(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
I then went to Boston, and got in company with one John Sullivan … we went to Winter’s-Hill, and there robbed one Mr. Baldwin, for which crime Sullivan and myself are to suffer Death, as being the just reward of our demerits.
— Richard Barrick, convicted of highway robbery and murder, hanging, Massacusetts. Executed November 18, 1784
Richard Barrick was born in Ireland in February 1763 and brought up in the Foundling Hospital. He was an apprentice to a silk-weaver and lived with him for three years. But during those years, he was treated poorly and so he eventually left the silk-weaver and joined a gang of thieves. When he was caught, the authorities agreed to pardon him if he entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships. After arriving in New York, Barrick and some others robbed many people and became a notorious and wanted man. He was an accomplice to murder of a man they first robbed. He was eventually caught by a British Colonel and convicted.
On this day in 1800,* a seventeen-year-old mail sorter named Thomas Chalfont was hanged at Newgate for theft.
Chalfont “feloniously did secrete a letter, or packet, directed to Messrs. Bedwells, St. John’s-street.” Said letter, or packet, had contained three £10 notes; it arrived to Messrs. Bedwells late and containing only two such notes. The accompanying letter had also been altered to correspond to the diminished enclosure.
The recipient complained to the post office, and Chalfont was found out.
He was the second post office employee to be executed for the same offense; almost a year earlier, John Williams had faced the hangman for taking money — it was even the same amount, £10 — out of a letter in his charge.
According to Susan Whyman, the royal mail was a frequent locus of property crime throughout the 18th century: “armed robbery, overcharging for postage, forging franks, wilful destruction of letters, and embezzlement of enclosed bills or money.” Chalfont’s variant here seems downright banal, but it was commonplace enough that one correspondent Whyman cites in 1787 defeated sticky-fingered mail sorters by tearing a £10 Bank of England note in half and mailing the two halves to his wife separately.
We greatly lament to find young men gratuitously placed in trust in the Post-office, frequently abusing the confidence reposed in them, disgracing their friends, who necessarily must have used much interest in obtaining such places for them, and then bringing themselves to an ignominious fate.
Four others died alongside Chalfont: Thomas Douglas, a horse-thief; John Price and John Robinson, burglars; and William Hatton, who took a shot at a watchman.
In the Derby Mercury edition (Nov. 13, 1800) reporting the quintuple execution, the very next news item underscored the post’s continuing security problems:
A singular attempt to intercept the passage of the letters into the Post Office, at Durham, was fortunately discovered on Sunday evening last, before any mischief had been effected by the stratagem. A piece of sheet iron, so modelled as to fit the entrance of the box, had been introduced, so as that it could be withdrawn with any letter that might be put into it.
* The Newgate Calendar supplies the date of November 11; this appears to be erroneous, as the period’s reporting confirms a Wednesday, Nov. 12 execution.
One century ago today, California hanged two men at San Quentin: Earl Loomis, who murdered a Sacramento candy store proprietress in the course of a robbery, and Louis Bundy, who slew a Los Angeles messenger boy to steal a few dollars he could use to splurge on his girl.
Loomis, a hardened criminal, attracted the lesser notice; it was Bundy, who was an 18-year-old high schooler when he became a murderer, who drew a torrent of futile clemency appeals because of his youth and naivete. His crime dated to December of 1914, when he rang up the pharmacist and place a bogus order, along with a request to bring change for a $20 coin. The idea was to steal the change and buy his sweetheart a Christmas gift.
When the lackey turned up, it turned out to be a chum of Bundy’s, 15-year-old Harold Ziesche: Bundy bludgeoned him with a rock and an ax handle (sans ax) “because he knew me and would have squealed on me.”
As the San Jose Evening News reported in its hanging-day submission,* those appellants included former lieutenant governor A.J. Wallace among other political figures, numerous name-brand ministers (and even the strange Mormon boy-prophet Archie Inger), plus hundreds of Los Angeles schoolchildren.
All were bound for disappointment.
The Golden State was not averse per se to grants of mercy; a week prior to this date’s hanging, California’s pardons board spared three other condemned men, all murderers — and surely even in spurning Bundy in the same batch, the board’s action gave the young man’s supporters a thrill of hope for the intervention of Progressive Party governor (and death penalty skeptic) Hiram Johnson. Johnson had already reprieved Bundy in June, and then a second time in August.
He did not do it in November.
“I have done a great wrong and am sorry,” Bundy said on the scaffold. “I had hoped the law would see a way to let me have a chance, because I would like to have shown the world what I could do.” (Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, Nov. 7, 1915.)
* Also the source of the headline image that surmounts this post.
The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.
From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”
Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.
No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.
At the Sessions of Oyer and Terminer for London, and Gaole-delivery of Newgate begun at Justice-Hall in the Old Bayly, 10 Octob. and ending on the 12 of the same Month, there were in all (as by a Printed Narrative you may already have heard) Five persons, who being Convicted on fair Tryals (per Patriam) of several capital Crimes, received Sentence of Death: But Two of them, whose Crime was stealing of two horses, appearing to be objects of mercy, as having never been concern’d in any such offences before, and seeming now extremely penitent for the same, obtained a Gracious Reprieve. The other Three were this present Wednesday 17 Octob. carryed to the place of execution, and by a shameful death surrendered their unhappie lives as Victims duely forfeited to the Justice of the Law.
These were all three old notorious offenders; two of them (taken in Gardiners-lane, Westminster) had long followed the Padd, as they called it, that is, Robbed upon the Highway: The other had made it his trade to break open houses, and pilfer away peoples Goods, being burnt in the hand but two Sessions ago: So that if such Malefactors should have longer been endured, honest Subjects would not be able either to sleep securely in their Dwellings, or travel abroad with safety on their lawful occasions; but both within doors and without, been liable to the spoils and outrages of these barbarous Savages.
To assist these poor wretches for the good of their Souls after the time of their Condemnation, the Sheriffs not onely manifested their pious Charity in sending them able Divines to instruct them, and especially Mr. Ordinary, who very laboriously discharges his weighty office on such occasions, but likewise several godly Ministers of their own accord, in Christian-compassion to their perishing condition, were pleased to visit them. Who laid before them the miserable state they were in; That now their days we [sic] numbered, nay their very hours and minutes which they had to live in this world; and yet these few minutes were all the time and opportunity they had to provide for eternity. That they were doom’d by Justice to a certain death; and though ’twas vain for them to flatter themselves with hopes of longer life in this world, yet there was means left, by a speedy, thorow, sincere and hearty repentance of their sins, and fleeing to Christ for mercy and forgiveness, to secure themselves, by vertue of his merits and righteousness, of a most happy and everlasting life in the world to come. That to such vile and sinful wretches as they had been, it was unspeakable mercy that they had yet a little space left, wherein to make peace with their God: for they might have gone on still in riot and wickedness, and been suddenly snatcht away in the very acts of their impiety Etc. These and many other pressing exhortations, together with severe threatnings to affright them and sweet promises to allure them, taken from the Word of God, were made use of, to bring them to a due sense of their sins, and to cry mightily to God for salvation. But the deaf adder refuses the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely All this good seed could take no root, or produce very little visible fruit on the stony ground of two of these Prisoners obdurate hearts; they not seeming (to outward appearance at least) to take that due and sensible notice of this most important counsel, as might be expected from persons in their condition. But the Spirit bloweth where it listeth. The third seemed much affected with this pious advice, and was very earnest and frequent in bewailing his sins, and condemning himself bitterly for having so wickedly mis-spent his precious time heretoforr. He acknowledged to some, that he had several years been a Thief, but not till of late upon the High-way: that at fust his Conscience would after every fact severely check him; but since custom of sinning taking away the sense, he had run on from one degree of wickedness to a greater without controul. He was very frequent in Prayer, wherein he has been heard to express himself to this effect.
Most dreadful and glorious God, though then hatest all the workers of iniquity, yet through the Mediation of they blessed son, with pity behold me a miserable sinner. Had I lived according to thy Commandments, or submitted to the Gospel of thy son, I might approach thee with the confidence of a childe: but I have been a Rebel against thee from my youth up, forgetting the God that made me, and the saviour that redeemed me, quenching and grieving the holy spirit, and slighting the endless Glory which thou hast prepared for me. Oh the precious time which I have lost, which all the world cannot call back; the wonderful love which I unthankfully rejected! How have I lived in continual acts of all kinde of Profaneness, all kind of Debanchery, whoring, swearing, Drunkenness, and especially Theft, which now has brought me to this woful, forlorn, condemned case wherein I am a shame to my friends, and burden to my self; and thou, O God, art my Terrour, who shouldot be my onely Hope and Comfort. Lord, thou knowest my secret sins, which yet are unknown to men, and all their Aggravations. Mine iniquities, Lord, have found me out; my fears and sorrows overwhelm me: a shameful death expects me in this world, and endless torments are ready to receive me in the other. But, Lord! thy Goodness is equal to thy Greatness, thy Mercy over all thy works. Good God, be merciful therefore unto me, the vilest of sinners: save me for thy abundant mercy, for the merit of thy Son, and for the promise of forgiveness which thou hast made through him; for in these alone is all my trust. Thou who didst patiently endure me when I despised thee, Oh do not refuse me now I seek unto thee, and in the dust implore thy mercy. Lord, I ask not for longer life in this world, but for life eternal; not for liberty to sin again, but for deliverance from this sinning nature, and that body of death which overwhelms me. To this purpose Lord give me thy grace to improve these few minutes, and prepare me for death and Judgement; that when I leave this world with Shame, I may be received into glory, and yeeld my departing soul with joy into the faithful hands of my Redeemer. Amen.
He behaved himself very penitently in the Cart, Prayed a considerable time by himself privately at the place of Execution; desired all people to take warning by him to avoid Idleness and Ill Company, which brought him to this Ignominious End. The other joyned in the publick Prayers, but said very little that could be heard. But all of them together suffered very patiently, and with submissive acknowledgements of the Justice of the Sentence.
On this date in 1736, a Jewish gangster named Herry Moses was hanged as a highwayman at Vlaardingen, Netherlands.
Our source for Moses is Florike Egmond’s “Crime in Context: Jewish Involvement in Organized Crime in the Dutch Republic” from Jewish History, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989) — for whom Moses forms an window into the criminal life of Netherlands Jews. According to Egmond, Moses hailed from Frankfurt am Main, then an imperial Free City. He had no property or station, and spent the first decades of his life as a wandering beggar, a tinker, and one might guess a petty thief where the opportunity arose.
By 1723, when Moses was around 37 years old, he had washed up in the Dutch Republic — one of many Jews who had migrated to that more tolerant climate from Germany and points east.
In the Low Countries, these arrivistes filled many niches but one of the most noticeable was a burgeoning network of Jewish criminal gangs; per Egmond, in this period “between one-half and two-thirds of all Ashkenazim convicted of burglaries, theft, or robberies had been born outside the Dutch Republic.” The documentary record is far from thorough, but court cases suggest to Egmond the emergence of a small Jewish underground in the mid-17th century following the Thirty Years War, which was bolstered by subsequent immigration waves.
Jews filled plenty of more legitimate places too, of course — and we notice how diligently free of moral panic is the court that handles this minority outlaw. But the Dutch Republic endured in this period the decline of her former trading preeminence, and for the glut of new arrivals — who were sometimes legislated out of certain protected economic spheres — less legitimate occupations could not help but appeal.
Jewish gangs were accordingly quite prominent among the robbers and cutthroats prowling the roads; among other things, they were noteworthy for their willingness to raid churches, which Christian gangs tended to shy from attacking.
Similar “names, geographical background, occupation, travels, meeting places, and variable associations” populate the identifiable records of Jewish criminals, in Egmond’s words. They “were Ashkenazim, most of them poor, and a large majority were first-generation immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.” Just as with Herry Moses.
So far as I have been able to tell, the annals do not supply us with the why in his strange story … which only deepens the intrigue of the what. Egmond:
In 1735 Herry Moses, alias Abraham Mordechai or Hessel Markus, confessed to a crime he did not commit. According to his version of the story, he murdered a Roman Catholic priest in his house in the Dutch town of Weesp and robbed him of aboug 3,000 guilders. The murder and theft were real enough, and a less scrupulous court than the schepenbank of Weesp (a high jurisdiction some twenty kilometers east of Amsterdam) might have sentenced Herry Moses to death on the strength of his confession alone. Adhering strictly to criminal procedure and confronted with some slight inconsistencies in Moses’ confession, the court tried to obtain more information. Could Moses have murdered the priest, as he declared, when standing behind the bedstead? (There was no room for a man to stand there.) Was he lying when he denounced several Jews and a Christian as his accomplices in both the murder and a burglary at The Hague? His descriptions proved accurate enough to track down some of these men and arrest them in different parts of the Netherlands, but they denied any involvement in the crimes and told the court that they did not even know their accuser. They were eventually released.
Herry Moses was interrogated a number of times during 1734 and most of 1735. Lengthy questioning yielded more detail and added more inconsistencies, but Moses continued to stand by his confession. The court, by now convinced of his innocence, saw no other solution than to torture him — not to obtain a confession but to have him retract it. Moses still did not oblige. The case was subsequently sent to a higher court (the Hof van Holland), which shared the doubts of the local court. Finally, at the end of 1735, Herry Moses was sentenced to whipping, branding, and banishment for life from the provinces of Holland and Zeeland, on account of his false accusations and his contempt for justice in general. Shortly before Herry’s sentencing — after he had been in prison for well over a year — the priest’s housekeeper and her husband confessed to having murdered the priest as well as the woman’s first husband. Both of them were sentenced to death.
As could be expected, Herry disappeared from sight after receiving his sentence, until September 1736, when he again stood trial in a Dutch criminal court. This time, there was no doubt about the indictment or the evidence. Passersby had caught him and his two accomplices in the act of attempting to strangle and rob a woman on a country road near Rotterdam. They arrived in time to save the woman’s life. Herry Moses was sentenced to death, and on 5 October 1736 was hanged at Vlaardingen.
On this date in 1872, John Barclay hanged in Ohio for murder — and was almost reanimated for science.
Barclay was a late-twenties knockabout of the area whom the Cincinnati Enquirer judged “does not look the diabolical murderer he is charged to be.” (“except his eyes”: from the May 23, 1872 edition, as are the subsequent quotes in this section)
Charles Garner, his victim, was a livestock merchant who specialized in supplying the Columbus butchers. On November 28, 1871, Garner headed out of Columbus rich with cash from a successful business trip. Barclay knew both Garner and the butcher with whom he was transacting business, one J.B. Rusk, and had hung about with them during the day — even holding open the bank door as Garner entered to cash Rusk’s check.
In the evening, hearing that Garner was about to depart, Barclay ducked into a nearby general store, inquired about buying a hatchet, and not being able to find a suitable one, settled for buying a yellow-handled hammer instead. Then he apparently hopped on the back of Garner’s wagon just as it set out, where a great heap of merchandise obscured him from the driver’s view.
Four miles out of town, at a bridge over Alum Creek, Barclay presented himself to his unknowing chauffeur and bludgeoned him with the hammer, “crushing in the skull so that the brain was exposed” — then fled on foot, having relieved the victim of several hundred dollars. The mortally wounded Garner somehow managed to drive the wagon to a house two miles further down the road, where he died five days later. A surgeon who attended him later testified that “brain, matter and blood [were] issuing from head and nose … a portion of forehead was an open wound; a portion of the brain was broken in and a portion lost.” Barclay would eventually confess the crime.
A most unusual postscript was appended to the execution of the hanging sentence.
The dream, of course, was to reanimate the corpse altogether — although a history mused that the Supreme Court judges who also took enough interest to attend the experiment “might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty.”*
Barclay hanged at 11:49 a.m.; by 12:23 p.m., his flesh was on the table under Mendenhall’s probes. Notwithstanding the dispatch of the scientists they did not accomplish his resuscitation, although the Cincinnati Commercial (Oct. 5, 1872) reported some ghoulish simulations of life:
The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.
The next year, Mendenhall was hired as a physics instructor by the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus: while he would go on to a varied and widely-traveled career in the sciences, Mendenhall has the distinction of being the very first faculty member at the institution known today as Ohio State University, and the namesake of its Mendenhall Laboratory building. (Starling Medical College, site of the galvanic experiments, would also be absorbed into OSU’s college of medicine.)
Gentleman highwayman James MacLaine hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1750.
The debauched son of a Presbyterian minister, MacLaine wasted first an inheritance and later a dowry on expensive clothes, gambling, and ladies of easy virtue; want, however, was his ticket to the immortality of the gallows when he joined fellow penniless gentleman William Plunkett to seek his revenue on the roads. (Inspiring the 1999 film Plunkett & Macleane — which uses one of several alternate spellings available for our man’s surname.)
For several months in 1749-1750 they prowled the environs of a lawless London, and notably Hyde Park, with the exaggerated courtesy demanded by romance of their profession. They found noteworthy prey: once, they stole a blunderbuss from the Earl of Eglington, though Eglington survived to suffer a noteworthy murder years later; in November 1749, they robbed M.P. Horace Walpole, even skimming his face with a pistol-ball that was inches wide from depriving posterity of the gothic novel.*
When caught** by mischance, the mannered† Maclaine became the object of public celebration, much to the bemusement of Walpole — who professed no ill will for his assailant but wondered that “there are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.”
Three thousand people are reported to have turned up on a sweltering summer Sunday to pay their admiration to the rogue, not excluding the very cream of society. Walpole teased his friends, court beauty Lady Caroline Fitzroy (wife of the Earl of Harrington) and her sidekick Miss Elizabeth Ashe, for presenting themselves among these masses to starfuck this latter-day Duval. “I call them Polly and Lucy,” he wrote, alluding to female conquests of the outlaw Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, “and asked them if he did not sing,”
* Walpole once remarked of the ubiquity of violent crime in London that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”
** Plunkett was never apprehended; it’s alleged that he ultimately escaped to North America.
† Although our man “has been called the gentleman highwayman,” the player-hating Ordinary of Newgate wrote, “and his dress and equipage very much affected the fine gentleman, yet to a man acquainted with good breeding, that can distinguish it from impudence and affectation, there was little in his address or behaviour, that could entitle him to that character.”
* The crime(s) for which Leeper and Powell hanged actually occurred on the evening of December 17, in 1889. Two armed outlaws waylaid some farmers returning to the country after they sold their cotton in Gatesville; a J.T. Mathis was mortally wounded in the resulting firefights, lingering until December 18 before he finally succumbed. (Another man named W.H.H. Harvey was wounded, but survived.)
** Actually, Ed Leeper’s mother was a prosperous Tennessee matron who spent liberally on her son’s defense; the men’s appeals, even challenging the legality of the entire Texas penal code, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — quite unusual for the time. But it is correct that they did not have bail: the enormity of the crime, and the fear of inviting a lynch mob, saw them behind bars and under heavy guard from the time of their arrest hours after the robbery.
This is not to say that Mrs. Leeper’s efforts were wholly without effect:
From the Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891.
† Since the attack took place under cover of darkness, nobody could positively identify the assailants. Leeper and Powell, well-known local ruffians, were suspected at once and the suspicion appeared circumstantially supported.
Both men did continue to assert their innocence on the scaffold: “I die innocent and I die game for the crime of some one else,” in Powell’s words. (Dallas Morning News, September 30, 1891)
His very first client was a fellow named John Reid, accused in 1766 of rustling 120 sheep from a Peebleshire farm. Boswell, clever lad, beat the charge,** and John Reid lived to shear again.
In 1774, Reid was accused again — and this time, all Boswell’s rhetorical genius could not save him: the Edinburgh Advertiser (Aug. 2, 1774) saluted the “masterly and pathetic manner” of Boswell’s summation, “which did him great honour both as a lawyer and as one who wished for a free and impartial trial by jury.”
It did not do John Reid the honour of an acquittal.
Even beaten in court, our libertine diarist went to extraordinary lengths to defend Reid; his personal passion for saving Reid’s life bleeds out of lengthy diary entries — 70-odd pages’ worth over the seven weeks from conviction to execution, quoted here from Boswell for the Defence. He strongly believed Reid innocent of the crime — that he had received the sheep apparently legitimately from a man named William Gardner, who was the real thief. (Gardner was transported for theft before Reid’s execution.)
Boswell worried at the Earl of Rochford, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Suffolk, and the Duke of Queensberry with imprecations to intervene for a royal pardon. He found himself checked by the judge, equally determined to hang Reid: “The King was certainly disposed to transport, but the judge’s report was too strong,” Lord Pembroke wrote him afterwards. “Indeed, I never read anything more so, or so positive.”
Balked of royal mercy, Boswell even went so far as to lay plans to snatch Reid’s body immediately after hanging and have it whisked away for an attempted resuscitation. As a client, you can’t ask for more zealous representation than that. (Boswell was talked off the scheme only the day before the hanging.)
It is still true today that many death row attorneys give much more of themselves to their clients than mere legal scholarship, as they find themselves shepherding in the valley of death. Boswell met often with Reid, and Reid’s wife; he solicited family history, had Reid sit for a portrait, and bore the delicate burden of keeping Reid’s spirits up even while apprising him day by day of his ever darkening situation. When they spoke of making ready for death, Boswell found Reid much better possessed than was he himself.
The barrister’s diary entries for these days are among the longest and most anguished that Boswell ever wrote. (I have here elided from the September 20 entry a good deal of Boswell’s logistical preparations for, discussions with potential collaborators about, and grudging final resolution against, the mooted resurrection attempt.)
TUESDAY 20 SEPTEMBER. I was now more firmly impressed with a belief of John Reid’s innocence … I really believed he was condemned on insufficient evidence, and, from his solemn averments of his innocence, thought him not guilty of the crime for which he was condemned; such averments being in my opinion an overbalance not for positive, or even strong circumstantial, evidence, but for such evidence as was brought against him, which I thought could produce no more than suspicion.
When I came to the prison I found that John Reid’s wife and children were with him. The door of the iron room was now left open and they were allowed to go and come as they pleased. He was very composed. His daughter Janet was a girl about fifteen, his eldest son Benjamin about ten, his youngest son Daniel between two and three. It was a striking scene to see John on the last night of his life surrounded by his family. His wife and two eldest children behaved very quietly. It was really curious to see the young child Daniel, who knew nothing of the melancholy situation of his father, jumping upon him with great fondness, laughing and calling to him with vivacity. The contrast was remarkable between the father in chains and in gloom and the child quite free and frolicsome. John took him on his knee with affection.
WEDNESDAY 21 SEPTEMBER. John Reid’s wife called on me before breakfast and told me that Mrs. Walker said she was welcome to the best room in her house for the corpse; but that afterwards her landlord had sent to her that she must quit his house if she allowed such a thing. I said that there would be no occasion for any place. The mob would not trouble the corpse; and it might be put directly on the cart that she expected was to come for it. After breakfast Mr. Nasmith came, and was pleased to find that the scheme of recovery was given up … We walked backwards and forwards in the Grassmarket, looking at the gallows and talking of John Reid. Mr. Nasmith said he imagined he would yet confess; for his wife had said this morning that he had something to tell me which he had as yet told to no mortal.
We went to the prison about half an hour after twelve. He was now released from the iron about his leg. The Reverend Dr. Webster and Mr. Ritchie were with him. We waited in the hall along with his wife, who had white linen clothes with black ribbons in a bundle, ready to put on him before he should go out to execution. There was a deep settled grief in her countenance. She was resolved to attend him to the last; but Richard whispered me that the Magistrates had given orders that she should be detained in the prison till the execution was over. I dissuaded her from going and she agreed to take my advice; and then Richard told her the orders of the Magistrates. I said aloud I was glad to hear of it. The Reverend Dr. Macqueen, who afterwards came in, told her it would be a tempting of Providence to go; that it might affect her so as to render her incapable to take care of her fatherless children; and Mr. Ritchie said that the best thing she could do was to remain in the prison and pray for her husband. Dr. Macqueen said to me he was so much impressed with the poor man’s innocence that he had some difficulty whether he ought to attend the execution and authorize it by his presence. I said he certainly should attend, for it was legal; and, besides, supposing it ever so unjust, it was humane to attend an unhappy man in his last moments.
“But,” said Dr. Macqueen, “I will not pray for him as a guilty man.”
“You would be very much in the wrong to do so,” said I, “if you think him not guilty.” Dr. Webster and I had no conversation as he passed through the hall except inquiring at each other how we did.
John’s wife then went up to him for a little, having been told both by me and Mr. Nasmith that she could not hope for the blessing of Providence on her and her children if by her advice John went out of the world with a lie in his mouth. I followed in a little, and found him in his usual dress, standing at the window. I told him I understood he had something to mention to me. He said he would mention it. He had since his trial in 1766 stolen a few sheep (I think five), of which he never was suspected.
“John,” said I, “it gives me concern to find that even such a warning as you got then did not prevent you from stealing. I really imagine that if you had now got off you might again have been guilty, such influence has Satan over you.” He said he did not know but he might. Then I observed that his untimely death might be a mercy to him, as he had time for repentance. He seemed to admit that it might be so. He said that what he had now told me he had not mentioned even to his wife; and I might let it rest. I called up Mr. Nasmith, with whom came Mr. Ritchie. I said he might acknowledge this fact to them, which he did. I asked him, if I saw it proper to mention it as making his denial of the theft for which he was condemned more probable, I might be at liberty to do so? He said I might dispose of it as I thought proper. But he persisted in denying the theft for which he was condemned. He now began to put on his white dress, and we left him.
Some time after, his wife came down and begged that we would go up to him, that he might not be alone. Dress has a wonderful impression on the fancy. I was not much affected when I saw him this morning in his usual dress. But now he was all in white, with a high nightcap on, and he appeared much taller, and upon the whole struck me with a kind of tremor. He was praying; but stopped when we came in. I bid him not be disturbed, but go on with his devotions. He did so, and prayed with decent fervency, while his wife, Mr. Nasmith, and I stood close around him.
He prayed in particular, “Grant, Lord, through the merits of my Saviour, that this the day of my death may be the day of my birth unto life eternal.” Poor man, I felt now a kind of regard for him. He said calmly, “I think I’ll be in eternity in about an hour.” His wife said something from which he saw that she was not to attend him to his execution; and he said, “So you’re no to be wi’ me.” I satisfied him that it was right she should not go.
I said, “I suppose, John, you know that the executioner is down in the hall.” He said no. I told him that he was there and would tie his arms before he went out.
“Ay,” said his wife, “to keep him from catching at the tow [rope].”
“Yes,” said I, “that it may he easier for him.” John said he would submit to everything.
I once more conjured him to tell the truth. “John,” said I, “you must excuse me for still entertaining some doubt, as you know you have formerly deceived me in some particulars. I have done more for you in this world than ever was done for any man in your circumstances. I beseech you let me be of some use to you for the next world. Consider what a shocking thing it is to go out of the world with a lie in your mouth. How can you expect mercy, if you are in rebellion against the GOD of truth?” I thus pressed him; and while he stood in his dead clothes, on the very brink of the grave, with his knees knocking together, partly from the cold occasioned by his linen clothes, partly from an awful apprehension of death, he most solemnly averred that what he had told concerning the present alleged crime was the truth. Before this, I had at Mr. Ritchie’s desire read over his last speech to him, which was rather an irksome task as it was very long; and he said it was all right except some immaterial circumstance about his meeting Wilson with the six score of sheep. Vulgar minds, and indeed all minds, will be more struck with some unusual thought than with the most awful consideration which they have often heard.
I tried John thus: “We are all mortal. Our life is uncertain. I may perhaps die in a week hence. Now, John, consider how terrible it would be if I should come into the other world and find” (looking him steadfastly in the face) “that you have been imposing on me.” He was roused by this, but still persisted. “Then,” said I, “John, I shall trouble you no more upon this head. I believe you. GOD forbid that I should not believe the word of a fellow man in your awful situation, when there is no strong evidence against it, as I should hope to be believed myself in the same situation. But remember, John, it is trusting to you that I believe. It is between GOD and your own conscience if you have told the truth; and you should not allow me to believe if it is not true.” He adhered.
I asked him if he had anything more to tell. He said he had been guilty of one other act of sheep-stealing. I think he said of seven sheep; but I think he did not mention precisely when. As he shivered, his wife took off her green cloth cloak and threw it about his shoulders. It was curious to see such care taken to keep from a little cold one who was so soon to be violently put to death. He desired she might think no more of him, and let his children push their way in the world.
“The eldest boy,” said he, “is reading very well. Take care that he reads the word of GOD.” He desired her to keep a New Testament and a psalm-book which he had got in a present from Mr. Ritchie and which he was to take with him to the scaffold. He was quite sensible and judicious. He had written a kind of circular letter to all his friends on whom he could depend, begging them to be kind to his family.
Two o’clock struck.
I said, with a solemn tone, “There’s two o’clock.” In a little Richard came up. The sound of his feet on the stair struck me. He said calmly, “Will you come awa now?” This was a striking period. John said yes, and readily prepared to go down. Mr. Nasmith and I went down a little before him. A pretty, well-dressed young woman and her maid were in a small closet off the hall; and a number of prisoners formed a kind of audience, being placed as spectators in a sort of loft looking down to the hall.
There was a dead silence, all waiting to see the dying man appear. The sound of his steps coming down the stair affected me like what one fancies to be the impression of a supernatural grave noise before any solemn event.
When he stepped into the hall, it was quite the appearance of a ghost. The hangman, who was in a small room off the hall, then came forth. He took off his hat and made a low bow to the prisoner. John bowed his head towards him. They stood looking at each other with an awkward uneasy attention. I interfered, and said, “John, you are to have no resentment against this poor man. He only does his duty.” “I only do my duty,” repeated the hangman. “I have no resentment against him,” said John. “I desire to forgive all mankind.” “Well, John,” said I, “you are leaving the world with a very proper disposition: forgiving as you hope to be forgiven.” I forgot to mention that before he left the iron room Mr. Ritchie said to him, “Our merciful King was hindered from pardoning you by a representation against you; but you are going before the King of Heaven, who knows all things and whose mercy cannot be prevented by any representation.”
The hangman advanced and pinioned him, as the phrase is; that is, tied his arms with a small cord. John stood quiet and undisturbed. I said, “Richard, give him another glass of wine.” Captain Fraser, the gaoler, had sent him the night before a bottle of claret, part of which Richard had given him, warmed with sugar, early in the morning, two glasses of it in the forenoon, and now he gave him another. John drank to us.
He then paused a little, then kissed his wife with a sad adieu, then Mr. Ritchie kissed him. I then took him by the hand with both mine, saying, “John, it is not yet too late. If you have any thing to acknowledge, do it at the last to the reverend gentlemen, Dr. Macqueen and Dr. Dick, to whom you are much obliged. Farewell, and I pray GOD may be merciful to you.” He seemed faint and deep in thought. The prison door then opened and he stepped away with the hangman behind him, and the door was instantly shut His wife then cried, “O Richard, let me up,” and got to the window and looked earnestly out till he was out of sight. Mr. Nasmith and I went to a window more to the west, and saw him stalking forward in the gloomy procession.
I then desired his wife to retire and pray that he might be supported in this his hour of trial. Captain Fraser gave her four shillings. It was very agreeable to see such humanity in the gaoler, and indeed the tenderness with which the last hours of a convict were soothed pleased me much.
The mob were gone from the prison door in a moment. Mr. Nasmith and I walked through the Parliament Close, down the Back Stairs and up the Cowgate, both of us satisfied of John Reid’s innocence, and Mr. Nasmith observing the littleness of human justice, that could not reach a man for the crimes which he committed but punished him for what he did not commit.
We got to the place of execution about the time that the procession did. We would not go upon the scaffold nor be seen by John, lest it should be thought that we prevented him from confessing. It was a fine day. The sun shone bright. We stood close to the scaffold on the south side between two of the Town Guard. There were fewer people present than upon any such occasion that I ever saw. He behaved with great calmness and piety. Just as he was going to mount the ladder, he desired to see his wife and children; but was told they were taken care of. There was his sister and his daughter near to the gibbet, but they were removed. Dr. Dick asked him if what he had said was the truth. He said it was. Just as he was going off, he made an attempt to speak. Somebody on the scaffold called, “Pull up his cap.” The executioner did so. He then said, “Take warning. Mine is an unjust sentence.” Then his cap was pulled down and he went off. He catched the ladder; but soon quitted his hold. To me it sounded as if he said, “just sentence”; and the people were divided, some crying, “He says his sentence is just.” Some: “No. He says unjust.” Mr. Laing, clerk to Mr. Tait, one of the town clerks, put me out of doubt, by telling me he had asked the executioner, who said it was unjust. I was not at all shocked with this execution at the time. John died seemingly without much pain. He was effectually hanged, the rope having fixed upon his neck very firmly, and he was allowed to hang near three quarters of an hour; so that any attempt to recover him would have been in vain. I comforted myself in thinking that by giving up the scheme I had avoided much anxiety and uneasiness.
We waited till he was cut down; and then walked to the Greyfriars Churchyard, in the office of which his corpse was deposited by porters whom Mr. Nasmith and I paid, no cart having come for his body. A considerable mob gathered about the office. Mr. Nasmith went to Hutchinson’s to bespeak some dinner and write a note to The Courant that there would be a paragraph tonight giving an account of the execution; for we agreed that a recent account would make a strong impression.
I walked seriously backwards and forwards a considerable time in the churchyard waiting for John Reid’s wife coming, that I might resign the corpse to her charge. I at last wearied, and then went to the office of the prison. There I asked the executioner myself what had passed. He told me that John first spoke to him on the ladder and said he suffered wrongfully; and then called to the people that his sentence was unjust. John’s sister came here, and returned me many thanks for what I had done for her brother. She was for burying him in the Greyfriars Churchyard, since no cart had come. “No,” said I, “the will of the dead shall be fulfilled. He was anxious to be laid in his own burying-place, and it shall be done.”
I then desired Richard to see if he could get a cart to hire, and bid him bring John’s wife to Hutchinson’s. Mr. Nasmith and I eat some cold beef and cold fowl and drank some port, and then I wrote a paragraph to be inserted in the newspapers. Mr. Nasmith threw in a few words. I made two copies of it, and, both to the printer of The Courant and Mercury, subjoined my name to be kept as the authority. Richard brought John’s wife and daughter. “Well,” said I, “Mrs. Reid, I have the satisfaction to tell you that your husband behaved as well as we could wish.” “And that is a great satisfaction,” said she. We made her eat a little and take a glass, but she was, though not violently or very tenderly affected, in a kind of dull grief. The girl did not seem moved. She eat heartily.
I told Mrs. Reid that I insisted that John should be buried at home; and as I found that as yet no carter would undertake to go but at an extravagant price, the corpse might lie till tomorrow night, and then perhaps a reasonable carter might be had.
Mr. Nasmith went to The Courant with the paragraph, and I to The Mercury. I sat till it was printed. It was liberal in Robertson, who was himself one of the jury, to admit it; and he corrected the press.
It was now about eight in the evening, and gloom came upon me. I went home and found my wife no comforter, as she thought I had carried my zeal for John too far, might hurt my own character and interest by it, and as she thought him guilty.† I was so affrighted that I started every now and then and durst hardly rise from my chair at the fireside. I sent for Grange, but he was not at home. I however got Dr. Webster, who came and supped, and he and I drank a bottle of claret. But still I was quite dismal.
Boswell spent several days more in tying up affairs, and in a sense reconciling both his own self to the reality of what has occurred, and regaining an equilibrium with friends and colleagues who doubted Reid’s innocence (and/or played some part in Reid’s conviction).
Boswell was around the midpoint of his manhood at 33 years of age, with two more decades ahead to make a glorious mark. But on September 21, 1774, John Reid’s story was done.
“After this defeat, though he would labor at the law for many years more, Boswell made a critical emotional swerve,” writes Gordon Turnbull — away from law and towards the literary exertions that define him for posterity. “Part of Boswell died with Reid: it was defeat in this cause which, in Frank Brady’s words, ‘crystallized his distaste for the Scottish bar’ and ‘destroyed his momentum as a lawyer.'”
** Boswell’s friend and fellow Scottish Enlightenment big wheel Andrew Crosbie helped in the 1766 Reid case … but not the 1774 one.
† With a defter feel for the diplomatic considerations Boswell had ignored in his exertions, the barrister’s wife reminded him a few days afterwards “that John Reid was now gone, but that his jury, fifteen men upon oath, were alive. By my speaking strongly of the injustice of the sentence, I did John no good and in some measure attacked them.” She quoted him a passage from John Home’s tragedy Douglas:
The living claim some duty; vainly thou
Bestow’st thy care upon the silent dead.