1726: Mary Standford, shunning convict transportation

2 comments August 3rd, 2009 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver of Early American Crime for the guest entry, reposted from a fascinating entry in his series on convict transportation. Vaver is the author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. -ed.)

Mary Standford was convicted of privately stealing a shagreen pocket book, a silk handkerchief, and 4 guineas from William Smith on July 11, 1726. After her conviction, she strongly rejected transportation to the American colonies as an alternative to execution.

Early Years

Standford was raised just outside of London by good parents who sent her to school and educated her in the principles of Christian values. Standford, however, showed more interest in the “Company of Young Men,” so she was sent to London to become a servant, where she lost several positions due to her behavior. In her last position she was seduced by a footman, which subsequently forced her into prostitution.

Standford quickly fell in company with Mary Rawlins, “a Woman of notorious ill fame,” and the two of them walked the streets between Temple Bar and Ludgate-Hill looking to empty the pockets, one way or another, of gullible men. Later, they had considerable success targeting sailors who, after returning from their voyages, had money to spend for their favors. Standford eventually married a man with the last name of Herbert, but after a year and a half she left him or, by her account, he abandoned her. Soon afterward, she had a child out of wedlock from another man, who was a servant.

Standford’s Arrest

With two mouths to feed, Standford set out to practice prostitution on her own, and it was then that she was arrested for theft. William Smith, who brought her to trial and was surprisingly frank in his testimony, related that he was walking along Shoe Lane after one o’clock in the morning when he was approached by Standford, who offered him to “take a Lodging with her.” He spent 2 or 3 three hours with her, all the while ordering drinks to be brought up from downstairs. He soon realized that he was missing money, and when he confronted Standford about it, she bolted from the room.

A constable caught Standford running away from Smith in the street. He picked up one of Smith’s guineas after Standford had dropped it, and he found another in her hand and two in her mouth. He also discovered Smith’s handkerchief and pocket book on her. In his testimony, the constable called Smith a “Country Man” and described him as very drunk at the time.

Standford’s version of the event was quite different. She claimed that Smith was drunk when she met him, and that he forced himself up to her room. There, he placed the four guineas one by one in her bosom and then threw her onto the bed. In the struggle, she speculated that his pocket book must have fallen out of his pocket, and when she discovered it after he left, she ran after him to return it. Not believing her story, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.

A Rejection and a Defense of Transportation

After receiving her sentence, Standford’s friends pleaded with her to ask for a pardon in exchange for transportation. Standford refused, “declaring that she had rather die, not only the most Ignominious, but the most cruel Death that could be invented at home, rather than be sent Abroad to slave for her Living.”

The author of the Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals was baffled by Standford’s position and presents a lengthy defense of the institution of convict transportation:

such strange Apprehensions enter into the Heads of these unhappy Creatures, and hinder them from taking the Advantage of the only possibility they have left of tasting Happiness on this side the Grave, and as this Aversion to the Plantations has so bad Effects, especially in making the Convicts desirous of escaping from the Vessel, or of flying out of the Country whither they were sent, almost before they have seen it. I am surpriz’d that no Care has been taken to print a particular and authentick Account, of the Manner in which they are treated in those Places; I know it may be suggested that the Terrour of such Usage as they are represented to meet with there, has often a good Effect in diverting them from such Facts as they know must bring them to Transportation, yet . . . if instead of magnifying the Miseries of their pretended Slavery, or rather of inventing Stories that make a very easy service, pass on these unhappy Creatures for the severest Bondage. The Convicts were to be told the true state of the Case, and were put in Mind that instead of suffering Death, the Lenity of our Constitution, permitted them to be removed into another Climate, no way inferiour to that in which they were born, where they were to perform no harder tasks, than those who work honestly for their Bread in England do, and this not under Persons of another Nation, who might treat them with less Humanity upon that Account, but to their Countrymen, who are no less English for their living in the New, than if they dwelt in Old England, People famous for their Humanity, Justice and Piety, and amongst whom they are sure of meeting with no variation of Manners, Customs, &c. unless in respect of the Progress of their Vices which are at present, and may they long remain so, far less numerous there than in their Mother-Land. I say if Pains were taken to instill into these unhappy Persons such Notions . . ., they might probably conceive justly of that Clemency which is extended towards them, and instead of shunning Transportation, flying from the Countries where they are landed, as soon as they have set their Foot in them, or neglecting Opportunities they might have on their first coming there, be brought to serve their Masters faithfully, to endure the Time of their Service chearfully, and settle afterwards in the best Manner they are able, so as to pass the Close of their Life in an honest, easy, and reputable Manner; whereas now it too often happens, that their last End is worse than their first, because those who return from Transportation being sure of Death if apprehended, are led thereby to behave themselves worse and more cruelly than any Malefactors whatsoever (Vol. III, pp. 287-289).

The author’s cheery account of life as an indentured servant in the American colonies certainly makes transportation sound like a compelling alternative to execution. The reality of life overseas under such conditions, though, does not match this picture, and some criminals valued their liberty over enforced servitude, even if it meant their own death.


In his account of her execution, James Guthrie, the minister at Newgate Prison, described Standford as “grosly Ignorant of any thing that is good.” He went on to say that “she was neither ingenious nor full in her Confessions, but appeared obstinate and self-conceited.” Standford continued to maintain her innocence in the affair with Smith, and she appeared indifferent about the fate of her child, expressing to Guthrie the hope that the parish would take care of it. Guthrie claimed, however, that “she acknowledg’d herself among the chief of Sinners.”

Mary Standford was executed on Wednesday, August 3, 1726 at Tyburn. She was 36 years old. Executed alongside her were 3 other criminals. Thomas Smith and Edward Reynolds were both sentenced to die for highway robbery. John Claxton, alias Johnson, was put death for returning twice from transportation before his 7-year sentence had run out.

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Unspecified Year: Clever Tom Clinch, hung like a hero

Add comment June 13th, 2009 Headsman

This 1726 poem by Jonathan Swift toasts a charismatic client of the Tyburn tree — who is, alas, completely fictional.

Clever Tom Clinch going to be hanged

As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling;
He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.
His Waistcoat and Stockings, and Breeches were white,
His Cap had a new Cherry Ribbon to ty’t.
The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran,
And said, lack-a-day! he’s a proper young Man.
But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy’d,
Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.
The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee;
Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee.
Then said, I must speak to the People a little,
But I’ll see you all damn’d before I will whittle.
My honest Friend Wild, may he long hold his Place,
He lengthen’d my Life with a whole Year of Grace.
Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid,
Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade.
My Conscience is clear, and my Spirits are calm,
And thus I go off without Pray’r-Book or Psalm.
Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

Any relationship between this literary gallows scene and any particular calendar date is purely coincidental, although the condemned man’s past-tense reference to executed thief-taker Jonathan Wild would theoretically place it subsequent to that man’s hanging on May 24, 1725.

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1726: William Fly, unrepentant pirate

July 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1726, an obscure boatswain who had mutinied for the liberty of piracy succumbed but did not submit on the gallows in Boston.

Fly overthrew (figuratively and literally — they both ended up in the drink) a tyrannous captain and first mate on a British slave ship in May, reconstituting it Fame’s Revenge, and in a northward journey from North Carolina to New England captured a few less-than-lucrative ships in a month and change.

A minor character in the annals of seaborne pillage. So why should historian Marcus Rediker devote the opening chapter to his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (review) to this man?

[T]he early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a world turned upside down, made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ alternative social order. Pirates “distributed justice,” elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order. They demonstrated quite clearly — and subversively — that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.

Rediker’s sympathetic but unromantic work treats the radical, doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy: grinding exploitation of white sailors in the service of the black slave trade under the iron hand of the empire (British, in this case, but hardly exclusive to Old Blighty.)

It bears the trace of Hakim Bey‘s treatment of Temporary Autonomous Zones:

Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden — quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.

Certainly many men (and women) turned to piracy for many different reasons. Rediker’s work on the systematic brutality in the guts of the imperial economy and the pressures of resistance and coercion they spawned finds an outstanding individual exponent in this day’s victim.

Fly walked indifferently to the gallows; to the astonishment of the spectators, he upbraided the hangman’s poor knot and remade with his own hands the instrument for his own neck — one last use of his seaman’s proficiency with ropes.

On Fly’s turn upon that fatal stage, he would not read from the classics — not cower before his executioners, not salute the majesty of the crown that hung him, not enjoin the mob to straighten up and sail right, and certainly not be cowed on the cusp of the eternal by officious colonial holy roller Cotton Mather’s vain personal bid to convert the corsair:

When the time came for last words on that awful occasion, Mather wanted Fly and his fellow pirates to act as preachers — that is, he wanted them to provide examples and warnings to those who were assembled to watch the execution. They all complied. Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville, and George Condick [three of Fly’s crew], perhaps hoping for a last-minute pardon, stood penitently before the crowd and warned all to obey their parents and superiors and not to curse, drink, whore, or profane the Lord’s day. These three pirates acknowledged the justice of the proceedings against them, and they thanked the ministers for their assistance. Fly, however, did not ask for forgiveness, did not praise the authorities, and did not affirm the values of Christianity, as he was supposed to do, but he did issue a warning. Addressing the port-city crowd thick with ship captains and sailors, he proclaimed his final, fondest wish: that “all Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (meaning Captain Green) that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying, that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.” Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He would be launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny on his lips.

“Bad Usage.” Rediker later defines it as “the violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship, the ordinary and pervasive violence of labor discipline as practiced by the ship captain as he moved the commodities that were the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.”

The resistance to a pattern of savage floggings, cheated wages, and the whole spectrum of rough and arbitrary authority on a shipboard dictatorship might be spontaneous and individual in the instant … but it was thick with the stuff of solidarity, and the fraternity of outlawry could make people equal across the boundaries of national rivalry and institutional racism — “Villains of all Nations,” as the title goes.

And the obdurate, like Fly, could every now and then move the pastors who were sent to thunder hellfire at them rather than the other way around.

As it happened, the “stupid” and “impenitent” pirate [Mather uses these words to describe Fly elsewhere] was able to convince the self-righteous minister of at least one primary cause of piracy. During his execution sermon, Mather made it a point to address the ship captains in the crowd, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must hereafter avoid being “too like the Devil in their Barbarous Usage of the Men that are under them and lay them under Tempations to do Desperate Things.”

After the hanging, William Fly’s body was gibbeted as a warning on Nixes Mate, a barely-there speck of an island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. For Rediker, this date marks the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Although the full book is worth the buy, a paper Rediker wrote on the subject prior the book’s publication is available free online.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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