1759: Catharine Knowland, the last to hang on the Tyburn Tree

Add comment June 18th, 2016 Headsman


The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia. (via)

On this date in 1759, Catharine Knowland became the last fruit of the Tyburn Tree.

Dating to the Elizabethan age, the triangular triple gallows had long secured its place in death penalty iconography.

Over the years its sturdy limbs ushered to the hereafter London’s most hated criminals and her most beloved; dashing outlaws; steely regicides; holy martyrs — in ones and twos, or in heavy crops of up to 24.

By the time of the Bloody Code, what had once been an outlying village was being absorbed into the city, and as we come to our scene in the mid-18th century was a place of rising respectability decreasingly at home with the sordid task appointed to it — and with the disorderly revel thereby invited. Neighbors were pushing to send away the gallows.


William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747). The execution itself is barely visible, swallowed up in a disordered throng.

In little more than a generation’s time, public executions would indeed be removed from Tyburn altogether. But the tree itself did not quite make it to the end of Tyburn’s famous run.

That evil structure’s last client emerged around midnight on the night of April 16. Returning home late from a night of boozing and/or whoring, one Richard Ireland rounded onto Drury Lane where — he told the court — Catharine Knowland

bid me stop, and asked me where I was going; I said, what is that to you; she took hold on the skirt of my coat, and catch’d hold of my watch and pull’d it from my pocket; I made a struggle with her; then up came a man and said, You scoundrel dog, what business have you with my wife, and down he knock’d me; I was sensible and got up directly and pursued her.

The watch was worth 40 shillings, which meant it was worth a thief’s life.

Knowland unsuccessfully tried to plead her belly, a common enough ploy, but it seems her situation excited some sympathy beyond the ordinary for on this day of her death, “When she came to Tyburn, all the Cross-Beams were pulled down; so she was tied up on the Top of one of the upright Posts, and hung with her Back to it.” (London Public Advertiser, Tuesday, June 19, 1759.)

By that summer, beams and posts alike had been demolished — replaced by a smaller, portable structure, to begin public hangings’ a century-long shrinkage from the raucous mobs under the Tyburn Tree until the spectacle at last vanished behind prison walls altogether.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1759: William Davis, St. Croix slave revolt suicide

Add comment December 14th, 2013 Headsman

On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.

They strung up his remains just the same.

St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.

“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”

It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …

Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.

For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie

White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?

Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.

We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.

But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.

Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.

Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”

For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.

The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.

It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”

The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”

Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.

Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”

Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.

Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.

[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.

Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.

His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a gallows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†

By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§

* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.

** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.

† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.

‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759” in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.

§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:

2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.

He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.

3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.

Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.

4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.

Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.

6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.

Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.

7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.

He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.

8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.

He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.

9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.

Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.

10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.

Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.

11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.

He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.

12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.

Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.

13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.

14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.

He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,US Virgin Islands

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1759: Eugene Aram, philologist

Add comment August 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1759, Eugene Aram was hanged at York for murder.

Aram was the son of a gardener, but taught himself Latin and Greek and made himself a respected schoolteacher.

Aram had a special gift for languages, and began research on a never-completed comparative lexicology of the Celtic tongue — correctly intuiting, if not the identity of the distant common mother tongue, the concept of what is now understood as the common progenitor of the related Indo-European languages.

the ancient Celtae, by the numberless vestigaes left behind them, in Gaul, Britain, Greece, and all the western parts of Europe, appear to have been, if not the aborigines, at least their successors, and masters, in Gaul, Britain, and the west; — that their language, however obsolete, however mutilated, is at this day discernible in all those places which that victorious people conquered and retained: — that it has extended itself far and wide, visibly appearing in the ancient Greek, Latin, and English, of all which it included a very considerable part; and, indeed, it still unquestionably, forms a most important ingredient in all the languages of Europe. (Source at archive.org | Google books)

His might have been an illustrious name in linguistic history. Instead …

In 1745, when Aram was already 40 and teaching in Knaresborough, a strange event occurred: a friend of Aram’s named Daniel Clark made the rounds of local merchants “buying” (on credit) a variety of portable valuables … and then promptly disappeared. Aram was suspected of some part in this sketchy affair and detained using the expedient of an outstanding debt pending investigation that would yield a more satisfactory charge.

Aram, however, paid off his arrears in cash. Since no real grounds existed to hold him, he walked away, and immediately left Knaresborough.

There the matter rested for 13 years, time that Aram spent immersed in his language work.

Justice delayed was not to be denied, however. Finally, in 1758, the accidental discovery of a body in Knaresborough rekindled interest in the case (even though the body turned out not to be Clark’s). Thirteen years on, the matter unlocked with amazing ease; Aram’s wife (left behind in Knaresborough when our man blew town) had her suspicions, which led to a mutual friend of Aram’s and the victim, who gave authorities the correct location of Clark’s theretofore undiscovered body. (Namely, St. Robert’s cave.) Upon that considerable credibility the mutual friend (Houseman by name) accused Aram of the murder. Since the wife was also prepared to swear she had heard all these men, and Clark among them, conspiring shadily together, Aram was in the stew.

As a proper Enlightenment man, learner of languages, inquirer of science, writer of poetry, and author of dark and vengeful deeds, Aram didn’t bother with a barrister but defended himself, and very ably in the judgment of his observers.

“His defense was an ingenious plea of the general fallibility of circumstantial evidence,” records this encyclopedia. But he had to stick to generalities because (as he admitted after conviction) he was actually quite guilty, and Aram “seemed really more carried away by the abstract philosophy of his argument, than impressed by the terrible relation it bore to his fate.” The lengthy Newgate calendar entry on his case preserves some of these sorties.

He would eventually ascribe his own motive not to greed of gold but suspicion of cuckoldry. Houseman, who was probably just as involved (and probably in his part for greed) appears to have escaped the noose.

Aram became a potent literary reference for his countrymen as a partially sympathetic, Janus-faced creature: the thoughtful scholar encumbered by his guilty conscience, or one whose potential gift to all mankind is undone by his injury to one man.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a novel about Aram. In Thomas Hood‘s poem “The Dream of Eugene Aram”, the titular killer is tormented by the recollection of what he has done.

“Oh God! that horrid, horrid dream
Besets me now awake!
Again — again, with dizzy brain,
The human life I take:
And my red right hand grows raging hot,
Like Cranmer‘s at the stake.

“And still no peace for the restless clay,
Will wave or mould allow;
The horrid thing pursues my soul —
It stands before me now!”
The fearful Boy looked up, and saw
Huge drops upon his brow.

That very night while gentle sleep
The urchin’s eyelids kissed,
Two stern-faced men set out from Lynn,*
Through the cold and heavy mist;
And Eugene Aram walked between,
With gyves upon his wrist.

Wodehouse, Orwell, W.G. Wills all also dropped Eugene Aram literary references in their day.

* The town in Norfolk where Aram was hanging his hat when he was finally arrested.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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1759: The Tavora family

15 comments January 13th, 2009 Headsman

Two and a half centuries ago today, Portugal’s noble Tavora family was extirpated in Belem.

[A] scaffold eighteen feet in height was erected in the market-place of Lisbon, during the night of the 13th, round which was drawn up a cordon of military. Precisely at 7 o’clock in the morning, the old Marchioness of Tavora, as the most guilty, was brought upon the scene, her hands bound, and a rope round her neck. She was placed on a chair, and her eyes being bound, the executioner struck her head off without the previous utterance by her of any complaint. After her came the twenty-one-year-old son, Joseph Maria de Tavora. They bound him on a cross raised aloft, broke his arms and legs with iron clubs, and then strangled him with a rope. The same fate befell [Tavora son-in-law] Jeronimo de Ataide, Count of Atouguia, the young Marquis Luiz Bernard de Tavora, colonel of cavalry, his servant Blasius Joseph Romeiro, Corporal Emanuel Alvarez Fereira, valet of the Duke of Aveira, and the body-page, John Michael. Their corpses were all flattened upon wheels, which were placed on poles, and this proceeding took up so much time that fully half an hour elapsed before another execution could be proceeded with.


Other outstandingly gory images of this day’s business are here.

After the page Miguel or Michael, the executioner took the old Francis d’Assis de Tavora, bound him on a St. Andrew’s cross, gave him three blows on the chest with an iron rod that resounded to a distance, shattered his arms and legs, and then gave him his coup de grace through the heart. The executioner’s men then, amidst wild shrieks, shattered the arms, legs, and thighs of the ninth victim, the old Duke of Aveiro, while still alive, then killed him by a blow on the chest, and threw him into the blazing fire. Finally, the tenth delinquent, the valet Anton Alvarez Fereira, brother of the above-mentioned Emanuel, was conducted before the corpses of the nine who had been previously executed, each one being shown to him; he was then bound to a stake, round which was placed a heap of wood, and this being set fire to, was raked together until he was completely consumed* … When the execution was over, the scaffold, together with all the dead bodies, was set on fire and burnt to ashes, which were thrown into the Tagus.

Oh, and one last thing:

[T]he palaces of the high nobility who had been executed were pulled to pieces and levelled to the ground, and salt strewed on the places where they had stood, as a sign that they should never be built up again.

Yikes.


This stone marker was placed on the site of the razed palace of Jose Mascarenhas, the Duke of Aveiro. “On this infamous land,” it announces, “nothing may be built for all time.” Copyrighted image courtesy of Ludgero Paninho.

Seems someone got the idea that the Tavoras tried to kill (and more problematically, failed to kill) Portuguese king Joseph I.

Circumstantial, torture-adduced evidence put the scheming Marchioness Eleonora de Tavora and clan behind an apparent assassination attempt, wherein a couple of assailants had shot at the king’s unmarked carriage as it returned on a little-used road from a rendezvous with his mistress. (One of the circumstances was that the mistress was a Tavora, which put the accused in a position to know the king’s secret travel plans. Others argue the gunmen might have just been common highwaymen who had no idea they were setting upon the royal person.)

Whatever the facts of the matter, obscure behind a quarter-millennium, its attribution to the Tavoras and the spectacular revenge thereupon visited was effected by the king’s competent and ruthless minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marquis de Pombal.


A monumental plinth surmounted by Pombal dominates the present-day Lisbon plaza named for him.

His able handling of the recent Lisbon earthquake had cemented his position as the throne’s right-hand man in a trend of centralizing absolutism not much appreciated by the old aristocracy (nor by the hidebound clerical orders, which explains why the aforesaid gory account of the execution ground comes from a German anti-Jesuit polemic).

And he would not miss the opportunity an attack on the king’s person gave him to sweep away his opponents.

The peers of the realm were summoned to witness their fellow blue-bloods so nauseatingly dispatched, and the Jesuits — “reported to have inflamed the Tavora family to their [the Jesuits’] desired pitch … in revenge for what had justly been done to them in South America”** — were forthwith suppressed.

(Functionally a progressive secular dictator — or an enlightened despot, to use a more 18th-century description — Pombal would eventually push political conflict with Rome so near the brink of outright schism that the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Melo characterizes it as “a sort of disguised Anglicanism,” adding that “many of the evils from which the Church now suffers are a legacy from him.” His ascendancy is the “Pombaline Terror” in Catholic annals.)

Melo/Pombal exercised the power of the state for the rest of Joseph’s life, but the king’s daughter and successor Maria I dismissed him — though she did not take punitive action against Pombal for his persecutions, as his enemies demanded.

* Also doomed to burning alive was one Joseph Policarpo, who was able to escape the mass arrest a few weeks before and fled the kingdom. He was executed by effigy.

** This comment is from the letters of Christopher Hervey, an Englishman abroad in Portugal at the time of the execution whose 100+ pages’ worth of correspondence include live-at-the-scene reporting and English translations of the public pronouncements against the supposed culprits. As to the South American roots of Pombal’s conflict with the Jesuits, the order had resisted Pombal’s early schemes to reorganize and rationalize Portugal’s New World holdings in order to make the country a more competitive colonial power. Jesuit resistance to giving up the order’s control of education, and its humanitarian efforts to protect Indians, had been seen as contributing to an Indian rebellion that broke out in Jesuit-controlled territory — even to the point that Jesuits themselves were suspected of arming Indians in an effort to carve out church-controlled states. Hervey’s version has the Jesuits behind the plot in order to eliminate Pombal’s threat to their power. Others share this opinion … and Pombal, obviously, was keen to have his rivals inculpated for lese majeste in the public mind.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,History,Infamous,Mass Executions,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Portugal,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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