Posts filed under 'Massachusetts'

1765: Andrew Oliver lynched in effigy to the Liberty Tree

Add comment August 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1765, Boston patriots lynched the merchant designated as the imperial taxman. They only did so in effigy, but the “execution” scared him permanently off the job while also making a gallows-tree into one of the earliest symbols of American independence.

One of the key pre-revolution irritants for the future United States, the 1765 Stamp Act imposed taxes in the form of stamp duties on a variety of printed products, for the purpose of funding the British army deployed to North America. It was a levy long familiar to London lawmakers but it sent the colonies right around the bend, and since the colonies sat no Member of Parliament who could flip an official wig it also popularized the classic revolutionary slogan about “taxation without representation.”*

Enacted in the spring of 1765 and due to take effect in November, the Stamp Act drew immediate outrage in the colonies and especially in that hotbed of subversion, Boston.

There, Andrew Oliver, scion of a shipping magnate clan, was tapped to collect the levy. It figured to be just the latest in a series of lucrative state appointments. How was he to know in advance that this particular legislation would unleash the crazies? Perhaps he should have given more heed to the publication of ominous warnings over the roster of tax collector names.


Boston Post-Boy, August 5, 1765

On the morning of Wednesday, August 14, a crowd of irate Bostonians mobbed the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street (present-day Washington Street) and upon a large elm tree strung up an effigy of Oliver alongside a boot — the footwear comprising a second, punny, effigy of the Stamp Act’s sponsor the Earl of Bute.

“What greater Joy can NEW-ENGLAND see,” ran the menacing note pinned to the mannequin, “Than STAMPMEN hanging on a Tree!” As is clear from the following newspaper account, versions of which circulated widely in New England, these were no mere theatrics but a very proximate physical threat; even the elm’s property owner dared not take down the provocative display for fear that the crowd would pull down his house. Likewise taking the better part of valor, Oliver pledged to anti-tax colonists that he would not take the office, and he kept his word.**


Providence Gazette, August 24, 1765

After this triumphant debut, the elm in question became a common rallying-point for the hotheaded set, a frequent stage for speechifying, rabble-rousing, and fresh instances of popular justice all further to the patriot cause until, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “after a while, it seemed as if the liberty of the country was connected with Liberty Tree.” Of course, it’s all a question of whose liberty; a Tory gloss on this deciduous republican made it “an Idol for the Mob to Worship; it was properly the Tree ordeal, where those, whom the Rioters pitched upon as State delinquents, were carried to for Trial, or brought to as the Test of political Orthodoxy.” When besieged in Boston in 1775-1776, British Tories cut the damned thing down, so for subsequent generations it was only the Liberty Stump.


“The Colonists Under Liberty Tree,” illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, page 109 (1865)

The Liberty Tree is commemorated today at its former site, and forever in verse by revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine.

In a chariot of light from the regions of day,
The Goddess of Liberty came;
Ten thousand celestials directed the way,
And hither conducted the dame.

A fair budding branch from the gardens above,
Where millions with millions agree,
She brought in her hand as a pledge of her love,
And the plant she named Liberty Tree.

The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourished and bore;
The fame of its fruit drew the nations around,
To seek out this peaceable shore.

Unmindful of names or distinctions they came,
For freemen like brothers agree;
With one spirit endued, they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.

Beneath this fair tree, like the patriarchs of old,
Their bread in contentment they ate
Unvexed with the troubles of silver and gold,
The cares of the grand and the great.

With timber and tar they Old England supplied,
And supported her power on the sea;
Her battles they fought, without getting a groat,
For the honor of Liberty Tree.

But hear, O ye swains, ’tis a tale most profane,
How all the tyrannical powers,
Kings, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;

From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Through the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our Liberty Tree.

* Visitors to the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., whose 700,000 residents cast no votes in the Congress they live cheek by jowl with, can find this familiar grievance right on the city’s license plates.

** How far this surly bunch was prepared to go on August 14, 1765, one can only guess at; however, in later years, there would be several instances of Bostonians tarring and feathering various tax collectors. These guys did not do civility politics.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Massachusetts,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA

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1806: Dominic Daley and James Halligan, hated foreigners

Add comment June 5th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1806, immigrants Dominic Daley and James Halligan were hanged at Northampton, Massachusetts. In the words of one widely reproduced report, “They persisted in their innocence to the last moment, although there were perhaps not a single one of the numerous spectators present, which was presumed to amount to nearly 15,000, who entertained a doubt of their guilt.”

Today, nearly everyone thinks them innocent.

The case began, as many wrongful convictions do, with a particularly outrageous crime — a young farmer, Marcus Lyon, found dead in a Massachusetts creek en route to his home in Connecticut. He’d been shot through the chest and his brains battered out of his skull. The motive: robbery.

In the absence of substantive evidence, some witnesses with vague reports of strangers on the fatal turnpike furnished tissue for an entire theory of the case, and through the misapprehended focus of tunnel vision the strangers became Irishmen, and the Irishmen became Dominic Haley and James Halligan.

In the close aftermath of American independence, New England was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Most of the Irish people about at this moment were also Protestants: large-scale Irish Catholic immigration into the region only began in the 1820s and it panicked the normies when it came, with preachers and politicians railing against the insidious incursions of idolatrous papists.

So in 1805, when the hunt for strangers settled on two Irish-born Catholic immigrants … well, what was left to know? Just days later, a North Wilbraham Congregationalist minister thundered from the pulpit,

We see the evil attending a continued influx of vicious and polluted foreigners in this country. Many of the outrages we suffer proceed from this source. Who break open our homes in the unsuspecting hours of sleep? Who set fire to our large cities and towns for the sake of plunder? And who rob and commit murder on our highways? We are far from exculpating all of our own native citizens; we regret, indeed, that so many of them disgrace themselves and injure society by evil deeds. But these things notwithstanding, we are doubtless justified in saying, that a great proportion of the crimes above mentioned, together with many others which might be named, are committed by foreigners. And that atrocious deed which has so recently congealed all our blood with horror, in this place, is supposed to have been perpetrated by foreigners. Look at the annual reports of the overseers of the prisons and you will find them be principally occupied by foreigners

The first planters of this country were, generally speaking, men of pure lives and good morals and they were induced to come here for the sake of religion. And, for a long time, they maintained a wholesome and orderly state of society. But since the rapid increase of our commerce with other nations, and the great ingress of foreigners, many of whom are said to come here for the sake of escaping the retribution of justice in their own country; we have ripened apace in all the arts of vice and depravity. Some, who come among us from abroad, we readily acknowledge to be worthy and good men, and we cordially welcome their approach. But the number of these is comparatively small. The best and most useful citizens are cautiously retained, while the worst are readily parted with. Hence the rapid influx upon us, of late, of the most violent and abandoned of the human race. The late and present disturbances in foreign countries have greatly increased the calamity. The prisons of Europe and the West Indies are now disgorging themselves upon our shores; and this country is thus becoming the general asylum of convicts. This is a sore evil, and will furnish an increasing number of inhabitants for our prisons and victims for the halter.

The case in court would comprise 24 witnesses not one of whom had witnessed the crime; at most they could suggest that two strangers had taken the same well-trafficked public road on the same day as the victim, who was also a stranger in these parts. Even this much was not certain among the witnesses; their renderings were vague, tentative, contradictory — but witness recollections and prejudicial readings of circumstance soon shaped themselves around the shared understanding of events, and from so much smoke they wove the hemp.

The friendless immigrants’ court-appointed attorney, Francis Blake, who had been tasked with this first capital case of his life a bare 48 hours before the trial opened, made a vehement, eloquent, and futile address to the jury against “this illiberal, this inhuman prejudice” closing around the throats of his clients.

That the prisoners have, however, been tried, convicted, and condemned, in almost every bar-room, and barber’s-shop, and in every other place of public resort in the county, is a fact which will not be contested. That the sentence of the law has not been anticipated, and that they have not already suffered the penalty of death, may be ascribed rather to defect of power, than to lenity of disposition, in many of their accusers …

There is yet another species of prejudice, against the influence of which it is my duty to warn you. I allude to the inveterate hostility against the people of that wretched country, from which the Prisoners have emigrated, for which the people of New-England are peculiarly distinguished …

Pronounce then a verdict against them! Condemn them to the gibbet! Hold out an awful warning to the wretched fugitives from that oppressed and persecuted nation! Tell them that although they are driven into the ocean, by the tempest which sweeps over their land, which lays waste their dwellings, and deluges their fields with blood; — though they float on its billows upon the broken fragments, of their liberty and independence; — yet our inhospitable coast presents no Ararat upon which they can rest in safety; that although we are not cannibals, and do not feast upon human flesh, yet with all our boasted philanthropy, which embraces every circle on the habitable globe, we have yet no mercy for a wandering and expatriated fugitive from Ireland. That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name, for a robber and an assassin; that every man’s hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetrated among us, we look around for an Irishman; that because he is an outlaw, with him the benevolent maxim of our law is reversed, and that the moment he is accused, he is presumed to be guilty, until his innocence appears! …

The lives of the prisoners are now consigned to your disposal. Before you proceed to the performance of this awful duty, let me borrow the language of one of their countrymen, not degraded by the ignominious reproaches against his nation, but elevated to the highest rank among the orators of the elder world by the most splendid talents, the purest patriotism, and the most unsullied integrity. Let me beseech you to “remember that there is another than a human tribunal, where the best of us, will, on one day, have occasion to look back on the little good we may have done. In that solemn trial may your verdict on this day give assurance to your bones and afford you strength and consolation in the awful presence of an adjudging God!”

The words fell on deaf ears.

Daley and Halligan maintained their innocence from arrest to execution, but in the end they would require the offices of another foreign refugee, Father Jean-Louis de Cheverus, a French-born priest in Boston, who had fled the anti-clerical paroxysms of his own homeland. (Later, he would become the first Catholic Bishop of Boston.) It’s said that he stayed in jail with his charges, as no one in Northampton would suffer the papist priest to sleep under their own roof — and that his ministrations to them included the first Catholic mass said in that city.

Folklore cropped up around the 1830s to the effect that a local man had given a deathbed confession exonerating the hanged Irishmen … and that this murderer was the kinsman of one of the witnesses against Daley and Halligan. I cannot establish that this is any more than a just-so story, a fable, but even so it speaks to the continuing injury done by this execution to the now-growing Irish Catholic community. In time that demographic’s maturing numbers and political muscle flipped the story of Daley and Halligan from one of foreigners ripened in depravity to a sobering caution against bigotry and rush to judgment.

We have no real way, now, to access a definitive assessment of guilt or innocence; we can certainly say with confidence that the evidence was appallingly flimsy to hang a man even for the time. Both Daley and Halligan were posthumously exonerated by a writ of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1984. Dukakis discussed that action, and history’s view of the Daley-Halligan railroading, in a 2011 panel available in podcast form here.

For additional resources, check this Historic Northampton page (already linked several times within this post). Below, you can read the entirety of an 1806 publication reporting the trial, from which the defense lawyer’s remarks have been drawn.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1772: Bryan Sheehen, cuck

Add comment January 16th, 2018 Headsman

Colonial Massachusetts sailor Bryan Sheehen culminated a life of warped relations with the opposite sex at his hanging on this date in 1772.

According to the pamphlet An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen, as a child in Ireland, Sheehen‘s family split up by gender with the Catholic father taking the boys and the Anglican mother taking the girls. While the legacy of this childhood trauma can only be guessed at, it looks suggestive in hindsight

Sheehen migrated to Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts where he eventually indentured himself as a household servant to colonial shipwright Benjamin Hallowell, a “father” from whom the young adult Sheehen again fled, this time to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Unfortunately upon his return from only six years away he found that his wife had impatiently [re]married herself to a Frenchman, a humiliating risk and fear of the seagoing set. Sheehen forced the woman to choose between the rivals but when she chose Sheehen, the latter found that he was still so disgusted with her that he preferred to abandon the wife, and the child she had borne him, and the child she had borne the Frenchman. Psychologists have a lot to unpack here already.

Relocating to Marblehead, Mass. our reborn swinging single now developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person” and eventually began stalking a woman named Abial Hollowell … her surname eerily echoing that of Sheehen’s own former master. In fact, Abial’s husband was also named Benjamin Hollowell. His advances rebuffed, Sheehen

went up, in the middle of the night, to the room where Mrs. Hollowell lay, found her asleep, awaked her, and swore, if she made the least noise, he would kill her; and then stopping her mouth, perpetrated the atrocious crime. After which (to prevent, it seems, a pregnancy) he abused her with his hand, in an unheard-of, cruel and shocking manner: Insomuch that her life was for some time almost despaired of; and she was not able for ten days after to get off her bed without help.

That’s as per a case summary appended to “A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772″ by the Salem Rev. James Diman. The good preacher was so chagrined that Sheehen’s persistent denials had led some citizens to murmur against Mrs. Hollowell that for “justice to the woman’s character” he devotes about a page and a half to traducing Sheehen’s. Sheehen, Diman charged, was just the sort of vicious wretch who would imperil his soul by going to the gallows with a lie upon his lips, perhaps because, as a Catholic, “he might swear falsely, he might doubtless speak falsely to Hereticks, as they call all whose religious principles differ from theirs.”

Last and most important, Diman claimed to have it on good authority from “two credible persons”

that there was a young woman, daughter of one Williams, of Goldsborough, in the Eastern part of this province, abased in the same manner Mrs. Hollowell was. That she was way-layed in the the evening, between her father’s house and a neighbour’s; was seized, forced, and wounded to such a degree, that her friends were obliged to carry her home, she being unable to walk, and that the next morning early she died. That the villain, who perpetrated this crime, returned after he had done it, to his companions, who, it seems, were before, or then, made acquainted with his enterprize; for such wretches declare their sin as Sodom: And that one of them told him he would probably have a child to maintain: He answered so, that he had taken care to prevent that, and that she would never have a child by him, nor by any other man.

This guy, his informants said, was an Irishman named something like Bryan Sheehen — and he had escaped town after the incident.

* The Hallowells were notable British loyalists during the American Revolution, and returned to England when their estates were sacked by Patriots. The grandson of Bryan Sheehen’s employer, Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew, was one of Lord Nelson‘s Band of Brothers. During the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Hallowell’s supplied the literal fireworks by defeating the French battleship Orient — whose spectacularly exploding magazines highlighted all the artistic commemorations of that victory. He later presented to Nelson as a gift a coffin fashioned from the Orient‘s mast, “that when you have finished your military career in this world you may be buried in one of your trophies.” Nelson was indeed laid to rest in Hallowell’s trophy in 1805.


The flaming Orient illuminates Thomas Luny’s Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA

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1784: Richard Barrick and John Sullivan

Add comment November 18th, 2017 Robert Elder

i>(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

For this last crime, I am to suffer death. These are the most capital crimes I have committed, and I sincerely wish that others may avoid the rocks on which I have split.

-John Sullivan, convicted of murder, hanging, Massachusetts executed November 18, 1784

Born in Ireland, he enlisted in the British service but deserted, robbed steadily and finally was an accomplice to the murder of an old man who was beaten to death for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. He was found guilty of many capital crimes such as desertion and robbery.


… I then went to Boston, and got in company with one John Sullivan…we went to Winter’s-Hill, and there robbed one Mr. Baldwin, for which crime Sullivan and myself are to suffer Death, as being the just reward of our demerits.

-Richard Barrick, convicted of highway robbery and murder, hanging, Massacusetts Executed November 18, 1784

Richard Barrick was born in Ireland in February 1763 and brought up in the Foundling Hospital. He was an apprentice to a silk-weaver and lived with him for three years. But during those years, he was treated poorly and so he eventually left the silk-weaver and joined a gang of thieves. When he was caught, the authorities agreed to pardon him if he entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships. After arriving in New York, Barrick and some others robbed many people and [he] became a notorious and wanted man. He was an accomplice to murder of a man they first robbed. He was eventually caught by a British Colonel and convicted.

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1784: Dirick Grout and Francis Coven, Boston burglars

Add comment October 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1784, American Revolutions veteran Dirick (sometimes Dirich or Derach) Grout and Francis Coven (or Coyen) were hanged in Boston for burglary.

Coven was a Frenchman who had come to North America with the French expeditionary force deployed to support the colonial rebels; Grout was a New Yorker of Dutch extraction who had served in the Continental Army. Both were caught up in the economic collapse that hit the newly independent states upon the revolution’s 1780s conclusion — from which soil emerged a property crime wave around wealthy Boston that led Justice Nathaniel Sargent to fret that “vicious persons” now were “roving about the countryside disturbing peoples rest and preying upon their property.” Small wonder when, as the Massachusetts Centinel noted, “we daily see men speculating with impunity on the most essential articles of life, and grinding the faces of the poor and laborious as if there were no God.”

According to Alan Rogers’s Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts (which is also the source of the preceding paragraph’s quotes), there was not only a “sharp jump in the number of postwar executions” but a shift in the proportion of those executions that underscored the Commonwealth’s alarm at its bold and violent thieves:

In the two decades after 1780 a very different pattern emerged: the rate of executions throughout the commonwealth nearly doubled and the crimes for which men and women were put to death changed dramatically. Of the seventeen men and one woman executed in Boston during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, only four were convicted murderers, but nine burglars and five highway robbers were hanged, almost the reverse of the data for the first seven decades of the century.

Both of our gentlemen today were among its casualties, and both had been repeat offenders; Coven took 30 lashes as punishment for a previous robbery in 1782. Grout went on a burglary spree that hit multiple houses and shops around Boston. Both received death sentence at the August 31 sitting of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.*

* Other sentences handed down “for various thefts” at the same proceedings, according to the Salem Gazette (September 14, 1784):

Cornelius Arie, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Thomas Joice, to be whipt 25 stripes, and branded.

William Scott, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

John Goodbread and Edward Cooper, 15 each.

James Campbell, to be whipt 30 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Michael Tool, to be whipt 20 stripes.

Meanwhile, “a villain who was tried for burglary with the above-mentioned Joice, last Friday, but acquitted, was no sooner discharged, than he, with another equally meritorious scoundrel, forced open a window of the store of Mr. Daniel Sears, on Greene’s wharf, and were fleecing it of merchandize to a considerable amount, when, to their praise be it spoken, the night guardians of this city caught them in the very act, before they had time even to return by the way they had feloniously stolen in. They were both committed to jail before Saturday’s rising sun of the next day.”

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

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1820: William Holmes, Edward Rosewaine, and Thomas Warrington, pirates

Add comment June 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1820, William Holmes, Edward Rosewain, and Thomas Warrington aka Warren Fawcett all hanged in Boston as pirates.

A Scotsman, an Englishman, and a Connecticut Yankee (respectively), the three numbered crewed a privateer bearing the flag of newly independent Argentina. Having captured a merchantman heavy with valuable cargo, they’d been put aboard it with a few others, to sail the prize home.

On July 4, 1818, following a drunken quarrel between one of their number and the mate of this skeleton crew, they stole below and agreed upon a mutiny whereupon that very evening they crept upon the sleeping mate and “Holmes and Warrington seized him by the heels and pitched him over the rail of the vessel.” Roused by the mate’s shrieking, the captain raced up to the deck where he too was overpowered and forced over the edge where he clung for dear life to a rope, until the trio cut it. (According to the testimony of one of the surviving crew, Salem Gazette, July 12, 1819)

The hijackers then trimmed sail for Baltimore which even those pre-Wire days was renowned as a haven for freebooters. Unfortunately they weren’t the best mariners, and overshot the Chesapeake all the way to Scituate, Massachusetts, where they clumsily ditched their ride and were rounded up in due course. A U.S. Circuit Court condemned them for “piratical and felonious homicide upon the high seas,” and the Supreme Court upheld the judgment. (A pdf of proceedings is here)

Heinousness aside, we are by this point in history well abroad in the period of fretful chin-wagging over the deleterious spectacle of public execution, and as church bells tolled the condemned out of jail on the morning of June 15 in 1820 right-thinking observers again wondered whether the whole scene wasn’t counterproductive to its purported objectives.

The Christian Watchman of June 17, 1820 — having observed with “regret” that “no satisfactory evidence of the genuine repentance of the sufferers has come to our knowledge” — approvingly reprinted another paper’s editorializing against the public execution:

The frequent recurrence of these scenes compels us to ask, whether the manner in which, in obedience to custom, they are now conducted, be such as promotes the great ends of this dreadful judicial infliction.

It scarcely need be said, that every thing which has a tendency to mislead the public feeling on these occasions, — to turn the reflections of the beholders from the enormity of the crime to the severity of the punishment — defeats the great objects, which the law has in view.

It is not from any want of humanity and tenderness toward the unhappy persons themselves, that we make this remark; but because we think the scene of a public execution, as it takes place among us, runs too far into a dramatic spectacle, and has the effect, first of exciting and occupying the curiosity, and then of making an untimely pity for those, whose dark and murderous passions have brought down upon them the righteous inflictions of the law.

The unreflecting spectator, who sees the Reverend priest in the party-coloured vestments of his church, pouring into the ears of the convicts those precious promises of Christianity, which it is scarce the right of the most tried faith and patience to claim, who sees them standing on the fatal scaffold in the arms of a Confessor, and receiving with the fatal doom of bloody crime in this world, the promises of eternal blessedness in the other; we say that the unreflecting spectator, who beholds this, if he do not conclude that the whole is a solemn mockery — will either be thrown wholly into confusion to his notion of judicial infliction, or he will be inclined to pity and sympathise with the sufferers. And either of these effects will defeat the order of justice.

The ceremony of execution should, in our opinion, be as short and simple as possible. The Warrant of Execution, in an abridged form, should be read; a short and solemn prayer, without purple surplices or embracings, or kissings, be made, and the last horrid moment hastened, as far as public decency admits.

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1660: Mary Dyer, Quaker

Add comment June 1st, 2017 Headsman

Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston on this date in 1660 — the most famous of that city’s four “Quaker martyrs”.

Monument in Boston to Mary Dyer as “witness for religious freedom”. (cc) image by Andrea Schwartz.

By the time of her last ordeal, Dyer already had a quarter century-old reputation for religious misbehavior in the New World.

She’d ditched England with her husband in 1635, part of that decade’s great outmigration of Puritan dissidents — “A Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good Report, having a husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children,” according to an admiring account. Opinions varied: the colony’s governor found her “very censorious and troublesome, (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations).”

She brought with her a proclivity for the heretical: in Massachusetts, where the Puritan majority delivered the persecuting, Mary quickly fell foul of right-thinking folk by backing Anne Hutchinson in a theological controversy.* When Hutchinson was convicted by a church trial and banished, Mary Dyer cinematically walked hand-in-hand with her out of church. On top of everything else, she was known to have stillborne a deformed monstrosity (“a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together”) which was the kind of thing these people understood as deadly serious.

Mary and her husband went to exile with Hutchinson, and were among the first English settlers of Rhode Island, before returning to spend most of the 1650s back in England. There, Mary Dyer converted to one of the new entrants to the Commonwealth’s welter of novel sects, Quakerism.

This new faith’s emphasis on egalitarian personal religious experience ungoverned by ordained clergymen met an instant ban once Massachusetts caught wind of it, with a statute imposing mutilated tongues and trips to the pillory for expounding the outlaw doctrine. To these would be added the threat of the gallows for repeat offenders with the temerity to return from banishment … and Mary Dyer is only the most famous of four Quakers who actually suffered this penalty.


The Heart of N-England Rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation: Boston Rev. John Norton‘s 1659 anti-Quaker tract advocates their execution.

Dyer’s defiance of the law was straightforward, keeping with the bold tradition of martyrdom in witness. Jailed in Boston in 1657, her husband (who had not yet followed his wife’s conversion) managed to arrange her release; she returned in 1659 to visit other imprisoned Quakers and they were all banished for their trouble. Shortly after, she returned to Boston with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson: these were the first two Quakers put to death by the Puritans, but Mary Dyer was spared at the foot of the gallows and again expelled, finding temporary refuge in Rhode Island.

Edward Burrough’s A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God, which also catalogues the many brutal punishments inflicted on Quakers up until 1661, preserves an account of Mary’s final return to Boston in May 1660 and her immediate arrest for same: it was enough for her to acknowledge her identity to reinstate her former sentence.

“I came in Obedience to the Will of God the last General Court, desiring you to Repeal your unrighteous Lawes of Banishment upon pain of Death; and that same is my work now, and earnest Request,” she told the court that doomed her. “If ye refused to Repeal them, the Lord will send others of his Servants to Witness against them.”

The very next day, she was drummed — to prevent her preaching — on a mile-long walk a gallows on Boston Common. This time there was no reprieve waiting: only immortality.

* This controversy drove the short-term governor Henry Vane back to England, and martyrdom during the interregnum.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,USA,Women

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1770: William Linsey, resolutely bent upon working wickedness

Add comment October 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1770, inveterate burglar William Linsey was hanged in Worcester, Mass.

Linsey never killed anyone but just couldn’t lay off the thieving — as he owned himself in a gallows broadsheet: “Having so often escaped with impunity, for my wretched crimes, I was under no awe or restraint, neither learning God nor regarding man, resolutely bent upon working wickedness.” That didn’t mean he didn’t get caught: he frequently did, and once was pilloried, flogged, and branded all in the same day as punishment for fraud.

The quote is courtesy of a Linsey profile by friend of the blog and occasional guest poster Anthony Vaver, on his site Early American Crime — which notes that Linsey ultimately fell foul of a sort of colonial three-strikes law escalating penalties for mere property crimes all the way to the gallows in the case of repeat offenders.

On this day..

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

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1681: Maria, Jack, and William Cheney

Add comment September 22nd, 2016 Headsman

[1681 September] 22. There were 3 persons executed in Boston[.] An Englishman for a Rape. A negro man for burning a house at Northampton & a negro woman who burnt 2 houses at Roxbury July 12 — in one of wch a child was burnt to death.* The negro woman was burned to death — the 1st yt has suffered such a death in N.E.

-diary of Increase Mather

These three unfortunates were all three perpetrators of separate crimes, united by the logistical convenience of a joint execution date.

Maria’s claim on the horrible distinction of having been burned alive has been doubted by some,** but if Mather’s diary is correct it was undoubtedly done to mirror a crime so frightful to the masters: the firing of their own domiciles by their own domestics. The record in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s court records assuredly elides a fathomless depth of human passion.

Maria, a negro servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, in the county of Suffoike in New England, being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria Negro for not having the feare of God before hir eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of said Roxbury by taking a Coale from under a still and carried it into another roome and laide it on the floore neere the doore and presently went and crept into a hole at a back doore of thy Masters Lambs house and set it on fier also taking a live coale betweene two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed. As by uour Confession will appeare contrary to the peace of our Souevaigne Lord the King his croune.

The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor, yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.

Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul.

Three days later a fugitive slave named Jack — “Run away from Mr. Samuell Wolcot because he always beates him sometimes with 100 blows so that he hath told his master that he would sometime or other hang himself” — torched a house in Northampton, seemingly by accident while foraging by torchlight. There can’t have been a connection between these two slaves and their seemingly very different acts of resistance, but where once is coincidence, twice is a trend: Jack was convicted of arson and taken from Northampton to Boston at some inconvenience to the colony (the trip took 15 days and cost £2) for exhibition at the same pyre as Maria. Jack was certainly burned only posthumously.

As for the white gentleman, we will give the word to Increase Mather’s chip off the old block, Rev. Cotton Mather:

On September 22, 1681, one W.C. [William Cheney] was executed at Boston for a rape committed by him on a girl that liv’d with him; though he had then a wife with child by him, of a nineteenth or twentieth child.

This man had been “wicked overmuch.” His parents were godly persons; but he was a “child of Belial.” He began early to shake off his obedience unto them; and early had fornication laid unto his charge; after which, he fled unto a dissolute corner of the land, a place whereof it might be said, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place.”

He being a youth under the inspection of the church at Roxbury, they, to win him, invited him to return unto his friends, with such expressions of lenity towards him, that the reverend old man their pastor, in a sermon on the day when this man was executed, with tears bewail’d it.

After this, he liv’d very dissolutely in the town of Dorchester; where, in a fit of sickness, he vow’d that, if God would spare his life, he would live as a new man; but he horribly forgot his vows. The instances of his impiety grew so numerous and prodigious, that the wrath of God could bear no longer with him; he was ripen’d for the gallows.

After his condemnation, he vehemently protested his innocency of the fact for which he was condemn’d; but he confess’d “that God was righteous, thus to bring destruction upon him for secret adulteries.”

A reprieve would have been obtain’d for him, if his foolish and froward refusing to hear a sermon on the day appointed for his execution had not hardened the heart of the judge against him. He who had been a great scoffer at the ordinances of God, now exposed himself by being left unto such a sottish action!

He had horribly slighted all calls to repentance, and now, through some wretches over-perswading [sic] of him that he should not die according to sentence and order of the court, he hardened himself still in his unrepentant frame of mind.

When he came to the gallows, and saw death (and a picture of hell, too, in a negro then burnt to death at the stake, for burning her master’s house, with some that were in it,) before his face, never was a cry for “Time! time! a world for a little time! the inexpressible worth of time!” uttered with a most unutterable anguish.

He then declared, that “the greatest burden then lying upon his miserable soul, was his having lived so unprofitably under the preaching of the gospel.”

* It is flatly incorrect that Maria’s arson killed anyone. She was indicted for arson, and there is no reference to an associated murder in the trial record or non-Mather accounts.

** Notice that the court order does not direct that Maria be burned to death. This letter, as an example of a possible rival interpretation, indicates that “two were this day Executed heer and Exposed to the flames for those Crimes,” implying an equivalence between the punishments of the two slaves: hanged to death, then their bodies burned.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA

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1835: Francisco Ruiz, prostrated pirate

Add comment September 12th, 2016 Headsman

From the Lowell (Mass.) Patriot, September 18, 1835 — channeling, as the headling indicates, the Boston Morning Post. In addition to a wanton overuse of commas, this article’s casual alternation between the interchangeable spellings of “Marshal” and “Marshall” is [sic]. The piracy at issue was the subject of a previous Executed Today post.

Francisco Ruiz, the carpenter of the Spanish piratical schooner Panda, who was distinguished above his brother buccaneers, by his pre-eminence in guilt, and violence, in the robbery of the Mexican, and yet had succeeded outliving them a few months, and prolonging a miserable existence in jail, by counterfeiting madness, in which, however, there was altogether too much method, was executed on Saturday morning in the jail yard.

At the trial of the Pirates, last December,* Ruiz was more positively identified than the others, on account of the prominent part which he took in the proceedings on board of the Mexican: he was pointed out as the man, who, with a drawn sword, drove the crew below, and as keeping guard over the hatchway while the vessel was pillaged of her specie; he was also singled out by the steward as the individual who beat him with a baton to compel him to disclose where he had secreted his private property.

Under his direction the sails were slashed, the combustables collected in the camboose, and the arrangements completed, for the setting fire to the sails and rigging of the plundered brig, which was happily arrested by her crew who escaped from below, by an aperture, which the pirates, in their haste to abandon her, fortunately omitted to secure.

Had the crew remained below an other [sic] minute, the brig would have been enveloped in one general conflagration, and not a man could have survived to recount the fate of his vessel and companions.

In the river Nazareth too, when the Panda, closely pressed by the British boats, was abandoned by her officers and crew, to Ruiz was assigned the dangerous duty of securing the ship’s papers, and then blowing her up, but his attempt to explode her magazine proved as unsuccessful as his infernal endeavor to wrap the Mexican in flames, in the middle of the ocean.

Since the expiration of Ruiz’s second respite, Mr. Marshall Sibley had procured the attendance, at the jail, of two experienced physicians, belonging to the U.S. Service, and who, being acquainted, with the Spanish language, were able to converse freely with him.

They had continued access to him, during the past month, and, as the result of their observations, reported to the Marshall in writing, that they had visited Ruiz several times for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was, or was not insane; and from their opportunities of observing him, they expressed their belief, that he was not insane.

This opinion being corroborated by other physicians, unacquainted with the Spanish language, but judging only from Ruiz’s conduct, induced the Marshal to forbear urging the Executive for a further respite; and for the first time, on Saturday morning, in an interview with the Spanish Interpreter and Priest, he was made sensible, that longer evasion of the sentence of the law was impracticable, and that he must surely die.

They informed him, that he had but half an hour to live, and retired, when he requested that he might not be disturbed during the brief space that remained to him, and turning his back to the open entrance of his cell, he unrolled some fragments of printed prayers, and commenced reading them to himself.

During this interval he neither spoke, nor heeded those who were watching him; but undoubtedly sufferred ]sic] extreme mental agony. At one minute he would [obscure] his chin on his bosom, and stand motionless; at another he would press his brow to the wall of his cell, or wave his body from side to side, as if wrung with unutterable anguish.

Suddenly, he would throw himself upon his knees on his mattress, and prostrate himself on his face as if in prayer; then throwing his prayers from him, he would clutch his rug in his fingers, and like a child try to double it up, or pick it to pieces.

After snatching up his rug and throwing it away again and again, he would suddenly resume his prayers, and erect posture, and stand mute, gazing through the aperture that admitted the light of day, for upwards of a minute.

This scene of imbecility and indecision — of horrible prostration of mind — eased in some degree when the Catholic clergyman re-entered his cell.

Precisely at 10 o’clock, the prisoner was removed from the prison, and, during his process to the scaffold, though the palor of death was spread over his countenance, and he trembled n every joint with fear, he chanted with a powerful voice an appropriate service from the Catholic ritual.

Several times he turned half round to survey the heavens, which at that moment were clear and bright above him, and when he ascended the platform, after concluding his last audible prayer, he took one long and steadfast gaze at the sun, and waited, in silence, his fate.

Unlike his comrades who had preceded him, he uttered no exclamations of innocence — his mind never appeared to revert to his crime.

His powers, mental and physical, had been suddenly crushed with the appalling reality that surrounded him; his whole soul was absorbed with one master feeling — the dread of a speedy and violent death.

Misunderstanding the lenity of the government, and the humanity of the officers, he had deluded himself with the hope of eluding his fate, and not having steeled his heart for the trying ordeal, it quailed in the presence of the dreadful paraphernalia of his punishment, as much as if he had been a stranger to deeds of blood, and never dealt death to his fellow man, as he ploughed the deep under the black flag of piracy, with the motto of “Rob, Kill, and Burn.”

He appeared entirely unconscious — dead, as it were — to all that was passing around him, when Deputy Marshal Bass coolly and securely adjusted the fatal cap, and, at the Marshall’s signal, which soon followed, adroitly cut the rope, which held down the latches of the platform.

The body dropoped heavily, and the harsh, abrupt shock must have instantly deprived him of all sensation, as there was no voluntary action of the hands afterwards. The body hung motionless half a minute, when a violent spasmodic action took place, occasioned simply by muscular contraction, but confined chiefly to the trunk of the body, which seemed to draw up the lower extremities into itself. The muscles of the heart continued to act nearly half an hour, but no pulsation was perceptible in a very few minutes after the fall.

Thus terminated his career of crime, in a foreign land, without one friend to recognize or cheer him, or a single being to regret his death — dying in very truth “unwept, unhonored.”

The skull of Delgrado, the suicide, who held the knife to Capt. Butman’s throat, was thought by the phrenologists to favor their supposed science; but they will find in the head of Ruiz a still more extraordinary development of the destructive, and other animal propensities, if we were not deceived in the alleged localities of these organs.

The execution took place in one of the most secluded situations in the City — not a hundred persons could witness it from within the yard; and very few, excepting professional persons, having business there, and the officers, were admitted inside.

Great credit is due to the U.S. Marshall for the privacy with which he caused the execution to be performed, and for not interrupting, by exhibiting a public, and exciting through barbarous spectacle, the business of the community.

* The long interval which has elapsed since the conviction of Capt. Gilbert and his crew, has afforded the most ample time to bring to light facts tending to establish their innocence, if any had been in existence; and the non-production of such facts, under the circumstances, must remove every possible shadow of a doubt of their guilt.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Murder,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,U.S. Federal,USA

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