The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.
Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.
She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.
In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.
Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.
Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.
The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.
On this date in 1774, Peter Galwin and John Taylor were hanged together in Burlington in New Jersey.
Galwin was the principal of a small school in Northampton Township with a hankering for prepubescent children. According to court documents, Galwin raped or attempted to rape four young girls on four separate occasions in July and August 1774: Ann Prosser, Hope Reeves, Sarah Deacon and Ann Jones, all of them “infants under the age of ten years.”
The assault caused “great damage” to Ann Jones in particular. Whether or not the victims were his students is not known.
The crimes of John Taylor, alias John Philip Snyder, were still more exotic.
An itinerant farmhand, he allegedly stole money, “two items of female intimate apparel” and other items from his employer, a widow named Orpha Emlay, on August 13, 1774. She suspected him of the theft but lacked proof, so she decided to spy on him.
She wound up getting more than just an eyeful on the afternoon of October 2, 1774. It was then that the wary woman peeked into her barn and saw Taylor committing an act of gross indecency with a cow. Appalled, Emlay presumably let out a shriek because Taylor heard her. The naked pervert chased her down while brandishing a knife and a hammer. He smashed Emlay’s skull and slit her throat from ear to ear.
Understandably, public outrage against both offenders ran high in the community. Hearn notes that guards had to “prevent enraged onlookers from tearing both men apart before they reached the gallows.”
On this date in 1833, French immigrant Antoine le Blanc was hanged on the Morristown (N.J.) village green.
A cigar-chomping French immigrant, LeBlanc came to the New World to seek his fortune and found himself doing grueling farm work for Samuel and Sarah Sayre in exchange for a dank basement room but no pay.
After just a couple of weeks in this unsatisfactory situation, LeBlanc clobbered Samuel Sayre with a spade … and then did the same to Sarah Sayre … and then killed their infant child. Stuffing all the portable valuables he could find into pillowcase sacks, he hopped on a horse and fled for New York, hoping to pawn his booty for passage back to Europe.
Like an inept Scooby-Doo villain, LeBlanc in his haste managed to dribble a trail of the Sayres’ goods on the road, and these helped his pursuers corner him in the Meadowlands — an incriminating parcel of his ill-gotten gains right there beside him.
The trial was a mere formality. The execution on an upward-jerking gallows drew an excited crowd several times the 2,500 souls residing in Morristown itself.
And then, it really gets creepy.
LeBlanc was condemned to post-execution medical anatomization, and the good doctors of Morristown took that as license for every posthumous indignity in the 19th century book. First, the late LeBlanc got a course of electrical shocks — a popular corpse experiment of the day whose object was discovering a means of reanimation but whose consequence was merely a ghoulish danse macabre of senseless, jerking limbs as each jolt charged the putrefying flesh.
When they’d had their fill of zombie Antoine LeBlanc, they skinned the murderer and sent his hide off to be made into wallets and book covers which then got hawked to Morristown’s finest citizens. That sounds like an urban legend, but scroll down this page for the pictures: some of these objects have made it to museums, but it’s thought that others persist in private collections, handed down over the generations or just stashed away forgotten until they can emerge for a starring role on Antiques Roadshow.
Apparently the old Sayre house (significantly rebuilt after a 1957 fire) still stands in Morristown … and it’s haunted by LeBlanc and his last victim, the baby Phoebe.
On July 18 in Northampton Township, the three men, with their faces painted, burst into the house of Joseph Burr. By “threats of violence” they convinced Burr’s wife to give up her keys to the locked cabinets and made off with the following:
1 silver sauceboat
8 silver tablespoons
9 silver teaspoons
A sum of money
A considerable quantity of shirts, aprons, caps and handkerchiefs
A great parcel of “wearing apparel made in the manner of people called Quakers”
They also took three valuable horses from Burr’s stable and rode off on them.
Burr and his wife told the authorities they knew the robbers were Irish because “they all had the brogue upon their tongues,” and it turned out three Irish laborers had gone missing from a farm near Mount Holly.
The thieves’ trail was discovered and a posse caught them red-handed, as it were, riding the stolen horses and carrying the stolen goods.
Justice acted quickly and Fagan, Grimes and Johnson were executed a mere six weeks after their crime. The Burlington County Treasury compensated the jailer his expenses in feeding the three men for 39 days.
On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.
His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.
On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.
Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.
So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.
Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.
So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.
He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.
Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.
It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.
The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:
Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”
On this date in 1867, Irish immigrant maid Bridget Durgan (or Durgin, or Dergan) was hanged in New Brunswick, New Jersey for murdering the mistress of the house.
In this instantly sensational case, Durgan at first represented herself the party raising the hue and cry with the neighbors as her mistress was slaughtered by two unknown visitors. (Since it was a doctor’s house, the “unknown visitors” part wasn’t an unusual circumstance.)
Unfortunately our maidservant conducted this office without recognizing that her own dress was bloodstained and would implicate her in the crime — as would the suspicious circumstance that the homicide took place on the very eve of Durgan’s involuntary termination date, the victim having judged her contribution to the household inadequate.
If Durgan’s published confession is to be believed — and many didn’t believe it, since the condemned woman’s stories varied wildly before settling on the rather pat version that none of the other suspected participants were involved — she had come down in the world from a less abject birth in Ireland, transferred upon her victim a hatred conceived for a previous mistress in a previous household, and done the deed in some confused attempt to supplant Mrs. Coriell.
(This confession offers a florid narration — and illustration (pdf) — of the dying woman staying Bridget’s coup de grace long enough to give her infant child one last kiss.)
So, from the standpoint of criminal heinousness and public outrage over same, this was definitely the sort of thing to hang a body.
Difficult questions of weighing the proper level of culpability for offenses committed by those with a seemingly diminished mental capacity were at this time becoming a hot topic in criminology; in a few years, a madman who assassinated a president would make them national news.
Poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then entering her seventh decade, went to see Bridget Durgan. It was, she said, a habit of hers to “visit the prisons … that I may the better understand my own sex in every aspect.”*
Smith published a study (pdf; the same analysis was also printed in the New York Times) of our unhappy subject for the edification of the popular press. It’s quite an interesting read for a window on the social outlook in the post-Civil War North, doubly so when recalling as one reads that Smith is attempting to argue a case for clemency for her subject, and against the death penalty in general.
In the scale of human intelligence I find Bridget Durgin on the very lowest level. She has cunning and ability to conceal her real actions; and so have the fox, the panther, and many inferior animals, whose instincts are not more clearly defined than those of Bridget Durgin …
her hair combed close to her head … give the observer an opportunity to notice her strong animal organization. She is large in the base of the brain, and swells out over the ears, where destructiveness and secretiveness are located by phrenologists, while the whole region of intellect, ideality and moral sentiment is small …
Her texture, temperature, all are coarse; hair coarse and scanty, forehead naturally corrugated and low, nose concave and square at the nostrils, leaving a very long upper lip … her eyes wavering constantly. Thy open across, not below, the ball, and the pupil is uncommonly small; I should say she would be naturally dim-sighted. It is purely the eye of a reptile in shape and expression. The jaws are large and heavy, but the mouth is small … narrow gums, catlike in shape, with pointed teeth.
and the question naturally arises, what is the duty of a wise, humane and just legislator in her case … whether it is right to take an irresponsible, morally idiotic creature, and she a woman, whose sex has had no voice in making the laws under which she will suffer, and hang her by the neck till she is dead, is a question for our advanced civilization to consider.
Durgan, who bore all the public opprobrium of a Casey Anthony — plus points for being unattractive,** and for class-based moral panic, and for actually being convicted — had little chance to avoid her sentence, as Smith herself admitted.
When the time came, she met her fate steadily (in some quarters, this was also held against her insofar as it could support the “dumb animal” narrative) and yanked aloft on an upward-jerking gallows, ushered to the afterlife by a couple thousand people who crowded adjoining buildings for a view into the jailhouse yard. (A spectators’ platform collapsed.) This bit of technological wizardry was poorly engineered and, rather than efficiently snapping Durgan’s neck as was its intent, strangled the murderess to death instead.
“More abominable curiosity, more mawkish sentimentality, more religious affectation, has been expended on this bloodthirsty animal than we remember in the case of almost any other modern criminal,” complained The New York Times.
* Smith had another reason for familiarity with prisons: her son Appleton Oaksmith, late a filibuster in William Walker‘s party, did time during the Civil War for pro-Confederate gun-running and slave trading. His mother helped secure him a pardon.
** The New York Times (May 21, 1867) had simply called our hated Irishwoman “ordinary-looking.” We’ve seen with, for instance, Charlotte Corday that observers are wont to shape perceived feminine beauty according to perceived criminal monstrousness, and vice versa.
May 10, 1744 — The negro man “Jan,” of Johonnes Van Houten, was tried “for poysoning and attempting to do the same to several blacks at the township of Bergen; to wit, the negro man of Arent Toers, named Lowis, and has some time past poysoned two wenches of Garret Ross, of the same precinct, and attempted several more.” Convicted and sentenced to be hanged May 11, between 10 and 12, at Bergen; “at the suitablest place, where Peter Marselis and Michel Vreeland shall think proper.”
Was it the slave trade that capitalized the Van Houten cracker empire?
On Friday the 17th Instant at Morris Town in East New Jersey, was executed, David Reynolds, a Native of Ireland, about 32 years of age, for counterfeiting the money Bills of Credit of that Colony. He arrived there about ten Years ago, and chiefly followed the farming business, till getting acquainted with one Rosecrans (executed some time ago for the like Crime, but without declaring his Accomplices) he was by him led into the Scheme of making and passing counterfeit Money; after the Execution of Rosecrans, Reynolds accidentally met with Capt. Richardson (of Philadelphia, who is fled) and getting acquainted with each other’s Characters, was by him introduced to Ford, Haynes, Cooper, Budd, King, and the rest of the Gang. Ford the Principal, termed by the Rest, the Treasurer of the three Provinces, had counterfeited the Money Bills of New York, New-Jersey, and Pennsylvania, in so Masterly a manner as not to be distinguished from the true Bills without the nicest Inspection, and also several of the Gold and Silver Coins current in the British Colonies: and in passing these, Reynolds and the Rest of the Accomplices continued, till Ford and King were apprehended and imprisoned in Morris County Gaol, from whence they soon made their escape, as mentioned in the Papers.
Paper currency of colonial New Jersey.
One of the Gang being convicted of aiding them in their Escape and other high Misdemeanors, to mitigate the Punishment, made some Confessions tending to the Discovery of the Rest, which alarmed another, who made an ample confession of the whole, in Consequence of which Reynolds, Haynes, Cooper, and Budd, were tried, confessed their Guilt, and were condemned to be hanged. Their Execution was ordered to be on the 17th Instant; before that Time, Budd and Haynes were respited for a Month, but Reynolds and Cooper were ordered to prepare for Execution at the Time appointed. A few Minutes before the Time, Cooper confessed himself privy to the Robbery of the Treasury at Amboy, and that he received Three Hundred Pounds of the Money; on which he was also respited till he should make further Discoveries. Reynolds was therefore ordered for Execution alone, at which he seemed much affected and burst into Tears, but thro’ the Assistance of a Minister who attended him, he grew Calm, and resigned to his Fate. His Behaviour during his Confinement and after his Sentence, was penitent and submissive; he shewed a proper Sensibility of his unhappy Situation, and earnestly exhorted his Companions in Guilt, to a sincere Repentance. On the fatal Day, he took an affecting Leave of them; and they all discovered the most lively Expressions of that Distress to which their Crimes and Follies had reduced them, which drew Tears from the Eyes of the Spectators. At the Place of Execution, Reynolds sung and prayed very earnestly, and in a short but pathetic Speech, warned the People to avoid the Vices that had undone him, and earnestly requested them not to reflect on his innocent Wife and helpless Infants.
This was, de facto if not de jure, within the compass of those raids occurring after the war’s end, since at five months after Yorktown, the American Revolution was settled in all but name.
Huddy figured to be exchanged for Loyalist prisoners, but word came that a Monmouth County Tory named Philip White had been killed.
The last English royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin,* ordered Huddy’s execution in retaliation-slash-punishment without any form of court-martial. (It seems the Loyalist position was that Huddy had himself been involved in White’s death; the Patriots insisted that Huddy was already in British hands when White was killed.)
We the refugees, having with grief long beheld the cruel murders of our brethern, and finding nothing but such measures daily carrying into execution — we, therefore, determine not to suffer without taking vengeance for the numerous cruelties; and thus begin, and, I say, may those lose their liberty who do not follow on, and have made use of Captain Huddy as the first object to present to your view; and further determine to hang man for man while there is a refugee existing. Up goes Huddy for Philip White.
(Two other prisoners taken with Huddy were exchanged, and had the story to tell — including Huddy’s remark that he would “dye innocent and in a good cause.”)
This, of course, caused quite a hue and cry for vengeance on the Patriot side.
George Washington demanded Huddy’s executioner for a bit of tit-for-tat, but although the British repudiated the lawless hanging, they refused to give Washington his man. Richard Lippencott (or Lippincott) instead got a British trial in New York, skated on an only-following-orders defense, and subsequently retired to Canada to live to the ripe old age of 81.
The frustrated proto-Americans resorted to selecting a captured Yorktown officer by lot for a reprisal execution.
Since Asgill turned out to be a charismatic, youthful officer of unblemished honor, nobody felt good about the situation; even Huddy’s widow asked for Asgill’s life to be spared. (Though that might also be because Huddy stiffed her in the will he scribbled out moments before death, written on the head of the barrel they used to hang him.)
Eventually, pressure from the Revolution’s French patrons — the hostage had a Huguenot mother — helped Asgill avoid hanging.**
Returned to the British, Asgill went on to become a very prominent general.
Memorial for Joshua Huddy at Huddy Park in Highlands, N.J. Image (c) Sheena Chi and used with permission.
* Son of American patriotic luminary Benjamin Franklin. This is why you don’t talk politics with family.
** Upon his release from American custody, Asgill traveled to France to thank personally his royal saviors. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette could hardly have imagined that they would one day soon stand in Huddy’s shoes.
On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.
Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)
General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.
The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.
Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”
The mischief, however, extended.
The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.
Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.
Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.
A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.
That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.
The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)