. Hard-hearted Sinners theme of the execution. That vigorous gallows evangelist favored — he surely thought it was “favored” — the poor condemned wretch with every exertion private and public of his considerable rhetorical powers to save her soul ere she swung.

Gaulacher never quite submitted in the way Mather thought a proper condemned woman ought.

The illiterate woman signed off on an obviously Mather-written statement admitting the justice of her sentence and warning (as was standard scaffold fare) any hearers against her iniquities: “Swearing and Cursing … Profanations of His Holy Sabbaths … Rebellion against my Parents … the Sins of Unchastity.” But this pro forma gesture was the end of it; she obdurately refused to make a public show of Mather-friendly contrition and continued to show in private an unbecoming bitterness at her execution — in Mather’s eyes, clear evidence that she had not made a proper peace with her maker.

We have no access to the hanged woman’s inner life save via an interlocutor who obviously wasn’t on her same wavelength. Maybe she loved her unchaste carnal life too much to part with it in resignation. Likely, though she kept her Catholicism hidden from Mather, she didn’t feel right at home with the stridently Protestant settlement’s rituals and its congregationalist conversion milieu. Like them or not, however, she had to endure them: within a month of Margaret Gaulacher’s hanging, a book of two lengthy Cotton Mather sermons delivered to her in the presence of the entire congregation of Boston’s Second Church was being advertised for sale.

The text below consists of extracts from those two sermons — the parts where Rev. Mather gets personal and directly addresses his charge — surmounted by the explanatory introduction. Mather’s deep conviction that Gaulacher’s soul is in dreadful peril leaps from the page; so too does the silent prisoner’s rejection. The full publication can be perused in pdf form.


What gave Occasion to the Sermons here Exhibited, was an Amazing Instance of what the poor Chidlren of Men abandoned unto Ignorance and Wickedness may be left unto! A prodigious Instance of that Hardness of Heart, which especially the Sins of Unchastity, accompanied with Delays of Repentance, do lead unto.

Margaret Gaulacher, an Irish Woman, arrived the last Winter from Cork in Ireland, a Servant, that soon found a Place in a Family where she would not have wanted Opportunities and Encouragements for the Service of GOD.

She had been by her part in a Theft brought into Trouble in Ireland; and after her Transportation hither, it was not long before she was found in Thievish Practices.

Ere she had been long here, it was begun to be suspected, that she was with Child, by a Fornication; But she so Obstinately all along denied it, that at last she must feel the Effects of her Obstinacy.

She was delivered of her Illegitimate, when she was all alone; and she hid the Killed Infant out of the way; which was within a little while discovered.

Of her Behaviour in the Time of her Imprisonment, and of the Means used for her Good, there is an Account given in our Sermons.

The Woman was of a very Violent Spirit; and the Transports and Furies thereof, sometimes were with such Violence, as carried in them, one would have thought, an uncommon Degree of Satanic Energie.

By’nd by, she would bewail her Passions, and promise to indulge herself no more in such Passionate Outrages. One who owns himself to be a Roman-Catholick, affirms to me, that she privately Declared herself unto him, to be in her Heart, of his Religion; But she never would own any thing of that unto the Ministers who visited her with the Means of her Salvation.

A Gracious and Worthy Servant of God, Mr. Thomas Craighead, (a Faithful and Painful Minister of the Gospel, who came from Ireland, much about the same time that she did) having Instructed her, and used many Charitable Endeavours for her Good, was desired by her to be near her at her Execution; who accordingly Pray’d with her there, and continued his Instructions unto the Last.

She said little, but reff’d herself to the Paper which had been read Publickly in the Congregation just before.

And yet she Frowardly let fall one Word, which did not seem very consistent with it; For which fretful Strain of Impatience, being rebuked, she added, Then the Lord be Merciful unto me! and spoke no more.

All that remains for us to do, is to leave her in the Hands of a Sovereign GOD, whose Judgment, and not ours, has the Disposal of her; and make the best Improvement we can of such a Tragical Spectacle; for which the ensuing Sermons are some Essays.

But, I ought now if I can, to Refresh my Readers, with something that shall be more Agreeable, more Comfortable; have less to Trouble them; something that may be the Reverse of so shocking a Spectacle, as has here given Troublesome Idea’s unto them.

Of this we have a very Tragical Instance now before our Eyes. One who by hardening her Heart has brought herself into wonderful Mischief; and continues to harden her Heart, after the wondrous Mischief has come upon her like a Whirlwind from the Lord.

Ah, poor Creature; Thou hast been Guilty of many Sins, and Heinous ones. But, Oh! Don’t add this to all the rest, this Comprehensive one, this Atrocious one; To harden thy Heart after all, and so to bind all fast upon thy Soul forever.

God has done a dreadful Thing upon thee, in leaving thee to a Crime for which thou art now as one Wicked overmuch, to Dye before thy Time, and e’re twenty five Years have rolled over thee, the Sword of Justice with an untimely Stroak must cut thee off. But it will be a much more dreadful Thing, if thou art left after all unto an hard Heart, that will not Repent of thy Abominations, and of thy Bloodguiltiness.

f thou hadst not hardened thy own Heart exceedingly, Oh! what Things would be seen upon thee; other Things than are yet seen upon thee! Verily, A soft Heart would Mourn and Weep and Bleed, for a Life sweell’d away in Sin against the Glorious GOD. A soft Heart would soon Drown thee in Tears, from the View of the doleful Things thy Sin has brought upon thee. A soft Heart would make thee own the Justice of God and Man in what is now done unto thee; and would Silence thy Froward and Fretful and Furious Gnashing upon such as thou has no Cause to treat with so much transported Fury.

It breaks the Hearts of the Good People in the Place, to see thy Deplorable State: They are concerned, when they see thy Lamentable State: But above all, to see, that thou art thyself no more concerned for it; no more affected with it; so little Broken in Heart. And shall not thy own Heart at length be Broken, when thy own State comes into thy Consideration?

One once could say, God makes my Heart Soft, and the Almighty Troubles me. And will it not make thy Heart Soft, when thou thinkest on the amazing Trouble, which thou shalt feel from the Wrath of the Almighty GOD, if thou Dye in thy Sins? Verily, All the Sorrows thou seest here, are but the Beginning of Sorrows, if thou art not by a broken Heart prepared for the Salvation of God.

But then, What an Heart-breaking Thought is this? Margaret, There is yet Mercy for thee, if thou wilt not by an hard Heart refuse the Mercy; The Mercy, thro’ which Rahab the Harlot perished not; The Mercy, thro’ which Mary Magdalene had her many Sins forgiven her; This Mercy is ready to do Wonders for thee. A Merciful Saviour Invites thee; O come unto me, and I will do Wonders for thee.

Come and fall down before Him, and beg the Blessings of a soft Heart at His Gracious Hands. I know not of any Advice that can be so Proper, or so Needful for thee, as this; No Prayer of so much Importance to be made by thee as this.

The Ignorance which lays Chains of Darkness upon thee, is a sore Encumbrance on thy Essays for turning to God. Yet thou art not so Ignorant, but thou canst make this Petition to thy SAVIOUR. Lord, soften this hard Heart of mine! And, Lord, Bestow a New, and a Clean, and a Soft Heart upon me! And, God be Merciful to me a sinner; yea, an Hard-hearted Sinner!

Now, May the Gracious Lord accordingly look down upon thee.

of those who are sure of having the Arrest of Death presently served upon them, there is none that has a more affecting Assurance of it, than a poor Daughter of Death, who is this Afternoon to have her Soul Required of her. Ah! poor Creature! Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art under a Condemnation, to a Tragical Death which is to be this Afternoon executed on thee; and within three or four Hours, thy Soul will be Required of thee; within three or four Hours thy Soul must make its Appearance before a Terrible GOD! Oh! What, what will be the Condition of that Perishing Soul, if no Fear of God be found in it, when it Appears before him? —

There is indeed a vast Abundance even to a Profusion, of Instructions, bestow’d more Privately on such Malefactors as Dye among us: No Place upon Earth does equal this Place for that Exercise of Charity. And this poor Creature has had a very particular Share thereof: Not only have the Ministers of the Gospel done their Part, in Visiting of her, but also many Private Christians have done theirs, in a most Exemplary manner. As of old in Jersualem it was the Usage of the Ladies, to Prepare for the Dying Malefactors, that Potion which was called, The Wine of the Condemned, so the Young Gentlewomen here in their Turns, have Charitably gone to the Prison every Day for diverse Weeks together, and because of her not being able to Read, have spent the Afternoons in Reading Portions of the Scriptures, and other Books of Piety, to this Condemned Woman, and giving their Excellent Councils unto her. Nevertheless, we chuse in a more Publick way also to direct a few Words of our Sermons, unto such Persons, when we have them among our Hearers; Because, the Preaching of the Gospel, is the Grand Ordinance of our Saviour, for the Conversion of a Sinner from the Error of his way; an we would wait upon our Glorious LORD, in that way which he has Ordained, hoping, still hoping, to see a Soul saved from Death!

Wherefore once more, O miserable Woman, entering into an Eternity to be trembled at; Once more, thou shalt hear the Joyful Sound of the Gospel, inviting thee to the Fear of God, and the Faith of thy only Saviour. And if there be not in this Last Essay, a more saving Impression from the Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God made upon thee, than thou hast yet felt from any former ones, — Oh! the dreadful, dreadful Consequences! What will become of thee! — Can thy Hands be Strong, or can thy Heart endure, in the View of what a Terrible GOD will order for thee? — Behold, Ah! poor Margaret, Behold a mighty Congregation of People, with Hearts Bleeding for thee, and Wishing and Praying and Longing to see the fear of God making some Discoveries in thee. And shall thy Heart still remain unaffected with thy own Condition; discovering still a total Estrangement from the fear of God! No Tears are enough, Tears of Blood were not enough, to be employ’d on so prodigious a Spectacle!

I am sorry, I am sorry, that I find myself obliged so much to speak it. Even since thou hast been under Condemnation, thou hast not feared God. Not many Hours are passed, since I saw in thee, so much Rage, and so Unrighteously harboured, and so Indecently Vomited, against some Vertuous Children of God, that it was too Evident, this fear of God had not yet begun to soften thee.

But if the fear of God enter not into thy Soul, before thy Soul be driven out of thy Body, which will be now, — alas, before many Minutes more be expired, thy Desolate, Forsaken, Miserable Soul, can have no part in the Kingdom of God. My Soul cannot be safe, if I forbear to tell thee so!

Ah, poor Creature, Art thou wiling to Dye unreconciled unto the God, whom thou hast Affronted with infinite Provocations? To Dye, and all into the Mouths of Dragons, who have so long poisoned thee, and enslaved thee? To Dye and be cast into the Eternal Burnings, from whence the Smoak of the Torment will ascend forever and ever? What? Shall all the Means of Good, which in a Religious Place have been used for thee, with hopes that they might find out one of the Elect of God, serve only to aggravate thy Eternal Condemnation at the last? Oh! Dreadful Consideration!

But, Oh! Be Astonished at it! There is yet a Door of Hope set open for thee; It will for one Hour it may be, stand open yet! Oh! Be full of Astonishment at such an Heart-melting Declaration, as is now to be made unto thee. A Compassionate SAVIOUR, is yet willing, to Cleanse thy Soul with His Blood, from the Sins, which by casting off the fear of God thou hast fallen into; yet willing to create in thee a Clean Heart that shall be filled with the fear of God, if he be sought unto; yet calling to thee, O look unto me and be Saved! And yet affording unto thee that Encouragement, in Joh. VI. 37. He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.

And, Oh! What wilt thou now do under these Astonishing Invitations? Wilt thou not improve these few Minutes with a most wondrous Industry and Agony? Do so, and be no longer such an Hard-hearted Prodigy! Fall down before thy SAVIOUR, and cry out; O my Saviour, Take pitty on my Soul, and now at the Last, let Sovereign Grace break forth, with a good Work of thy fear in my Soul! Cry out, O my Saviour, Let my Sin be all pardoned, and let all Sin be as Abominable unto me, as it is unto all that fear thy Name! Let thy Outcries pierce the very Heavens.

But, be it known unto thee, If the fear of God be in thee, it will be a thing more Bitter than Death unto thee, that thou hast Sinned against His Glorious Majesty; Thy Malice against every Neighbour will be extinguished; Thou wilt submit with Patience, to the Punishment of thy Iniquity; And thou wilt be an Holy, Humble, Thankful Soul, and quite another Creature! — God of His Infinite Mercy make thee so!

* n.b. — a Julian calendar date, as were all British colonies until England herself transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

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1849: Washington Goode

Add comment May 25th, 2014 Headsman

America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.

In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”

In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.

In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:

A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.

Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.

In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†

That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with
Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.

While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.

In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.

Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.

However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡

Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to save Goode from the gallows.

But the Commonwealth was not moved.

Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.

The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.

Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.

But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.

* The anti-death penalty and anti-slavery causes had a good deal of overlapping personnel, too: slavery abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Lydia Child, and William Lloyd Garrison were prominent supporters of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. (See The Death Penalty: An American History.)

** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.

† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.

‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquite.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.

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