Posts filed under 'Children'

1744: The Black Boy Alley Gang hanged at Tyburn

Add comment December 24th, 2016 Headsman

Old Blighty celebrated Christmas Eve of 1744 by weighing the Tyburn’s triple tree with no fewer than 18 thieves — 16 men, one woman, and one 14-year-old boy. Half of them were fellows in a “pestiferous Crew,” as the Newgate Ordinary colorfully describes it, the Black-Boy-Alley Gang.

Such a profligate Sett of audacious Bloodthirsty, desperate, and harden’d Villains, have of late started up to infest this great City, as make it quite unsafe to walk even in the most public Streets … Whether we consider the Number of the Malefactors, the Nature of their Crimes, the Age of some of the Offenders, (one particularly, which was a perfect Child) or the Apprehensions into which the Inhabitants of this great City were for some Time thrown, by their Excessive Boldness in committing their Robberies, all wears the Face of Horror and Confusion.

As one might suppose, these rascals based in the environs of Black Boy Alley, a no-longer-extant passageway onto the Thames in Holborn. Rictor Norton, whose work on crime in 18th century England and especially the proto-gay “molly” culture, has often been referenced in these pages, has a fascinating exploration of the Black Boy Alley gang here.

As usual one can read the entire tract at at the Old Bailey Onine; we’ve also embedded it below in pdf form.

While the Ordinary — a man named James Guthrie — expands considerably on the activities of this lot, he is outraged enough to begin his narrative instead with a group of soldiers reprieved from enlarging the Christmas Day caravan to Tyburn — “a Sett of Malefactors, who not content with the Crime of Robbery, have thought add thereto the most heinous Offence of Sodomy, which brought down Fire from Heaven; and, as if this had not been enough, they made that very monstrous Crime a Handle and Snare to draw Gentlemen in, who were inclined to that unnatural Sin.” (That is, they robbed by seducing their targets with the promise of a homosexual assignation.)

Guthrie is unabashedly furious that these guys have all managed to skate, and revenges himself by appending them to his narrative even if they cannot be depended from the gallows — so consumes the best part of ten pages reciting all that he knows or has heard about them, that “though they have hitherto escaped corporal Punishment, at least, in this World, we will do out Endeavour they shall not go wholly Scot-free, but expose both them and their vile Practices to the Public.” Considering that the nub of their operation was robbery, often violent, which of its own would cost the lives of many others on this date and throughout the era of the Bloody Code, no emerging enlightenment on human sexuality need be sought to explain their reprieve. Rather,

Of this abominable Sett, the better Sort, (if indeed any better can be of such a Crew) have found the way to escape both Shame and Chasment, very probably, by commuting with their Purses for the safety of their Persons; and as for the latter, who were all Soldiers, they escaped what was due to their Deserts, by being concerned with their Superiors; so true this our righteous Age, that Wickedness in high Places is sure to go unpunished.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Organized Crime,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1651: Arnold Johan Messenius and his son

2 comments December 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Sweden’s Queen Christina revenged a libel on the head of Arnold Johan Messenius and his 17-year-old son.

The educated and determinedly unmarried Christina ranks among history’s most remarkable monarchs; her disinterest in marriage, her masculine dress, and her intimate friendship with Countess Ebba Spare have led her to be speculatively identified as lesbian, hermaphroditic, or otherwise subversive of gender — as in the recent film The Girl King.

However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.

One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until

he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.

Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.

The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.

But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,

Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.

Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.

Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.

For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Sweden,Treason

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1981: El Mozote Massacre

Add comment December 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1981, the El Salvador military perpetrated the El Mozote massacre.

It was conducted by the U.S.-trained and -armed death squad, the Atlacatl Battalion, which on December 10 of that year entered the northern village of El Mozote in search of FMLN* guerrillas.

There weren’t any there — just townsfolk whose numbers were swollen by peasant refugees from the brutal civil war. After ransacking the town and interrogating and robbing the residents, the Atlacatl Battalion sent everyone home and bivouaced down for the night in the town square.

Dawn’s light the next morning would bring the unspeakable horror.

The battalion forced the entire population to the town square, divided men from women, and set about murdering men with gunshot, machetes, and worse — and raping and murdering the women — and then slaughtering all the children, too.

More than 800 civilians died. The next month, a Washington Post journalist described “dozens of decomposing bodies still seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields, despite the month that has passed since the incident … countless bits of bones — skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column — poked out of the rubble.”

A few survivors did manage to reach neighboring villages and the story of what had occurred at El Mozote worked its way out to the wider world over the days and weeks to come. It made little matter to the government in San Salvador where bloodbath was policy, openly espoused by the likes of the man who was about to be elected president of the Constituent Assembly.

In Washington, where the checks were written, destroying Latin American peasant guerrilla movements was a Cold War lodestar and so Orwellian denial of this atrocity soon became the virtual law of the land. After heroically risking his life venturing into the conflict zone to collect evidence, the New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner was tarred and feathered by America’s foreign policy apparatchiks and eventually driven off the Times foreign policy beat while the U.S. continued pumping money to the murderers. The Atlacatl Battalion in particular would author several more notorious atrocities in the course of the 1980s dirty war.

A U.N.-backed Truth Commission convened after the conflict finally ended in 1992, investigated the affair and agreed that

There is full proof that on December 11, 1981, in the village of El Mozote, units of the Atlacatl Battalion deliberately and systematically killed a group of more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population that they had found there the previous day and had since been holding prisoner… there is [also] sufficient evidence that in the days preceding and following the El Mozote massacre, troops participating in “Operation Rescue” massacred the non-combatant civilian population in La Joya canton, in the villages of La Rancheria, Jocote Amatillo y Los Toriles, and in Cerro Pando canton.

The El Salvador government officially apologized in 2011. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for the slaughter.

Memorial to the massacre. (cc) image by Amber.

* The Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, named for a famous executed Salvadoran peasant rebel.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,El Salvador,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Put to the Sword,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1440: The Black Dinner

Add comment November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Scotland,Summary Executions

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1887: Joseph Morley

1 comment November 21st, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1887, a teenager named Joseph Morley was hanged for the brutal murder of his 24-year-old landlady, Martha Bodger. He had been only seventeen at the time of the crime.

Morley, a journeyman blacksmith, lived with a married couple, Martha Bodger and James Mears Bodger, along the Romford Road in Essex. James worked as a gardener at nearby ominous Hainault Lodge.

The Overlook Hotel-esque lodge is no longer extant and its former site has been turned into a nature preserve.

Joseph had been living with them since early in 1887 and had caused no trouble in the household.

James last saw his wife alive on October 11, 1887. He rose at 4:00 a.m. and, at 5:40 a.m., took a cup of tea to his wife. He set off for work at 5:45, reminding Joseph to make sure and shut the front door on his way out.

Just a few minutes later, the neighbors heard screams coming from from the direction of Martha’s bedroom.

The noise was cut off abruptly, and did not resume. One of the witnesses, next-door neighbor Thomas Briant, tried the Bodgers’ front door, but it was locked and no one answered. Briant’s niece, who was present, said she heard the sound of a man’s heavy footsteps coming from the kitchen. Briant also worked at Hainault Lodge and, uncomfortable with the situation, he decided to go there and tell James what had happened, just to be on the safe side.

While Briant was hurrying to the lodge, his niece stayed inside and heard someone leaving through the Bodgers’ front door. She looked out and saw Joseph Morley walking away from the house at an unhurried pace, evidently en route to his job at a blacksmith’s shop 200 yards away.

When Thomas Briant told James Bodger about the noises, the worried husband and father rushed home to see what had happened. The sight that greeted him in the bedroom was something from a horror movie. As Linda Rhodes and Kathryn Abnett describe in their book, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barking, Dagenham and Chadwell Heath:

Martha was lying on her back across the center of the bed. Her nightdress was pulled up towards her waist, leaving her lower body exposed. Her legs hung over the side of the bed facing the door, the feet not quite touching the ground. There was blood everywhere — across her throat, on the floor, and across the walls. The blanket, counterpane and sheet lay on the floor, and were also saturated with blood.

Next to Martha’s body lay the couple’s six-month-old baby, Amy Elizabeth. Little Amy was covered in blood but unharmed, and giggled when she saw her father. The murder weapon, James Bodger’s razor, was under the bed. The killer had wielded it with such force that the blade had snapped off the handle.

Martha was beyond help; she was already dead by the time her husband found her. The doctor counted four long, deep cuts across her throat as well as a gash on her face and defensive wounds on her left hand. She had also suffered a blow to the side of the head. There was no evidence of sexual assault, in spite of the position of her clothes. Her purse was by the bed with no money missing.

James had no doubt who must have killed his wife, and went storming off to Joseph Morley’s place of work. Morley flatly denied having had anything to do with the matter, but his boss noticed some small spots of blood on his coat.

Closer scrutiny revealed additional stains on his coat and pants, as well as on his shirt, which had been turned inside out. Morley claimed the blood was from a cut he’d gotten when he fell off his bicycle the night before, and produced deep cuts on both hands that he said were from yesterday’s accident. But the same doctor who had examined Martha’s body had a look at Joseph’s hands and said the cuts were very recent, an hour or two old at the most.

He was placed under arrest for murder. Morley, with a “dreamy unconcerned manner,” followed the police constable to the station.

At his trial in early November, Morley’s attorney argued the case against him was only circumstantial. Forensics of the 1880s could not have identified the source of the bloodstains on his clothes, or even proven they were human. Nevertheless, he was convicted, and shortly afterwards he confessed his guilt.

Deploying the timeless “blame the media” gambit, Morley claimed he had had lately been obsessed with reading about murders and other crimes in the news, particularly a case in Suffolk where a vicar had been murdered with a razor in his own bed. He said he had yielded to an irresistible impulse to kill Martha and he deeply regretted his actions. He denied any sexual motive for the crime.

He was hanged by executioner James Berry, who told reporters that Morley was the youngest person he’d had to hang so far in his career. After a good night’s sleep, Morley enjoyed a breakfast of fish, bread and butter before mounting the scaffold. He died quickly and easily, and a reporter who viewed his corpse afterwards said it looked as if he had passed away peacefully in bed.

James Bodger remarried two and a half years after his first wife’s murder, and his second marriage produced a son. Unfortunately, Bodger’s life would be a short one: he died of influenza in 1894, aged only 33.

Amy Elizabeth was brought up by her aunt and uncle. She stayed in the local area, married in 1912 and lived a long life, dying at age 90.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices

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1926: The Lowman lynchings

2 comments October 8th, 2016 Headsman

Aiken, South Carolina disgraced October 8, 1926 with the lynching of three members of the Lowman family.

American lynch law come 1926 was into its decline phase; the 30 lynchings in that year across the country have never been equalled in the nine decades since, but were also 50% below the rates at the beginning of the 1920s, and very far from the peak 1890s where triple-digit counts of mob murder were the perennial norm.

One might say that both the phenomenon and its pracitioners had matured. If exhortations to better refer justice to the law were the authorities’ running strategy for quelling lynch mobs, then the mobs themselves became complicit with the barristers — and could reserve recourse to extrajudicial means for occasions when the courts failed to work Judge Lynch’s will. Leo Frank’s case a decade prior to this is an excellent example: though there was a virtual lynch atmosphere at his trial, it was only after the man’s death sentence had been commuted by the governor that a lynch gang systematically extracted the man from prison to slay him.

Something like this pattern appears to distinguish the Lowman lynchings.

This dreadful case began with an exercise in that other grand tradition of racialized justice, the drug war — Prohibition-style. On April 25, 1925, the Lowmans’ tenant farm near Monetta was raided by police on a bootlegging tip.* The Lowmans resisted and a firefight broke out, leaving two dead: Annie Lowman, and Sheriff Henry Hampton “Bud” Howard.

Annie’s killing would of course never be punished. But inside of three weeks, fourteen-year-old Clarence Lowman was death-sentenced as Sheriff Howard’s killer, along with his cousin and “conspirator” 21-year-old Demmon Lowman. Bertha Lowman, Demmon’s older sister, received a life sentence.

And so Judge Lynch might rest easy.

Except that one year later, the South Carolina Supreme Court surprisingly threw out the Lowmans’ sentences as prejudicially obtained. The second trial began in October and right away the state suffered a setback when Judge Samuel Lanham threw out the murder case against Demmon Lowman.

Judge Lynch was wide awake now.

That very night — October 7 — white vigilantes organized a new verdict. According to the NAACP’s investigation, “within one hour of [Lanham’s] decision, news had been sent to as distant a point as Columbia that the three Lowmans were to be lynched that night.”

At 3 o’clock in the morning of October 8, and aided by the local constabulary, the mob stormed the jail and dragged Clarence, Demmon and Bertha Lowman away to a pine thicket outside of town where they were gunned down.

“On the way Clarence Lowman jumped from the car in which he was held,” the NAACP investigator would later report in the summation of his interviews.

He was shot down and recaptured, in order to prevent telltale blood marks, a rope was tied to the back of the car and the other end of it around Clarence’s body. In this manner he was dragged about a mile to the place of execution. The members of the mob sated that Bertha was the hardest one to kill. She was shot but not killed instantly. She dragged herself over the ground and as one member of the mob put it, ‘bleated like a goat.’ Another member of the mob, slightly more decent, said that she begged so piteously for her life and squirmed about so that a number of shots had to be fired before one found a vital spot and ended her agony.

Although the NAACP supplied South Carolina’s governor with the identities of 22 alleged members of the lynch mobs (including the sheriff himself) and 11 other witnesses to its actions, no man was ever sanctioned for this event, and an all-white grand jury declined to forward any indictments.

A distant Lowman relative was quoted in the Augusta Chronicle recollecting the stories his grandmother told about that horrible night, and the impression those stories had in his own life.

“She [grandma] talked about it all the time,” William Cue said. “Took them out of jail — drug them out like dead mules. When I drive past, I think about it — it happened in that house. … I learned something from that. … There was a lot of times where a man mistreated me and it kept me from doing anything.”

* It’s been argued by latter-day researchers that the tip itself was bogus, and supplied to police further to a personal vendetta — which, if true, would make the Lowmans victims of the 1920s version of SWATting.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lynching,Murder,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,South Carolina,USA

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,France,History,Shot,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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2015: Aftab Bahadur Masih, “I just received my Black Warrant”

Add comment June 10th, 2016 Headsman

A year ago today, Pakistan amid its ravenous 2015 execution binge hanged Aftab Bahadur Masih in Lahore for a 1992 murder.

Two faces of Aftab Bahadur Masih, separated by two decades on death row.

According to the anti-death penalty organization Reprieve, Masih was only 15 years old when he committed the crime. According to Masih himself, he never committed it at all — but instead was tortured into confession by the police.

Don’t take my word for it. Masih wrote a moving first-person essay for the Guardian that was published hours before his hanging.

I just received my Black Warrant. It says I will be hanged by the neck until dead on Wednesday, 10 June. I am innocent, but I do not know whether that will make any difference.

Read the rest here. Masih was also a self-taught painter; one of his products can be seen in this Wall Street Journal story.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pakistan,Ripped from the Headlines,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1803: Cato, slave of Elijah Mount

Add comment April 22nd, 2016 Headsman

The following confessional and its exhausting run-on sentence arrive courtesy of a pamphlet published at the time and reprinted in Free Blacks, Slaves, and Slaveowners in Civil and Criminal Courts: The Pamphlet Literature.

The Life and Confession of Cato, a Slave of Elijah Mount, or Charlestown in the county of Montgomery, who was executed at Johnstown on the 22d day of April 1803, for the murder of Mary Akins.

Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.


In offering to the public the following narrative I feel no other interest than the good of mankind, nor have I any other object in view than to caution the careless and unwary against pursuing that vicious course which has been the means of plunging me at this early period of life into that dreadful dilemma in which I am now involved.

Altho nature had doomed me to a state of obscurity and degradation, I might have remained happy in this unenviable situation, had not the vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier stages of my youth driven me into excesses which have proved my ruin. Pursued by the hand of justice, I have thus early been arrested in my vicious career: drawn from the deep & solitary recesses of obscurity and debasement, to the bar of justice, I am condemned to recieve [sic] the punishment which my guilt has so justly merited, as a warning and example to those I leave behind. It may be somewhat interesting to those I am about to leave to be informed of the causes which have produced those (to me) dreadful effects.

The following pages contain a brief history of my short and wicked life, and such reflections as have been produced in my mind by a retrospective view of my conduct; they are submitted to the public as the last words of a dying sinner.

I am this day seventeen years and five weeks old. I was born of African parents; slaves to Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex county State of New-Jersey, in whose family I lived until about four years ago, previous to which my parents purchased their freedom, and left my master’s family.

My master was a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile scource [sic] of human depravity. Among other things he almost totally neglected his family concerns, the consequence was that I and my brothers and sisters were left to govern ourselves, and form such habits and principles as our inclinations led us to pursue.

We were not only neglected as to our morals and habits, but were badly provided for with the necessaries of life, our table was but illy supplyed [sic], our cloathing [sic] would scarcely cover our nakedness, much less protect us against the inclemency of the seasons. Thus were we permitted to spend our time in idleness and want, which produced in us an inclination, and afforded us liesure [sic] and opportunities to practise almost all kinds of evil.

I was thus in a manner abandoned by my master and only guardian, in a hopeless state of slavery, with no prospect before me to stimulate my ambition, or direct the youthful ardor that glowed in my breast to the pursuit of any laudable object, I sunk even below the degraded station which nature had assigned me.

I formed connection with such as were willing to associate with me, those were of course a motly tribe of the most abandoned of the human race, among whom it was my chief ambition to become famous, and it may readily be conjectured what was the measure of fame in a society where wickedness was the standard of merit, and lewdness and profanity esteemed the higest [sic] accomplishments of its members.

Hence I became extremely wicked, and subject to almost every vice my tender years were susceptable [sic] of, such as cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabath-breaking [sic; he will repeat this word several times more with the same spelling], with a number of other lewd practice, all which I indulged without restraint, and all my vicious habits increased with my age. My master occasionally chastised me, but this was generally so indiscreetly done, that, instead of a reformation it produced the contrary effect, and I became obstinate and headstrong.

In this situation I lived until I was about thirteen years of age, during which time tho’ I indulged in almost all kinds of wickedness which my tender age was capable of, I do not recollect of having committed any thing legally criminal, except, that I once stole a shilling out of a bakers drawer, with which I bought some cake and shared it with my companions, but being detected, I confessed the fact, and was severely chastised for it.

At length my master dying, his estate fell into the hands of his heirs, who found it so involved that they were under the necessity of selling the personal property. Among the rest I was sold to Mr. Elijah Mount, who then lived in New-Jersey, but afterwards moved to Charlestown, Montgomery county, state of New-York.

I now found my situation entirely changed, my new master was quite the reverse from my old one, he was moral, sober, industrious and frugal, paid great attention to the comfortable support and instruction of his family, nor did he neglect to extend his benevolence to me. He soon laid me under such restraints as in a great measure reformed my external deportment. He totally prohibited my profaneness and instructed me in the principles of christianity, [sic] but, alas! the inbred vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier part of my life, had made such a deep impression on my mind that, altho I found myself under the necessity of complying with his regulations in my conduct, they were far from producing a radical reformation in my principles. On the contrary, I found, that, tho I was constrained to abandon the vicious habits of cursing, profane swearing and sabath=breaking at least publicy, the corrupt principles I had imbibed daily acquired strength as I grew up and became capable of carrying them into effect.

I became lewd to that degree that my lasciviousness overleaped all bounds of discretion, and I indulged it in the most wanton and abominable excesses, so that not even the brutal part of the creation escaped the rage of my unruly passions, the innocent lamb and the loathsome swine indiscriminately became its victims.

I also extended my lewd desires, to those whom nature had placed above me, I however found the gratification of those desires so obstructed by my debased situation, that I could not flatter myself with a hope of indulging them as a favour. I was therefore impelled by their impetuosity to endeavour to obtain by violence what I could not effect by solicitation, I was rash and inconsiderate, destitute of fortitude and circumspection by which I was soon led into the error that now terminates my existence.

The first attempt I made to gratify these lewd desires, was on the body of a young woman in the town of Charlestown whose name for her sake I chuse to with-hold from the public. The circumstances of this nefarious attempt were as follows. It was on a sabath day. I together with some young men of the neighbourhood, who I likewise do not chuse to expose at this time, by publishing their names to the world, were together in an orchard, when this young woman came in. She had by some means or other become obnoxious to them, and soon after she appeared they proposed to me to make an attempt on her chastity, they offering me a small pecuniary compensation, and promised to withdraw to afford me an opportunity, which they accordingly did, while I made the attempt, but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.

This transaction was not disclosed, it is probable the young woman who was the subject of it, from motives of modestly declined complaining, or pursuing measures to bring me to justice; and those who were concerned with me and who ought rather to have protected her agianst any violence offered by me, than to have encouraged me in such an abominable attempt,) could have no motive in divulging a crime in which they themselves were so deeply implicated, and by these means I evaded the punishment which I so justly deserved.

Having thus escaped with impunity, I felt encouraged to pursue my wicked inclinations, my obscurity however prevented my having many opportunities of indulging my passions.

At length however, my attention was attracted by that unfortunate victim of my inordinate passion, who fell a sacrifice to my wantoness, [sic] and ferocity, for which I am now to suffer the just punishment of the law.

Her name was Mary Akins, daughter of Mr. Samuel Akins, of Charlestown, in the county of Montgomery. She was a girl of about twelve years of age, her father lived on a part of my master’s farm, she came to my master’s house on the morning of Sunday the thirteenth day of February last, for the purpose of attending public worship, having heard that a minister was to preach there that day, but being disappointed in her object, and the weather stormy, she remained there til the sun about half an hour high in the afternoon, her father lived about half a mile from my master’s, the road leading across the fields, I had formed a design of making an attempt on her chastity and watched an opportunity to follow her undiscovered, which soon offered, and I as readily embraced, I soon overtook her in an obscure place, where we could not be discovered from either house, with a determination of carrying my nefarious purpose into effect, I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying “who wants to keep your company you black devil” I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding “you black son of a bitch” to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity but not effecting it I permitted her to rise, as soon as she found herself disengaged she attempted to escape towards my master’s, threatening to have me brought to justice, upon which my guilt beginning to operate on my mind, and dreading the consequences of a discovery, I determined to prevent it by committing a crime still more heinous, and in an instant determined to deprive her of the power of exposing me, by depriving her of her life I had no sooner come to this resolution than I siezed [sic] a small stone which lay in my way, and I could conveniently hold in one hand, by this time she had advanced about ten or twelve yards from the place where I had made the first attempt upon her towards my master’s, I again assaulted and threw her down, struck her with the stone I held in my hand, on the crown of her head with such force as stunned her and blood issued from her mouth and [obscure], in this situation I again attempted to carry my first design into effect, but was again baffled by her incompetency, I then disengaged from her, blood on my feet and threw the same stone with which I had before struck her on the head, this I repeated twice, and then left her in the agonies of death, and expiring, finding some blood on my hands, I washed them and retired towards home, my conscience had however by this time awakened, and the horrors of my guilt began to agitate my mind, but I endeavoured to sooth my waring [sic] conscience with reflections that I had not been discovered, and that the only one privy to this horrid scene had been deprived of the power of discovering it by the very act that now filled my mind with remorse, under those reflections I had [obscure] some distance, when I began to apprehend, that she might perhaps recover, and have strength enough to reach home, or at least to communicate the transaction and discover its agent, to some one who might pass that way, I therefore returned to the place where I had been engaged in this sanguinary scene, and where its subject lay breathing her last (for she yet breathed.) to remove the apprehensions I had entertained of her revival, I placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovering, I retired a second time.

I now returned home, it being about sunset, and no one having noticed my absence, I went about my work as usual, and in about fifteen minutes her brother came in search of her, I heard him making enquiry for her, and passing by him into the house I familiarly asked him what he would think if he should find her dead? to which he replied that he would be much frightened, little thinking that those words carelessly spoken were to be the means of betraying me, they however made a deeper impression on the mind of the young man than I expected; & in searching for the author of this melancholy event, afforded a clue to discover its author, and fixed the suspicion on me.

Soon after the departure of the young man his mother came to my master’s, and informed him that she feared some misfortune had befallen her daughter as her bonnet had been found and she was missing; this excited great consternation, and my master and others went with her in search of her daughter; whom they soon found & carried home. The next morning Mr. Akins came to my master’s and charged me with the crime, informing my master of the grounds of his suspicion: I denied it, but by threats and promises was prevailed upon to confess it at last.

I was immediately bound and carried before Benjamin Van Veghten Esq. for examination, where I made the like confession; as I also did before the Coroner’s inquest. I was then committed to jail for my trial which I had on the 24th of March last, a conviction was a matter of course, my sentence was pathetically delivered by the presiding judge, during which awful scene I remained insensible.

I have since been benevolently attended by the reverend clergy of different denominations, who merit my warmest acknowledgments for their solicitude for my future happiness, I cannot however flatter myself with a hope of mercy; my approaching dissolution exites dreadful sensations in my mind, which I am unable to suppress; my sentence is just but [obscure] reconcile myself to my fate.

The foregoing narrative contains a faithful history of the chief incidents and material transactions of my life, as far as I recollect them; I have no motives to conceal anything; whatever else has been laid to my charge I deny.

Hence let masters learn the necessity of paying due attention to the instruction of their servants, had I not been neglected in my youth, I might have escaped this tragical end.

Let servants learn obedience and resignation, for had I paid due respect to the admonitions of my late master, and contented myself in my late situation, I might yet have been happy; let them also learn to shun the company of that worthless class of citizens, who being despised by their own society seek that of slaves, these are sure guides to destruction, such were those who offered me a reward to commit a rape.

Hence also let parents who profess christianity, (as the parents of these young men did) learn the danger of letting their children stroll about in idleness in such company, especially on sabbath days; and let profaners of that day remark that my worst crimes have been the effects of that sin.

In short let every description of sinners learn the danger of deferring repentance to the cross, if they have one favourable instance, they have a cloud of melancholy examples. I feel the necessity of a Saviour, but my heart is a rock at the door of the sepulcher which I am not able to remove, and I stand on the brink of eternity under the gloomy apprehensions of everlasting misery and despair.

Johnston Jail, April 22d 1803.

Although it sounds as if Cato (or the confessor who obviously composed his testimonial) was pessimistic about the prospects for his everlasting soul, we have firmer information on the unedifying disposition of the youth’s mortal flesh: a Dr. John Ball of Franklinton, Ohio (a settlement today absorbed into the city of Columbus) secured it and kept it in his closet “in order to keep his personal effects secure from the prying eyes of servants. The skeleton was so suspended that should the closet door be opened by one not acquainted with the secret, Cato’s jaws would gnash together and his head would wag in a manner calculated to strike terror into inquisitive female hearts.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Slaves,USA

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1785: Alexander Stewart, the first to hang at the Tolbooth

Add comment April 20th, 2016 Headsman

We’ve recently featured in these pages the very last hanging at Edinburgh’s old Grassmarket, scene of innumerable executions potent in Scottish history.

Beginning in 1785, public hangings were relocated to the Tolbooth, a medieval civic building that had been converted into a notorious prison — an era that was officially christened on this date in 1785 with the sacrifice of a juvenile delinquent.

the first person executed at the west end of the old city gaol, was Alexander Stewart, a youth of only fifteen, who had committed many depredations, and at last had been convicted of breaking into the house of Captain Hugh Dalrymple, of Fordell in the Potterrow, and Neidpath Castle, the seat of the Duke of Queensberry, from which he carried off many articles of value. It was expressly mentioned by the judge in his sentence that he was to be hanged in the Grassmarket, “or any other place the magistrates might appoint,” thus indicating that a change was in contemplation; and accordingly, the west end of the old Tolbooth was fitted up for his execution, which took place on the 20th of April, 1785.

Demolished in 1817, the Tolbooth survives today as a much-spat-upon heart design in the cobblestones marking the gaol’s former location.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Public Executions,Scotland,Theft

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