The 1810s were rough years for England’s working population, and distinguished by violent class conflict whose suppression was among the Crown’s chief cares.
The particular locus of conflict here is the most pressing and ancient in civilization: the price of bread.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon had embargoed continental Europe’s trade with Britain. With the Corsican’s end, the Tory government had in 1815 enacted Corn Laws protecting English grain markets from a sudden onset of competition.
This sop to the Tories’ landowner supporters propped up the already inflated price of bread and triggered social unrest throughout Great Britain.
Preoccupied as she was by the specter of Jacobinism, London could hardly imagine that even geology was conspiring against her: the gigantic 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia caused a global volcanic winter that made 1816 a year without a summer in the northern hemisphere — crippling agriculture across Europe.
But the bottom line was that war-inflated grain prices having fallen precipitously in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat turned right around and spiked back up once British farmers were protected from import competition. Wages, it need hardly be said, did not enjoy a similar spike; to the contrary, they were suppressed by the legions of demobilized soldiers who returned from Waterloo in glory to discover a ruinous cost of living with scant prospect for employment. Dr. Marjorie Bloy contends that Britons “suffered more, economically, socially, and politically” during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars than during their prosecution.
Landholders as a class had gained more than anyone else from the preceding generation of warfare and its attendant embargo, and not neglected to aggressively enclose more and more acreage on which to raise their ever more lucrative produce. Their transparent cupidity in gouging from the hard-won peace chagrined their countrymen. In “Age of Bronze” (1823), Lord Byron skewered the sententious patriotism of “The landed interest — (you may understand / The phrase much better leaving out the land)”:
See these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Farmers of war, dictators of the farm;
Their ploughshare was the sword in hireling hands,
Their fields manured by gore of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine tillers sent
Their brethren out to battle — why? for rent!
Year after year they voted cent per cent,
Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions — why? for rent!
They roar’d, they dined, they drank, they swore they meant
To die for England — why then live? — for rent!
The peace has made one general malcontent
Of these high-market patriots; war was rent!
Their love of country, millions all mis-spent,
How reconcile? by reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the treasures lent?
No: down with every thing, and up with rent!
Their good, ill, health, wealth, joy, or discontent,
Being, end, aim, religion — rent, rent, rent!
On May 22, 1816, some residents of the Cambridgeshire village of Littleport collected at a local pub to commiserate with one another about this common grievance.
Fortified by their tankards, the crowd spilled out into the streets and began abusing their most prosperous neighbors — in some cases merely menacing them; in others, invading and looting homes, extorting money, and gorging on wine.
A Rev. John Vachell fled the unfolding riot to the nearby (and larger) town of Ely where he alerted authorities. By daybreak, the Ely rioters, now swollen to a mob of hundreds and armed with pitchforks and guns, had arrived at Ely too. There local grandees engaged them in a dilatory negotiation with liberal wage concessions to mellow the mood — while the dragoons, cavalry, and militia that had been called for at Rev. Vachell’s first alarm were being summoned from Bury St. Edmunds.
They did not arrive until late the afternoon of the 23rd, and were not able to press their confrontation with the unrulies until the following day.
A small-scale but frightening urban skirmish took place on May 24 with rioters firing at the gendarmes from houses and the soldiers returning same, until the crowd was pinned down at last in the George and Dragon and from there its members either surrendered or scattered to flight.
Out of an estimated 300 or so rioters, about 80 went to trial, and 24 received capital sentences — all of this taking place within a month after events. The court understood in imposing its sentences that the punitive bloodbath would be a bit more constrained: 19 sentences were commuted, many of them joining comrades who had been directly sentenced to convict transportation.
William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley, and Thomas South were the five left to pay for the day’s excesses; their black-shrouded gallows-cart had to be rented from Cambridge lest a local provisioner incur the wrath of the populace.
Hauled to the suitably evil-sounding “Parnell Pits”, they were swung off after making penitential remarks submitting to the justice of their doom. As an example, Dennis (who also managed to attribute his end to those old gallows saws, “Sabbath-breaking, whoremongery, and bad company”) begged the crowd come to watch him die to “refrain from breaking the laws of your country! Remember the words o the Judge, that tried us for the crimes for which we are now going to suffer, who said, ‘The law of the land will always be too strong for its assailants, and those who defy the law, will, in the end, be subdued by the law, and be compelled to submit to its justice or its mercy.'” (Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette, July 6, 1816)
But the address, and the strangulation that its author was put to directly thereafter, served their purpose. Cambridgeshire’s fens became quiescent — though it was very far from deterring the rest of the English working class.
Memorial to the executed rioters at St. Mary’s church, Ely. ((cc) image from John McCullough)
On January 23, 1751 Lhasa … witnessed another horrible example of Chinese justice. Lobsang Trashi and six other leaders of the rebellion were executed by cutting them into pieces. Other people were beheaded or strangled. The heads of the executed were mounted on spikes. The other leaders were exiled and stripped of their property.
The royal chamberlain, Lobsang Trashi (German Wikipedia entry | Dutch) managed to escape the scene and found himself at the head of a furious rabble that sacked the Qing embassy, looted a treasury, and killed dozens of Chinese soldiers — and dozens more Chinese civilians.
But the popular furor burned itself out within days, most Tibetan elites sagely declining to get involved in the pogrom pending the likely — and soon, actual — overwhelming Qing response. These guys got the fire-eaters arrested (they’d be handed over to the arriving Chinese army) and installed the Dalai Lama as the new secular as well as religious authority.
On this date in 1854, two Sami men were beheaded for Norway’s Kautokeino Rebellion.
The indigenous Sami people — often known as Lapps, although this nomenclature is not preferred by the Sami themselves — had by this point become territorially assimilated to the states of the Scandinavian peninsula across which their ancestral homeland had once spanned.
The material benefits of this association for the Sami were much less apparent.
In Norway — our focus for this post — Sami shared little of the economic growth in the 19th century save for a startling proliferation of alcoholism.
In the 1840s a charismatic Sami preacher named Lars Levi Laestadius founded a Lutheran revival movement that went over like reindeer among his people. Religious enthusiasm and social critique went hand in hand: Laestadius’s hard anti-alcohol line and criticism of the comfortable state clergy touched deeply felt grievances, and Laestadius could deliver these messages in Sami dialects. Villages devastated by drink would go dry in response to his exhortations with pleasing results for the social fabric, further stoking adherents’ piety.
The most militant expression of this movement soon detached itself from any restraint Lars Levi Laestadius might hope to exercise upon it. Eventually it would move towards disruptive actions like interrupting services of the official clergy and protesting licensed alcohol merchants.
In a rising in November 1852, firebrand Laestadians attacked the trading post of Carl Johan Ruth, the liquor merchant in the Finnmark village of Kautokeino. Both Ruth and the local sheriff, responding to the disturbance, were slain in the ensuing fray and several other buildings in town torched. A counterattack managed to quell the disturbance — killing two rebels in turn — and eventually 17 men and 11 women were condemned to sentences ranging from short prison terms to lifelong prison terms to (our concern, of course) execution.
After decapitation, the men’s bodies were buried at Alta’s Kafjorddalen Church, but their severed heads went off to the Royal Fredrik’s University (today the University of Oslo) for scientists to probe. The heads eventually went missing until a search turned them up at a cranium collection in Copenhagen in 1997, which returned them at the behest of the descendants for burial back with the trunks from which they parted ways 160 years ago today.
As of this writing, the full movie is also available on YouTube provided you can understand Norwegian, or read Spanish subtitles.
* Laestadianism still exists today. According to Wikipedia, “Because of doctrinal opinion differences and personality conflicts, the movement split into 19 branches, of which about 15 are active today.” Said Wikipedia entry enumerates all 19 groups, ranging from the Conservative Laestadians (approximately 115,000 adherents) all the way down to the Sten group (15 adherents) and the Kontio group (5 adherents).
Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilizer and for use in gunpowder and explosives.
In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.
Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.
But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.
The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.
Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.
“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.
They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.
Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.
Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.
Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*
However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.
Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.
* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.
On this date in 1865, Baptist deacon Paul Bogle was hanged at the Morant Bay courthouse for his part in that locale’s eponymous rebellion.
Third World’s “1865 (96 degrees in the shade)” celebrates Paul Bogle: “Today I stand here a victim the truth is I’ll never die”
Bogle helped lead of the protests-cum-riots that became that rebellion.
Baptists played an essential role in the affair, which has led some to call it the “Native Baptist War”. And indeed, Baptism had long intertwined with underclass resistance: Jamaica’s most famous slave rebel, Samuel Sharpe, was also a Baptist deacon. A previous royal governor in Jamaica had once warned that “the worst evil which hangs with a menacing aspect over the destinies of this island is the influence exercised with baneful effect by the majority of Baptist missionaries.”
From the standpoint of the powerful in Jamaica and Britain, 1865 would vindicate that warning.
Underhill’s letter got into public circulation and as a result there were a number of “Underhill meetings” perhaps comprising an “Underhill movement” on the island in 1865 — essentially a going social campaign that rooted deeply in Jamaica’s native Baptist communities. Though “native Baptists” is a vague term, it distinguishes not only black from white but, in the words of Mary Turner, a whole “proliferation of sects in which the slaves developed religious forms, more or less Christian in content that reflected their needs more closely than the orthodox churches, black or white.”
William Gordon had switched his religious allegiance to native Baptist and was known to speak at Underhill meetings: that’s part of what got him hanged.
Likewise, our day’s focus, Paul Bogle, was a native Baptist minister, in the St. Thomas-in-the-East parish — and it was the protest of Bogle and his supporters against an unjust prosecution that started the whole rebellion off.
Statue of a militant Paul Bogle (that’s a sword in his hands) outside the Morant Bay courthouse where all the trouble started. (cc) image from dubdem sound systems.
There was, accordingly, an immediate reward out on Bogle’s head, and an immediate demonization in the respectable English press. There, he was “the notorious Paul Bogle,” in the words of one letter to the editor (London Times, Nov. 18 1865), in whose Baptist chapel rebellious “panthers” wantonly “drank rum mixed with gunpowder and the brains of their victims.”
By the time that letter had been dispatched, Bogle’s purported orgies had long since been interrupted: captured by Maroons, he was delivered to custody, instantly tried, an hanged that very day in a batch of 18 rebels.
A horror to Victorian planters, Bogle has won the reverence of posterity as a freedom fighter and national hero.
Paul Bogle on the (now out-of-circulation) Jamaican two-dollar bill.
“No incident of the dreadful story” of Morant Bay, wrote Edward Underhill, “produced a more painful impression than the arrest, trial, and execution of Mr. G.W. Gordon” this date in 1865.
The son of a white planter and a mulatto slave, George William Gordon was an able businessman and became a Jamaican assemblyman.
In that capacity, he was a vocal critic of British colonial maladministration, an advocate for blacks, and a political foe of Jamaica’s governor, Edward John Eyre. He’d already had government commissions canceled because of his politics.
Gordon had nothing to do with the Morant Bay outbreak. He was away from the disturbance altogether, in Kingston, when it broke out.
But he was regarded by many white elites as a class enemy, and Eyre did not intend to miss this opportunity to eliminate him. A few years later, a French tribunal would express the rationale as it cracked down on the Paris Commune: guilty or no, “a prudent and wise Government must rid itself [of troublemakers] when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so.”
Accordingly, Gordon was arrested by civil authorities in Kingston — he actually turned himself in when he heard there was a warrant out on him — and then transferred into the hands of the drumhead military tribunals that were operating in the conflict zone, obviously with the intent of terminating a gadfly.
[Kingston authorities] were not the ministers or apparitors of the martial authority, and did not possess the power to take up Mr. Gordon for the purpose of handing him over to the martial law. Nevertheless, they did it. They did it by the exercise of the strong hand of power, because it was thought that a conviction could not be got at Kingston. It was altogether unlawful and unjustifiable. To Mr. Gordon it made the difference of life or death.
Gordon, in his last letter to his wife, took it all in an understandably contemptuous stride:
General Nelson has just been kind enough to inform me that the court-martial on Saturday last has ordered me to be hung, and that the sentence is to be expected in a hour hence, so that I shall be gone from this world of sin and sorrow.
I regret that my worldly affairs are so derranged: but it cannot be helped … I never advised or took part in any insurrection. All I ever did was to recommend the people who complained to seek redress in a legitimate way … It is however the will of my heavenly Father that I should thus suffer in obeying His command, to relieve the poor and needy, and to protect, as far as I was able, the oppressed …
do not be ashamed of the death your poor husband will have suffered. The judges seemed against me; and from the rigid manner of the Court, I could not get in all the explanations I intended. … It seemed that I was to be sacrificed.
Much of what Governor Eyre did in those desperate days skirted, at best, the edges of what might be legally colorable. But at least those instances, in the main, were directed at people alleged to have been actual rebels or rioters. Eyre could safely expect wide latitude where the security of the realm was at stake.
In Gordon, however, there was a man whose crime was nothing other than to have sympathized with the real and crushing plight of the lower orders and advanced their cause politically. Eyre’s magistrates made that fact alone into sedition, and twisted the rules of their own courts-martial to pin it on Gordon.
Given the exceptionally lawless nature of this scenario — and Gordon’s own visibility as a colonial elite — his became the lightning-rod case for English liberals incensed at Eyre’s behavior. John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and others demanded Eyre’s prosecution for the affair, Thomas Huxley writing for the faction,
the killing of Mr. Gordon can only be defended on the ground that he was a bad and troublesome man; in short, that although he might not be guilty, it served him right.
I entertain so deeply-rooted an objection to this method of killing people — the act itself appears to me to be so frightful a precedent, that I desire to see it stigmatised by the highest authority as a crime.
It can hardly surprise the reader, versed as we are by this late date in official impunity, that not Eyre nor any lieutenant was ever thus stigmatised.
The line between a snap military tribunal with a preordained outcome, a summary execution in the field, and simple murder blurs over in this affair where the word of any armed man in a British uniform had virtual color of law.
This account of one poor sod flogged within an inch of his life and then summarily shot when his captor soldiers took it into his heads that he might have had something to do with some fire comes from
On [October] the 22nd four white soldiers were taken by Mr. Christopher Codrington to his house at Rose Garden, where they had dinner. When they returned in the evening to David Mayne’s shop, at Long Bay, two constables were there with two prisoners, James Sparkes and Johnson Speed.
They tied the former to a tree, and gave him 100 lashes.
They then tied up Johnson Speed, and gave him eighty-five lashes, when the cat broke.
One of the soldiers ran into the shop and brought a horsewhip, but another one interfered as it was not a thing to beat a man with. Another looker-on was here asked whether Johnson Speed had done anything during the disturbance, and he replied that when Mr. Hinchelwood’s house was burning Speed was there. Then the soldier said, “Where is my rifle?”
The man cried out, “Lord, I don’t do nothing, and I am going to dead.”
The soldier fired, but his rifle had no ball in it, or he had missed. He loaded the gun afresh, and hit the man in the middle of the back as he was tied to the tree. Another one went up, as he dropped writhing to the ground, and put a rifle to his ear and blew out his brains. These were soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of H. M. 6th Regiment of Foot. Mr. Christopher Codrington, a Justice of the Peace, was present.
The above is one of the very last accounts in a tome heavy with atrocities destined never to be punished in this world.
It seems apt both for the subject matter of this site and for laying bare the biases of the source to include the very last few paragraphs that follow.
David Burke was shot at Manchioneal. The soldiers ordered him to go before and point out rebels. “He was a big stout young man,” said a witness, ” and he walked quite lumber-like, and they said he was a rebel too, and shot him dead”.
Andrew Clarke was shot in his own house, at Manchioneal, under the following circumstances, as described by his widow :—
I was sitting with the baby, and I saw a black soldier, and he asked Andrew Clark, “Where are all the men’s goods you have ? Please bring them out.” Clarke said, “I have been sick three months, and I did not interfere.” The soldiers searched and found nothing. Then I was sitting down, and three soldiers came in, and a man named Saunders came in with them, and I explained that it was John Murray’s house, and the soldier dropped him, and he dropped on his side and bawled for mercy. The soldier told me, “Take yourself right out,” and I came out, and another soldier said, “Put another bullet into that fellow’s head,” and they blew out his brains. They burnt the house with fire from the kitchen.
These are samples of the scenes enacted in the beautiful island of Jamaica under pretence of repressing disturbances. My task has not been undertaken in vain if it tends to deepen the resolve of my countrymen to resist at all hazards, the preposterous pretensions of Colonial Governors and military officers, to deal with human life and property as they please, without responsibility to the laws which bind society together, or to the nation which places the sword in their hands for the purposes of justice and mercy.
William Grant, charged with being one of the ringleaders and originators of this rebellion.
The Provost sworn states :—
About four or five days ago I was informed that this man was the originator and founder of the party who raised the rebellion, that he was not likely to be seen himself, but makes the others. He keeps a saddler’s shop, where the secret meetings took place. On the road from St. Thomas-in-the-East to the Guinness (Ginnep) tree, where placards had been posted, calling secret meetings, I searched the house of Chisholm, also a confederate, and in the presence of Mr. Jones, E.A., I took a blue card, as an admission ticket to a Society of Friends, printed William Grant, Founder. That card I sent to the Governor.
The prisoner Duncan Stuart, in his defence, when called upon by Captain Astwood, voluntarily made this statement. He had previously made it in the presence of Mr. Miller, J.P., whose signatures I here produce. “Grant called Bogle at Dr Alveranga’s, and said, ‘Don’t pull this down, wait a little, don’t join with the Volunteers, when you see what they do, run in.’ Grant said, ‘Now is the time to vindicate.’ ”
Mr. Miller, Justice of Peace, for St. Thomas-in-the-East, sworn:—
That statement was voluntarily given and sworn to before me.
Geo. F. Judah, Sergeant-Major of Volunteers:—
I gave the prisoner my rifle to repair on the morning of the riot, and he has kept it, and I have never seen it since.
The prisoner in his defence merely states that he never knew anything about the riot before it actually broke out. He has acknowledged to having corresponded with Mr. Gordon, but that, he states, was quite private, about some land.
This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the background and push the ignorant on to rebel.
Found Guilty, October 20th, 1865. Sentence, Death.
H. Brand, President,
Approved and confirmed,
A. A. Nelson,
Brig. Genl. Commanding Field Force.
[The proceedings of the Courts-martial were retained by the Commissioners, and they refused to exhibit them to the Counsel for the parties complaining of the measures of suppression. General Nelson and others were therefore not cross-examined in reference to these trials.]
The first witness, Ramsay, the Provost-Marshal, told the Court only of what he had been informed — the great crime of the prisoner apparently being that he was the founder of a Society of Friends, and had actually a blue card of membership in his house.
The witness, Duncan Stewart, was not called. He had already been tried and was under sentence of death, and was duly hanged the same evening along with Grant. (See List). A so-called statement of this man was produced in writing. It will be noticed he spoke only of “Grant” having used certain words. Three Grants were hung at Morant Bay, and a William Grant was convicted by a Special Commission at Kingston, while the Royal Commissioners were sitting, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. It is clear from the evidence then given that the William Grant alluded to by Duncan Stewart was the one who was then sentenced. John Dickenson, on being examined by the living William Grant at that trial said:— “There was a William Grant, a saddler, who is hung. You are left. You are the man.” (No. 355 of Papers laid before the Royal Commissioners by Mr. Eyre).
Ramsay had evidently a strong interest in the conviction of this prisoner. He sent the following letter to Captain Luke, on 16th October, 1865:— “I also personally apprehended William Grant, the founder of the Society of Friends. I hope I may not be thought seeking for pecuniary benefit alone in claiming the rewards for information against G. W. Gordon at large, seizure of Chisholm, Grant, and Miles.”
Brand, the President of the Court-Martial, seems to have felt the evidence was weak, and he supplemented it by the following statement of his own. “This man was evidently a ringleader, a persuader, and adviser, and did his utmost to keep in the back ground and push the ignorant on to rebel.” The Judge having thus convinced himself, by his own conclusive testimony, adds “Found guilty. Sentence, death,” and, as a matter of course, the experienced officer of Her Majesty’s Service, who was the revising officer, adds:—”Approved and confirmed. A. A. Nelson, Brig.-Genl., Commanding Field Force, Morant Bay, 20th October, 1865.”
It is unnecessary to add that in the list of the executed is to be found the name “William Grant, under date of the 20th October. Charge, ringleader of rebellion!”
To the memory of the unfortunate
BOSAVERN PEN LEZ
Who finished a Life, generall well reported of,
By a violent and ignominious Death.
He was the Son of a Clergyman,
To whom he was indebted for an Education, which he so wisely improv’d
As to merit the Love and Esteem of all that knew him.
But actuated by Principles, in themselves truly laudable
(When rightly directed, and properly restrain’d)
He was hurried by a Zeal for his countrymen,
And an honest Detestation of Public Stews
(The most certain Bane of Youth, and the Disgrace of Government)
To engage in an Undertaking, which the most Partial cannot defend,
And yet the least Candid must excuse.
For thus indeliberately mixing with Rioters, whom he accidentally met with,
He was condemn’d to die:
And of 400 Persons concerned in the same Attempt, he only suffer’d,
Tho’ neither Principal, nor Contriver.
How well he deserved Life, appears
From his generous Contempt of it, in forbidding a Rescue of himself;
And what Returns he would have made to Royal Clemency,
Had it been extended to him, may fairly be presumed
From his noble Endeavours to prevent the least Affront to that Power,
Which, tho greatly importun’d, refused to save him.
What was denied to his Person, was paid to his Ashes,
By the Inhabitants of St. Clement Danes,
Who order’d him to be interr’d among their Brethren,
Defray’d the Charges of his Funeral,
And thought no Mark of Pity or Respect too much
For this Unhappy Youth,
Whose Death was occasioned by no other Fault
But a too warm Indignation for their Sufferings.
By his sad Example, Reader be admonish’d
Of the many ill Consequences that attend an intemperate Zeal.
Learn hence to respect the Laws — even the most oppressive;
And think thyself happy under that Government
‘That doth truly and indifferently administer Justice,
‘To the Punishment of Wickedness and Vice,
‘And to the Maintenance of God’s True Religion and Virtue.’
On this date in 1749, Bosavern Penlez — surely one of the all-time great names to hang on a gibbet — was put to death to the sorrow of all of England. You know how they say that horse thieves are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses might not be stolen? Bosavern Penlez was hanged that whorehouses might not be torn down by mobs of angry sailors.
(Fourteen other less remarkable folk were hanged for less remarkable crimes at the same time. Just another mass execution day at Tyburn.)
A petition of over 300 St. Clement Danes residents for sparing the two men condemned in the riots. (From the General Advertiser, Oct. 11, 1749.) John Wilson received the solicited pardon; Bosavern Penlez did not.
On the first three days of July in 1749, the Strand in London saw a running series of riots after a mob of angry sailors descended on a whorehouse where some of their brethren had been robbed and abused. Those sailors pulled down that bordello and then moved on to the nearby bawdy-houses, eventually also ransacking the Star Tavern owned by a character named Peter Wood.
Gendarmes had to be called out to control the situation (and this done without proper legal authorization), but somehow not the mob’s ringleaders nor its inciters nor its most enthusiastic wreckers wound up in legal jeopardy.
Only two faced death: John Wilson, a journeyman shoemaker. And Bosavern Penlez, a young wig-maker who’d been out drinking in the neighborhood. And both of these seemed to have just been caught up accidentally or opportunistically in events.
They were comprehensively damned by the testimony of Peter Wood, the aggrieved procurer of Star Tavern, and his wife — disreputable people of whom a neighbor remarked, “I would not hang a dog or a cat upon their evidence.” But then, besides the eyewitness testimony, Bosavern Penlez was also apprehended with a bundle of linens he had evidently liberated from the Wood’s devastated cathouse, linens whose source he unconvincingly claimed not to remember. So the picture one has is that Wilson was perhaps little more than a passerby … but Penlez was a distinct, if minor, participant who could more or less be shown to have got himself tanked and treated the mayhem like it was a gift certificate to Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Not exactly saintly but also not a cardinal sin. Public sentiment for these fellows’ clemency was intense, starting right with the jury that convicted them but also recommended mercy.
His hanging this date in 1749 would bleed into an election held later that same autumn, almost dealing a serious setback to the sitting Pelham government. Those events are detailed in Malvin Zirker’s introduction to this out-of-print volume.
And the resultant fusillade of pamphlets and public protests asserting a maximalist take on Penlez’s purity induced novelist Henry Fielding to enter the fray with a manifesto of his own strongly supporting the young man’s execution.
Readers of Fielding’s fiction might start at the rigid Toryism of his editorial line.
Penlez’s defenders couldn’t really argue that he was completely innocent. Still, they contested the justice of the death penalty for such a character whose involvement in the whole thing was so tertiary and happenstance, not to mention influenced by drink. Doubly so that it was attested by the word of such a villain as Peter Wood. In the words of one pro-Penlez polemic, Wood would “run at every one, like a mad Dog, … indifferent who it was he hang’d by his Oath.”
Fanny Hill author John Cleland entered the fray on the side of the accused; his The Case of the Unfortunate Bosavern Penlez is aghast at “shedding the Blood of this young Man for the Example-sake … such a Severity being too much for the Nature of the Guilt actually chargeable on him, [and] will serve rather to confound and destroy all Ideas of Right and Wrong.”
Penlez was convicted not as a thief — which charge would have given the jury leave to find that the value of his linens amounted to less than the threshold necessary to hang him — but under the Riot Act which directly mandated death for “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace.” Wood’s eyewitness testimony to the effect that Penlez (and Wilson, too) smashed up windows and furniture in his house and threatened him was essential to establishing a part in the tumultuous assembly.*
As this level of guilt was popularly doubted, our friend Henry Fielding — himself the very magistrate** who had engineered the suppression of the disturbance, having returned on the third day of it from a weekend away from London — took up his pen post-hanging to support the government’s handling of Penlez from arrest all the way to the scaffold. His A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez produces the witness accounts sworn before him as magistrate during the riots themselves, and reproves those Penlez supporters whose anger at his execution made the “malefactor” into “an object of sedition, when he is transformed into a hero, and the most merciful prince who ever sat on any throne is arraigned of blameable severity, if not of downright cruelty, for suffering justice to take place.”
If, after perusing the evidence which I have here produced, there should remain any private compassion in the breast of the reader, far be it from me to endeavour to remove it. I hope I have said enough to prove that this was such a riot as called for some example, and that the man [Penlez] who was made that example deserved his fate. Which, if he did, I think it will follow, that more hath been said and done in his favour than ought to have been; and that the clamour of severity against the government hath been in the highest degree unjustifiable.
* The Ordinary of Newgate reported that Penlez, who long remained cagey on the point, admitted in the end entering the bawdy-house during the riot, but disavowed any attack upon its owner. Wilson, for what it’s worth, always denied having entered the house and insisted Wood had misidentified him.
On this date in 1768, a year of tremendous labor agitation in London, seven coal-heavers were hanged near the Shadwell dock.
With food prices surging,* the city’s hard-pressed urban proletariat was at peak militancy — which also lent violent energy the cause of hunted radical politician John Wilkes, who had returned from exile this year to stand for Parliament. Two principal loci of labor insurgency in 1768 were the Spitalfields weavers, whose struggle we have already observed, and the “coal heavers” — the men who did the grueling labor of offloading coal from Thames barges.
Coal-heaving was ill-paid and dangerous, and it was notoriously sensitive to fraud: workers (largely Irish: they’d been imported to hold down wages) being paid by the “sack” or the “vat” fought supervisors at riverside over just how fully loaded with coal such a sack or vat should be. Workers had their own recourse to “indirect Practises,” pilfering a few coals on the side to supplement pay up to within hailing distance of subsistence. The boss would call “theft” this grey-area practice harkening to labor traditions ancient and still-current. The rope would help him define it so.
Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial social history The London Hanged dramatically treats the fraught and violent months of the spring of 1768, when Irish workingmen were “bringing river traffic to a stand-still … [and] stopped the imperialist artery.”
Dockside taverns doubled as fraternal entities and regiments in the unfolding dock war. One John Green, keeper of a pub on New-Gravel Lane (not as scenic as the nearby Cutthroat Lane)
organized scab labour from [his] Roundabout Tavern. It was attacked in April with gunfire. A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement, a coal-heaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred’. The taverns were besieged, their furnishings destroyed. Gunfire was frequent. Green was acquitted of murder. Those testifying for him were mobbed and one witness had her jaw broken. The coal-heavers were as violent in word as in deed. ‘They would have Green’s Heart and Liver and Do for him'; ‘they would have him joint from joint'; ‘they would have his heart and liver, and cut him in pieces and hang him on his sign'; ‘they would hang him over his sign Post & cut him into Beef Stakes’.
Our seven — by name John Grainger, Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Patrick Lynch, Thomas Murray, Peter Flaharty, and Nicholas McCabe — were indicted on grounds that they “with force and arms, with certain guns loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did shoot off at John Green.” Not quite cut into Beef Stakes, but it’ll get the job done.
Though the trials of Green, and then of Green’s assailants, were weeks apart, they concerned the very same disturbance on the night of April 20-21, when Green’s residence had been besieged by angry coal-heavers and Green with others had shot out the windows and killed at least two … but managed to hold his foes at bay during what must have been a harrowing night. Green wasn’t hurt, and gave evidence at the “shooting off” trial.
The London Irish had by 1768 an unparalleled knowledge of arms and armed struggle. They contributed to an insurrectionary impulse within the London working class. At the same time, as a consequence, the Irish had close knowledge of violent death. The intimacy of that knowledge was expressed in vivid euphemisms designed to reduce the terror of hanging. Seven coal-heavers received the ‘cramp jaw’ at the Old Bailey only after a new interpretation was placed upon the Waltham Black Act. The seven danced ‘a new jig without music’ on 26 July 1768. This particular ‘crack neck assembly’ was located in Sun Tavern fields, Shadwell … The move from Tyburn was designed to terrify the poor and working people of the river parishes. The ‘breath stopper’ was witnessed by 50,000 spectators, perhaps the largest crowd at such a scene since the hanging of the Earl of Ferrers eight years earlier. The Government anticipated disorders, if not rescue attempts, when these seven were to dance ‘tuxt de ert and de skies’. From 6 a.m. more than 600 soldiers patrolled the streets of Wapping and Shadwell. The Sheriff ordered all the constables of the Tower and Holborn divisions to assemble at the hanging site and to come armed with their staves. Thomas Turlis, the hangman, had stolen coal from a neighbour’s cellar five years earlier. But, that his work might not be interrupted, the Sheriff quickly obtained a pardon for him. He did his duty upon the coal-heavers, sent ‘a-spinning like a whirligig’. Once they had ‘peacably’ exited the world, many of the spectators may have gone for a drink as was customary:
Wid a facer we coddled our blood
For de wind id blows cold from de gibbett.
… The hanging at Sun Tavern Fields … taught a hard lesson about collective bargaining: attempts to counteract the rise in the price of provisions by improving wage rates would not be allowed. … the insurrectionary vanguard of the river proletariat was broken.
Or, as a more sanguine observer put it, after the hangings “the tumults immediately ceased, and peace and industry was happily restored.” And they all lived happily ever after.
* Bread prices doubled in 1768, leading to work stoppages, hoarding, and food riots throughout the city. Representative slogan shouted by desperate rioters: “We might as well be hanged as starve.” (George Rude, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. II, no. 1 (1959))