1685: John Nevison, speed demon

Add comment May 4th, 2015 Headsman

It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.

The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”

Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.

Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.

To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:

it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.

The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.


(cc) image by Carl Spencer.

* May 4, 1685 is one of several execution dates suggested for Nevison; all appear to lack recourse to any definitive primary document. The Ballads and Songs of Yorkshire, Transcribed from Private Manuscripts, Rare Broadsides, and Scarce Publications is our source here; it attributes its dating to Macaulay, although I have not found it in the latter’s History of England. Other possibilities include May 8, or March 15, in either 1684 or 1685.

** This site suggests that Nicks might also be the same as, or conflated with, yet another highwayman, Captain Richard Dudley.

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1684: John Dick, Covenanter

Add comment March 5th, 2015 Headsman

Covenanter John Dick was hanged at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh on this date in 1684. He had been condemned for rebellion just the day before.

This divinity student had been due to swing the previous September, but broke out of Canongate Tolbooth with 24 others. Upon his re-arrest, the existing sentence was simply reinstated by the judges; Dick had only a single night between that sentence and his execution.

From the time the Protestant Reformation had launched 160-odd years prior to Dick’s death, the customary prerogative of the condemned to make a rostrum of the scaffold had become contested territory. Where once condemned thieves and murderers would make a last reconciliation with their fellows, now heretics made of their own deaths blazing confessional placards by seizing the language of martyrdom. (Paul Friedland addresses this phenomenon as part of the evolution of the execution “spectacle” in his excellent Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France. We previously interviewed Friedland here.)

Scottish Covenanters too had this tradition — and likewise the authorities that put them to death the tradition of silencing the wrong message. All the more true given the intense partisan-religious alignments on the eve of the Glorious Revolution; the Whig party name derives from the Whiggamores — Covenanter raiders, whose association was meant to smear that faction.*

Dick, according to a friend who visited him in jail on the day of his hanging, was asked if he would pray at his gallows. “Yes, if ye permitt [sic] me,” he replied.

“You must not reflect upon authority in your prayers, so as there may be no offence taken,” one of Dick’s gaolers replied.

“I will pray no limited prayers; I will pray as Christ has taught me.”

Upon this response, there was a debate among Dick’s keepers. “Some were for suffering him to pray, and stopping him if he pleased them not,” our observer recorded, “but that was not thought fit, so he prayed none there [at the gallows].”

Although Dick had to be circumspect at his hanging, his fellow Presbyterians’ alignment with the soon-to-be-triumphant side in the Glorious Revolution would soon make Covenanter martyrologies a hot publication.

The 1714 A Cloud of Witnesses for the Prerogative of Jesus Christ, or The Last Speeches and Testimonies of Those Who Have Suffered for the Truth in Scotland since 1680 celebrates dozens of Presbyterian martyrs.


Illustration of Covenanter punishments (not Dick’s specifically) from A Cloud of Witnesses.

In Dick’s entry, we have a firm of heart last letter to his father penned on the morning of the devout youth’s execution.

Dear Sir, —

This hath been one of the pleasantest nights I have had in my lifetime. The competition is only betwixt it and that I got eleven years ago at Nesbit in Northumberland, where and when, in a barley ridge upon the Saturday’s night and Sabbath morning before the last communion I did partake of in Ford Church, the Lord firmly laid the foundation-stone of grace in my heart, by making me with my whole soul close with Him upon His own terms, that is, to take Him to be my King, Priest, and Prophet, yea, to be my all in all ; to renounce my own righteousness, which at best is but rotten rags, and to rest upon His righteousness alone for salvation; as also, to give myself entirely, without reserve, in soul, body, heart, affections, and the whole faculties of my soul and powers of my body, to be by Him disposed at His pleasure for the advancement of His glory, and the upbuilding of my own soul, and the souls of others; inserting this clause (being conscious to myself of great infirmity) that the fountain of free grace and love should stand open for me so long, and so oft as my case should call for it.

This my transaction with my ^whole soul, without the least ground of suspicion of the want of sincerity, which I found had been amissing in endeavours of that nature formerly, now my blessed Lord helped me to, or rather made in me, and solemnised that night and morning ere I came off that ridge.

I confirmed it no less than ten or twelve times, and the oftener I reiterated, the gale continued so fresh and vigorous, that I was forced to cry, Hold, Lord, for the sherd is like to burst: so that I hope my dearest Lord is now a-coming, and that the hands of Zerubbabel, who hath laid this foundation, is now about to finish it ; and, indeed, He is building very fast, for which my soul blesseth Him, desiring you may join with me in so necessary a work.

I hope, ere long, the copestone shall be put on, the result of all which shall be praises and shouting to Him that sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb throughout all the ages of eternity, of long-lasting eternity.

This, with my earnest prayers while in the body, that the Lord would help you to mind His glory, and your own soul’s eternal welfare, is all the legacy you can expect from him who is both,

Your affectionate son and Christ’s prisoner,

John Dick.

P.S. — I hope, ere I come home, to get another sight of you. Let none see this till I be in my grave. The Lord gave me to you freely, so I entreat you, be frank in giving me to Him again, and the more free this be, the less cause you shall have to repent.

* “Tories” comes from a word for an Irish (and Catholic) outlaw, and was conferred by the Whigs as a reciprocal calumny. It is not accidental that each term throws a non-English shade.

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1684: Jane Voss, narrow escapee

2 comments December 19th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1684, Jane Voss was hanged

We pass over for this entry her four companions in death: a couple of forgettable gentleman highwaymen; a murderer fled to the continent; a coiner named D’Coiner.

Each a fellow with an interesting tale of his own, no doubt, but for Jane Voss one notices her perpetual proximity to the gallows. It’s a reminder that for a certain class of person, the omnipresent prospect of a sudden trip to the hanging-tree — intended as a mortal terror — was little but the everyday circumstance of a life nasty, brutish and too often short.

A chapbook of the day’s crop* records that the notorious Jane’s “frequent felonies and often Convictions have made her known to most in and about London, she having been above 12 times in Newgate, and several times Condemned to dye.”

She fortuitously escaped such a fate as an an accessory to Thomas Sadler’s theft of the High Chancellor’s ceremonial mace eight years before.

Not being a principal culprit in that escapade, Voss got off with penal transportation, only returning (at least insofar as the English authorities knew) legally after her transportation term had ended.

Our correspondent alleges that “no less than 7 Persons, whom had passed for her Husbands, have at several times been Executed for Robberies, &c.” Indeed, one notorious highwayman named John Smith (alias Ashburnham) hanged earlier in April 1684 had made a point of asking the Newgate Ordinary to send word to Jane Voss to cool it lest she follow him.

Alas, it was right about this time that Jane snatched her last silver tankard. She’d had too many reprieves to escape this time … save for the mandatory stalling mechanism of pleading her belly.**

* “True account of the behaviour, confessions, and last dying words, of Capt. James Watts, Capt. Peter Barnwell, Daniel D’Coiner alias Walker, Richard Jones, and Jane Voss alias Roberts,” 1684. (via Early English Books Online)

** Here’s Jane Voss’s Old Time Restoration England Pregnancy-Simulating Potion: drink “a Gallon of New Ale and Honey” before examination. Use as needed.

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1684: Three Covenanters

Add comment February 22nd, 2012 Headsman

Just three indistinguishable Covenanters among very many in the Killing Time.

From the journal of John Erskine of Cardross:

22 February 1684. — After dinner I went to the Laigh Council house, where the three condemned men were brought before Baillie Chancellour, who inquired if they had any more to say for themselves, and if they would bid God save the King? They said, they were not now come to answer, neither would they answer questions, and the refused not to obey all the King’s lawful commands. They refused to hear one of the town curates pray; but he beginning, not desired, George Martin offered to interrupt him the time of his prayer, by saying, ‘Let us be gone, what have we to do here?’ but he ended his prayer without stopping. They were hanged in the Grassmarket, but I went not to the place of execution.

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1684: Baillie of Jerviswood

Add comment December 24th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1684, the Scottish patriot Baillie of Jerviswood was convicted of treason and immediately executed, for his part in the Rye House Plot against the Stuart King Charles II.

Baillie was a lesser player in the Protestant scheme — whose nature and extent, or even existence, are matters of historical debate — supposedly to do away with the Catholic-leaning ruler and his outright catechumen brother and heir James. Baillie was implicated under torture, and while disowning any part of a conspiracy declined — “with striking truthfulness” — to deny a design on Scottish rebellion.

His summary hanging would enter the pantheon of English depravities in the north country, but he achieved another sort of immortality as well.

During an earlier stint in prison, a proscribed fellow patriot’s 12-year-old daughter had smuggled him messages — becoming acquainted with Baillie’s own son, whom she would eventually wed. The girl gained fame in adulthood as Lady Grizel (or Grisel, or Griselle) Baillie.

“Werena my Heart’s licht I wad dee”
-Lady Baillie

THERE ance was a may, and she lo’ed na men;
She biggit her bonnie bow’r doun in yon glen;
But now she cries, Dool and a well-a-day!
Come doun the green gait and come here away!

When bonnie young Johnnie cam owre the sea,
He said he saw naething sae lovely as me;
He hecht me baith rings and mony braw things—
And werena my heart’s licht, I wad dee.

The legendary tableau of intrigue between Baillie and his future daughter-in-law was itself fruit for literature, given time enough to ripen into legend. Kinswoman Joanna Baillie, one of the great litterateurs of the early 19th century, made use of the episode to open a lengthy ballad to Lady Grizel in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters:

I.
Within a prison’s hateful cell,
Where, from the lofty window fell,
Thro’ grated bars, the sloping beam,
Defin’d, but faint, on couch of stone,
There sat a pris’ner sad and lone,
Like the dim tenant of a dismal dream.
Deep in the shade, by low-arch’d door,
With iron nails thick studded o’er,
Whose threshold black is cross’d by those
Who here their earthly being close,
Or issue to the light again
A scaffold with their blood to stain,–
Moved something softly. Wistful ears
Are quick of sense, and from his book
The pris’ner rais’d his eyes with eager look,–
“Is it a real form that thro’ the gloom appears?”

II
It was indeed of flesh and blood,
The form that quickly by him stood;
Of stature low, of figure light,
In motion like some happy sprite;
Yet meaning eyes and varying cheek,
Now red, now pale, seem’d to bespeak
Of riper years the cares and feeling
Which with a gentle heart were dealing.
“Such sense in eyes so simply mild!
“Is it a woman or a child?
“Who art thou, damsel sweet? are not mine eyes beguiled?”

III
“No; from the Redbraes’ tower I come;
“My father is Sir Patrick Hume;
“And he has sent me for thy good,
“His dearly honour’d Jerviswood.
“Long have I round these walls been straying,
“As if with other children playing;
“Long near the gate have kept my watch
“The sentry’s changing-time to catch.
“With stealthy steps I gain’d the shade
“By the close-winding staircase made,
“And when the surly turnkey enter’d,
“But little dreaming in his mind
“Who follow’d him so close behind,
“Into this darken’d cell, with beating heart, I ventured.”

IV
Then from the simple vest that braced
Her gentle breast, a letter traced
With well-known characters, she took,
And with an eager, joyful look,
Her eyes up to his visage cast,
His changing countenance to scan,
As o’er the lines his keen glance past.
She saw a faint glow tinge the sicky wan;
She saw his eyes thro’ tear-drops raise
To heaven their look of silent praise,
And hope’s fresh touch undoing lines of care
Which stress of evil times had deeply graven there.
Meanwhile, the joy of sympathy to trace
Upon her innocent and lovely face
Had to the sternest, darkest sceptic given
Some love of human kind, some faith in righteous Heaven.

V
What blessings on her youthful head
Were by the grateful patriot shed,
(For such he was, good and devoted,
And had at risk of life promoted
His country’s freedom and her faith,
Nor reck’ning made of worldly skathe)
How warm, confiding, and sincere,
He gave to her attentive ear
The answer which her cautious sire
Did to his secret note require;–
How after this with ‘quiries kind,
He ask’d for all she left behind
In Redbraes’ tower, her native dwelling,
And set her artless tongue a-telling,
Which urchin dear had tallest grown,
And which the greatest learning shown,
Of lesson, sermon, psalm, and note,
And Sabbath questions learnt by rote,
And merry tricks and gambols play’d
By ev’ning fire, and forfeits paid,–
I will not here rehears, nor will I say,
How, on that bless’d and long-remember’d day,
The pris’ner’s son, deserving such a sire,
First saw the tiny maid, and did admire,
That one so young and wise and good and fair
Should be an earthly thing that breath’d this nether air.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,England,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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