On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.
More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.
Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.
In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.
In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.
And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.
Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.
This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.
Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:
Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106
But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.
The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.
White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:
Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.
As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.
Steele was 35 at the time of death and was noted for his “amiable character.” He had a warehouse in London and a lavender plantation in the country at Feltham, and business was going well.
On Friday, November 5, 1802, he set out from his London townhouse to Feltham. He didn’t say exactly when he was coming home, but it was his wife’s birthday on Sunday and the family assumed he’d be back by then.
He didn’t arrive home by Saturday, and everyone figured he’d stayed overnight at his plantation. But when he missed his wife’s birthday party the next day, they got worried. On Monday they sent a messenger to investigate.
Steele, it turned out, had arrived in Feltham, and by 7:00 Saturday evening he was ready to return to his London house. He wasn’t able to procure a carriage, however, and decided to walk across Hounslow Heath, then a notorious haunt of bandits and highwaymen. It was not the sort of place a man with money — Steele was carrying about 26 shillings on him — should be at night.
He had paid for his want of caution with his life.
Searchers subsequently found Steele’s bloodstained coat on the heath, in a gravel pit ten or fifteen yards off the road. His corpse was under a clump of trees in a ditch 200 yards from the road. It had not been buried, but turf had been laid over it to conceal it. He’d been beaten and strangled to death, and the leather strap used to choke him was still tied tightly around his throat. His boots and hat were missing, his pockets had been cut away from his clothes and all his money was missing.
The coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of willful murder against some person or persons unknown. Forensics in the early 1800s basically didn’t exist, and with no witnesses to the crime, it seemed very unlikely that Steele’s murder would ever be solved. As Linda Stratmann records in Middlesex Murders,
Letters were sent to justices in Rutland and Leicester, urging that the most strenuous efforts should be made to apprehend [suspects], but they were never found. Steele’s family placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward of £50 for information leading to the capture of the murderers. Several known criminals were arrested on suspicion, but after questioning they were released. Four years went by and all hope of finding the guilty persons was gone.
In 1806, 26-year-old thief Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. While awaiting transfer to a convict ship to take him to Australia, he mentioned Steele’s murder to some other prisoners and said three men were involved in the slaying.
Word got around to the authorities, and they took him to Portsmouth by coach for questioning. He implicated John Holloway and Owen Haggerty. It had been Holloway’s idea, he said; he’d somehow found out that a gentleman with money would be at Hounslow Heath on Saturday, November 6, and had recruited the other men to help him commit a robbery.
The three of them went to Hounslow Heath that Saturday, as according to plan, and waited for Steele. When Hanfield accosted their mark and demanded money, Steele was cooperative at first, handing over his cash. But when the robbers demanded his pocketbook as well, he claimed he didn’t have it and begged them not to hurt him. Holloway struck him with his stick, and as Steele began to struggle, Holloway said, “I will silence the bugger,” and beat him several times about his head and body.
They left him lying dead on the heath.
Hanfield ran away first, ahead of the others. He waited for nearly an hour at The Bell public house for them to catch up. After his accomplices arrived, they all went to an inn, the Black Horse. It was midnight and inn was closed for business, but its proprietor was still awake and the three men convinced him to serve them. They shared half a pint of gin there before parting ways.
Hanfield’s story had some evidence to support it. While he was being transported to Portsmouth for questioning, the coach passed the place where Steele had been killed and Hanfield pointed it out. After confession, he was taken back the heath and pointed out the clump of trees where Steele’s body had been located. This was enough to get Holloway and Haggerty arrested. Both men, when apprehended, said they were innocent.
By December 8, Haggerty and Holloway were brought together and Hanfield’s statement was read to them. The two men denied knowing each other, denied any knowledge of the murder, and denied having ever been on Hounslow Heath in their lives.
Hanfield’s story had another problem: he said Holloway knew well in advance that Steele would be on the heath that fatal Saturday. But, although Steele visited his Feltham plantation regularly, he didn’t have a fixed day of the week for doing it, and his own family wasn’t sure when he would be returning when he left London on Friday.
But in spite of the discrepancies, the flat denials from the alleged accomplices, and the lack of evidence supporting Hanfield’s statement, the authorities were sure they had the right men — tunnel vision that presents in many wrongful convictions. Hanfield was granted a free pardon for turning King’s Evidence against his co-defendants, and his previous sentence of transportation was commuted. At the trial, he was chief witness for the prosecution.
The defense argued that Hanfield was a liar and a professional criminal who had implicated innocent people for personal gain. But the defendants could not prove where they had been on a random autumn night five years earlier, and both had clearly lied about being strangers to each other.
Multiple witnesses testified that Haggerty and Holloway had known each other for many years. One of those witnesses was Officer Daniel Bishop, who worked at the jail. The two prisoners had been placed in separate cells side by side, and the partition between them was so thin that they could easily converse with each other. This had been a trick, and Bishop had been hiding in a nearby privy, writing down everything they said. From Haggerty and Holloway’s conversation it was obvious the men were good friends.
That much was true. But it was also true that when they thought they were alone together, neither of them implicated themselves in Steele’s slaying, and in fact they said Hanfield was a liar and that he, and not they, should be hanged.
As the Newgate Calendar said, “There was a great body of evidence adduced, none of which tended materially to incriminate the prisoners, except that of Hanfield, the accomplice, who, under the promise of pardon, had turned King’s evidence.”
The verdict, nevertheless, was guilty, after fifteen minutes’ deliberation. The sentence was death.
Holloway and Haggerty went to the scaffold invoking God and insisting they had not been involved in Steele’s murder. The execution was a memorable one; the Reaper got a bountiful harvest that day. Linda Stratmann describes the awful events in detail:
The crowds that assembled were unparalleled and estimated at about 40,000 people. By 8 a.m. there was not an inch of ground around the scaffold unoccupied. Even before the prisoners arrived the crush was so great that people trapped in the crowd were crying out to be allowed to escape …
At the corner of Green Arbour Lane, nearly opposite the Debtors’ Door, two piemen were selling their wares when one man’s basket was knocked over. He was bending down to pick up his wares when surging crowds tripped and fell over him. There was an immediate panic, in which people fought with each other to escape the crush. It was the weakest and the smallest in the crowd who suffered. Seven people died from suffocation alone, and others were trampled upon, their bodies mangled. A broker named John Etherington was there with twelve-year-old son. The boy was killed in the crush, and the man was at first thought to be dead and placed amongst the corpses, but he survived with serious injuries. A woman with an infant at her breast saved her baby by passing it to a man and begging him to save its life. Moments later she was knocked down and killed. The baby was thrown from person to person over the heads of the crowd and was eventually brought to safety …
Gradually the mobs dispersed and the bodies, thirty in all, were taken up in carts, twenty-seven to Bartholomew’s Hospital, two to St. Sepulchre’s Church and one to The Swan public house. Numerous others were injured, including fifteen men and two women who were so badly bruised that they were taken to the hospital, one of whom died the following day.
As it turned out, the landlord of The Bell didn’t remember any strangers coming to the pub on the night of the murder, and the landlord of the Black Horse didn’t remember three men coming at midnight and asking for gin. There were no details of the murder in Hanfield’s confession that he couldn’t have learned from common gossip. Furthermore, he had a history of making false confessions. A lawyer, James Harmer, actually compiled a pamphlet (Google Play | Google Books) of evidence that supported Haggerty and Holloway’s innocence.
But none of this exculpatory evidence surfaced until after the executions.
In yet another twist, in 1820, John Ward, alias Simon Winter, was indicted for John Cole Steele’s murder. Ward had a bad reputation in the area and was suspected of robbery and livestock theft. It was said he participated in the search for Steele, and one witness said he had seemed to be trying to lead the search party in the opposite direction from where the corpse was found.
The paper-thin murder case against Ward was dismissed for lack of evidence, and rightly so. But by indicting him in the first place, the authorities had as much as said Haggerty and Holloway had been wrongfully convicted.
“The fate of Holloway and Haggerty,” Stratmann notes in her book, “was often referred to in subsequent trials as an example of how little weight could be given to accomplices to a crime. The tragedy which had attended their execution also gave rise to considerable anxiety for many years.”
Hanfield disappeared without a trace after the murder trial; it’s unknown whether he continued his criminal ways.
February 12th. Hennsa of Geyselwind, alias the fat lad; Hennsa Pallauf of Hernda; Killian Wurmb of Virnspach, alias Backendt; Hans Schober of Weher, alias Pulfferla; and Hennssla Klopffer of Reigelsdorff; five thieves who, with the previously executed ‘Silly Mary’ and ‘Country Kate,’ had burgled and stolen (they had also formerly been whipped out and put in the stocks ten times). They had to be clothed, for they were naked and bare; some of them knew no prayers and had never been in a church; the eldest were 22, 17, 16 and 15 years old, the youngest 13 years. All five hanged here in Nuremberg.
Executioner Franz Schmidt records in his journal for this date in 1584 the hanging of two women — according to Schmidt, the first women hanged in Nuremberg.
February 11th. Maria Kurschnerin of Nuremberg, alias Silly Mary, who had formerly been whipped out of town with rods, and had her ears cropped; also Katherine Schwertzin of Weher, alias Country Kate, who had also formerly been whipped out of the town; both of them thieves and whores, who with thievish youths and fellows climbed and broke into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things; both hanged at Nuremberg. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in Nuremberg, and it had never yet happened.
Thought Schmidt doesn’t say it, both of these girls were very young — according to Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, both would be minors by today’s standards.
This helps account for the huge crowd that turned out to see them executed — many of them no doubt had also been in the huge crowd that had previously seen “Silly Mary” suffer a non-fatal corporal punishment the year before. The executioner Schmidt administered that punishment as well, and likewise noted it in his diary on January 10, 1583.
January 10th. Mary Kurssnerin, a young prostitute, who was a watchman’s [musketeer’s?] daughter, a girl who had thieved considerably and a handsome young creature with whom the young Dietherr had dealings; Elizabeth Gutlerin, a bath attendant; Katherine Aynerin, alias die Gescheydin, a blacksmith’s wife and a handsome creature; all three children of citizens, and prostitutes, were here pilloried and afterwards flogged out of the town. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this that several people were crushed to death under the Frauenthor. Subsequently Mary’s ears were cut off, and she was hanged.
A Rogue of a Soldier, who deserted from Johnny Gibson’s Regiment and turned Burglar. Executed 27th of January, 1697
GEORGE SEAGER, aged twenty-six years at the time of his death, was born at Portsmouth, in Hampshire, where, his father and mother dying, his sister took care of him for a while; but she, not being able to support herself, left it to the parish to keep him, the overseers whereof placed him out to spin packthread. After two years he left that employment and went to a silk-throwster for a year and a half, when, running away from his master, he took to bad courses, being addicted to gaming, swearing, drunkenness and theft; but a gang of the Ruby man-of-war pressing him, he went on board that ship to sea, where, robbing the seamen’s chests, he was often whipped at the capstan, put in the bilboes, and once keel-hauled. Keel-hauling a man is tying a rope round his middle, to which two other ropes are so fastened that, carrying him to the end of the main-yardarm on the starboard-side of the ship, he is flung from thence into the water and hauled under the ship by a man standing on the main-yardarm on the larboard-side, where a gun is fired over the criminal’s head as he is drawn up.
However, as no punishment would deter him from pilfering, the captain of the ship, rather than be plagued with him, put him ashore at Plymouth, from whence he begged his way to Portsmouth, where he enlisted himself into Johnny Gibson’s Regiment, to whom he was a continual plague. The first time he mounted the guard, being put sentry on the ramparts and ordered by the corporal not to let the grand rounds pass without challenging, he said he would take care of them, imagining that if he challenged them he must fight them too. So the grand rounds going about at twelve at night, with Johnny Gibson at the head of them, Seager, who had got a whole hatful of stones by him, because he chose to fight at a distance, cries out: “Who comes there?” Being told they were the grand rounds — “Oh, d —-n ye!” quoth George, “the grand rounds, are ye? Have at you then; for I have waited for you this hour and above.” So pelting them with stones as fast as he could fling, the grand rounds could not pass any farther till they called out to the captain of Lamport Guard, who sent the corporal to relieve him, in order to his being examined; but Johnny Gibson finding him to be a raw soldier, who had never been on duty before, he escaped any punishment inflicted on offenders by martial law.
After this George also ran the gauntlet several times for robbing the soldiers’ barracks of victuals, linen or anything else that he could find; but no punishment deterring him from his pilfering tricks, he was in a draft sent over to Flanders, where, going one day into a great church in Brussels, he espied a Capuchin friar confessing a young woman in a very private place; and as soon as the good old Father had given absolution to his penitentiary, he made up to him, under pretence of confessing his sins, for, as it happened, the friar was an Englishman. But, instead of confessing his manifold crimes, his intention was to commit more; for, pulling a pistol out of his pocket and clapping it to his breast, quoth he: “Reverend Father, I perceived the young gentlewoman, whom you just now confessed, gave you something; but, let it be more or less, unless you surrender it to me, who have most need of it, I will shoot you through the heart, although I were sure to be hanged this very moment for it.”
The friar, being much surprised at these dangerous words, and deeming life sweet, gave him what he had got from his female penitentiary, which was two louis d’or; then binding him hand and foot, in a corner adjacent to his confession box, he went away; and that same day, deserting his regiment, he made the best of his way to England, where he committed several most notorious burglaries in the cities of London and Westminster, and the outparts thereof. But at last being apprehended, and sent to Newgate, for breaking open the house of the Lord Cutts and taking from thence plate and fine linen valued at two hundred and forty pounds, he was hanged at Tyburn, on Wednesday, the 27th day of January, in the year 1697.
who is to be Executed at St. Stevens-Green on Saturday the 22d of this Inst January 1725
Since it is my hard Fortune to come to an untimely end, I will give the Publick an Account of my past Life, which you may take as followeth, Viz.
I was born in Dublin, in the Parish of St. Brides, of poor and honest Parents, who gave me Education suitable whereby I might have got honest Bread.
I was desirous to go to Service, and I had my wish, The first place I went to was to Mr. Paris’s in York Street, and after to Mr. John Wards, and several other Credible Services; At length I unfortunately Married to one Pepper, who was Cooke to an Honourable Gentleman; This Marriage was the beginning of my Misfortunes, and the chief Cause of my coming to this shameful, untimely end; As I am a dying Woman, I never knew Man before my Husband, but God forgive me I have known several since, and for the most part other Women’s Husbands, once I turn’d loose I embrac’d what came in my way, as Roberies, &c.
The first that I Rob’d was my Master a French Minister and made off with the Robery to Holly-Head in Wales, from thence I went to London; and remain’d there five Years, where my Husband follow’d me, and brought my Mother and Brothers and Sisters with him, where they all remain (except my Husband) to this Day, if alive, it is now about two Years and a half since I left them.
I by the time of my return to Dublin, came acquainted with Several Thieves and Robbers, and was concern’d in Several Roberies; and in particular this for which I dye.
I was Encourag’d by one Sarah Kenny a Running Broker, who promis’d that any Thing I brought to her, should never be brought to Light, after I had Committed this Robbery for which I justly Die. I was going Directly to the said Sarah Kenny’s Room in Patrick’s Close, and was met by one Patrick Hoy, Butcher a Notorious T_______se, just in the Close, who took by Force from me a Petticoat belonging to the Robbery, and said he would have it for his share, and so he took it to the said Sarah Kenny before me:
The said Petticoat is the Reason of my loosing of my Life, for all that was taken was Return’d except that Petticoat, and if they could have got that Petticoat, the Gentle woman that own’d it would not have prosecuted me.
Tho’ I have seen several persons suffer here for varieties of Facts, yet it did no way daunt me, nor made no impression in my obdurate Heart, till now. I heartily begg of my Great and Merciful God to Bless me and save my Soul, I hope this will be a warning to all ill People.
Having no more to say, I begg the Prayers of all good Christians. I Dye a Protestant of the Church of England in the 33d Year of my Age, and the Lord have mercy on my poor Soul, Amen.
I leave my blessing with good Mr. DERRY, for the great care he took of my Soul.
This is my true Speech, given by me to the Printer hereof, and all others are false, and Scandalous.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
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“molly” culture, has often been referenced in these pages, has a fascinating exploration of the Black Boy Alley gang here.
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.
Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.
Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”
It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”
The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**
* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).
** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”
Out on probation for an armed robbery conviction, this avatar of the classic middle name robbed a convenience store at gunpoint, then shot and killed a deputy who pursued him.
Georgia somehow didn’t have a state public defender system until 2003, a system presenting to the counties who were supposed to appoint indigent defense counsel on a local and ad hoc basis a fine opportunity for callous graft dovetailing the interests of the prosecutor’s office in winning its cases with court’s interest in pinching its pennies.
Accordingly, Baldwin County stuck Holsey with a man to test appellate courts’ standards for minimal representation, an alcoholic attorney named Andy Prince* who was rock-bottoming during the trial to the gobsmacking reported tune of a quart of vodka every night. Prince was disbarred shortly after Holsey’s conviction for robbing another client of $100,000.
According to a tragic Mother Jones profile, Prince, who was white, also happened to get in a dispute around this same time with a black neighbor and hurled some racist invective, which doesn’t seem ideal when your day job consists of trying to keep a black defendant off death row.
The late Prince — he died in 2011 — told an appeals court in 2006 that he “shouldn’t have been representing anyone,” but appeals courts, which must generally find that such “shoulds” clearly “would” have changed the trial outcome, have much less scope to act on the determination.
It’s a massive systemic cheat still in widespread use, albeit not always in such egregious fashion: use some underhanded means to get a death sentence on the books, then argue to every higher court that the deficiency can’t be proven certainly decisive vis-a-vis what might have happened in a fair fight. Do you know Holsey wouldn’t have received a death sentence? He did shoot a cop in the course of committing a violent felony, after all.
There are many general reasons why a robust defense might mitigate a sentence, but the specific reason of interest in Holsey’s case — a reason not litigated by Prince, an omission that likewise foreclosed appeals avenues — was that Holsey was severely mentally disabled.
With a testing IQ around 70, just at the border of the conventional definition for so-called “mental retardation,” Holsey had at the minimum a very strong card for the mitigation phase of the trial — if not an outright bar to execution.** Prince failed to play that card … and as of this date in 2014, American jurisprudence and the state of Georgia determined themselves content to leave it permanently face-down.
* The Guardian article cited in this post calls him Andy Price. As all other media citations I find call him Prince, I’m going with that — but as it’s likely that everyone is copying from the last story instead of doing original reportage, I’m not completely confident that it isn’t Price after all.
** Georgia was actually among the first states to bar the execution of mentally disabled prisoners — although paradoxically its early standard thereafter became one of the nation’s weakest as other states implemented their own over the years. The Supreme Court theoretically bars executing the mentally disabled, but as it has enforced no coherent standard the executing states themselves generally get to decide who qualifies.