1752: William Montgomery, small enough to fail

Add comment November 13th, 2017 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar, which misstates the date of Montgomery’s execution because of course it does.

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. 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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1752: Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie

1 comment March 18th, 2016 Headsman

Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie were executed this day, for stealing a child, eight or nine years of age, and selling its body to the surgeons for dissection. Alive on Tuesday, when carried off, and dead on Friday, with an incision in the belly, but sewn up again.

-Tolbooth’s log for March 18, 1751/2*

This date in 1752 marks a milestone in the mutation of the Enlightenment’s piercing medical gaze into the beginnings of a macabre and sordid niche industry that kept doctors well-supplied with cadavers into which to gaze.

The March 18 hanging in Edinburgh of Helen Torrence and Jean Waldie appears to be the first known execution for an anatomy murder.

In the bad old days when dissection subjects were so hard to come by that medical students were known to snatch fresh bodies from the grave like Dr. Frankenstein, the Scots Magazine reported that the two women “frequently promised two or three surgeon-apprentices to procure them a subject” in exchange for a small fee. That fee really was quite small: two shillings, and a few extra pence they haggled for, not at all a favorable rate to sell one’s soul and maybe little more than enough to cover their costs.

Torrence and Waldie were supposed to obtain the subject while sitting on a ceremonial death watch with a dead child, but having no such deceased moppet to hand and really needing a couple of shillings, the ladies went the far more perilous route of snatching a real live eight-year-old while his parents were away. They plied little John Dallas with ale and suffocated his breath away, and Torrence even schlepped the cadaver to the apprentice surgeons in her own apron for an added tip.

The prisoners’ hair-splitting defense, a masterpiece of legal black comedy, was that they could only be shown guilty of kidnapping a living child and then selling a dead child — and neither of these acts constituted a capital crime. Considering the deep-rooted public loathing of resurrectionists’ grave-raiding, the court readily made free to infer from the juxtaposition of these circumstances the hated women’s culpability for John Dallas’s demise.

* 1752 was the last year that England maintained the old Julian calendar, and with it, the recognition of New Year’s Day on Lady Day (March 25) rather than January 1, so the documents of the time make this execution March 18, 1751. The change to the Gregorian calendar took place that summer.

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1752: Thomas Wilford, the first hanged under the Murder Act of 1751

Add comment July 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.

Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1752, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**

Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†

Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.

“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.

A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.

Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the predominant practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡

* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our norm has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)

England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.

I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.

** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.

† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like these blokes.

‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.

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1752: James of the Glen

Add comment November 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1752, the Scotsman Seamus a’ Ghlinne mounted a gallows above the narrows at Ballaculish with the reproach of Psalm 35 for his persecutors:

False witnesses rose; to my charge things I not knew they laid.
They, to the spoiling of my soul, me ill for good repaid.

Seamus a’Ghlinne — James of the Glen, or just James Stewart — had come there that day to die for the ambush murder of Colin Roy Campbell.

The victim was stock of Clan Campbell, one of the largest Highland clans and one whose loyalties to England’s Hanoverian kings were being richly rewarded.

The Stewarts, who had backed the recent ill-fated Jacobite rebellion in favor of the exiled pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie, were in the opposite predicament.

Colin Campbell was said on that fatal May 14 to be en route to expel the Stewarts from the village of Duror so that Campbells could move in. But even Campbell’s everyday job of extracting resentful rents from estates repossessed from Jacobite sympathizers would have turned many a murderous eye his way.

Someone that day shot Colin Campbell in the back from wooded cover, then vanished, murderous eye and trigger finger and all, never to be never apprehended. So they got James Stewart to answer for it instead.

This wasn’t a tragic case of well-intentioned police developing tunnel vision on the wrong suspect so much as repaying tit for tat in a family feud. The trial was held at the Campbells’ Inverary Castle. Its presiding judge was the Campbell alpha male, the Duke of Argyll. Eleven more Campbells sat on Stewart’s jury. But then, from the Campbells’ side, or London’s for that matter, what was to say that this one murder might not be the germ of a new rebellion if not ruthlessly answered?

Still, there was “not a shred of evidence,” says present-day Glasgow barrister John Macauley, who is pushing for an official reversal of the verdict. “The whole thing from start to finish was a farce.” (Judge for yourself here.)

James Stewart was, however, the foster father of a man who actually was suspected of firing the shot, Allan Breck Stewart, a former Jacobite fighter who had returned from exile in France to collect rents for the Stewarts. Known to have threatened the Campbells previously, Allan was also tried and condemned to death — but only in absentia, since he suspiciously fled to France immediately after the so-called Appin Murder.

Many years later, Robert Louis Stevenson would use this dramatic crime, and Al(l)an Breck’s flight to safety, in Kidnapped. “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it,” Stevenson’s Alan says to the fictional protagonist in the novel, just after both have witnessed the murder.

And in reality, Alan too is thought by those who know the case to be clear of guilt in the matter. The Stewart family reputedly knew all along which of their number was Campbell’s real killer, but refused to give him up and kept the family secret for generations. It’s even said that that man had to be forcibly held down on execution day to prevent him giving himself up.

To judge by the most recent research, that man was likely Donald Stewart, the son of Stewart of Ballachulish and the best shot among a group of several young hotheads who resolved together to slay the Campbells’ hated Factor. The conspiracy also goes as the reason — or at least excuse — for keeping Donald silent, since in giving himself up he might see all four of them to the gallows. The late Lee Holcombe makes a comprehensive case for Donald Stewart as the gunman in the 2004 book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion; Donald Stewart was also fingered publicly in 2001 by a matriarch of the Stewarts of Appin, though others of her family have not publicly confirmed that that’s the secret name.

James Stewart’s decaying corpse remained gibbeted on the spot of his execution for 18 months after, a rotting warning to the Stewarts or any late Jacobites. In 1754, a local halfwit called “Daft Macphee” finally tore down the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe … but its former position overlooking the modern Ballachulish Bridge is still marked by a mossy stone monument to James of the Glen, “executed on this spot Nov. 8th 1752 for a crime of which he was not guilty.”

A Few Books About the Appin Murder

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1752: Mary Blandy, “forgiveness powder”

1 comment April 6th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.

That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.

The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.

The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.

Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.

Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.

Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.

While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.

Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.

Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.

She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.

By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.

One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.

When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”

As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.

A few days later he was dead.

Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.

When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.

James C. Whorton discusses her trial in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play:

‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.

Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:

The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.

Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”

There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.

The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.

In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.

There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:

With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.

Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.

Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.

Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.

She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.

Update: Because you can find anything on the Internet: the story of Mary Blandy in shadow puppetry.

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1402: False Olaf

2 comments September 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1402, a Prussian commoner was put to death on the road between Falsterbo and Skanor in Sweden for masquerading as the long-dead King Olaf IV.

The real Oluf IV Haakonsson — or Olav, or Olaf — had inherited the crowns of Denmark and Norway and a claim to that of Sweden’s but died at the age of 17 in 1387. His mother, Margaret I (or Margrethe I), the real power behind the teenager, ruled outright upon her son’s death.

She proved an able hand and far-sighted ruler, cautiously welding Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union that would hold until the 16th century. They called her “the Semiramis of the North,” centuries before Catherine the Great nicked the nickname.

But her son’s youthful demise had set persistent rumors abroad — that he was poisoned, for instance, and more to the point for our purposes, that he wasn’t dead at all.

So when his spitting image was recognized, and hailed as the prince of the realm … well, back in the day, equally audacious identity theft was attempted for much smaller stakes than a throne.

Anyway, “Olaf” got some robes befitting Olaf’s station and banged out some letters to Margaret demanding his kingdom back, and Margaret said, come on down.

That goes to show how far looks will take you in life.

Unfortunately for Olaf, his regal jawline wasn’t capable of enunciating Danish speech … so the jig was up as soon as he got to Margaret. One hopes he got a good ride out of his brief masquerade, because he was burned to ashes — possibly after being broken on the wheel — along with those presumptuous letters.

The date of False Olaf’s death comes from Horace Marryat’s 19th century Scandinavian travelogues, One Year in Sweden; including a visit to the isle of Gotland and A Residence in Jutland, the Danish Isles, and Copenhagen (both free reads at Google Books). In both volumes, Marryat identifies the date as the morning before Michaelmas.

The traditional last day of the harvest season celebrated on September 29, Michaelmas was once a four-star holiday on the medieval calendar.

There’s a fair amount of commentary online saying that an “Old Michaelmas” used to be celebrated on October 10 or 11. But that looks to this writer like an interesting inversion stemming ultimately from the celebration’s fall into obscurity as the entity once known as Christendom has become more secular and less agrarian — although it’s admittedly nothing to do with the fate of False Olaf, or Semiramis for that matter.

In 1752, when England finally switched to the Gregorian Calendar, the switch took place in early September.*

For logistical pragmatism (the harvest wasn’t going to come in 11 days earlier just because the calendar changed), the then-imminent Michaelmas got pushed back 11 days to October 10. October 10 then became known as “Old Michaelmas,” no longer Michaelmas by the church calendar but the 365-day interval from when it used to be celebrated, and more importantly, the real end of the harvest season.**

In the next century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian calendars would have advanced to 12 days, placing Old Michaelmas on the 11th; by this present day, it’d be 13 days in principle, but the original meaning of the holiday and the host of cultural traditions associated with it have fallen away … so “Old Michaelmas” is a footnote still pinned to October 10th or 11th, and moderns rediscovering it suppose from the name that it’s the former date of the feast.

* People inclined to think of their death dates as foreordained in heaven’s celestial notebook protested the switch: “give us back our 11 days!” This reform, incidentally, also moved the official beginning of the New Year to January 1 from Michaelmas’ springtime “Quarter Day” counterpart, March 25; winter dates from years prior are often written with both years, e.g. 1738/9. “Old Lady Day“, April 6, is still the beginning of the fiscal year in England, and Thomas Hardy uses its traditional contractual character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Aside: Tess’s hanged real-life inspiration) when the title character takes a farm job running through that date:

Tess was so wrapt up in this fanciful dream that she seemed not to know how the season was advancing; that the days had lengthened, that Lady-Day was at hand, and would soon be followed by Old Lady-Day, the end of her term …

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers — or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without — who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

… With the younger families it was a pleasant excitement which might possibly be an advantage. The Egypt of one family was the Land of Promise to the family who saw it from a distance, till by residence there it became it turn their Egypt also; and so they changed and changed.

** Residents of the former Soviet Republics who switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century still celebrate both the familiar January 1 New Year’s and “Old New Year’s” 13 days later, and the same trick with the (lesser, there) holiday of Christmas too … packing four party occasions into a three-week span.

Part of the Themed Set: Semiramis.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,20th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,No Formal Charge,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Prussia,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Sweden,Treason

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