Category Archives: Outlaws

1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

1581: Peter Niers

The execution of legendary German bandit and mass-murderer Peter Niers took place in Neumarkt on this date in 1581 … or at least, it started on this date.

A veritable bogeyman figure thanks to the reputation-magnifying effects of early print culture, Niers/Niersch (English Wikipedia entry | the cursory German) enjoyed a years-long career in brigandage across the fractured German map, with upwards of 500 murders to his name.*

No matter the plausibility discount we we might reckon for this sensational figure, it is verifiable that Niers was was an early modern public enemy for years before his death. He enters the documentary trail in 1577 when the first of several known crime pamphlets** about him hit movable type upon Niers’s arrest in the Black Forest town of Gersbach. Under torture, he copped at that time to 75 murders … and then he broke out of captivity and into the nightmares of every German traveler wending gloomy highways through the unguarded wilds.

Actually “rather old,” according to an arrest warrant, with crooked figures and a prominent scar on his chin, the fugitive Niers gained an outsized reputations for disguise and ferocity. As Joy Wiltenburg describes in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany, that Niers of fable became like Keyser Soze “assimilate[d to] various supernatural elements” that elevated the crafty gangster into a shapeshifter or magician powered by a demonic patron.

The roving killer Peter Niers and his gang appeared in a number of accounts, several without demonic content. Johann Wick followed Niers’s career with horror; his collection includes three pamphlets on his misdeeds between 1577 and 1582. Niers was arrested and tortured in Gersbach in 1577, confessing to seventy-five murders. According to a song pamphlet from 1577, he learned the art of invisibility from an earlier arch-murderer, Martin Stier. (Wick also owned an account of Stier’s misdeeds and added a note in the margin of the Niers pamphlet, cross-referencing Stier’s 1572 execution in Wurttemberg.) Both Stier and Niers confessed to killing pregnant women. Each had also ripped a male fetus from the mother’s body, cut off its hands, and eaten its heart. Niers evidently escaped in 1577, to be rearrested in 1581 and this time finally executed. According to the pamphlet account, he was caught only because he was separated from the sack containing his magical materials and so could not turn invisible. Here the capture is considered an act of God, but the Devil gets no explicit credit for Niers’s evil magic or his 544 murders, including those of 24 pregnant women. Only the final pamphlet, printed in Strasbourg in 1583, fully explains the diabolical reason for the mutilation of fetuses. Here, the Devil makes an explicit pact with the killers and promises them supernatural powers from the fetal black magic.

He must have been a few fetuses late by the end, for it was his disguise that failed him when he slipped into Neumarkt in August 1581 intending to freshen up at the baths. Instead, he was recognized and arrested.

His body — already put to the tortures of pincers and oil — was shattered and laid on the breaking-wheel on September 16, 1581, but it was two agonizing days before this terror of the roads finally breathed his last.

* 500 murders sounds like plenty to you, me, and Ted Bundy, but it wouldn’t have even made him the most homicidal German outlaw executed in 1581.

** A 1582 print reporting Niers’s execution is available online here.