Posts filed under 'Massachusetts'

1778: Bathsheba Spooner, the first woman hanged in the USA

Add comment July 2nd, 2020 Headsman

Bathsheba Spooner, the first woman executed* in the post-Declaration of Independence (i.e., post-July 4, 1776) United States.

The daughter of one of Massachusetts’s most prominent Tory loyalists — the latter fled to Nova Scotia during the events comprising this post, owing to the ongoing American Revolution — Spooner was married to a wealthy Brookfield gentleman whom she utterly despised.

From late 1777 into 1778, Bathsheba beguiled three young would-be Davids — Ezra Ross, a wounded former Continental Army soldier whom she nursed back to health; and James Buchanan and William Brooks, two redcoat deserters — into getting rid of Mr. Joshua Spooner.

Ross she sent on February 1778 business trip with her hubby and instructions to dose him with nitric acid. The youth chickened out and didn’t do it — but neither did he warn his proposed victim what was afoot.

A couple of weeks later, the Brits achieved by main force what their American opposite dared not attempt by stealth, and “on the evening of the first of March, about 9 o’clock, being returning home from his neighbors, near by his own door was feloniously assaulted by one or more ruffians, knocked down by a club, beat and bruised, and thrown into his well with water in it.” Ross, importantly, had been invited by his lover/sponsor to return and he helped to dispose of the body.

They had not a day’s liberty after this shocking crime, evidently having thought little beyond the deed; the very young Ross especially stands out for his naivete — certainly mingled with lust and cupidity as he contemplated the prospect of attaining a frolicsome, wealthy widow — when the wife went to work on him.

As She was going to Hardwick She asked me the Reason of my being so low Spirited?  I made answer It was my long absence from home.  She replyed that her Opinion was, I wanted some one to lodge with — I told her it would be agreeable.  She asked me if Such an One as her self would do?  I made answer If She was agreeable I was.  [Marginal notation: The Dialect was so.]  Upon which She said “After She came off her Journey she would See.”
 
N.B. After her Return She Gave me an Invitation to Defile her Marriage Bed; which I Expected. [accepted] And after that she proposed constantly every sheam [scheme] for her Husbands Death.  [Marginal notation: The spelling is so.]
 
Ezra Ross

The above is a written account given in jail to the preacher Ebenezer Parkman, who preached a thundering sermon three days after the executions titled “The Adultress Shall Hunt for the Precious Life””

a woman who … allows her loose imagination to range and wander after Others, nay not a few, & rove from [her husband] to pollute & defile the marriage bed [indulging] her own wanton salacious desires … How loathsome are all such, and how directly opposite the pure & holy Nature, Law, and Will of God.

So keep thee from the Evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Neither let her take thee with her eyelids. There are a thousand dangers, that poor young wretches are in by reason of the snres & traps which are everywhere laid … particularly the poor beardless youth not quite 18. (As quoted in Deborah Navas’s book about the affair, Murdered by his Wife)

Mrs. Spooner, whose Loyalist family ties did her no favors in this moment, sought a reprieve on grounds of pregnancy. Many condemned women in those days made such requests; more often than not they were temporizing devices that bought no more than the time needed for a panel of matrons to examine them and dismiss the claim. In her case, four examiners submitted a dissenting opinion to the effect “that we have reason to think that she is now quick with child.” Although overruled, they were correct: after the dramatic quadruple execution under a thunderstorm at Worcester’s Washington Square, an autopsy found that Spooner was about five months along with what would have been her fifth child.

According to an early 20th century Chicago Chronicle retrospective (retrieved here via a reprint in the Charleston News and Courier, Jan. 24, 1904) her grave can be located on a manor at Worcester that formerly belonged to the great New York City planner Andrew Haswell Green: Bathsheba Spooner’s sister was Green’s grandmother.

A full original record of the proceedings does not survive for us, but this public domain volume has a lengthy chapter about events, with an appendix preserving some of the original documents.

* We’re at the mercy of uncertain documentation in this context, of course, but there are at least none whose executions can be established that predate Spooner’s within the infant republic. Per the Espy file, a woman named Ann Wyley was hanged in Detroit in 1777, but at the time that city was under British administration as part of the province of Quebec.

For its part, Massachusetts hanged several more women in the 1780s, but has not executed any other women since the George Washington presidential administration. It’s presently a death penalty abolitionist jurisdiction.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Women

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1863: William Lynch, suppressed mutineer

Add comment June 16th, 2020 Headsman

(Thanks to Edward Waldo Emerson, the son of transcendentalist chin-wagger Ralph Waldo Emerson, for the guest post. His account of the beloved Massachusetts cavalryman Charles Russell Lowell’s lethal suppression of a mutiny in his civil war regiment, as related to him by Lowell’s widow for his, Emerson’s, 1907 biography Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell. Lowell can’t speak for himself on this account because he was killed the next year at the Battle of Cedar Creek, after which he was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General.

Emerson does not directly narrate a death penalty story, but the image in the coda records the fate of one of the rebellious enlisted men. There were two others in legal jeopardy from this affair: Sylvester Riley died while awaiting his court-martial in Fort Independence in Boston Harbor; and, 16-year-old Francis Dew drew a death sentence which was commuted by President Abraham Lincoln on account of Dew’s youth. -ed.)

Mrs. Lowell, anxious that the exact facts be known, wrote for me this account of the

MUTINY IN BOSTON.

A very painful incident took place while Colonel Lowell was recruiting for the Second Cavalry, which impressed him very much.

Stopping as usual, at eight o’clock one morning, at the recruiting station, he found the small squad of new recruits who were to be transferred that day to the camp at Readville, in a state of mutiny. Hearing the noise on his arrival, he descended at once to the basement, and the Sergeant in command explained that he had ordered a man to be handcuffed, that the others had said it was unjust and should not be done, and had resisted. Colonel Lowell at once said: ‘The order must be obeyed.’ ‘No! No!’ shouted the men. He continued: ‘After it is obeyed, I will hear what you have to say, and will decide the case on its merits, but it must be obeyed first. God knows, my men, I don’t want to kill any of you; but I shall shoot the first man who resists. Sergeant, iron your man.’ As the Sergeant stepped forward with the irons, the men made a rush, and Colonel Lowell shot the leader, who fell at once. The men succumbed immediately, some bursting into tears, such was their excitement.

The whole incident was very painful to Colonel Lowell, especially because he had always regarded it as one of the privileges of an officer that he did not have to kill with his own hand.

The circumstances, however, turned out as fortunately as was possible in such a case. The man had no relatives, so far as could be discovered, and his record showed that he was a very bad man, and had previously been in the Regular Army, so that he knew very well what he was doing in resisting an order.

One of Governor Andrew‘s staff, who was present when Colonel Lowell reported his action, gave the following account, which I copy from Professor Peirce’s life of Lowell in the Harvard Memorial Biographies:

Entering his Excellency’s room, he made a military salute and said, ‘I have to report to you, sir, that in the discharge of my duty I have shot a man’; then saluted again, and immediately withdrew. ‘I need nothing more,’ said the Governor to a bystander, ‘Colonel Lowell is as humane as he is brave.’

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1774: John Malcom, tarred and feathered

Add comment January 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1774,* in the British official John Malco(l)m was tarred and feathered and mock-executed by enraged Bostonians during the tense run-up to the American Revolution.

Malcom’s militant Loyalism put him sharply at odds with his city’s’s rising Patriot ultras — the sorts of people who, just a month before, had provocatively dumped British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Malcom himself hadn’t been proximate to that event but as a customs official he’d made himself obnoxious on the docks before. In October of 1773, he seized a ship in Falmouth,** threatening “to sheath his sword in the bowels of any one who dared dispute his authority.” The sailors responded by sheathing John Malcom in a coat of tar and feathers and marching him through the streets.

This vigilante justice was meant to come up short of serious physical injury, and it did. But it was a crippling public disgrace, far beyond the streets of Falmouth — an ironic situation since Malcom’s own late brother Daniel was a celebrated Patriot bootlegger.† Back in Boston, Malcom found himself heckled in the streets about the incident to such an extent that he complained to the governor. (The governor told him to suck it up.) And it bubbled right to the surface in the incident that brings today’s post, too.

On January 25 of 1774, one of the Patriot participants in the aforementioned Boston Tea Party named George Robert Twelves Hewes‡ happened across the hated crown agent — “standing over a small boy who was pushing a little sled before him, cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane with a very heavy ferril on it.” (That’s according to the next week’s (Jan. 31, 1774) Boston Gazette, as are the subsequent quotes in this post.) Apparently the kid had crashed his conveyance into Malcom while out frolicking in the deep winter’s snow.

Hewes interceded for the child, and Malcom rounded on him: “you are an impertinent rascal, it is none of your business!” Flexing his class rank, Malcom further scolded the “vagabond” that he ought not address a gentleman in public. Hewes dissented and after an exchange of barbs cut Malcom to the quick with the retort, “be that as it will, I never was tarred or feathered.” This own brought Malcom’s heavy cane crashing into Hewes’s head, crumpling the Good Samaritan to the cobblestones.

Angry bystanders to the incident trailed Malcom home, and heaven only knows what hard words were traded on the way. He should have been worried and maybe he was, but his blood was up from Hewes’s insult: Malcom stood on the threshold and verbally sparred with his angry neighbors — “you say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better! I want to see it done in the new-fashioned manner.” The man’s Falmouth tarring, you see, had been leniently poured over his clothes, which might have been hell on his dry cleaning bills but also minimized the injury that hot tar could do to naked skin. Now he was daring a rougher treatment at the hands of Bostonians who had certainly proven up to that challenge in the past.

Calmer heads knew this situation could spiral out of control and judiciously steered the irate official into his house. But Malcom was not to be stilled; when his wife opened a sash to implore the crowd to disperse, her husband exploited the opening to thrust a sword into the breast of a bystander. Luckily for both parties the blade struck bone, causing only a glancing flesh wound.

Somehow the irascible coot restrained himself in the house long enough for this disturbance to subside, while Hewes shook off his concussion well enough to swear out a warrant.

But by evening, word of this politically charged provocation had circulated in Boston, along with all Malcom’s bluster — “among other things, that he would split down the yankees by dozens, and receive 20l. sterling a head for every one he destroyed.” A crowd started assembling again at Mr. Malcom’s door, now dangerously intent on its purpose.

they got ladders and beating in an upper window, entered the house and took him without loss of blood, and dragging him out put him on a sled, and amidst the huzzas of thousand[s], brought him into King street. Several Gentlemen endeavoured to divert the populace from their intention, alledging that he was open to the laws of the land which would undoubtedly award a reasonable satisfaction to the parties he had abused; they answered he had been an old, impudent and mischievous offender — he had joined in the murders at North Carolina — he had seized vessels on account of sailors having a bottle or two of gin on board — he had in office, and otherwise, behaved in the most capricious, insulting and daringly abusive manner — and on every occasion discovered the most rooted enmity to this country, and the defenders of its rights — that in case they let him go they might expect a like satisfaction as they had received in the cafes of Richardson and the soldiers, and the other friends of government. With these and such-like arguments, together with a gentle crouding of persons not of their way of thinking out of the ring, they proceeded to elevate Mr. Malcom from his sled into the cart, and stripping him to buff and breeches, gave him a modern jacket, and hurried him away to liberty-tree, where they proposed to him to renounce his present commission, and swear that he would never hold another inconsistent with the liberties of his country; but this he obstinately refusing, they then carted him to the gallows, passed a rope round his neck, and threw the other end over the beam as if they intended to hang him: But this manoeuvre he set at defiance. They then basted him for some time with rope’s end, and threatened to cut his ears off, and on this he complied, and they the brought him home.

See, reader, the effects of a government in which the people have no confidence!


“Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring and Feathering” (color version of same). This print and the next one make reference to a dubious report in London papers that Malcom was made to guzzle tea to the point of bursting for “your whole Fraternity at the Custom house would drench us with this Poison, and we are to have our Throats cut if it will not stay upon our Stomachs.”


“A new method of macarony making, as practiced in Boston”. (A different print with a nearly identical title shows an expanded view of a gallows here.) The number 45 seen on the hat above was code for Liberty at this period, due to the daring anti-monarchist sentiment in issue no. 45 of radical agitator John Wilkes‘s The North Briton.


A French engraving of the event, from 1784.

* There are a few other dates besides Tuesday, January 25 to be found out there, but newspaper reports from the time clearly place it on that day. Malcom himself later circulated a strange bulletin to Boston churches confirming the date with the words “John Malcom returns thanks to Almighty God, that again he is able to wait on him again in the public worship, after the cruel and barbarous usage of a cruel and barbarous savage mob in Boston, on the 25th evening of January last past confined him to house, bed and room.”

** The town of Falmouth is now Portland, Maine. Its most famous revolutionary war incident was put it to the torch by the British in 1775.

Daniel Malco(l)m’s grave is pocked by musket balls fired at the marker for good luck by redcoats.

‡ Hewes lived to the ripe old age of 98. Enjoy a public domain 1830s biography drawn from personal conversation with the old veteran here … including Hewes’s recollection of the tarring and feathering, which in his telling was clearly extremely traumatic to his antagonist.

The people, however, soon broke open the door, and took Malcom into their custody. They then took him to the place where the massacre was committed, and their flogged him with thirty-nine stripes. After which, they besmeared him thoroughly with tar and feathers; they then whipped him through the town, till they arrived at the gallows, on the neck, where they gave him thirty-nine stripes more, and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember that he had come within one of being hanged. They then took him back to the house from whence they had taken him, and discharged him from their custody.

The severity of the flogging they had given him, together with the cold coat of tar with which they had invested him, had such a benumbing effect upon his health, that it required considerable effort to restore his usual circulation. During the process of his chastisement, the deleterious effect of the frost, it being a cold season, generated a morbid affection upon the prominent parts of his face, especially upon his chin, which caused a separation and peeling off of some fragments of loose skin and flesh, which, with a portion of the tar and feathers, which adhered to him, he preserved in a box, and soon after carried with him to England, as the testimonials of his sufferings in the cause of his country. On his arrival in England soon after this catastrophe Malcom obtained an annual pension of fifty pounds, but lived only two years after to enjoy it.

On relating this adventure, the very excitement which the affront must have wrought upon him, evidently began to rekindle, and he remarked with emphasis, I shall carry to my grave the scar which the wound Malcom gave me left on my head; and passing my finger over the spot to which he directed it, there was obviously such a scar, as must have been occasioned by the wound he had described.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",England,Hanged,History,Lynching,Massachusetts,Mock Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA

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1773: Levi Ames, Boston burglar

Add comment October 21st, 2019 Headsman

Must Thieves who take men’s goods away
Be put to death? While fierce blood hounds,
Who do their fellow creatures slay,
Are sav’d from death? This cruel sounds.

But, ah! Alas it seems to me,
That Murder now is passed by
While Priests and Rulers all agree
That this poor Criminal must die.

What can they no compassion have?
Upon the poor distressed Thief,
Will none appear his life to save
Or pray that he may have relief?

Oh no! The Ministers they say,
For him there can be no reprieve;
He must be hang’d upon the day,
And his just punishment receive.

-“Theft and Murder! A Poem on the Execution of Levi Ames” (1773 broadside)

On this date in 1773, burglar Levi Ames was hanged in colonial Boston for burglary.


Illustration from a 1773 broadside announcing Levi Ames’s controversial execution (click for an image of the entire document).

This young thief’s death — and his surprising purchase on public sympathy in view of the recent politically charged gallows escape by crown loyalist Ebenezer Richardson for killing patriot protester Christopher Seider — are extensively excavated by Anthony Vaver (author of the books Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals) at his site Early American Crime. I can’t begin to improve upon this series.

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1733: Rebekah Chamblit

Add comment September 27th, 2019 Headsman

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

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

The Declaration, Dying Warning and Advice of Rebekah Chamblit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebekah Chamblit.

September 26th, 1733

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1775: Not Richard Carpenter, strong swimmer

Add comment July 21st, 2019 Headsman

20th [July 1775]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole — upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day, — his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.

-from the diary of Boston selectman Timothy Newell

On or around this date in 1775, an immigrant wig-maker was faux-executed by the British garrisoned in a besieged Boston.

Richard Carpenter was not a figure of decisive importance to the onrushing American Revolution but the excellent and venerable blog Boston 1775 by J.L. Bell has made a wonderful little microhistory of the man by cobbling together his appearances across different sources from his first 1769 business advert until his 1781 death in a British prison hulk.

Carpenter swam across Boston harbor to escape to patriot lines, then swam back into Boston; the Brits who captured him naturally took him for an enemy agent who could have been hanged … but from multiple reports (sometimes with muddled dates) this fate was “merely” visibly prepared for him only to be abated shortly before execution. In Bell’s speculation, hostilities were still not yet fully matured and “neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.”

For an extraordinary snapshot of this revolutionary everyman, click through the full series:

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1787: John Bly and Charles Rose, Shaysites

Add comment December 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1787, the only two men to hang for the infant American republic’s seminal post-independence rebellion went to the gallows at Lenox, Massachusetts.

The newborn United States emerged from the American Revolution (1776-1783) in a parlous financial condition. Forever short of gold and credit, it had paid George Washington’s Continental Army in worthless scrip* and promises of goodwill. Instead, many a Cincinnatus returned from Yorktown to discover his debtor farm dunned by creditors and taxmen, as desperate as he for hard currency.

Come 1786, protests against unpayable taxes verged into an outright rural insurrection in western Massachusetts. Known for one of its principals, Daniel Shays — who like so many of his fellows was a Continental Army veteran turned penniless farmer — this rebellion continued for several months and took earnest aim at the hated Massachusetts merchant elites. Some 4,000 “Shaysites” would eventually admit to** taking the field as rebel guerrillas. They mounted an attack on a federal armory, and seized weapons where they could for their own use.

A few books about Shays’s Rebellion

It was this last act which occasions our men’s hangings.

The new American authorities, who had not so many years ago been beckoning this same populace to take up their muskets in revolution, exercised in this moment a brittle authority and they would calculate that the proper balance of due regard for their power without unnecessary resentment entailed only a circumscribed approach.

Instead of charging Shaysites wholesale, most were waved away with a free pardon. And instead of charging treason, the Bay State made its demonstration cases with regular criminal offenses — for burglary when our men John Bly and Charles Rose followed some Shaysite militiaman’s order to confiscate guns and powder from nearby houses. In 1787, that was still a potential hanging offense.

Of course, everyone understood well enough the real offense. On the eve of their executions, someone got the condemned men to sign onto a “Last Words & Dying Speeches” broadsheet with a lesson addressed “To the good People of Massachusetts, more especially to Daniel Shays, and other Officers of the Militia, and the Select men of Towns who have been instrumental in raising the Opposition to the Government of this Commonwealth:”

Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the Government … Advert to those things — live peaceably with all men — be not too jealous of your Rulers — remember that Government is absolutely necessary to restrain the corrupt passions of men — obey your Honest Governors — be not allured by designing men — pay your honest debts and your reasonable taxes — use your utmost endeavours to give peace to your divided, distracted country …

There was another legacy: the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion — and the federal government’s impotence to respond to it (it was haltingly suppressed by state militia, with the insurgents at points escaping into New York for breathing room) — helped catalyze the Constitutional Convention from May to September of 1787, and informed its creation of a stronger federal state and of the system of checks upon democratic action that a rebellious populace might wish to undertake.

There’s a podcast episode about Shays’s Rebellion here.

* So widely shunned was the depreciated paper Continental currency issued during the Revolution that the phrase “not worth a Continental” entered the parlance of the times; it was these notes that had been given to revolutionary soldiers by way of aspirational salary like so many stock options from a foundering Silicon Valley startup. In 1791, these Continentals were bought out by the new federal government at one cent on the dollar.

** This census arrives via applications for the free amnesty eventually offered to the Shaysite rank and file.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Theft,Treason,USA

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,USA,Women

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1779: Robert Young

Add comment November 11th, 2018 Headsman

This date in 1779 saw the execution in Worcester, Mass., of one Robert Young, a schoolteacher who favored the occasion with the following verse from his very own quill.

The man’s offense one may derive from his confessional, but apart from rapist who was this doomed poet? We refer the reader to the biography at friend and sometime guest-poster Anthony Vaver over at Early American Crime. (Vaver’s book Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America comes recommended for those interested in the period.)

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight — they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Rape,Sex,Soldiers,USA

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1734: John Ormesby and Matthew Cushing

Add comment October 17th, 2018 Headsman

If the attached A Few Lines upon the Awful Execution of John Ormesby & Matthew Cushing intrigues, get to know America’s “first celebrity burglar” via a profile from friend of the site Anthony Vaver (author of Bound with an Iron Chain and Early American Criminals).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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