1754: Captain John Lancey, Devonshire arsonist

1 comment June 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1754, Captain John Lancey hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames — the victim of his brother-in-law’s clumsy insurance scheme.

We here defer to the dolorous annals known as the Newgate Calendar, so familiar around these parts, which subtitles its entry as …


Executed at Execution Dock, 7th of June, 1754, for burning a Ship at the Instigation of a Member of Parliament

This unfortunate man fell a dupe to an artful and wicked villain, his employer, who at the time was a disgraceful Member of the House of Commons, and who, to avoid the punishment due to his crimes, fled, and left the unfortunate subject whose case is before us a victim to his baseness.

Not this John (de) Lancie.

Captain John Lancey was a native of Bideford, in Devonshire, respectably born and well educated. As he gave early proofs of an inclination for a seafaring life he was taught navigation, was attentive to his studies, and gave proofs of a goodness of disposition that promised a better fate than afterwards attended him.

Lancey was sent to sea as mate of a ship, of which Mr. Benson, a rich merchant at Biddeford, was the proprietor. Lancey, having married a relation of Benson’s, was soon advanced to the command of the vessel. This Benson was Member of Parliament for Barnstaple, in Devonshire, and what kind of character he deserved will appear in the sequel.

After Lancey had returned from a long voyage he was for a considerable time confined to his bed by a violent illness, the expense of which tended considerably to impoverish him. When he had partly recovered, Benson told him that he proposed to refit the ship in which he had formerly sailed; that Lancey should have the command of her; that he (Benson) would insure her for more than double her value, and then Lancey should destroy the vessel.

This proposal appeared shocking to Lancey, who thought it but a trial of his honesty, and declared his sentiments, saying that he would never take any part in a transaction so totally opposite to the whole tenor of his conduct.

For the present nothing more was said; but soon afterwards Benson invited Lancey and several other gentlemen to dine with him. The entertainment was liberal; and, Captain Lancey being asked to stay after the rest of the company were gone, Mr Benson took him to a summer-house in the garden, where he again proposed destroying the ship, and urged it in a manner that proved he was in earnest.

Captain Lancey hesitated a short time on this proposal and then declined to have any concern in so iniquitous a scheme, declaring that he would seek other employment rather than take any part in such a transaction. But Benson, resolving if possible not to lose his agent, prevailed on him to drink freely, and then urged every argument he could think of to prevail on him to undertake the business, promising to shelter him from punishment in case of detection.

Lancey still hesitated. But when Benson mentioned the poverty to which his family was reduced by his late illness, and offered such flattering prospects of protection, the unhappy man at length yielded, to his own destruction. A ship was now fitted out, bound for Maryland: and goods to a large amount were shipped on board, but relanded before the vessel sailed, and a lading of brickbats taken in by way of ballast. They had not been long at sea when a hole was bored in the side of the ship and a cask of combustible ingredients was set on fire, with a view to destroying her. The fire no sooner appeared than the Captain called to some convicted transports, then in the hold, to inquire if they had fired the vessel; which appears to have been only a feint to conceal the real design.

The boat being hoisted out, all the crew got safe on shore; and then Lancey repaired immediately to Benson to inform him of what had passed. Benson instantly dispatched him to a proctor, before whom he swore that the ship had accidentally taken fire, and that it was impossible to prevent the consequences which followed.

Lancey now repaired to his own house, and continued with as much apparent unconcern as if such a piece of villainy had not been perpetrated; but he was soon afterwards taken into custody by a constable, who informed him that oath had been made of the transaction before the Mayor of Exeter by one of the seamen. Lancey, however, did not express much concern, secure in his idea of protection from the supposed influence of Benson.

On the following day Lancey and one of the ship’s crew were committed to the jail of Exeter, where they remained three months; and being then removed to London were examined by Sir Thomas Salisbury, the judge of the Admiralty Court, and committed to the prison of the Marshalsea. Application was afterwards made to the Court of Admiralty to admit them to bail; and there appeared to be no objection to granting the favour, but Benson, on whom they had depended for bail, had absconded, to escape the justice due to his atrocious crime.

Being committed to Newgate, they were brought to trial at the next Sessions of Admiralty held at the Old Bailey,when Lancey was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, but the other was acquitted.

Lancey lay in prison about four months after conviction, during which his behaviour was altogether consistent with his unhappy situation. His Christian charity was remarkable towards Benson; for, though that wicked man had been the cause and instigator of his ruin, yet he never once reflected on him, but imputed all the crime to himself, and appeared to behold it in its genuine light of deformity.

It was presumed, when he was first apprehended, that he might have been admitted an evidence against Benson, if he would have impeached him; but this he steadily refused to do.

His devotional exercises were exemplary: he attended prayers in the most regular manner, and gave every proof of his contrition. He was accompanied to the place of execution by two clergymen; and, having confessed his guilt in a speech to the surrounding multitude, he underwent the sentence of the law on the 7th of June, 1754, at Execution Dock, in the 27th year of his age.

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1752: James Lowry, despotical nautical

Add comment March 25th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1752 the tyrannous Scottish sea captain James Lowrey or Lowry was hanged at London’s execution dock for beating a crew member to death.

Lowr(e)y came to public notice in 1751 after the return to English shores of his merchantman, the Molly, from a run to Jamaica: ten of his ex-crew subscribed a public advertisement accusing him of murdering their mate on board, to which Lowry replied with advertisements accusing those accusers of mutiny.

Right away the British public knew it had a page-turner on its hands.

The captain had become unreasonably enraged with Kennith Hossack for lagging in his duties as he recovered from an illness, and upon a purported accusation of theft he had the mariner tied up and personally battered him about the head using a doubled-over rope as his cudgel, on Christmas Eve no less. Hossack at last dropped dead, at which point the heartless captain slapped his man and denounced him for “shamming Abraham” (i.e., feigning injury to skip work). Lowry evidently really had it in for Hossack, for the first mate explained that “I don’t know that he ever came upon deck twice in a week without beating him: my heart has bled for him many and many a time.” In the mate’s opinion, these beatings were always for no adequate reason.*

That’s a remark from the Admiralty Trial of Captain Lowry, where his former seamen developed the picture of an intolerably Queeg-like commander liable to take bitter umbrage if his men managed an illicit extra ration of sugar or rum, a guy who carried around a beating-cane with its own name (“the Royal Oak Foremast”) just in case he felt like doling out a disciplinary bludgeon. Three days after Hossack’s death, he came to blows with the second mate; two days after that, a fed-up crew “took the command from him” and ran the ship themselves, although they did not forcibly confine him.

Once the ship put in at Lisbon for repairs on the return journey, Lowry lodged a piracy complaint against his crew, but despite the incredibly serious charges and countercharges, everybody sailed on together for home thereafter, each party perhaps silently calculating the odds that the other would dare to press the case further as against getting on about their lives. Lowry does not appear to have made himself scarce until his former comrades went public with their claims, although once they did so he incriminatingly avoided the thief-takers and the small private reward set upon his capture for a few weeks.

On March 25, 1752, the brute was carried from Newgate Prison to the Execution Dock on the Thames, in a cart surmounted by a silver oar emblematic of the Admiralty. There he was hanged, and his body afterwards put in irons and displayed in infamy down the river at Blackwall.


Lowry pictured as part of a “Scotch Triumvirate” of Caledonian evildoers, along with the Scottish officer William Cranstoun, blamed for seducing Mary Blandy to the gallows, and the more mysterious “Major James MacDonald” whose papers suggest involvement in the South Sea Bubble 32 years prior (?). I’m in good company with my confusion on this MacDonald fellow, as the British Museum can’t identify him either. Check out britishtars.com for a fascinating exposition on the iconographic detail of the Lowry images in this post; we have also featured in this narrative several additional links to that same site’s various posts about the events on the Molly.

We have revisited a few times in these pages the intense commercial bustle among publishers of crime ephemera — in England as well as Ireland. Naturally this headline-grabbing execution excited plenty of competitive hawking.

Two examples appear below; the first of them is by a pair of publishers named Harris and Scott; the second, by Parker and Corbett, who at this time had the deal to publish the Ordinary of Newgate’s accounts. Harris and Scott were first to the market here, in an environment where rapidity counted for a lot; the Ordinary wanted to be sure the public knew that his “official” (according to him) version would be soon forthcoming, so he burdened the pages of London newspapers and even his own Ordinary’s Account of ‘regular’ Tyburn criminals with adverts to that effect.


This image from the London General Advertiser of March 26, 1752, one of several papers to carry the notice. For more on the relationship between publishers and crime in this era, see Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London by Richard Ward

Read on below to enjoy both.

* In fact, one nugget from this case is that an adequate reason for corporal punishment at sea might sit at a much higher threshold than we commonly assume today. Although the Royal Navy was (in)famous for the discipline of the lash, multiple experienced sailors testified at this trial that they never knew floggings or beatings to occur on merchant vessels.

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1752: William Jillet, Daniel Johnson, and David Smith

Add comment October 16th, 2018 Headsman

From the New-York Mercury, Nov. 27, 1752:

Newbern, in North-Carolina, August 28.

About a Fortnight ago, was committed to Goal in this Town, four Men, viz. Patrick Moore, a Taylor by Trade, Daniel Johnson, alias Dixon, a Chymist or Doctor, William Jillet, a Blacksmith, and Peter Matthews, for making bad Money: They were taken by the Sheriff of this County at Peter Matthews’s House, about 30 Miles from this Town, near to which, in a great Swamp, they had erected a Forge, and prepared Moulds and other Materials for making Doubloons, Pistoles, Pieces of Eight and half Pistereens: There were some of the Doubloons a Pistole, Pieces of Eight, and half Pistereens found upon them, but so badly done as not to be easily imposed upon any Body; which may be owing to the timely Discovery of the Plot, which prevented their finishing them in the Manner they intended; for the Similitude as to Size, is very exact, only they are much wanting in Colour, which perhaps was to have been the finishing Stroke.

Patrick Moore, who upon his Examination, seems to give the clearest Evidence, says, That he lived in Virginia, and work’d at this Trade, at the House of one Richard Booker, in Glocester [sic] County, where the said Daniel Johnson, alias Dillon, and William Jillet, resorted; that the said Booker gave him the said Moore, a small Boat, with Provisions sufficient, to bring the said Johnson, alias Dixon, and William Jillet, with their Bellows, Hammer, Moulds, and other Materials for making Money, into this Province; which he accordingly did about two Months since, and landed them up Neuse River, from whence they travelled to the House of the said Peter Matthews, as above, set up their Forge, and were proceeding to the good Work; and would, in all Probability, have plyed us plentifully with Doubloons, Pistoles, and Pieces of Eight, had not the Plot been timely discovered.

From the Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov. 23, 1752:

Newbern, in North-Carolina, October 6.

On Tuesday last ended the General Court here, when three Persons were capitally convicted, and received Sentence of Death, viz. William Jillet, and Daniel Johnston, alias Dixon, for Coining; and David Smith, alias Griffith, for Felony, in Robbing a Store in Johnson County, about four Years ago.

Patrick Moore, who was concerned with the Coiners, turn’d Evidence against them; and Peter Matthews, at whose House they were taken, and who was thought to have been concern’d with them, was acquitted.

October 20. On Monday last was executed at the Gallows near this Town, pursuant to their Sentence, Daniel Johnston, alias Dixon, William Jillet, and David Smith, alias Griffith. They were attended to the Gallows by the Rev. Mr. Lopierre, who also attended them while in Goal. They all appeared very penitent, and expressed much Sorrow and Contrition for their Crimes, which they confessed; and Jillet and Johnston declared Patrick Moore to have been the sole Contriver and Promoter of the wretched Scheme, for which they suffered, and which would have been so destructive to the Community had it succeeded. Johnston died a stanch Roman Catholick, and was very earnest and pathetick in his Prayers for the Friends and Followers of Lord Lovat, Kilmarnock, Balmerino, and all the Rebels that suffer’d in the late Rebellion, and heartily pray’d for a Continuance of that noble Spirit which he hop’d was yet alive in Scotland among the Well-wishers of the Pretender.

They made several Attempts, while in Goal, to escape, but were prevented by the Sheriff, who kept a Watch round the Prison every Night; and indeed it has been intirely owing to his great Vigilance and Industry, that these Pests of Society were first apprehended, and preserv’d safe in a Goal (which has hitherto been remarkable for letting Prisoners escape) till they received the Reward due to their Crimes.

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1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

1 comment July 12th, 2018 Headsman

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

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1753: George Robertson, prick

Add comment May 28th, 2018 Headsman

We are indebted to the redoubtable medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris for the substance of this post, which she brought to our attention on her blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Fans of the macabre, and particularly of the recurring medicinal theme here at Executed Today, are sure to enjoy her book The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine — or her “Under the Knife” video series.

We (and Dr. Fitzharris) enter these sensitive parts via a bit of junk preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons: the severed penis which long ago inhabited, along with the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the trousers of a highway robber named George Robertson.

Neither bacterium nor reader will be surprised to discover that when Robertson and a couple of other hard men knocked down James Holland in Mansfield Street to dispossess him of his hat and his wig, the pestilential thief resided at “a bawdy-house” (per the evidence of his perfunctory trial).

We don’t know the ins and outs of what this specimen got up to when Robertson had his liberty — only that its condition was so obvious that it interested the doctors. With nary a care for patient privacy, the Ordinary of Newgate emitted to the public that Robertson felt “so ill with the foul Disease, as not to be able to walk, and wished himself dead, because he had no Money or Friend to put him in the Hospital.”*

Agony though it might have been to our dissolute footpad, such cocks excited the physicians.

Dr. Fitzharris directs our attention to A Treatise on the Venereal Disease, by Robertson’s contemporary, the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter might well have fondled this very todger in his own day; as we learn from this turgid treatise, he and his colleagues found in the engorged members of the hung a penetrating scientific tool. The eightfold execution in the spring of 1753 that Hunter references below might be a previous Tyburn hanging date, of February 12, 1753. (That hanging included Robertson’s accomplice John Briant or Bryant: no word on the condition of John Briant’s John Thomas.)

Till about the year 1753 it was generally supposed, that the matter from the urethra in a gonorrhoea arose from an ulcer or ulcers in that passage; but from observation it was then proved that this was not the cafe. It may not be improper to give here a short history of the discovery of matter being formed by inflammation without ulceration.

In the winter 1749, a child was brought into the room used for dissection, in Covent Garden, on opening of whose thorax a large quantity of pus was found loose in the cavity, with the surface of the lungs and the pleura furred over with a more solid substance similar to coagulable lymph. On removing this from those surfaces they were found intire. This appearance being new to Dr. Hunter, he sent to Mr. Samuel Sharp, desiring his attendance, and to him it also appeared new. Mr. Sharp afterwards in the year 1750, published his Critical Enquiry, in which he introduced this fact, “That matter may be formed without a breach of substance;” not mentioning whence he had derived this notion. It was ever after taught by Dr. Hunter in his lectures ; we however find writers adopting it without quoting either Mr. Sharp or Dr. Hunter. So much being known, I was anxious to examine whether the matter in a gonorrhoea was formed in the same way. In the spring of 1753 there was an execution of eight men, two of whom I knew had at that time very severe gonorrhoeas. Their bodies being procured for this particular purpose, we were very accurate in our examination, but found no ulceration, the two urethras appeared merely a little blood-shot, especially near the glans. This being another new fact ascertained, it could not escape Mr. Gataker, ever attentive to his emolument, who was then attending Dr. Hunter’s lectures, and also practising dissection under me. He published, soon after in 1754, a treatise on this disease, and explained fully, that the matter in a gonorrhoea did not arise from an ulcer, without mentioning how he acquired this knowledge; and it has ever since been adopted in publications on this subject. Since the period mentioned above, I have constantly paid particular attention to this circumstance, and have opened the urethra of many who at the time of their death had a gonorrhoea, yet have never found a fore in any ; but always observed that the urethra near the glans was more blood-shot than usual, and that the lacunae were often filled with matter.

* As usual, the Ordinary plied the condemned while they languished in Newgate. However, he broke with his usual practice and did not make the trip to Tyburn for this triple execution, “because as they all three died Roman Catholicks, I did not choose to attend, to give them the Opportunity of turning their Backs upon me, as a Protestant Minister, which I knew they must do if I did.”

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1752: Nicholas Mooney, penitent thief

Add comment April 24th, 2018 Headsman

From the Boston Gazette, Aug. 4, 1752:


BRISTOL, April 18.

Last Saturday about 4 o’Clock in the Afternoon ended the Assizes for this City and County, when Nicholas Mooney, and John Jones, for robbing Mr. Rich, William Cudmore, for returning from Transportation, and Mary Hoar for stealing six Gold Rings and a Sum of Money out of the Dwelling-house of William Wats, at the Henroost on the Back, received Sentence of Death. — When the Prisoners stood at the Bar to receive their Sentence, Mooney address’d the Judge to the following Effect:

My Lord,

Permit me again to entreat for John Jones, whom I have enveigled and brought into this Trouble, (as I have done several others before) that your Lordship would be pleased to spare his Life. — As for my own Part, I have committed many Robberies, and have been a Rebel against my King, and have wronged my Country by Coining Money, for which I can never make the Publick Restitution, and therefore I am content to die as I deserve. — And I pray GOD to bless every one to whom I have done any Wrong. And if there be any Gentlemen of Bristol here whom I have injur’d, I ask them Forgiveness, and especially Mr. Wasborough, (who then stood near him) whom I attempted to Murder, but God sav’d him, for which I can never praise him enough. — My Lord, I only desire three Sundays, and then I am willing to launch into Eternity. And I hope when I come to the Place of Execution, that GOD will open my Mouth to warn all to flee their wicked Course of Life. — I pray GOD bless your Lordship, and the honourable Court, and may the Lord Jesus receive my Sou.

Bristol, April 25. Yesterday about one o’clock in the Afternoon, Nicholas Mooney, John Jones and William Cudmore, were executed on St. Michael’s Hill, pursuant to their sentences. — During the Time they were under Sentence of Death, they were visited by several Clergymen of the Church of England, and by many other religious People. Mooney behaved in a very becoming Manner all the Time, shewing the most evident Tokens of a sincere Repentance, to all who either came to see or converse with him; informing all, what a wicked Man he had been; but that, thro’ the Merits of his Saviour, he had found the Forgiveness of his Sins, and was not afraid to die. — In this State he continued to the End, declaring at the Tree, That he knew that as soon as his Breath was out of his Body, his Soul would go immediately to Heaven. — After Prayer and Singing were over, he deliver’d to the Sheriff the printed Copy of his Life, signed with his own Hand; declaring as the Words of a dying Man, That it contained nothing but what was true, and which he would have published for the Benefit of Mankind.

When he had done speaking, and the Cart drew under the Gallows, he assisted in pulling the Halter over the Tree to himself, as also to Jones; and after a few Moments Ejaculations, they all launch’d into Eternity. — Jones made no Confession publickly; but we hear he privately confessed to a Gentleman that attended him, That he had such a natural Propensity to Thieving, that he had followed that Practice even from his Youth — Cudmore persisted to the last, that his Father was hang’d, & he transported wrongfully: But notwithstanding this, there are Ltters of Credit in Town, which certify, that both him and his Father were notorious for Horse-stealing. It is remarkable, that while Mooney’s [obscured] was knocking off in Newgate, he pray’d & [obscured] said, Death has no Sting for me: When they were off, he said, Blessed be GOD, I am got rid of the Chains of My Sins; and appeared with such Chearfulness, as though he was going to a Wedding. — When the Hangman put the Halter round his Neck in the Parlour of the Prison, he said, Welcome, Halter, I am saved as the Thief upon the Cross. — And when he came to the Gallows, he also said, Welcome Gallows, for I have deserved thee these many Years. — When the Hangman was going to tie up Jones, Mooney said, Tie me up first, for I am the greatest Offender.

After the Cart drew away, the Hangman very deservedly had his Head broke, for endeavouring to pull off Mooney’s Shoes; and a Fellow had like to have been kill’d in mounting the Gallows to take away the Ropes that were left after the Malefactors were cut down. — A young Woman came 15 Miles for the Sake of the Rope from Mooneys Neck, which was given to her; it being by many apprehended, that the Halter of an executed Person will charm away the Ague, and perform many other Cures.

A little Time before the Criminals went to the Execution, a Person came to Mooney from a Gentleman in the West, from whom he had received great Favours, to tell him he had received a handsome Letter from him, and that he had sent him to condole him in his unhappy Circumstances: He replied, I am happy, — My Time is short. — GOD bless Mr. M–w. — The Letter was this.

Bristol, April 14, 1752.

SIR,

Before I die, I take this Opportunity to acknowledge your Kindness to me in Time past. — Oh! that I had deserved it, for then I had not brought myself into these Circumstances: But GOD is wise, and seeing I would not hear his Voice and turn from any wicked Life, he gave me up to my own Heart’s Lust, and permitted me to fill up the Measure of mine Iniquity, that in me at last might be shewn the Severity of his Justice, and the Riches of his Mercy. — You took me, the most abandon’d Wretch to be an honest Man and as such you kindly and generously recommended me where I might have done well. It is my own Fault I did not. — On Friday 7-night I am to meet the Fate my Crimes have too justly deserved. — I deserve not only Death, but Hell: To the former Man hath doomed me; from the latter Christ will save me. — Of this I have such a firm Hope in myself, being assured that GOD is reconciled to me, (oh! the Riches of his Mercy in Christ Jesus) that my Prison is a Palace, my Chains are Ornaments, and I am quite happy. — I hope every one will pray for me, that my Faith fail not. — I am longing for Death, and in firm Expectation of a glorious Resurrection to eternal Life.

Your much obliged and dying Servant,
Nic. Mooney.

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1751: William Parsons, Grub Street fodder

Add comment February 11th, 2018 Headsman

We return for this post to a hanging we have previously attended, an uncommonly interesting February 11, 1751 dectuple execution at Tyburn.

Hulking pugilist turned Hogarth allegory James Field was one featured attraction in this batch; the other was the Eton-educated, dissolute son of a baronet, one William Parsons.


This is considerably higher society than a baronet, but we don’t need much excuse hereabouts for a Barry Lyndon tribute.

In the broadest strokes he was the sort of parasitic failson whom the more common stock have long loved to detest, his dissipation having seen him first disinherited, then sent abroad with the Royal Navy (he washed out), then rescuing his situation with a favorable marriage and an army appointment before “the extravagant manner in which he lived, and the loss of large sums of money in gambling, compelled him to throw up his commission, and to return … to his country, a beggar and a vagabond.”

Sentenced by a lenient court to the hard New World frontier of Maryland, Parsons leveraged his family’s good name to escape almost immediately from the drudgery of indentured servitude and risked a return to the mother country where he took to the roads to espouse the classic profession of the embarrassed gentleman, and made men stand and deliver.

It sufficed in the end to recognize him returned from transportation to secure his condemnation, at which Parsons excites the loathing of contemporaries and posterity alike by making bold to beg mercy of his judge “in regard to the family to which I belong, who never had a blot in their escutcheon.” Escutcheon this.

In the scheme of things, his career of self-destruction makes the man nothing but a minor malefactor. However, at least for a season his precipitation — because nine Britons in ten would have looked with envy on his situation even as a disinherited ensign or for that matter as a man with the pull to self-parole from penal transportation — made for the sort of morality play ideally suited to the mass print culture burgeoning in the gallows’ shade.

As we have previously noted in an Irish context, the scrabbling biographers of the latest doomed criminal themselves forever arrived at loggerheads, their rival pamphlets chasing preeminence in authority and rapidity before yesterday’s outrage could be displaced in the public memory by tomorrow’s.

The institutional voice of this racket was of course the Ordinary of Newgate, who by this point had for decades been gobbling up publishing residuals thanks to his didactic and ever more embroidered Ordinary’s Accounts. His entry for February 11, 1751 is a fine exemplar of the genre, running to 19 pages of which the last two are taken up with revenue-pumping advertisements.* With apologies to James Field, the Parsons narrative entirely overawes that of his nine fellow-sufferers, with six full pages devoted to lovingly reminiscing this one man’s tragedy.

Among those lines, we find our divine has relaxed his focus on the salvation of his patients long enough to throw an elbow in the direction of the independent hustlers who will be contesting the marketplace against the Ordinary’s own forthcoming Parsons biography.

N. B. If a certain independent Teacher, or any one else intends to print a Life of Parsons write by himself, take Care left he has imposed upon your Credulity, as he has done to all that had any Thing to do with him.

The “teacher” referenced here is probably Grub Street hack Christopher Smart, who had abandoned a praelectorship at Pembroke College for the charms of movable type … but it’s likely the Ordinary merely selected this allusion because his happened to be the flashiest brand at that moment among the scabrous-broadsheet set, like a present-day critic might metonymize media with the name of Rupert Murdoch.** Richard Ward has argued in his Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th-Century London that this moment occurs amid an “explosion in printed crime reporting in London in the years 1748-55 … created in large part by [publishers’] efforts to generate and sustain public interest in crime.”

The Rev. John Taylor would indeed like any self-respecting scribe collect a second purse on his prose by recycling his Ordinary’s Account version (prepended with the trial transcript) into a distinct standalone publication — “The Trial and Remarkable Life of William Parsons” &c., which Taylor authenticates on the title plate with the notation, “Publish’d by the Minister who attended him while under Sentence of Death, and at the Place of Execution”.

We have nothing like an exhaustive catalogue of the print ephemera swarming Old Blighty in those days, but at least one rival publisher attempted to “impose upon the Credulity” of Parsons gawkers. Francis Stamper’s† “Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of William Parsons, Esq.” claims to have been “Written by Himself [i.e., Parsons], and Corrected (with Additions) at his own Request by a Gentleman.” It runs upwards of 60 picaresque pages.

In a like vein is “A Genuine, Impartial, and Authentick Account of the Life of William Parsons, Esq.” &c. promulgated by Thomas Parker, a regular haunt of the Old Bailey crime blotter; however, close readers might notice that Parker is also one of the publishers of the Ordinary’s Accounts‡ and for that reason his edition is presumably more commercially congenial to that clergyman. Parker promises besides the expected biography a trove of correspondence to and from Parsons in the dungeons — we might well suspect whose hand has procured it — a good deal of which is taken up in Parsons imposing pleas for intercession upon a friendly earl, on his prosecutor, and upon his family to pull whatever strings they might.

* One of those ads hyped publication of “A COMPLEAT HISTORY OF JAMES MACLEAN, The GENTLEMAN HIGHWAYMAN”; that man had just hanged four months previous. This volume went abroad under the imprimatur of Charles Corbett, who shared with Thomas Parker the contract to publish the Ordinary’s Accounts.

** A satirical poem called “Old Woman’s Dunciad”, itself a travesty of Pope’s “Dunciad”, was in those weeks burning up the London bestseller lists. Smart is targeted for satire in the poem but was also suspected to be the author. In fact, it was the work of another knight of the low literature called William Kenrick — but both Kenrick and Smart intentionally muddied the authorship lurking behind the pen name “Mary Midnight”, which both men employed. (For context on the dizzying 1750-1751 publishing scene, see Christopher Smart: Clown of God.)

† Stamper was a collaborator of William Kenrick’s (see preceding footnote).

‡ Look for it on the first page of the Ordinary’s Account: “Printed for, and sold by T. PARKER, in Jewin-street, and C. CORBETT, over-against St. Dunstan’s Church, in Fleet-street, the only authorised Printers of the Dying Speeches.” This notice is to be found repeatedly in Ordinary’s Accounts of the period; moreover, Corbett and Parker sometimes advertise their potboilers in those same accounts, in language that makes explicit their alliance with the Ordinary. For example, we have this from the March 23, 1752 Account:

In a Few Days will be Published, The Only Genuine and Authentic NARRATIVE OF THE PROCEEDINGS Of the Late Capt. LOWREY, Both before and after he became Commander of the Ship MOLLY: As the same was delivered by himself, in Manuscript, into the Hands of the Rev. Mr. TAYLOR, Ordinary of NEWGATE, some short Time before his Execution.

Printed only for T. PARKER, in JEWIN-STREET, AND C. CORBETT, in FLEET-STREET.

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1752: William Montgomery, small enough to fail

Add comment November 13th, 2017 Headsman

In the absence of a modern bankruptcy framework, underwater debtors could be clapped into prisons like the notorious Fleet. As this had the effect of overcrowding the dungeons with otherwise productive persons who were little likely to meet the theoretical obligation to repay their bondsmen, the British Parliament passed Insolvency Acts intermittently throughout the 18th century as bankruptcy holidays that would permit orderly mass discharges of debt. Given the chaotic state of record keeping there must also have been a wide swath of grey-area debtors who for the benefit of resuming economic life would bend whatever facts needed bending to slide themselves into the Acts’ safe harbors.

Our William Montgomery was one of these, who told a white lie about being abroad on the date necessary to wipe the slate clean — but found that his creditors were not so easy to forgive either invoices or prevarications, to the extent of revenging their balance sheet at Tyburn.

This Newgate Calendar entry gives us a heavy dose of editorializing and also misstates the date of Montgomery’s execution because of course it does. For the rentiers’ side of the moral preening, compare to the Ordinary’s Account.*


WILLIAM MONTGOMERY
Executed at Tyburn, December 2, 1752 [sic], for defrauding his creditors

In a country like England, and more especially when we view the overgrown capital, though productive of crimes in fraudulent debtors, we must advocate acts of insolvency.

The good of many must be pre-eminent to the villainy of a few; and, where we find one punished for the abuse of the lenity of the legislative body, we happily find thousands of unfortunate beings rescued from the horrors of a prison, where they had long been immured without the means of support, much less were they able to satisfy the demands of inexorable creditors.

The necessity of good faith in contracts, and the support of commerce, oblige the legislature to secure for the creditors the person of the bankrupts; and in this point of view may the subject of this case, and all others who take the benefit of an act of insolvency, be considered.

The fraudulent bankrupt should be punished in the same manner with him who adulterates the coin of the realm; for to falsify a piece of coin, which is a pledge of mutual obligations between men, is not a greater crime than to violate the obligations themselves.

But the bankrupt who, after a strict examination, has proved before the commissioners that either the fraud or losses of others, or misfortunes unavoidable by human prudence, have stripped him of his substance, on what barbarous pretence is he thrown into prison, and thus deprived of the only remaining good, the melancholy enjoyment of mere liberty? Still more hard is the case of an unfortunate trader, who, disclosing his whole transactions, and offering to assign over to his creditors the remains of his stock, is cast into prison by a single hard-hearted unrelenting claimant. Yet this is constantly done in Britain.

Why is such a man cast into a loathsome prison, ranked with criminals, and, in despair, compelled to repent of his honesty? Conscious of his innocence, he lived easy and happy under the protection of those laws, which, it is true, he violated, but not intentionally. Laws are dictated by the avarice of the rich, and tacitly accepted by the poor, seduced by that flattering and universal hope, which makes men believe that all unlucky accidents are the lot of others, and the most fortunate only their share.

Mankind, when influenced by the first impressions, love cruel laws, although, being subject to them themselves, it is in the interest of every person that they should be as mild as possible; but the fear of being injured is always far more prevalent that the intention of injuring others.

But, to return to the innocent bankrupt. Let his debt, if you will, not be considered as cancelled till payment of the whole; let him be refused the liberty of leaving the country with out leave of his creditors, or of carrying into another nation that industry, which, under a penalty, he should be obliged to employ for their benefit; but what pretence can justify the depriving of an innocent, though unfortunate, man of his liberty, without the least utility to his creditors?

Then it may be in answer be said, that the hardships of confinement will induce him to discover his fraudulent transactions: an event that can hardly be supposed, after a rigorous examination into his conduct and affairs.

It will be necessary to distinguish fraud, attended with aggravating circumstances, from simple fraud, and that from perfect innocence. For the first, let there be ordained the same punishment as for forgery. For the second, a punishment with the loss of liberty; and if perfectly innocent, let the bankrupt himself choose the method of re-establishing himself, and satisfying his creditors.

With what ease might a sagacious legislator prevent the greatest part of fraudulent bankruptcies, and remedy the misfortunes that befall the innocent and industrious! A public register of all contracts, with the liberty of consulting it allowed to each tradesman — a public fund, formed by the contribution of fortunate merchants, for the timely assistance of unfortunate industry — would be the establishments that could produce no real inconveniences, but would be attended with numberless advantages.

Many eminent bankers, in the history of the trade of London, by an unexpected run upon their house, must have become bankrupts, and thereby embarrassed thousands, had not the Bank of England come to their assistance; but alas! The unfortunate tradesman has no one to prevent his fall. Unhappily, the most simple, the easiest regulations, await only the nod of the legislator to diffuse through nations wealth, power and felicity; laws, which would be regarded by future generations with eternal gratitude, are either unknown or rejected. A restless and trifling spirit, the timid prudence of the present moment, and a distrust and aversion to the most useful motives, possess the minds of those who are empowered to regulate the actions of mankind.

It must at the same time, be acknowledged, that the baseness of a few failures often tends to render callous the feelings of creditors.

No act of insolvency has been carried into effect without the detection of fraud. Eager to embrace its benefits, and thus rid themselves of debt, men will wade through perjury, and employ every means to accomplish their purpose.

After the destruction of the prisons in London, during the riots of the year 1780, an act was passed for the purpose of absolving all who had been confined. Of this every rascal in London was ready to take the advantage. A mere form was only necessary, to enter their names; but the signatures, that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, to his infinite honour, ordered the lists to be printed and published, which put to rout whole hives of impostors. Names were herein found that might as well have expected to appear in the list of Gazette promotions.

A man of this description was the subject who led to this enquiry.

William Montgomery was a native of Elphinstone, in Scotland, and educated in the Presbyterian form of religion.

His father dying when he was about thirteen years old, his mother sent him to sea in a ship belonging to Alloa. Having continued in the naval line of business some years, he at length married, and opened a public house in Bishopsgate-street; and dealing largely as a smuggler, he frequently went to Holland, to bring home prohibited goods.

Quitting Bishopsgate-street, he lived some years at the sign of the Highlander, in Shadwell; but, on the death of his wife, he resolved to decline business as a publican; and having saved some money, he entered again into the matrimonial state, and taking a lodging in Nightingale-lane, he let lodgings to seafaring men.

Meeting with success, he took a shop as a seller of seamen’s clothes; but left the care of it chiefly to his wife, while he employed his own time in frequent trips to Holland, in pursuit of his former illicit practice of smuggling.

An act of insolvency passing in the year 1748, favourable to such persons as had been in foreign parts fugitives for debt, Montgomery took the benefit of it, swearing that he was at Rotterdam on the last day of the preceding year: in consequence of which, he was cleared of his debts, to the injury of his creditors.

No notice was taken of this affair till the expiration of four years, when, Montgomery having arrested a neighbour, the man gave notice of his former transactions to one of his creditors, who laying an information before the lord mayor, Montgomery was lodged in Newgate on suspicion.

Being brought to trial at the next sessions at the Old Bailey, several persons deposed that they spent the evening with him at his own house at the time he alleged that he was in Holland, in order to take the benefit of the act: so that he was convicted, and received sentence to die.

For some time after conviction he behaved with apparent signs of devotion; but asserted his innocence, and said that the witnesses against him were perjured; and in this tale he continued till the arrival of the warrant for his execution.

Being pressed by the divine who attended him to tell the truth, he persisted in the former story until the Friday before his death; but in the afternoon of that day he acknowledged, that after having been on board a Dutch vessel; in order to take his passage for Holland, he had come on shore, owing to the contrary winds.

On the following day he insisted that, “as he had been sworn according to the methods used in Scotland, without kissing the book, his crime could not come within the meaning of the act”. In reply to this he was told that the mode of administering could make no difference to the nature of an oath.

Hereupon he made a full confession of his crime, and owned that, having come on shore, he concealed himself for some weeks in his own house; then appeared publicly, saying he had been at Rotterdam: after which he surrendered himself to the warden of the Fleet prison, and obtained the benefit of the act of insolvency.

On the Sunday following, when he was pressed to declare the whole truth, he exclaimed, “What would you have me say? I have told you all the truth, and can say no otherwise than what I have done. If I did, I should belie myself, and my own knowledge.”

This malefactor appeared dreadfully shocked on the morning of execution, and wished for time for repentance, which he now considered highly necessary. At the place of execution he warned the spectators to beware of covetousness, which had been the cause of his destruction.


* Sample of the Ordinary’s take on the gravity of disappointing your creditors:

That he suffered justly, as an Example, and for a Terror to such an Undertaking again, I believe no one can gain-say …

for which Atonement can scarce, but if ever, not without the utmost Difficulty, be made: And, through this Filth, and Mire of Wickedness, must he pass, who resolves to make an intentional, a real Fraud.

What can the Man think that shall be guilty of such high Offence? ‘Tis publickly known that human Laws are determined to punish it with Death, and what is to come afterwards, God only knows.

Let this then the Fate of poor Montgomery deter all others for the future from attempting a Breach of such an Indulgence, if ever it should please the Legislature to grant one again. And tho’, in a former Part of these Sheets, he did not scruple to say, he was not the only one who feloniously laid hold of the Benefit of the last Insolvent Act, yet Charity engages to think better Things, and to hope there is not an Instance of the like Kind to be met with in England.

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1755: Louis Mandrin

Add comment May 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, the French outlaw Louis Mandrin was broken on the wheel.

In common with the whole French populace, Mandrin had a beef with the Ferme general — the country’s tax-farming concern — but Mandrin was the one who did something about it.

Specifically, he built a vast smuggling network in the 1750s that all along a vast north-south corridor from Burgundy to Savoy moved tobacco, cotton, and everything else the farm wanted to harvest — scoring political points along the way by thrashing the tax collectors whenever possible. It’s said that he took pains to have his merry contrabanders stay out of the violence business, unless they had the opportunity to direct it at the revenue men.

In the end, the Farmers General — a wealthy consortium that would one day soon commission a chunk of Paris’s city walls — provoked an international incident by illegally raiding Savoy to capture him, then having him tried and executed with speed to forestall any possibility of his return being negotiated.

But the popular bandit entered the popular culture where he has long outlived the rapacious Farmers; he’s been the subject of multiple film treatments, most recently in 2011, and the pensive folk song “La complainte de Mandrin” still today maintains its currency.

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1755: Henri Mongeot, Lescombat assassin

Add comment January 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1755, Henri Mongeot was broken on the wheel for assassinating the husband of his adulterous lover, Marie.

Louis Alexandre Lescombat was a Paris architect; the betrayal of his flighty wife Marie Catherine Taperet was all the talk of Paris after her lover Mongeot slew the husband whilst out on a walk in December of 1754 — then summoned the watch to present a bogus self-defense claim.

This tactic has been known to work when the killer enjoys sufficient impunity; perhaps a respectable bourgeois like Lescombat could have done it to Mongeot — but when the horny 23-year-old busts up the family home with one blade and then the other, it’s La Mort de Lescombat, a tragedy.

For the widow, one good betrayal would deserve another: Mongeot faithfully avoided implicating her in the murder but when he discovered on the very eve of his death that she was already making time with a new fellow, he summoned the judge and revenged himself by exposing her incitement to the crime. His evidence would doom her to follow him many months later, after the sentence was suspended long enough for the widow Lescombat to deliver a son.

Joining Mongeot on the scaffold this date was a 15-year-old heir to the family executioner business apparently conducting just his second such sentence — Charles-Henri Sanson, the famed bourreau destined in time to cut off the head of the king and queen. Mongeot makes a passing appearance in the 19th century Memoirs of the Sansons; in it, Charles-Henri’s grandson remarks from the family notes that “Mdme. Lescombat … was confronted with him [i.e., her doomed lover] at the foot of the scaffold. She was remarkably handsome, and she tried the effect of her charms on her judges, but without avail.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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