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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1776: James Langar, Smuggerlius?

Add comment April 12th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1776, footpad James Langar was hanged at Tyburn for robbing a Hyde Park gentleman of his watch and coat.

Actually, and despite a reputation for honesty attested by his fellow militiamen, Langar was implicated in several highway robberies on shaky witness testimony, prompting him to remark in disgust, “I see they are determined to swear my life away, I leave myself to the mercy of the Court.”

He didn’t get it.

A vanishing obscurity even in his own time, Langar has been making 21st century headlines based on a pair of researchers’ identifying him with a ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

That astonishing object, and its controversial identification with James Langar, are discussed in this previous Executed Today post.

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1776: Thomas Hickey, plotting against George Washington

3 comments June 28th, 2013 Headsman

“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”

-Continental Army surgeon Solomon Drowne, July 13, 1776

On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.

That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine wrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.

George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.

Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.

In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.

Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out of prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.

Sadly, Ketcham’s full memorandum has been lost, and as the ensuing trial records are circumspect the “plot” or “plots” in question are a bit of a historical muddle. Roughly, there are two discernible thrusts:

  • A fifth-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
  • A plot against the person of George Washington himself.

Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.

Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.

“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”

The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.

No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.

Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.

The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.

-Washington’s general order, June 28, 1776

Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.

Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)

The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.

Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.

It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.

* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.

** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.

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1776: Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman, Smugglerius?

2 comments May 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1776, smugglers Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman were hanged at Tyburn for murdering a customs-house officer who had intercepted them trafficking tea on the Deptford turnpike.

One of these two gentleman might well be the flesh-and-bones person behind the ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”.

This beautifully ghastly item was commissioned of sculptor Agostino Carlini by the anatomist William Hunter: it is the cast of a hanged man, meticulously flayed of his skin to reveal the musculature for the convenience of future students’ sketches. Those students gave their subject the jocular nickname, since in life it was thought to be a smuggler.

For good measure, Carlini posed the corpse in the manner of the Hellenistic marble Dying Gaul.


Dying Gaul (known in the 18th century as Dying Gladiator), one of the world’s best-known classical sculptures. (cc) image from Tom Magliery.

Of the “Dying Gladiator”, Byron wrote:

He recked not of the life he lost, nor prize,
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother, — he their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday; —
All this rushed with his blood; — Shall he expire,
And unavenged? — Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!


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

So that is Smugglerius, an astonishing artifact. For decades, it (actually a copy of Carlini’s original, which is long lost) has been parked at the Edinburgh College of Art, translating thence into countless students’ anatomical sketch pads.


William Linnell‘s 1840 drawing of Smugglerius.

To trace the ecorche‘s origin, we have, to start with, this letter from John Deare … not the tractor guy, but a noteworthy Liverpool sculptor. At time of writing in 1776, he was a 15-year-old matriculating art student:

One of the men bid me tell you, that Mr. Carter would give me half-a-guinea, at least, a week, for the first part of my time, and fifteen shillings for the latter part; but you will write to him, and ask him what he proposes: he is, just as they say, a blustering fellow, but a good man. I have seen two men hanged, and one with his breast cut open at Surgeons’ Hall. The other being a fine subject, they took him to the Royal Academy, and covered him with plaster of Paris, after they had put him in the position of the Dying Gladiator. In this Hall there are some casts from Nature that are cut from the middle of the forehead down to the lower part of the body, one part excoriated, and the other whole.

With the direct reference to the Dying Gladiator/Dying Gaul pose, we seem very clearly to have a bead on the creation of Smugglerius, and the letter suggests that it was one man taken from a pair of hanging subjects. Conveniently (or inconveniently) there were just two such pairs of executions at Tyburn in the spring of 1776: those of Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henman on May 27; and, those of Samuel Whitlow and James Langar on April 12.

Now, artist Joan Smith and anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo have recently, and very publicly, argued that Smugglerius is not Harley or Henman, but James Langar — a man from the earlier hanging pair. This claim even teased an exhibition carrying the perhaps unfortunate title Smugglerius Unveiled.

The case for Langar basically has two components:

  1. Deare dated his letter about the “Dying Gladiator” on May 1, so the executions must precede that date — which means that it’s one of Langar or Whitlow.
  2. It’s more likely that Langar, a soldier, would have had the outstanding physique to attract Hunter’s interest. (Whitlow was a domestic servant who robbed his master in an unrelated crime.)

Headlines aside, this sleuthing obviously falls well shot of airtightness.

Historian Tim Hitchcock, incidentally a moving spirit behind the creation of the invaluable Old Bailey Online database, doesn’t find James Langar a persuasive candidate. In private communication with this site (4 April 2012), he remained “still very much of the opinion that [Smugglerius] is either Thomas Henman or Benjamin Harley … I am even more convinced now than before.” Here’s the case for one of the Harley/Henman pair:

  1. Harley and Henman were smugglers. You know … like Smugglerius?
  2. Trial records indicate death-sentenced prisoners also condemned to anatomization, and they do not say that about Whitlow and Langar, who were merely thieves
  3. Harley and Henman, by contrast, had killed; they were therefore subject to the Murder Act, and accordingly sentenced “to be afterwards dissected and anatomized; which sentence was executed upon them”*

All things equal outside of the date on Deare’s letter, Harley and Henman look much the likelier source of Smugglerius. (If so, we seem to lack any good reason to prefer Harley as the Smugglerius model as against Henman, or vice versa. Flip a coin.)

The historiography for Langar depends inordinately upon the present-day interlocutor’s confidence in the “1 May” date a Georgian-era teenager slapped onto a bit of personal correspondence with, one can be sure, nothing resembling academic gravity. May 1 could be mistaken outright (maybe it was June 1, and he wrote “May” out of the previous 31 days’ habit); or, it could be only a reference to when Deare began a letter that he might have composed over several weeks; or, it could be that the author had some trivial reason of personal expediency to backdate.

Maybe so, maybe not. But who would have thought anyone would be interested in Harley or Henman (or Langar) going on two and a half centuries after their deaths.

Executed Today had occasion to discuss this fascinating object d’art and its discomfiting origin with one of Hitchcock’s collaborators, IUPUI Professor of British History Jason M. Kelly.

ET: What’s the background? Why is Smugglerius being produced at all in 1770s Britain?

JK: Well, 1768 marked the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts. It took over 20 years to create.

The idea was to give Britain a school of art — of painting, sculpture, and architecture — to rival its continental peers. The French had established art academies in the previous century; they were among the premier art schools in Europe, if not the premier schools.

The British didn’t have anything comparable. And, in an age of rivalries, both political and cultural, artists and patrons alike saw the Royal Academy as central to British national identity.

The Academy hired William Hunter to be the professor of anatomy. He was an anatomist — a doctor — by training, not an artist, so he was very interested in teaching things like musculature, skeletal structure, and the circulatory system.

Smugglerius was not William Hunter’s only ecorche. He had made at least one other as a teaching aid, and he was proud to associate himself with it. He even poses for a portrait with a miniature version of it.


Miniature portrait of William Hunter holding a miniature bronze from Michael Henry Spang‘s reduction of an earlier ecorched figure. (The full-sized figure can be seen in the background of this sketch.)

What actually goes into producing an ecorche?

They had to get the body from the gallows to the art academy. Then they flayed it. In this case, somebody decided to pose the corpse as the Dying Gladiator.

They had some time prior to rigor mortis to get everything situated. in this case, they flayed him, posed him, then let him dry out, possibly overnight, so that they could make a mold of his body.

Beyond its immediate use as a teaching device, it’s also an art object for appreciation in its own right. How do you read that phenomenon?

This is very much a representation of the power of the state, the unrestrained power.

The execution itself is a display of power, but the government went further when in 1752 it passed the Murder Act allowing the College of Surgeons to get six bodies a year to dissect.

Ordinary people had no desire to have their remains used in this way. In the example of Smugglerius, the criminal was executed. Then, the body was desecrated — transformed into an art object for elite connoisseurs.

The sculpture was meant to represent ideal beauty as well as the terrifying strength of the state. The very people who were meant to appreciate the model of the Dying Gaul were the same people holding the reigns of power. In a sense, this image reinforced the elites’ view of the world, both aesthetically and politically.

Why pose the figure in this way, as the Dying Gaul or Dying Gladiator?

There’s one reading of Smugglerius to the effect that it was very subversive because the Dying Gladiator was seen as emblematic of the decline of Rome: the sculpture represented Rome’s decadence and corruption.

an inveterate abuse, which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still [in the early 5th century] exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty … which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion.

-Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

So, you could speculate that this pose slyly represented contemporary executions under the Bloody Code in the same critical way.

The Gladiator was also one of the best-known and -admired classical sculptures in all of Europe, along with the Laocoön.

In the 18th century they were compared as two examples of dignified dying. Contemporaries saw a certain stoicism in the sculptures — even though Virgil wrote that Laocoön cried out.

Ultimately, Smugglerius reminds us what happens when power is unrestrained. In a world where most people don’t have a voice, the state can ignore the rights and dignity of individuals. The real story here is the story of arbitrary authority and the importance of an enfranchised citizenry with the ability to put limits on those wielding power.

* Hanged felons not sentenced to anatomization could still wind up being taken apart in an operating theater, either as a result of their striking a direct bargain with the surgeons, or involuntarily via London’s growing trade in illicit corpses.

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1776: Jamaican slave rebels

1 comment July 19th, 2011 Headsman

In our late constant disputes at our tables (where by the by every Person has his own waiting man behind him) we have I am afraid been too careless of Expressions, especially when the topic of American rebellion has been by the Disaffected amongst us, dwelt upon and brandished of with strains of Virtuous Heroism.

what mind of a Slave will not recoil and burn into Resentment; when he shall have been the frequent witness of Sedition and Ingratitude in the Conduct of his Master — when he shall hear the Obligation of a subject to his Lord spurn’d at — the Blood spilt by Rebells extoll’d … Obedience to Laws and Authority upon all these Occasions mentioned with a strong Idea of Slavery. And Men toasted into Immortal Honours for Encountering Death in every form, rather than submit to Slavery let its Chains be ever so gilded.

Dear Liberty has rang in the heart of every House-bred Slave, in one form or other, for these Ten years past — While we only talk’d about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us & it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our Domestics by our Wise-Acre Patriots.

–Rev. John Lindsay, Hanover Parish, Jamaica

On July 3, 1776, as tensions between the North American colonies and England came to a head, the garrison at Hanover, Jamaica sailed from Lucea to reinforce General William Howe.

The departure of this regiment was the pre-arranged signal for the parish’s slaves — both imported Coromantee and, more ominously for the slaveholder, the generally less-rebellious Creoles — to mount a general rising.

The only reason it didn’t happen was because it was sniffed out — after the regiment left, but before the date planned out by slaves passing word from estate to estate.

For a century or so, lucrative sugar and coffee cultivation on the island (and elsewhere around the thought to have been imported to Jamaica before the slave trade was abolished in 1808.

Planters reaped stupendous profits from this harvest of misery, but perpetually stood in danger of reaping the whirlwind, too. At the time of the intended rebellion, there were 20 or more slaves for every white around Hanover. A Hanover militia officer said in the days after the plot was uncovered that he was “deeply Concerned in the Intended Insurrection, the Number of the Troop is small and the Duty severe, Our apprehensions are great upon the occasion as we know not where it will end.” As the number of implicated slaves mounted past 100, a planter lamented that “there appears to be no end to this horrid affair.”

As jumpy as they were, the authorities managed to keep a lid on this situation through the usual methods, which gives this site its excuse to notice the affair.

We have try’d — found Guilty and Executed Yesterday the following Conspirators, Blue Hole Harry, and Leander of the Spring Estate, Charles of the Baulk, Peter of Batchelors Hall, Prince belonging to John Priest of Lucea, and Quamino to Sir Simon Clarke, these are the Chief Ring-leaders and the most Active in Promoting the Intended Insurrection and We propose proceeding tomorrow in trying the Other Chiefs.

-Report to Sir Basil Keith from the magistrates of Hanover, Jamaica, July 20, 1776

Slavery persisted in Jamaica, dogged by regular rebellions, for another 57 years, until Samuel Sharpe’s revolt helped finally convince Parliament to ban it. Whether that past is really past … that’s another question.

For more, see Richard B. Sheridan, “The Jamaican Slave Insurrection Scare of 1776 and the American Revolution,” The Journal of Negro History July, 1976, which is the source of the quotes in this article.

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1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman

2 comments August 13th, 2010 Headsman

On or around this date in 1776,* a couple of blacks in Suriname (both slave and free) were executed for unrelated crimes … notably a free man named Neptune whose coolness under horrific torture is related by John Gabriel Stedman in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

Dutch-born and of Scottish descent, Stedman was a soldier who volunteered to serve in the West Indies and found himself in Suriname fighting those “revolted negroes” — Maroons fled from slavery who had established independent communities and episodically (most of the 1770s were one such episode) fought the white colonies.

Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.

Though that was Stedman’s business on the Caribbean coast of South America, the culprits whose deaths he witnessed today were not among the “revolted”, but more prosaic criminal fare. Prosaic, that is, until Neptune’s insouciantly comedic discourse in the midst of the most appalling torture.

Stedman sets the scene for us with the more everyday depravities prevailing in the colonial capital, Paramaribo

If, as I have just mentioned, cruelties were become less common in the rivers by the rebels, barbarities still continued in a shocking degree in the metropolis; where my ears were deafened with the clang of the whip, and the shrieks of the negroes. Among the most eminent of these tyrants was a Miss Sp—n,who lived next door to Mr. de Graav, and who I saw with horror from my window give orders that a young black woman should be flogged principally across the breasts, at which she seemed to enjoy peculiar satisfaction. To dissipate the impression this scene had left on my mind, I got into a whiskey, and rode out; when the first thing I saw was a negro girl fall naked from a garret window on a heap of broken bottles: this was indeed an accident, but she was so mangled, though not dead, that she exhibited a spectacle nearly as wretched as the other.—Cursing my unlucky fate, I turned the horses, and drove to the beach, as the only place to avoid every scene of cruelty and misery; but here I had the mortification to see two Philadelphia sailors (while they were fighting on the forecastle of their vessel) both fall over the ship’s bow into the stream, where they sunk, and were no more seen. On board another American brig, I discovered a little tar defending himself from the cross-trees with a hatchet, against a serjeant and four armed men, for a considerable time; till they threatening to shoot him out of the rigging, he at last surrendered, and being brought ashore, was dragged to Fort Zelandia, in company with two others, by a file of musketeers, where, for having been drunk on duty, they received a fire-cant each, at the captain’s request; that is, they were bastinadoed or beaten on the shoulders by two corporals with bamboo canes, till their backs were black, and swelled like a cushion. However arbitrary this mode of correction, the captain endeavoured to explain the necessity of it; the private American sailors being of a turbulent spirit indeed when drunk, although when sober they may be fairly classed among the best seamen in the world.

But the narrator is just getting warmed up, and after a good night’s sleep …

Early the next morning, while musing on all the different dangers and chastisements to which the lower class of people are exposed, I heard a crowd pass under my window. Curiosity made me start up, dress in a hurry, and follow them: when I discovered three negroes in chains, surrounded by a guard, going to be executed in the savannah. Their undaunted look, however averse I may be to the sight of cruelties, so attracted my attention, as to determine me to see the result, which was thus:— The sentence being read in Low Dutch (which they did not understand) one was condemned to be flogged below the gallows, and his accomplice to have his head struck off with an axe, for having shot a slave who had come to steal plantains on the estate of his mistress. The truth however was, that this had been done by that lady’s absolute command; but the murder being discovered, she, in the hopes of saving her character, besides the expence of paying the penalties, gave up her valuable slave, and permitted the unhappy man to be thus sacrificed. He laid his head upon the block with great indifference, stretching out his neck; when, with one blow of the axe, it was severed from his body.

The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life. The particulars, however, are worth relating: This man having stolen a sheep, to entertain a favourite young woman, the overseer, who burnt with jealousy, had determined to see him hanged; to prevent which, the negro shot him dead among the sugar canes; for these offences of course he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. The ropes being next unlashed, I imagined him dead, and felt happy; till the magistrates stirring to depart, he writhed himself from the cross, when he fell on the grass, and damned them all, as a set of barbarous rascals; at the same time removing his right hand by the help of his” teeth, he rested his head on part of the timber, and asked the by-standers for a pipe of tobacco, which was infamously answered by kicking and spitting on him; till I, with some American seamen, thought proper to prevent it. He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last, and I now care not, were I to remain thus one month longer.” After which he sung two extempore songs (with a clear voice) the subjects of which were, to bid adieu to his living friends, and to acquaint his deceased relations that in a very little time he should be with them, to enjoy their company for ever in a better place. This done, he calmly entered into conversation with some gentlemen concerning his trial; relating every particular with uncommon tranquillity—”But,” said he abruptly, “by the sun it must be eight o’clock; and by any longer discourse I should be sorry to be the cause of your losing your breakfast.” Then, casting his eyes on a Jew, whose name was De Vries, “A-propos, sir,” said he, “won’t you please to pay me the ten shillings you owe me ?” — “For what to do ?” — “To buy meat and drink, to be sure—don’t you perceive I am to be kept alive?” Which speech, on seeing the Jew stare like a fool, this mangled wretch accompanied with a loud and hearty laugh. Next, observing the soldier that stood sentinel over him biting occasionally on a piece of dry bread, he asked him ” how it came to pass, that he, a white man, should have no meat to eat along with it ?” — ” Because I am not so rich,” answered the soldier. — “Then I will make you a present, sir,” said the negro; “first, pick my hand that was chopped off clean to the bones, next begin to devour my body, till you are glutted; when you will have both bread and meat, as best becomes you;” which piece of humour was followed by a second laugh; and thus he continued, until I left him, which was about three hours after the dreadful execution.

Wonderful it is indeed, that human nature should be able to endure so much torture, which assuredly could only be supported by a mixture of rage, contempt, pride, and the glory of braving his tormentors, from whom he was so soon to escape. [ here a footnote is marked in the original text, whose content is: “At Demerary, so late as October, 1789, thirty-two wretches were executed in three days, sixteen of whom suffered in the manner just described, with no less fortitude, and without uttering one single complaint.” -ed. ]

Though I never recal to my remembrance, without the most painful sensation, this horrid scene, which must revolt the feelings of all who have one spark of humanity, I cannot forbear exhibiting to the public the dreadful spectacle in the annexed drawing.


Detail view of William Blake‘s illustration of Neptune’s breaking on the rack. (Click for full image.)

If the reader, however, should be offended with this shocking exhibition, and my dwelling so long on this unpleasant subject, let it be some relief to his reflection, to consider this punishment not inflicted as a wanton and unprovoked act of cruelty, but as the extreme severity of the Surinam laws, on a desperate wretch, suffering as an example to others for complicated crimes; while at the same time it cannot but give me, and I hope many others, some consolation to reflect that the above barbarous mode of punishment was hitherto never put in practice in the British colonies.

I must now relate an incident, which, as it had a momentary effect on my imagination, might have had a lasting one on some who had not investigated the real cause of it, and which it gave me no small satisfaction to discover. About three in the afternoon, walking towards the place of execution, with my thoughts full of the affecting scene, and the image of the sufferer fresh in my mind, the first object I saw was his head at some distance, placed on a stake, nodding to me backwards and forwards, as if he had really been alive. I instantly stopped short, and seeing no person in the savannah, nor a breath of wind sufficient to move a leaf or a feather, I acknowledge that I was rivetted to the ground, where I stood without having the resolution of advancing one step for some time; till reflecting that I must be weak indeed not to approach this dead skull, and find out the wonderful phenomenon, if possible, I boldly walked up, and instantly discovered the natural cause, by the return of a vulture to the gallows, who perched upon it, as if he meant to dispute with me for this feast of carrion ; which bird, having already picked out one of the eyes, had fled at my first approach, and striking the skull with his talons, as he took his sudden flight, occasioned the motion already described. I shall now only add, that this poor wretch, after living near six hours, had been knocked on the head by the commiserating sentinel, the marks of whose musket were perfectly visible by a large open fracture in the skull.

Stedman’s work details a number of other atrocities against Suriname’s African (primarily slave) population, many of them powerfully illustrated by William Blake with near pornographic effect. These sorts of things were of ancient vintage in the realm.

The Narrative itself became both an important anti-slavery text, and an invaluable historical reference. (Where I have clipped the text, Stedman is about to segue into a discourse on the local vulture population, just the sort of detail that present-day researchers might have a hard time sourcing for 18th century Suriname.)

But even though contemporary abolitionists made use of the Narrative, Stedman’s 18th century publisher actually played down the author’s tone on the subject. A version much more overtly critical of slavery and the savage corporal punishments that upheld it has recently been published from the original manuscripts. (An abridged version of that original is also available.)

* Stedman’s narrative mingles chronological journal-style entries with general observations about his environs. The text is slightly ambiguous as to the date, but the chapter in question begins by situating the action on Aug. 12, digresses into a description of the regional landscape, then returns to the narrative where this blog entry picks it up. It’s not completely explicit that the metropolitan atrocities he witnesses also occur on the 12th, but the text invites that inference — with the execution taking place the next morning after.

The next date explicitly named is Aug. 24, the birthday of the Prince of Orange, so if Neptune did not die on Aug. 13, it was within only a very few days after.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Murder,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Suriname,Wrongful Executions

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1776: Nathan Hale, with regrets

4 comments September 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1776, Revolutionary spy Nathan Hale was hanged by the British in Manhattan — allegedly uttering the immortal last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale statuary (with bound feet and hands) ironically stationed at Washington D.C.’s Department of Justice. Like statues are at the Chicago Tribune building and the Yale University campus; dueling plaques in New York contend to mark the execution spot.

Two years out of Yale when the Revolution broke out in 1775, the Connecticut-born Hale hitched onto the Continental Army and was directly promoted to captain.

When British Gen. William Howe landed at New York in the summer of 1776, Nathan Hale volunteered to slip behind enemy lines and reconnoiter enemy strength for George Washington. It turned out to be his mission into eternity.

As one might suspect, there’s a great deal more to Nathan Hale than his last words — and a fair bit of uncertainty about what his last words really were. Hale’s Wikipedia page retails many versions of the line from many sources.

The sentiment commonly attributed him (formulated in slight variations, e.g., “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country”) was supposed to have been reported by a British officer attending him; it’s certainly a punchier version than, e.g., a Revolutionary War era report of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Gah.

If all these presumably paraphrased reports have the gist right, it’s possible the 21-year-old recited an identical sentiment in the tragic play Cato:*

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

There’s much more about this short-lived character and his larger-than-life transfiguration in mythologia Americana. The Library of Congress has a collection of links, and William Phelps recently penned this new (and surprisingly, first) biography of the revolutionary legend.

* The play was all the rage among patriots; Patrick Henry might have plucked his immortal “give me liberty or give me death” line from it, too. (“It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”)

Part of the Themed Set: Counterrevolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Language,Martyrs,New York,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spies,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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