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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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Theft

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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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1775: Joseph Skidmore, carrier

Add comment March 25th, 2016 Headsman

From the London General Evening Post, Dec. 15-17, 1774

Extract of a letter from Birmingham, Dec. 15.

On Sunday morning last Ann Mansfield, the widow of a soldier, and lately a servant to Mr. Richard Wilson of this town, on her return to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, was found on the road, about half a mile beyond Hales-Owen, barbarously murdered. It is supposed, from the circumstances under which she was found, that she had been also ravished: her hair was dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and her under petticoat lay by her side.

When she set out from hence, she had a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and wore a black and a white cloak, over both of which she pinned a white hat; which were all taken away.

A strong suspicion prevails against the S———- carrier (behind whom she rode through Hales-Owen the night before) who not only that night delivered a woodcock and some light parcels in S———-, but sent on Sunday morning her two cloaks to her father by two chimney-sweepers, who were both stopped, in order to undergo an examination. — The carrier is also taken up.

This “letter” was printed in several English newspapers; sometimes abridged for space needs, in time it appears to have evolved with the progress of available facts and suppositions.

Here it is in the Leeds Intelligencer for Dec. 27:

On Saturday evening last, Ann Mansfield having left the service of Mr. Richard Wilson, was returning to her father, who lives at Cradley, near Stourbridge, and for that purpose had sent part of her things by the carrier, and intended to have accompanied him herself; but calling on her sister, who lives with Mrs. Horton, in Mount-Pleasant, was detained till near dark, when the mistress very humanely begged her to stay all night, as it was impossible for her to overtake the carrier; but neither Mrs. Horton’s kindness nor her sister’s persuasions could prevail, for she unhappily persisted in her design of going home; and what is very remarkable, on leaving the house complained (to make use of her own expression) or a sinking at her heart.

She had with her a small bundle, containing a new pair of stuff shoes, one pair of pattens, a black silk handkerchief, with lace to trim it, and sundry other things of small value; a new black silk hat pinned to her side, and one black and one white cloak, both of which she wore, and a white hat pinned over them.

Some time yesterday morning she was found murdered near the spot where the Darbys are now hanging. — She is supposed from the situation she was found in to be ravished, and that the villains who perpetrated the horrid fact stuffed something in her mouth to prevent her alarming the neighbours with her cries, as no wounds of consequence enough to cause her death appeared outwardly, but the skin is forced off her hands and fingers, as supposed by struggling.

When found, she had her hair dishevelled, her handkerchief and cap torn off, and every thing of value taken away. — She had only four-pence in her pocket, which she intended to give the carrier. She was carried to Hales-Owen church.

Two fellows are taken up on suspicion of committing the horrid crime, one of whom had a white cloak in his pocket, supposed to belong to the unfortunate young woman, and they are sent this morning for examination. It appears that the carrier before-mentioned waited for this poor young creature and took her behind him, and was met by many people; which getting wind the carrier was taken up, and it is feared is too justly suspected, as he greatly prevaricates.

However much embroidery affects this story, we have a sense of the event — and of the dangers of an unlit nighttime road.

That this attack was (quite deservedly) recognized as the most egregious crime handled at Shrewsbury’s Lent 1775 assizes can be seen in the disposition of the sentences. This from Say’s Weekly Journal of April 1, 1775:

At Shrewbury assizes the following persons received sentence of death, viz. John Parry, and William Roberts, capitally convicted last assize, for plundering a wreck; Joseph Skidmore, for the murder of Ann Chandler, in a lane near Hales-Owen; Edward Stol, for horse stealing; Jane Aston, for stealing household goods; Samuel Thomas and Philip Jones, for horse-stealing; and Jemima Asplin, for breaking out of gaol, after having received sentence of transportation at last county sessions. — A respite during his Majesty’s pleasure was received for Roberts on Thursday; Aston, Thomas, Jones, and Asplin were reprieved; and Parry, Stol, and Skidmore, left for execution, the latter of whom suffered on Saturday last.

Just why the victim has become “Ann Chandler” instead of “Ann Mansfield” nor which a historian ought to prefer I cannot determine. But after Skidmore’s March 25 hanging, and the April 1 execution of Parry, all the others condemned at the 1775 assizes were reprieved their death sentences.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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1775: Thomas Jeremiah, Charleston’s wealthiest free black

3 comments August 18th, 2010 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1775, Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man in the then-colony of South Carolina, was hung after being convicted of attempting to a slave insurrection.

The case against him was extremely weak, but he was tried/framed under the Negro Act of 1740 (in a slave court, although he was not a slave), wherein the defendant was considered guilty until proven innocent. South Carolina’s own royal governor, William Campbell, called it a case of “judicial murder.”

Very little is known about Jeremiah. He left no diary or letters behind, and most of his trial records have been lost. We know he was married but we know nothing about his wife, whether she was a slave or a free black like himself, or whether they had any children. We don’t know how he became free or how he learned his trade. He is, in fact, so obscure that he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry.

What little we do know, however, suggests that he was a most extraordinary man: a fisherman and ship’s pilot, one of less than 500 free blacks in the city of Charles Town (now called Charleston), Jeremiah had somehow managed to claw his way up and amassed a net worth of £1,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money. He was one of the wealthiest free black men in North America, and certainly the wealthiest self-made one.

Himself a slaveowner, he had no reason to start a slave rebellion, but this didn’t matter to those who convicted him. Jeremiah’s life, trial and death are discussed in detail in J. William Harris’s 2009 book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty. (This book review provides a good summary.)

2010 saw the publication of a second book, The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution.

Jeremiah was basically a victim of his own success. He had risen too high; he made the local white elites uncomfortable. As Harris noted, Jeremiah “did not need to gather arms or preach revolution to undermine slavery, because his whole life was a refutation of whites’ basic justification for slavery.”

Henry Laurens, a wealthy businessman, future Continental Congressman, slaveowner, and contemporary of Jeremiah’s, stated he was “a forward fellow, puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury & debauchery & grown to amazing pitch of vanity & ambition.” He needed to be smacked down and he was, most severely.

In the spring and summer of 1775, revolution was fomenting everywhere. White “Patriots” wanted an opportunity to get out from under England, but they feared their slaves would use the conflict to try and get out from under them.

Nat Turner and Charleston’s own Denmark Vesey — these immortal rebels lay years into the future, but their very prospect made slave rebellions an omnipresent fear among the white populace. It was jumpy. And when two slaves accused Jeremiah of trying to persuade them to rebel, it jumped.

Only a few months passed between Jeremiah’s arrest and his execution. By that time he was a broken man, welcoming death. After he was hung, his body was cut down and burned to ashes.

Books about Thomas Jeremiah

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1775: Maharajah Nandakumar, judicially murdered?

7 comments August 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1775, inconvenient Indian official Nandakumar (or Nand Kumar, or Nuncomar) was hanged on a forgery charge — all too conveniently inflicted at the very time he was accusing British Governor-General Warren Hastings of corruption.

Nandakumar and Hastings decidedly did not get along; the Indian believed he had been unfairly denied a plum career assignment.

He leveled in response an accusation that Hastings was taking payola in exchange for his appointments.

English pols involved in the administration of India, such as Philip Francis, John Clavering and George Monson, had their own rivalries with Hastings and wanted to pursue these charges. Instead, within weeks, Nandakumar was facing years-old forgery charges,* and two months after his trial, he was at the end of a rope.

Hastings’ actual involvement in this circumstance is impossible to prove, but

Warren Hastings: not a man to be trifled with. (Portrait by Tilly Kettle.)

The certain facts are that Nand Kumar was Hastings’s enemy, that [India’s Chief Justice Elijah] Impey was Hastings’s friend; that at a moment of grave crisis in Hastings’s life, when Nand Kumar was the most eminent witness against his name and fame, that witness was arraigned on a charge that was very old, that had been suddenly converted from a civil to a criminal charge; that he was tried, found guilty, and executed. On the basis of that bare narrative of facts it would seem that if Hastings had nothing to do with the matter, he might almost as well have had as far as the judgment of posterity went. The thing was too apt, the conditions too peculiar not to leave their stigma upon the memory of the man who gained most by them.

This sort of questionable administration of the crown’s possessions on the subcontinent would lead in 1781 to the Amending Act, an attempt to place India on an organizational footing more conducive to the confidence of an increasingly dubious public.

Parliamentarian heavyweight Edmund Burke would eventually weigh in on the hanged man’s side, charging that Hastings had “murdered this man, by the hands of Sir Elijah Impey.” In a report to the select committee established by the Amending Act (cited in this tome), Burke noted

that this Trial and Execution was looked upon by many of the Natives as political; nor does the Committee conceive it possible, that, combining all the Circumstances together, they should look upon it in the Light of a common judicial Proceeding; but must regard it as a political Measure, the Tendency of which is, to make the Natives feel the extreme Hazard of accusing, or even giving Evidence of corrupt Practices against any British Subject in Station, even though supported by other British Subjects of equal Rank and Authority. It will be rather a Mockery, than a Relief to the Natives, to see Channels of Justice opened to them, at their great Charge, both in the Institution and in the Use, and then Appeals, still more expensive, carefully provided for them, when, at the same Time, Practices are countenanced, which render the Resort to those Remedies far more dangerous than a patient Endurance of Oppression, under which they may labour.

Hastings was impeached for corruption in 1787 — it took Burke, who served as one of the prosecutors, two full days to read the 20-count indictment against him, though Burke’s own attempt to add judicial murder to the bill of particulars was jettisoned — along with the now ex-Chief Justice Impey.

Both were acquitted, even though investigations had laid bare a sort of endemic, routine bakhsheesh: “the native offers because he thinks he is bound to do so, and the Englishman accepts because he fears to hurt the giver’s feelings.” Hastings acknowledged availing himself of donatives, generally arguing that it was the done thing, benefited the East India Company for which he worked, and everything stayed well this side of egregious.

The (lurid) conduct of this impeachment proceeding, and its effect for consolidating British imperial control away from the irregular hands of the British East India Company while generating a national mythology of missionary civilization, is the subject of a fascinating book, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain.

Another record of the trial is available free from Google books; J. Duncan M. Derrett considers the facts of the forgery case (it “was not a judicial murder”) in the collision of Hindu and English law in “Nandakumar’s Forgery” in The English Historical Review of April 1960.

* He forged part of a will to recover a bad loan. All concerned appear to agree that this charge is factually accurate, which is, of course, a long way from explaining why the matter required immediate adjudication at this juncture.

Incidentally, while forgery could get you hanged in England, it was a much less serious offense under Hindu law.

Part of the Themed Set: The Empire Strikes Back.

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1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

4 comments January 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev chopped to pieces in Moscow for sustaining a major insurrection whose effects would haunt Russia for decades to come.

Pugachev’s Rebellion was the most spectacular specimen in populous family tree of 18th century peasant uprisings.

Most such disturbances were local and fundamentally unthreatening. Pugachev’s was neither.

The Cossack commander raised a revolt in the Urals in 1773, styling himself the long-lost tsar Catherine had overthrown a decade before.

Catherine was slow to see the import, but this hinterlands pretender set up a state-like bureaucracy and began issuing ukases as tsar — and one can readily discern from their content why he attracted a following:

We bestow on all those who formerly were peasants and in subjugation to the landowners, along with Our monarchic and paternal compassion … tenure of the land and the forests and the hay meadows and the fisheries and the salt lakes, without purchase and without obrok, and we liberate all the aforementioned from the villainous nobles and from the bribe takers in the city–the officials who imposed taxes and other burdens on the peasants and the whole people … [T]hose who formerly were nobles living on estates are enemies to Our power and disrupters of the empire and oppressors of the peasantry, and they should be caught, executed and hanged, they should be treated just as they, who have no Christianity, dealt with you peasants.

The insurrection speedily metastasized, and by the time a force sufficient to quash it was deployed, it had stretched itself from the Urals to the Volga.

Alexander Pushkin used the story of Pugachev’s rebellion for The Captain’s Daughter (text in English | Russian), which has been adapted to film several times — most recently in 2000.

Catherine the Great, for her part, was deeply shaken by the affair, and the “enlightened despot”, while maintaining traffic with the era’s liberal intellectual ferment, decisively turned against any reform to serfdom. Catherine’s choice, reinforced by her successors, to uphold their security with nothing but repression maintained Russian serfdom until 1861 on a staggering scale — an anchor dragging down the economy just as industrializing western Europe opened a development gap whose effects persist to this day.

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