1774: Daniel Wilson

1 comment April 29th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1774, Daniel Wilson was hanged before a throng of 12,000 in Providence, Rhode Island, for rape.

A journeyman carpenter turned small-time New England crook, Wilson had a gift for escape and busted out of the Providence jail three times — never retaining his liberty long enough to get clear of the gallows’ shadow. Our friends at the wonderful Early American Crime blog cover the man’s career here … absent the rape, whose particulars seem to have escaped the documentary trail and which Wilson also delicately elides in his hang-day broadsheet.

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1775: A robber under the apartments of Joseph Jekyll

Add comment April 11th, 2018 Headsman

We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.

Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.

What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.


The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.

The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.

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1772: Bryan Sheehen, cuck

Add comment January 16th, 2018 Headsman

Colonial Massachusetts sailor Bryan Sheehen culminated a life of warped relations with the opposite sex at his hanging on this date in 1772.

According to the pamphlet An Account of the Life of Bryan Sheehen, as a child in Ireland, Sheehen‘s family split up by gender with the Catholic father taking the boys and the Anglican mother taking the girls. While the legacy of this childhood trauma can only be guessed at, it looks suggestive in hindsight

Sheehen migrated to Newfoundland and then to Massachusetts where he eventually indentured himself as a household servant to colonial shipwright Benjamin Hallowell, a “father” from whom the young adult Sheehen again fled, this time to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

Unfortunately upon his return from only six years away he found that his wife had impatiently [re]married herself to a Frenchman, a humiliating risk and fear of the seagoing set. Sheehen forced the woman to choose between the rivals but when she chose Sheehen, the latter found that he was still so disgusted with her that he preferred to abandon the wife, and the child she had borne him, and the child she had borne the Frenchman. Psychologists have a lot to unpack here already.

Relocating to Marblehead, Mass. our reborn swinging single now developed “the character of a wicked, profligate person” and eventually began stalking a woman named Abial Hollowell … her surname eerily echoing that of Sheehen’s own former master. In fact, Abial’s husband was also named Benjamin Hollowell. His advances rebuffed, Sheehen

went up, in the middle of the night, to the room where Mrs. Hollowell lay, found her asleep, awaked her, and swore, if she made the least noise, he would kill her; and then stopping her mouth, perpetrated the atrocious crime. After which (to prevent, it seems, a pregnancy) he abused her with his hand, in an unheard-of, cruel and shocking manner: Insomuch that her life was for some time almost despaired of; and she was not able for ten days after to get off her bed without help.

That’s as per a case summary appended to “A Sermon Preached at Salem, January 16, 1772″ by the Salem Rev. James Diman. The good preacher was so chagrined that Sheehen’s persistent denials had led some citizens to murmur against Mrs. Hollowell that for “justice to the woman’s character” he devotes about a page and a half to traducing Sheehen’s. Sheehen, Diman charged, was just the sort of vicious wretch who would imperil his soul by going to the gallows with a lie upon his lips, perhaps because, as a Catholic, “he might swear falsely, he might doubtless speak falsely to Hereticks, as they call all whose religious principles differ from theirs.”

Last and most important, Diman claimed to have it on good authority from “two credible persons”

that there was a young woman, daughter of one Williams, of Goldsborough, in the Eastern part of this province, abased in the same manner Mrs. Hollowell was. That she was way-layed in the the evening, between her father’s house and a neighbour’s; was seized, forced, and wounded to such a degree, that her friends were obliged to carry her home, she being unable to walk, and that the next morning early she died. That the villain, who perpetrated this crime, returned after he had done it, to his companions, who, it seems, were before, or then, made acquainted with his enterprize; for such wretches declare their sin as Sodom: And that one of them told him he would probably have a child to maintain: He answered so, that he had taken care to prevent that, and that she would never have a child by him, nor by any other man.

This guy, his informants said, was an Irishman named something like Bryan Sheehen — and he had escaped town after the incident.

* The Hallowells were notable British loyalists during the American Revolution, and returned to England when their estates were sacked by Patriots. The grandson of Bryan Sheehen’s employer, Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew, was one of Lord Nelson‘s Band of Brothers. During the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Hallowell’s supplied the literal fireworks by defeating the French battleship Orient — whose spectacularly exploding magazines highlighted all the artistic commemorations of that victory. He later presented to Nelson as a gift a coffin fashioned from the Orient‘s mast, “that when you have finished your military career in this world you may be buried in one of your trophies.” Nelson was indeed laid to rest in Hallowell’s trophy in 1805.


The flaming Orient illuminates Thomas Luny’s Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm.

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1771: Mary Jones, hanged for shoplifting

Add comment October 16th, 2017 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Mary was thought to be about eighteen or nineteen years old but was already married with two children when her husband, William, was press ganged into the Navy to go to the Falkland Islands, leaving her virtually destitute. She lived with her friend Ann Styles in Angel Alley in the Strand and was at times reduced to begging to feed herself and the infants. It is said that she had her baby with her in the cart as she was taken to Tyburn to be hanged.

There had been a spate of shoplifting incidents in Ludgate Street area of London during 1771 and the shop keepers were on high alert and keeping watch for suspects. On Wednesday the 7th of August Mary, with one of her children in tow and Ann Styles went on a shop lifting expedition in the Ludgate Street. They may have other accomplices with them although no one else was arrested. Mary and Ann were observed going in and out of a large number shops. Thomas Ham, a shopkeeper himself and a witness at the trial, was suspicious of their activities and kept a close eye on them. He estimated that he had seen them go into as many as fifteen shops in the street, between three o’clock and six o’clock that afternoon. Finally the pair went to the drapery shop owned by a Mr. William Foot and expressed interest in buying a child’s frock. Nothing that they were shown appeared to be what they wanted and Mary made to leave the shop but Mr. Foot’s assistant, Christopher Preston, noticed that she had something concealed under her cloak. He went after her and brought her back into the shop where he discovered she had concealed four pieces of worked muslin which she had taken from the counter. Christopher Preston told the other assistant, Andrew Hawkins, to fetch a constable while he kept the women in the shop. The constable arrested them both and they were taken to the Compter (a local lock up jail).

Both women were charged under the Shoplifting Act with the theft of the muslin which was valued at £5. 10s. (£5.50) The actual offence at this time being called “privately stealing in a shop”. The value of the goods stolen, being more than five shillings (25p), made it a capital crime. The pair were tried at the Sessions of the Old Bailey held on Wednesday the 11th of September 1771, Thomas Ham, Christopher Preston and Andrew Hawkins each giving evidence for the prosecution.

Mary and Ann were permitted to speak in their own defence. Mary told the court of her struggle to support two children without her husband and that she had always been an honest woman.

Ann told the court that she had merely gone with Mary to by the child’s clothes and that she had nothing to do with the theft.

The trial lasted no more than two hours and Mary was convicted as she was actually in possession of the stolen items but Ann was acquitted. Mary received the mandatory death sentence and was transferred to Newgate to await her trip to Tyburn. When the Recorder of London prepared his report for the King and Privy Council there was no recommendation to mercy for Mary, despite her age and circumstances. As was normal for non murder cases she was to spend some time in the Condemned Hold until the next “hanging day”. She would have been regularly attended by John Wood, the then Ordinary (Newgate’s prison chaplain) and would have been expected to attend Sunday religious services. She and the other condemned criminals had a special area in the centre of the chapel, surrounded by a high partition so that they could not be seen by or communicate with the other prisoners. On the table in front of them was a coffin!

On the morning of Wednesday the 16th of October she was brought to the Press Yard of Newgate where the halter noose was put round her neck and her arms tied to her body with a cord above the elbows. She was made to get into the cart and sit on her own coffin.

With her for her last journey were four men, James Allen who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, William Penn, Richard Thompson and John Hughes who had all been convicted of highway robbery.

The procession consisting of a court officer responsible for prisoners, Reverend John Wood, the Ordinary, the hangman and his assistants and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn, about two and a half miles away. The procession made its slow and bumpy passage along Holborn, St. Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street), to Tyburn itself near what is now Marble Arch. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell would be tolled, and the minister would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the procession passed on, the minister would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” Here friends might present the criminals with small nosegays (bunches of flowers).

Stops were made at two public houses along the way, probably the Bowl Inn at St Giles and the Mason’s Arms in Seymour Place, where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink. Once they left the second pub it was a short journey to the gallows.

On arrival at Tyburn around noon, some two to three hours after they had left Newgate, the prisoners were greeted by a large crowd.

Mary’s cart was backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and Edward Dennis, the hangman, uncoiled the free end of the rope from her body and threw it up to one of his assistants balanced precariously on the beam above. They tied the rope to the beam leaving very little slack. The Ordinary prayed with her and when he had finished the hangman would have pulled a night cap over her face if she had been able to afford one. As you can imagine the preparations took quite some time where a batch of five prisoners was being hanged.

When everything was ready, the City Marshall gave the signal and the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop, at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air — “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end. It is not recorded whether or not Mary struggled or was one of the fortunate few who quickly became still. The five bodies were left to hang for an hour before being cut down and claimed by relatives or friends and taken for burial.

One can well understand why the law in this period in history is now referred to as the Bloody Code. Of the two hundred and ninety four people executed at Tyburn in the decade from 1765 to 1774 only twenty five were to die for murder and three for rape. The rest mostly suffered for various types of property related crime, such as highway robbery, burglary, housebreaking and forgery.

It seems amazing today that a young mother should be hanged for what would now considered to be a minor crime, yet in 1771 nobody would have thought anything of it — it was a regular and perfectly normal event. If it was Mary’s first offence, as she claimed, she would probably get a community service order now, especially as he had dependant children. However Georgian justice was being applied increasingly severely at this time. Sixty-two men and six women received the death sentence during this year, of whom thirty four of the men and one of the women, Frances Allen, were to share Mary’s fate. Frances Allen was hanged on Wednesday the 7th of August for housebreaking.

A few years later her case was raised in Parliament by Sir William Meredith, the Whig Member for Liverpool, when he was opposing a motion to make yet another offence capital. He told the House that he did not believe “a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law”. His eloquence was to no avail however and the Bill was carried.

It is a circumstance not to be forgotten, that she was very young, (under nineteen) and most remarkably handsome. She went to a linen draper’s shop, took some coarse linen off the counter, and slipped it under her cloak. The shopman saw her, and she laid it down again. For this she was hanged. Her defence was, ‘that she lived in credit, and wanted for nothing, till a press-gang came, and stole her husband from her—but since then she had no bed to lie on, nothing to give her two children to eat, and they were almost naked: and perhaps she might have done something wrong, for she hardly knew what she did.’ The parish officers testified the truth of this story. But it seems there had been a good deal of shop-lifting about Ludgate; an example was necessary — and the woman was hanged for the comfort and satisfaction of some shopkeepers in Ludgate-street. When brought to receive sentence, she behaved in such a frantic manner as proved her to be in a distracted and desponding state; and the child was sucking at her breast when she set out for Tyburn gallows! Let us reflect a little on this woman’s fate. The poet says, “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” He might have said, with equal truth, that a beauteous woman is the noblest work of God. But for what cause was God’s creation robbed of its noblest work? It was for no injury, but for a mere attempt to clothe two naked children by unlawful means. Compare this with what the State did, and what the law did. The State bereaved the woman of her husband, and the children of a father, who was all their support: the law deprived the woman of her life, and children of their remaining parent, exposing them to every danger, insult, and merciless treatment, that destitute and helpless orphans suffer, Take all the circumstances together, I do not believe that a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law.

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1775: William Pitman, for murdering his slave

Add comment May 12th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1775,* plantation owner William Pitman was hanged for murder in King George County, Virginia.

Pitman had a reputation as a brutal man and was no stranger to the Virginia courts; he had been making appearances since the 1750s. So perhaps it was not surprising that he got strung up eventually.

Virginia Gazette, Apr. 21, 1775

What is surprising, indeed perhaps unprecedented, is that the murder victim was one of his own slaves.

The Virginia Gazette, which published the sole surviving account of the incident, says that Pitman, “in liquor” and “in the heat of passion” lost his temper, “tied his poor negro boy by his neck and heels,” and beat him with a large grapevine before stomping him to death.

Pitman can hardly have been the first, or the last, slaveowner to slaughter his own “property” but it was usually impossible to get a conviction because blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court. In this case, however, two white people — Pitman’s own son and daughter — sealed the case by giving evidence against their father.

The Gazette, writing on April 21, said Pitman had “justly incurred the penalties of the law” and said hopefully that the story might be “a warning to others to treat their slaves with moderation, and not give way to unruly passions, that my bring them to an ignominious death, and involve their families in their unhappy fate.”

* Pitman’s hanging “yesterday” is reported in the Saturday, May 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette — a different Virginia Gazette from the one quoted in this post, as it happens: three competing papers used this same branding; the report in this post’s body on the circumstances of Pitman’s conviction comes from Dixon and Hunter’s Gazette, while the May 13 item establishing the hanging date is from Alexander Purdie’s Gazette.

Purdie’s May 13 edition further adds that when the sheriff came to fetch him on the fatal day, “Pitman made some resistance, but was soon overpowered; he behaved with decency at the place of execution, and attributed his unhappy fate to the effect of intemperate drinking.”

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1770: William Linsey, resolutely bent upon working wickedness

Add comment October 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1770, inveterate burglar William Linsey was hanged in Worcester, Mass.

Linsey never killed anyone but just couldn’t lay off the thieving — as he owned himself in a gallows broadsheet: “Having so often escaped with impunity, for my wretched crimes, I was under no awe or restraint, neither learning God nor regarding man, resolutely bent upon working wickedness.” That didn’t mean he didn’t get caught: he frequently did, and once was pilloried, flogged, and branded all in the same day as punishment for fraud.

The quote is courtesy of a Linsey profile by friend of the blog and occasional guest poster Anthony Vaver, on his site Early American Crime — which notes that Linsey ultimately fell foul of a sort of colonial three-strikes law escalating penalties for mere property crimes all the way to the gallows in the case of repeat offenders.

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1776: Robert Harley and Edward George, tea smugglers

Add comment September 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Robert Harley and Edward George hanged at Tyburn for murder.

Harley and George are the postscript to a strange story already seen on this site — that of Smugglerius, the ecorche whose model might very well be Robert Harley’s brother Benjamin who preceded him a few months in death, for the same crime.


A copy of Agostino Carlini‘s bronze cast of “Smugglerius”, displayed in Edinburgh. (cc) image from Chris Hill.

It’s the macabre relic that inevitably draws the eyeballs, so much so that we scarcely touched on the activities of the smugglers behind the Smugglerius — but their story in life is as historically fascinating as their post-mortem artistic appropriation.*

The contraband in question for these smugglers was tea, and it’s not that tea was illegal — in Britain? never! The empire’s extension to India and China had sent Blighty tea-mad in the 1700s, even though the next century would be madder still, and the brew’s ubiquity had turned it into a magnet for taxation by a state that had world wars to fund.

Tariffs on import tea rose and fell during the 18th century, and when they went up, well, tea got smuggled.

At our moment in the story, tea imports to Britain are being taxed quite heavily,** to the flourishing of an illicit traffic: something like 4 to 7 million pounds of the stuff per annum.

Tea leaked around the customs-men and into England everywhere but one of its most common vectors was riding alongside legitimate cargoes: captains and crew bound from the Orient would overload the hold, and stuff their personal effects to boot, with the lucrative leaf.

At docks like Deptford — a common stopping-point for many seaworthy vessels where the Thames narrowed — the bustle of sea dogs and stevedores made it all but impossible to police what was coming off the bulging East Indiamen. This was the smuggling haven where this date’s tragedy began.

Few Britons outside the Exchequer felt the least qualms about a trade that fed such a voracious and harmless demand; in periods of aggressive taxation the majority of tea that warmed English cockles was illegally imported in one form or another. In his entry for March 29, 1777 Rev. James Woodforde‘s diary casually recorded that “Andrews the Smuggler brought me this night about 11 o’clock a bagg of Hyson Tea 6 Pd weight. He frightened us a little by whistling under the Parlour Window just as we were going to bed. I gave him some Geneva and paid him for the tea at 10/6 per Pd.” (The good minister also got that gin on the black market; sugar, too.)

Yet Andrews could probably attest that merely by virtue of its underground character, tea-smuggling was a dangerous line of work … as was suppressing it.

One night in April of this same year, a quartet of customs officials having been tipped to a run of illegal tea along the Deptford turnpike set out to intercept it.

Whether product of cunning counterintelligence or a mischievious informer, the tea peddlers were alerted to their hunters and in place of contraband sent up the road a much larger force of toughs that surrounded the taxmen in the dark. A witness would report seeing the chief smuggler, a character with the colorfully underworld moniker of “Gypsy George”† pay a bunch of brawlers half a crown apiece for their service as muscle that night.

To read the testimony of a surviving victim, William Anchor, in the Old Bailey record of the trial is to come face to face with the elemental terror of crime in any age.

they asked us, what business we had there, b – t you, you are come to rob a man of his property? they continued to surround us; I told them to keep off or I would shoot them; they drew all up into a company together at about twenty yards from us; the deceased said, I am well acquainted with Deptford, follow me, I will go to the watch-house, I said with all my heart; I followed him; they kept following us, crying, B – t them, here are two of them, let us sacrifice them: then Pierson and I ran towards the watch-house, they ran after us …

Careening through the night with a pack of goons at their heels the two customs men missed their turn towards the safety of a watch-house

but never mind it, come along; they kept very nigh us, we told them to keep back or we would shoot them; Pierson ran between the posts and the houses on the left hand side upon Deptford Green which leads down to Deptford Lower Water-gate; I kept in the middle of the green; he kept calling to me, come along; I said, here I come, my boy, for G – d’s sake don’t run so; he took the second turning that is on the right side, which leads into Hughes’s field: he turned in there, they cried out, B – t them, here they are, let’s sacrifice them: I heard Pierson cry out, O dear, one or two of the party followed him; there were five of them came down the green after me; I kept strait on, but I heard his voice.

Anchor took a whack or two but managed to escape and

did not see Pierson again till about two hours after; he was then going into a boat; he had many cuts in his head, his left arm was broke, and his legs much bruised; his left ear was cut in two, and he was all over blood.

Pierson and Anchor had left their two comrades behind in the flight but both those two men also managed to get away after only a roughing-up. Pierson’s injuries, however, proved to be mortal — but only after a month’s miserable suffering at the hospital, where, a surgeon recalled, Pierson “could not move a limb.”

To judge by the evidence of the goon who turned crown’s evidence against our luckless pair, it was just Pierson’s bad luck that he was the one of the four with a rage-addled Gypsy George on his tail.

Gypsy George knocked him down with his stick, then we all hit him with our sticks that we had in our hands.

Q. How long did you beat him?

Gypsy George kept beating him about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; the others did not hit him above one blow a-piece.

Q. Did the two prisoners among the rest strike him?

Yes.

Q. Did the man cry out, or make any lamentation?

Yes, he did.

Q. And all this while the two prisoners were with you?

Yes.

Q. What part of the body did they hit him on?

Somewhere about the shoulder, or thereabouts; we begged of Gypsy George not to beat him any more, but we were afraid to prevent Gypsy George, left the other smugglers should come up and use us ill; Benjamin Harley, and Robert Harley, and myself, begged of him not to beat him any more.

Q. After this did you leave the man?

We left him, and came away about forty or fifty yards; then Gypsy George said, He had not given him enough, he would go back and give him some more; Gypsy George went back, and we all followed him; Pierson had moved several yards towards some of the pallisadoes; Gypsy George heard him groan, and he gave him several more violent blows.

Half a crown wasn’t enough pay to give this kind of thrashing, but it seems to have been enough to prevent anyone interceding against the boss’s fury.

The men’s defense comprised little but a train of adequate-not-compelling character witnesses; George attempted to establish an alibi for himself by having a friendly witness embark a hearsay shaggy-dog story that amusingly (not amusing for George) led to this cutoff in the transcript:

COURT. That is not evidence.

Both were doomed on Friday to hang the very next Monday, with post-mortem anatomization into the bargain too. The trade in untaxed tea continued unabated on Tuesday.

* Despite the categorical language in this post, it is not certain that either Benjamin Harley or Thomas Henman is in fact the source corpse behind Smugglerius. It’s been argued recently that Smugglerius might have been a different hanged man, James Langar.

** The tea taxes that so incensed American colonists amounted to the New World extension of the same policy.

† Gypsy George was not captured; he surely would have hanged if he had been. George was rumored to have slipped into Newgate in a disguise to pay a secret visit to his erstwhile hirelings.

‡ Both Harley and George were coal heavers by day, another profession with a rich tradition of unauthorized economy.

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1778: Samuel Lyons and Samuel Ford, Fort Mifflin deserters

Add comment September 2nd, 2016 Headsman

In Philadelphia this date in 1778, “Lyons, Ford and Wilson, late Lieutenants, and John Lawrence, late gunner, in the navy of this State, were taken from the gaol to one of the gallies lying off Market Street wharf, where the two former were shot agreeable to their sentence, but the two latter reprieved.” (Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 2, 1778)

Samuel Lyons, Samuel Ford, John Wilson and John Lawrence all served on various of the American “row galley” fleet that gave the American revolutionaries at least some seaborne presence in their fight against the world’s preeminent naval power.

The four, executed and pardoned alike, had deserted the American garrison when that preeminent power put Fort Mifflin in the Delaware River under siege the previous autumn. (There’s a very detailed account of this operation here; the British eventually captured the fort from its badly outnumbered defenders.)

While desertion between the antagonists was a common phenomenon in the American Revolution, this made for an especially bad look a year later once the British abandoned Philadelphia to the aggressively triumphalist Patriots.

Even so, the last-minute clemencies alongside the actual shootings were also very much a part of the Continental Army’s delicate enforcement of discipline, in an environment where it feared that being either too lenient or too harsh could fatally undermine the tenuous morale of the rank and file. Every enforcement was considered in the light of its public impression.

“The number of spectators was very great,” our short report in the Evening Post concluded. “And it is hoped the melancholy scene will have a proper effect upon the profligate and thoughtless, who do not seriously consider that the crime of desertion is attended with the dreadful consequences of wilful perjury.”

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1774: Not Patrick Madan, saved at the death

1 comment August 19th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1774, convicted robber Patrick Madan and two other men went to Tyburn to be hanged for their crimes. Madan, however, was reprieved at the literal last minute.

He was standing at the dread triple tree with the noose already around his neck, the final prayers over, when a man in the crowd, Amos Merritt, cried out that Madan was innocent.

Confounded, the authorities ordered a short stay. For almost an hour the condemned men stood at the gallows with the ropes draped over their necks. Finally Madan was returned to prison and the others were hanged.

When brought before the magistrate, Merritt claimed he himself was guilty of the robbery Madan was convicted of. Madan was pardoned and Merritt was charged with the crime instead.

As recorded in Emma Christopher’s A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts after the American Revolution:

Quite what had happened remained a mystery. Many claimed that Amos Merritt, hardly the repentant suddenly feeling the weight of his conscience as another man stood ready to be hanged for his crime, was really one of Madan’s own criminal crew who had put his neck on the line for his gang leader. Others maintained that Merritt really was guilty and had been forced by the many underworld characters who admired Madan to come forward and save him.

The saga did not end there. As it turned out Amos Merritt would not be required to make the ultimate sacrifice on this occasion, as when the case was retried at the Old Bailey, Merritt was acquitted. By then it was impossible for any jury to know who to believe.

If Merritt learned a lesson from this escapade it seems to have been overconfidence in his ability to game the system. Within a month of his release he committed another robbery, and was hanged less than five months later.

As for Patrick Madan, Christopher says, he “returned triumphantly to his gang, now a criminal celebrity.” His brushes with the law continued; according to Atlantic Biographies: Individuals and Peoples in the Atlantic World, Madan was eventually transported to Africa and there disappeared, amid never-substantiated rumors that he had made an escape to the New World or slipped back to London.


There’s another public domain life-of-Madan pamphlet available free from Google Books here.

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1770: King David Hartley, Yorkshire coiner

Add comment April 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1770, the King of Yorkshire counterfeiters hanged (along with one of his subjects) at York’s Tyburn gallows.

Hartley was the chief of a band of currency manipulators who achieved surprising success and longevity operating from the haunting moors of England’s north.* Known (in order of least to greatest geographical specificity) as the Yokrshire, or West Riding, or Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was a straightforward shaving precious metal from coins but found its edge — so to speak — in their lair’s remoteness from the capital.


Illustration of the coining tools for Portuguese money seized from King David’s band, from The Yorkshire Coiners, 1767-1783. (Portuguese coins, a Cragg Vale specialty, were in active and legal circulation in England at this time, along with other continental coinage.)

According to this public domain volume about the criminals, the first recognition of their activities by law enforcement occurred in 1767, when a coin-clipper named Greenwood “confessed who learnt him the art of clipping in your neighbourhood” — which makes it sound like those artists were already both numerous and practiced. The next year, a man named Joseph Stell hanged for the crime, but the Leeds Intelligencer editorialized in 1769 against “the number of Sweaters and Filers of Gold coin [who] still continue to infest the Western part of this County with impunity” because “if they are suffered to go on a few years in this public and daring manner, it is supposed the current gold coin of the nation in general will be reduced a fifth part.” (A parliamentary inquiry in 1773 found that the overall weight of the country’s coinage came up a full 9% short of its face value: certainly not entirely the work of Cragg Vale, but an alarming state of affairs.)

The business had an undeniable appeal despite the occupational hazard of the gallows. With England awash in the whole world’s specie as the dominant mercantile power, the West Riding became a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs. It’s thought their number might have ranged into the hundreds.

Gold Coin, which has heretofore been so scarce among us as to command a large Premium against Bills of Exchange, flows in upon us with great Rapidity from all parts of the Island; and by the Hocus Pocus Touch of a Number of experimental Philosophers and Chymists (not by an addition to its weight, but by an ingenious Multiplication of its Numbers) is so greatly increased, that all Payments in Paper will soon be at an end … [they] are in a fair Way of drawing Half the Gold in the two Kingdoms into this happy Country … If you wish to be rich, and can sacrifice a few nonsensical Scruples to that Deity, make haste hither, and you may soon be instructed in these Mysteries, which, (with great Ease and Pleasure) will enable you to convert a thousand of your old-fashioned Guineas into Twelve Hundred, and, with a moderate Industry, to repeat the Process every Week.

-Letter from Halifax, July 14, 1769

This letter reflects an alarming situation: not merely the extent of the operation but the degree to which it had become normalized, winked-at, and even integrated into Yorkshire’s economic circuits. “It had become a common practice of the moneyed people — the merchant and manufacturers of the Parish of Halifax — and of those by which that Parish was surrounded, comprising a large portion of the West Riding of the County of York, to carry on a somewhat lucrative business with the Coiners,” one observer wrote. “The central body, if such it may be called, with, for a time, ‘King David’ at its head, was constituted into a kind of Banking Company, with whom certain capitalists deposited large amounts in the shape of guineas.” After all, this bank could offer steady guarantees of investment return.

But bubbles are blown for the bursting, and however many Yorkshiremen had been looking the other way while chymists multiplied guineas, it was about this time that officers of the law started putting the screws to the Yorkshire coiners. (Needless to say, the illicit bank’s merchant customers weren’t handled quite the same way.)

Confrontation came into the open with the 1769 arrests of our man David Hartley (nicknamed “King” for self-evident reasons) and at least a half-dozen others. York Castle’s bowels began to fill up with coiners and collaborators, courtesy of a crown excise officer named William Dighton (or Deighton). Dighton bgan rolling up the gang in a very modern way: starting with bribes to obtain informants and then using their information to smash through the cells.

But so vaunting were the Yorkshire coiners that David Hartley’s brother Isaac put up a £100 reward for the murder of William Dighton — and two guys duly ambushed him in a dark lane in Halifax in November 1769 and shot Dighton dead. This gambit by Isaac was much more loyal than it was wise, for the effrontery to murder an agent of the state invited a ferocious counterattack. (It also didn’t help David Hartley in the least: there was no plan to break him out, only vindictiveness against his persecutor.) the Marquess of Rockingham — the once (1765-66) and future (1782) Prime Minister — was dispatched to the scene to avenge the murdered Dighton, and had 30 coiners in custody by Christmas.

The coiners were done shooting back by this point, and the remaining tales form a tissue of outlaw desperation — flight from manhunts, maneuvering to mitigate death sentences, informing on one another. (Its particulars, and the evidence marshaled against various coiners, can be read in detail at the public domain history already cited.) David Hartley was brought up on capital charges at the next assizes;** his former comrades, including the assassins of Dighton, were hunted to ground. Soon, such counterfeiters as might still be found were reduced to their customary posture, in hidey-holes leaching a few dank groats from the neglected plumbing under the economy, rather than as retail concerns with banking ledgers and armed toughs.

But they left countless others besides — passive co-conspirators, whose wealth their shaving and filing had enlarged and who like King Charles‘s regicides could never fully be brought to book. And they’re not done to this very day: a coiners’ museum is reportedly in the works to capture a few tourist dollars, too.

* Wuthering Heights takes place in Yorkshire, and the Cragg Vale outside of Halifax is within a tormented moonlight ramble of the real locations that inspired its settings.

** Death sentences came down liberally at the assizes, but were (almost) as liberally reprieved — including, for the instance at hand, all of the following: “Thomas Harrison and Benjamin Smith, for Burglary; Benjamin Parkinson, for returning from Transportation; Richard Whitfield, for stealing Linen Cloth from a Bleaching Field; William Dalby, and Robert Moor, alias William Moor, for Horse-stealing; William Owen, George Carr, and John Tunningly, for Cow-stealing; and Robert Allerton, for Sheep-stealing.” (London Public Advertiser, April 13, 1770.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Organized Crime,Pelf,Public Executions

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