1767: John Williamson, cruel husband

Add comment January 19th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Feb. 2, 1767.

An Account of the CRUELTIES, exercised by JOHN WILLIAMSON on his wife, whereby she left her life, and for which he was lately executed in Moorfields.

JOHN WILLIAMSON, Journeyman Shoemaker, a widower with three children, who all starved together in a garret in an alley in Little Moorfields, found a woman who had upwards of 60l. weak enough in understanding to marry him; but she did not bed with him above two or three times; yet they continued sociable for two or three weeks. But the poor woman soon after finding herself ill-used, and denied common food, made complaints to some neighbours; which he resenting, debarred her from going abroad.

The wife being subject to fits, used to turn up the whites of her eyes, at which a neighbour, and Williamson’s daughter, of fifteen, pretending to be frightened, he thought proper, when he went out, to tie a rope around her waist, and fastened it to a post near the bedstead: but afterwards he procured some hand-cuffs, which were put on in the daytime, and she permitted to sit on a trunk.

Besides having fits, and turning up her eyes, she once drank a dish of tea left in the pot for the little boy, and filled the pot with water; she slapped the boy’s face when he had done a fault; the husband once missing a pair of soles, he supposed she must have made away with them; she struck a light with one of his working knives; she often begged of him for victuals; and he as constantly beat her for it, and once when her husband had been out with other company, and returning about nine at night, her usual time of going to bed, she was found asleep, which was reported to be drunkenness.

These things were thought sufficient reasons by her husband to hand-cuff her, with her hands behind, and tie her up in a closet; he tied a rope to a staple, put it through the hand-cuffs, and drew it up to a nail over her head, so as to cause her to stand on tip-toe, and left her in that condition and posture for near a month together, without being set down or going to bed — not even when she was in fits.

Her husband gave her every day a bit of bread and butter, laying it on a shelf she could easily reach with her mouth, when she could not, sometimes they would put it close; they used to hold water to her mouth while she drank. When she asked for more bread and butter, the husband would not let her have it.

She was also beaten, bruised, and wounded, and frequently sluiced in the face and all over with cold water.

Want of every necessary, and the repetition of the above cruelties, were too much for a woman, and she sunk under them. The day before she died, she was let out of the closet, and offered meat when she could not swallow; she was also then allowed to warm herself, but in ten minutes she was told she was warm enough, and should sit there no longer, but must get into her kennel; she staggered to the closet, and the door was shut; she fell into a delirium, and died in strong convulsions in the evening.

Casualties of Williamson’s abuse outlived the man and his poor wife: Williamson’s children landed in the workhouse of St. Giles’s Cripplegate, whereas elsewhere …


Item from the May 18, 1767 Boston Evening Post.

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1767: Tom, slave of the Baylor family

Add comment October 15th, 2017 Headsman

From The Baylors of Newmarket: The Decline and Fall of a Virginia Planter Family, by Thomas Katheder. The specific “Baylor” referenced in this text is John Baylor III, a slave merchandising heir then in the midst of squandering the family fortune through his passion for horseracing. (In the latter capacity, Baylor also imported the legendary colonial stud Fearnought.) Baylor died in 1772, still straining his creditors for maintenance of his oligarchic station … but his son John Baylor IV died in a debtor’s prison that his “gentleman justice” father had helped to construct. We have the date of the hanging, although not the explanation for the delay between trial and execution, via a different book, Murder at Montpelier.

In colonial Virginia, the county courts, which were controlled by “gentleman justices” like Baylor, governed the counties with an oligarchic, unchecked, and largely self-perpetuating rule utterly unthinkable in modern America. [sic]

With legislative, executive, and judicial functions combined into a single governing body, the county courts impacted the day-to-day lives of Virginians more than any other civil authority. The county court adjudicated most civil matters, including debt and contract disputes, presided over nonfelony criminal cases (accused felons were bound over for trial at the General Court in Williamsburg), and determined whether wills were admitted to probate and whether deeds, mortgages, or other instruments were worthy of being recorded in the county records.

The justices established the amount of the county levy each year and decided who was exempt from taxation and exactly how the money would be spent — no road, bridge, or public building could be built without their approval. They issued bonds, permits, and licenses, including permits for ferries and mills, as well as licenses for taverns and inns; they even set the prices that could be charged for alcoholic beverages.

They appointed all county officers, including tax collectors, the county clerk, militia officers, the coroner, and the sheriff (some of these positions were subject to the royal governor’s usually perfunctory assent). As historian Jack P. Greene points out, in colonial Virginia “[n]ot a single local civil or judicial officer was elected.”

The justices also apprenticed orphans to artisans or tradesman; they fined the parents of illegitimate children or sometimes ordered they be publicly whipped; and they put able-bodied paupers to work or exiled them from the county if they were from somewhere else (under ancient English custom and law the poor were supposed to be dealt with in their home communities.)

The justices were most powerful when they sat as a “Court of Oyer and Terminer” under special commission from the governor. In that capacity the justices could — and did — try slaves for capital offenses and order their execution, without any right of appeal.

In the summer of 1767 one of Col. Baylor’s slaves, Tom, was tried and found guilty of breaking into a white planter’s house and stealing items worth about five shillings. The Orange County Court, presided over by James Madison Sr. (father of the future president) [and a man who had lost his father to an alleged slave murder -ed.], noted that Tom was “precluded from the Benefit of Clergy” because he had already received it once before and ordered him executed.

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1767: Thomas Nicholson, hung in chains

Add comment August 31st, 2016 Headsman

On August 31, 1767, Thomas Nicholson hung in chains at Carleton for murdering his godfather Thomas Parker — a sort of god-parricide.

And we would tell you all about this (rather banal) crime and the (extremely interesting) lineage of the hanging-in-chains punishment that has decorated our pages as it once did the English (and American) byways with gibbets … but Stephen Lewis at the interesting blog The Wild Peak has already taken care of all that. Read his post on Nicholson here.

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1767: Obadiah Greenage, colonial gangster

Add comment July 31st, 2016 Headsman

From the Newport (R.I.) Mercury, September 7-14, 1767:

CHARLESTOWN, South-Carolina,

August 3. The gang of villains from Virginia and North-Carolina, who have for some years past, in small parties, under particular leaders, infested the black parts of the southern provinces, stealing horses from one, and selling them in the next, notwithstanding the late public examples made of several of them, we hear, are more formidable than ever as to numbers, and more audacious and cruel in their thefts and outrages.

‘Tis reported, that they consist of more than 200, form a chain of communication with each other, and have places of general meeting, where (in imitation of councils of war) they form plans of operation and defence, and (alluding to their secrecy and fidelity to each other) call those places Free-Masons Lodges.

Instances of their cruelty to the people in the black settlements, whom they rob or otherwise abuse, are so numerous and shocking, that a narrative of them would fill a whole gazette, and every reader with horror.

They at present range in the Forks between Broad, Saludy, and Savannah rivers. Two of the gang were hanged last week at Savannah, viz. Lundy Hust, [sic] and Obadiah Greenage: Two others, James Ferguson and Jeffe Hambersam, were killed when those were taken.

The Georgia Gazette of August 5, 1767 confirms the date of the execution for Obadiah Greenage at Savannah, but noted that Lundy Hurst was in fact not hanged, but reprieved by the governor.

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1767: Elizabeth Brownrigg

4 comments September 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1767, a jeering mob damning her to hell* saw Elizabeth Brownrigg hang at Tyburn.

“The long and excruciating torture in which this inhuman woman kept the innocent object of her remorseless cruelty, before she finished the long-premeditated murder,” says the Newgate Calendar, “more engaged the attention and roused the indignation of all ranks, than any criminal in the whole course of our melancholy narratives.” Hers is a very rich text.

As a middle-class midwife, Brownrigg mined the Foundling Hospital for young girls whom she would take on as apprentice domestic servants.

Brownrigg was far from the only one exploiting this ready pool of virtual slave labor, but it was her home’s marked sexualized sadism that really moved copy (pdf pamphlet). And Chateau Roissy it was not.

Elizabeth liked to keep the servants locked up, starving, usually naked, and would pinion their hands and inflict merciless corporal punishment for the least transgression against rules like “having any more bread”. The Old Bailey Online preserves one servant’s trial testimony:

Q. In what manner did she use to beat her?

M. Mitchel. She used to tie her up in the kitchen; when first she began to be at her, she used to tie her up to the water-pipe, with her two hands drawed up above her head.

Q. Describe that water-pipe.

M. Mitchel. That goes across the kitchen; the hooks that hold it are fastened into a beam.

Q. Had she used to have her clothes on when your mistress tied her up in this manner to beat her?

M. Mitchel. No, no clothes at all.

Q. How came that?

M. Mitchel. It was my mistress’s pleasure that she should take her clothes off.

Q. What had she used to beat her with?

M. Mitchel. She beat her most commonly with a horse-whip.

Q. How long did she use to beat her in this manner?

M. Mitchel. I cannot justly say, but she seldom left off till she had fetched blood.

This witness Mary Mitchel(l) was the lucky one of the Brownriggs’ last two Foundling Hospital charges: both girls had been stripped and horsewhipped so regularly that ulcerating, infectious sores — never able to heal before the next thrashing — pocked their bodies.

But Mary Mitchell at least survived. Her fellow-sufferer Mary Clifford was flat beaten to death, the body stuffed in the family coal-hole like so much rubbish. (In life, Mary Clifford was sometimes made to sleep there, too.)**


Detail view (click for a larger, three-panel image) of Elizabeth Brownrigg and her crimes illustrated in the Newgate Calendar.

For working-class Londoners struggling to navigate the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, here was a villainess indeed. London was swelling, urbanizing, bustling with vulnerable orphans and abandoned children like our foundling Marys; all its working classes, for that matter, had reason to feel endangered in the face of fights for their lives against emerging commercial powers working hand in glove with the state — not excluding the ubiquitous threat of the gallows for pitiable property crimes.

And as Peter Linebaugh observes, “apprenticeship” by the 18th century “was less likely to involve the development of highly qualified, skilled labour power than to be the means of organizing the exploitation of young labour power.”† Like it’s not enough working your crappy dead-end unpaid internship; now, it comes with flogging?

Somehow, Brownrigg’s husband and son were convicted only of a misdemeanor and got off with a few months in prison, but Elizabeth bore all the hatred of Londoners more used to seeing apprentices swing than even the vilest master. The Murder Act which had appropriated even the corpses of London’s marginal people was applied to anatomize our former midwife; her skeletal remains were long displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Oh, and the Foundling Hospital — which had cautioned the Brownriggs before about their excessive abuse of servants but not actually stopped sending them young girls to abuse — started finally instituting some oversight.


There’s a vicious and unsigned satire, “Elizabeth Brownrigge”, published in the September 1832 Fraser’s magazine. Over the years, it has occasioned a great deal of dispute among Thackeray scholars as to whether it might not have been an early creation of that master satirist’s pen. (Thackeray would have just turned 21 when it published.)

We’re not qualified to render judgment on the literary forensics, but the skewering of a murderess through the author’s mock-sympathy has a deliciously Thackerian flavor about it: the world was “incapable of understanding the height of her virtue.” It also underscores the continuing resonance of Elizabeth Brownrigg to Londoners 65 years after her execution.

The magnanimity of her soul, like Mr. Smeaton‘s pharos on the Eddystone, was firmly fixed upon the rock of the soundest principles, and diffused a light around it, for the guidance of those who were beating the waves upon the dark and troubled ocean of adversity, but was itself unshaken by the storm … [in prison] the fair and excellent Elizabeth adopted, as nearly as circumstances would allow, the same admirable disposition of her time to which she had been accustomed when inhabiting her own romantic bower in the village of Islington. She completed a large stock of baby-linen for the poor; she perused new publications of the day; and she composed an elaborate parallel between the characters of Socrates and Lady Jane Grey, after the manner of Plutarch. These are the two distinguished personages, in the whole range of authentic history, who in their strength of mind, purity of life, and extensive accomplishments, bore the strongest resemblance to herself; and to them, perchance, the attention of our heroine was more particularly directed in the quiet and retirement of her cell by the many points of similarity which subsisted between their destiny and her own.

Later, the fictional Elizabeth mounts a defense of such oblivious loathsomeness that it naturally impresses the judge:

“… punishment is a moral medicine. I may, perchance, actuated by too eager a desire for the rapid cure of my little and much-cherished patient, have dispensed my alternatives too liberally, and produced and untoward, an unexpected, and a most deeply-lamented consequence; but am I, therefore, to be condemned as guilty? In the analogous case of the physician, whose too-abundant anodynes may have lulled the sufferer to endless slumbers, or whose too copious phlebotomy may have let out the fever and the life at one and the same moment from the veins, would this most harsh and unmerciful measure be applied? … I demand from the justice of your lordship and a jury of my countrymen — as a matter not of mercy, but of right — the same impunity in my case which would be accorded, freely an unasked, under parallel circumstances, to the medical practitioner.”

Thackeray or whomever lay behind this pasquinade had a wider literary target in mind than simply Elizabeth Brownrigg(e)’s class. The short story is prefaced with a dedication to “the author of Eugene Aram“, meaning the popular novel published earlier in 1832 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton — a lifelong Thackeray bete noir. That novel concerned another renowned 18th century murderer, and it’s safe to say from the dedication that our satirist considered Bulwer-Lytton’s empathetic portrayal of the titular homicide a little, er, soft on crime.

I have been taught by Eugene Aram to mix vice and virtue up together in such an inextricable confusion as to render it impossible that any preference should be given to either, or that the one, indeed, should be at all distinguishable from the other … I had, indeed, in my dramatic piece, been guilty of an egregious and unpardonable error: I had attempted to excite the sympathies of the audience in favour of the murdered apprentices, but your novel has disabused me of so vulgar a prejudice, and, in my present version of her case, all the interest of the reader and all the pathetic powers of the author will be engaged on the side of the murderess.

* The Newgate Calendar: “On her way to the place of execution the people expressed their abhorrence of her crime in terms which, though not proper for the occasion, testified their astonishment that such a wretch could have existed: they even prayed for her damnation instead of her salvation: they doubted not but that ‘the devil would fetch her,’ and hoped that ‘she would go to hell.’ Such were the sentiments of the mob.”

** Elizabeth Brownrigg admitted to the Ordinary of Newgate the truth of Mary Mitchell’s horror testimony.

† Conversely, rogues who took to the highway and became working-class heroes were very often men who had absconded from their apprenticeship — for instance, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin.

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1767: William Guest, coin shaver

1 comment October 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1767, a larcenous bank clerk was hanged at Tyburn for robbing the till.

Sleigh ride: Detail of a studious William Guest being drawn to Tyburn (click for full print).

In this case, it wasn’t anything so gross as grabbing the money and running. No, our malefactor William Guest — the “son of a clergyman of unblemished character” whose “constant handling of gold [for the Bank of England] shook his integrity” — started milling the edges of the guineas he handled and innocuously returning them to the bank’s stock whilst piling up his own supply of gold filings.

It’s sort of the pre-digital version of the Office Space scheme: “I’m just talking about fractions of a penny here, but we do it from a much bigger tray. A couple of million times. So what’s wrong with that?” Literal profit on the margin: perfect for the FIRE sector.

Though 18th century London’s perpetual necktie party was obviously focused on the lowest classes, its busy gallows had room enough for the occasional white-collar crime.

And by England’s lights, debasing the currency was as serious a crime as there was: Guest’s conviction wasn’t for larceny or fraud, but for treason.

Because of that, he didn’t get the plain-old cart ride to the gallows, but was drawn on a sledge — the “drawn” bit of “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” although for this penny-shaver the execution itself didn’t entail the horrible quartering.

After enduring this archaic ignominy, the minister’s son “was indulged to pray on his knees” before being noosed and “his whole deportment was so pious, grave, manly and solemn, as to draw tears from the greatest part of the numerous spectators.”

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