1789: Five wheelbarrow men

3 comments October 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Byrns (aka Francis Burns), John Bennet, Daniel Cronan, John Ferguson (aka John Taylor) and John Logan* hanged in Philadelphia on this date in 1789.

The offenders were “wheelbarrow men,” which in the idiolect specific to late 1780s Pennsylvania denoted prisoners who were detailed, in order “to correct and reform offenders, and to produce such strong impressions on the minds of others as to deter them from committing the like offences,” to suffer “continued hard labour publicly and disgracefully imposed.”

As its own text declares, the 1786 statute creating this class was a part of Pennsylvania’s avant-garde move towards a penitential penal philosophy, with a corresponding reduction in capital sentences for property crimes: Pennsylvania had hanged about 40 people for mere robbery or burglary in the preceding decade. As explained by Louis Masur’s Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (which is also our source for the count of hanged thieves), “in 1786, most almanacs in Philadelphia and elsewhere included the proverb that industry promoted virtue.”

It became readily apparent, however, that the “wheelbarrow law” neither reformed the prisoners nor prevented vice. Indeed, it seemed to many that the convicts became even more licentious and that unprecedented amounts of criminal activity infested the community.

Such prisoners were “subjects of great terror, even while chained” given these walking spectacles’ notorious dissolution, and still worse their propensity for fleeing their wheelbarrows to become desperate fugitives. Pennsylvania newspapers from this era have an alarming quantity of notices published by gaolers warning of escaped wheelbarrow men … and not a few reports of actual or suspected crimes committed by them. For example …


Philadelphia Mercury, Oct. 23, 1788.

New-Hampshire Spy, Dec. 2, 1788.

By the time full 30 wheelbarrow-men escaped on a single night in October 1788, elite opinion had turned solidly against this disastrous experiment, and the law would be repealed by 1790 — substituting for public shaming the penitential benefits imposed solitude. But before the wheelbarrow men had disappeared into historical curiosity, our five of them in September 1789 robbed and also murdered a man named John McFarland in his home on Philadelphia’s Market Street.


New York Daily Gazette, Sep. 25, 1789.

* Quite a few Johns about down the years.

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1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

Add comment September 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

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1781: Beata Dolores, the last victim of the Spanish Inquisition

1 comment August 24th, 2018 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post on the last person done to death by the Spanish Inquisition, “Beata Dolores”, who on August 24 of 1781* became in Seville the last person ever sent to the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. Lea’s summary first appeared in his Chapters from the Religious History of Spain Connected with the Inquisition. -ed.)

More remarkable in every respect was the case of Maria de los Dolores Lopez, known as the Beata Dolores, who suffered as a Molinist, in 1781, at Seville.

She was, or pretended to be, blind and ascribed her ability to read and write and embroider to miraculous interposition. At the age of twelve she left her father’s house to live as a concubine with her confessor. Four years later he died, when she went to Marchena and assumed the habit of a beata [a nun -ed.] which she continued to wear.

Her quick intelligence gained for her a high reputation among the people, who imagined that only supernatural gifts could enable a blind person to divine things so readily. The fame of her sanctity and of the special graces enjoyed by her spread far and wide; she held long conversations with her guardian angel, after the fashion of Josepha de San Luis Beltran, but her career at Marchena was brought to an end by her corrupting her confessor. He was relegated to a convent of rigid observance and she went to Seville, where she followed the same hypocritical life for twelve years till, in July, 1779, one of her confessors, pricked by conscience, denounced both herself and himself to the Inquisition, and abundant evidence as to her scandals was easily obtained.

The trial lasted for two years, for she resolutely maintained the truth of her pretensions; since the age of four she had been the object of special grace, she had continual and familiar intercourse with the Virgin, she had been married in heaven to the child Jesus with St. Joseph and St. Augustin as witnesses, she had liberated millions of souls from purgatory, and much more of the same sort.

Had she been content to confess herself an impostor she would have escaped with the customary moderate punishment of reclusion, but she rendered herself guilty of formal and obstinate heresy by maintaining the so-called Molinist doctrine that evil actions cease to be sinful when God so wills it.

Every effort was made to convert her. The most eminent theologians were summoned and vainly exhausted their learning and eloquence; Fray Diego de Cadiz preached to her constantly for two months. She was equally unmoved by the threat of burning; God, she said, had revealed to her that she would die a martyr, after which he would in three days prove her innocence.

Burning was going out of fashion, and the Inquisition honestly endeavored to escape its necessity, but her obstinacy admitted of no alternative, and on August 22, 1781, she was finally condemned and abandoned to the secular arm. She listened unmoved to the sentence, after which, in place of being as usual hurried at once to the stake, she was, as a supreme effort, kept for three days [sic] in the chapel with holy men exhorting her to no purpose.

Then at the auto de fe every one was melted to pity on seeing her with the mitre of flames and demons, while she alone remained impassible during the sermon and ceremony — in fact she had to be gagged to suppress her blasphemy. Finally however on her way to the stake she weakened, she burst into tears and asked for a confessor. The execution was postponed for some hours and her punishment was mitigated, according to rule, with preliminary strangulation.

* Three hundred years after Seville had the first Inquisition auto-de-fe, both events the discerning traveler can explore at the city’s Museo Del Castillo De San Jorge. For reasons that I’m unable to determine there are a number of citations abroad placing this execution on November 7, 1781. I’m affirming the 24th of August based on primary documentation such as this archival document cited by Lea, or the August 25 correspondence reporting the events of the preceding day addressed to Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos. This detailed account is quoted in full in Jovellanos: vida y pensamiento; alternately, this Spanish-language page summarizes the day hour by hour based on that same source. -ed.

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1786: Five men at York Castle, under the “Bloody Code”

Add comment August 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1786, five young men were hanged together before a large crowd in front of York Castle. They were William Nicholson, John Charlesworth, James Braithwaite, William Sharp and William Bamford.

William Knipe’s Criminal chronology of York castle; with a register of criminals capitally convicted and executed at the County assizes, commencing March 1st, 1379, to the present time records,

The above were all executed at Tyburn without Micklegate Bar.

Nicholson, aged 27, labourer, for stealing two geldings, the property of Robert Athorpe Esq., of Dinnington. Thomas Whitfield, Mr. Athorpe’s man, was the principal witness against him.

John Charlesworth, of Liversedge, clothier, for breaking into the house of Susan Lister, of Little Gomersal, single woman, and stealing various articles of trifling value; also further charged with stopping William Hemmingway, of Mirfield, clothier, and robbing him of three guineas and a half and some silver and copper. He was 21 years of age.

Braithwaite, for breaking into the dwelling-house of Thomas Paxton, of Long Preston, innkeeper, and stealing various article therefrom. He was a hawker and a pedlar, and 30 years of age.

William Sharp, labourer, aged 26, and William Bamford, labourer, aged 28, for robbing Duncan M’Donald, of Sheffield, button-maker, by breaking into his house, and carrying away a number of horn combs, a silver threepenny-piece, and fourpence in copper. Sharp was a native of Conisbro’, and Bamford, a native of Clifton.

It was noted that Nicholson, Charlesworth, Sharp and Bamford all left a widow and children behind, but Braithwaite had “two wives and three children by his lawful one, and two by the other, to whom he gave £70, and appeared most attached to her, as he would not permit the former to take leave of him.”

This British Library article on crime and punishment in Georgian Britain explains why these individuals were punished so severely for what, to modern eyes, look like relatively minor offenses:

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death—by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason — even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage — could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. Though many people charged with capital crimes were either let off or received a lesser sentence, the hangman’s noose nevertheless loomed large.

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1782: Jose Antonio Galan, for the Revolt of the Comuneros

Add comment February 1st, 2018 Headsman

Ni un paso atrás, siempre adelante, y lo que fuere menester … sea!

-Jose Antonio Galan

On this date in 1782, Comunero rebel Jose Antonio Galan was executed in Bogota, New Grenada (present-day Colombia).

Spain’s New World precincts had risen in response to intensified taxation exacted by the empire’s modernizing reforms and particularly accelerated when Spain went to war against Great Britain in 1779; similar pressures likewise helped to trigger the 1780-1781 Tupac Amaru insurrection in Peru.

In New Grenada, pontaneous resistance to new viceregal edicts coalesced into one of the most serious rebellions of the Spanish colonial era — albeit one that aimed at reform, not revolution.

Shouting demands for tax reductions and greater local autonomy, a force of 10,000-20,000 rebels marched on Bogota in the spring of 1781, routing a column of government soldiers sent to disperse them and forcing authorities to terms that the latter had no intention of honoring. This is one of the oldest ploys: offer concessions to end the rebellion, then declare the concessions null and void as obtained under duress when the rebels are safely out of arms.

An illiterate mestizo peasant, our man Galan (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much more satisfactory Spanish) was not the principal captain of this rebellion but he seems to have exceeded them in foresight — for Galan and his more radical followers continued the revolt even after the main body of Comuneros went home satisfied with the government’s specious pledges. North of Bogota, Galan threatened a more Tupac Amaru-like experience, attracting a multi-racial lower-class force* which he turned against hacienda landowners.

Captured in October of that same year after reinforcements arrived at Bogota to begin laying down imperial law, Galan was so popularly admired that no free blacksmith would accept the contract to forge his irons — all the more reason for his exemplary sentence:

We condemn José Antonio Galán to be removed from jail, dragged and taken to the place of execution, where he is hanged on the gallows until dead; when lowered, his head is to be cut off, his body divided into four parts and passed through the flames (for which a bonfire will be lit in front of the scaffold); his head will be taken to Guaduas, theater of his scandalous insults; the right hand placed in the Plaza del Socorro, the left in the town of San Gil; the right foot in Charalá, place of his birth, and the left foot in the place of Mogotes; his descendants are declared infamous, all his goods are confiscated to the treasury; his house is to be pulled down and sown with salt, so that his infamous name may be lost and consigned to such a vile reputation, such a detestable memory, that nothing remains of him but the hate and fright that ugliness and crime inspire.

Despite the sentence, it’s said that an unskillful executioner not knowing how to hang his man shot him dead instead, so that he could proceed to the butchery.

* The main insurrection that had so meekly disbanded itself was heavily led by Creole local elites with a clear inclination towards deal-making.

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1782: Patrick Dougherty, robber

Add comment December 21st, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1782, wine porter Patrick Dougherty was hanged at St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Ireland for the robbery of Thomas Moran. In August, Dougherty and an accomplice, George Coffey, had attacked Moran and relieved him of his watch, his shoes, a seal, a key, a pen-knife, and a pair of silver shoe buckles. All told, the items were worth a princely £15.

In addition, Dougherty was suspected of being the leader of a large criminal gang that committed many armed robberies.

Brian Henry, in his book Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law Enforcement and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century Dublin, records the events surrounding the robber’s execution:

At the hanging, the Dublin Volunteers turned out in force to prevent a threatened outbreak of violence. They managed to keep the crowds back until after the hanging, when Dougherty’s family and friends broke through a wall of men to rescue the body, which they defiantly carried to the house of his prosecutor [and victim], Moran.

In hot pursuit, a detachment of Volunteers rushed to Lower Ormond Quay, snatched the body back from the crowd, ran with it to the front gate of Trinity College and offered it to the professors of anatomy for dissection. In the end, the porters slammed the front door of the college in their faces. Afterwards, the family and friends of Dougherty recovered his body, whereby it was “taken for burial.”

Although they did not succeed in their plan, the Volunteers’ response to the mob’s action illustrates the pervasive attitude of the propertied classes towards the common people. It also illustrates how science and medicine had become linked to the propertied classes and the punishment of hanging. Surgeons were regarded with suspicion as their dissections prevented families and friends of deceased felons from waking their bodies.

Although George Coffey was tried alongside Dougherty, no report of his fate exists. Dougherty’s was the last hanging at St. Stephen’s Green; after this, the gallows was moved to the front of Newgate Prison.

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1780: Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange, for carrying off the Miss Kennedy’s

Add comment December 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Today’s short and plaintive broadsheet arrives via James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland, a source we have enjoyed often in the past.

Though we have seen elsewhere via Kelly the capital prosecution of Catholic-Protestant marriages; these, however, appear by the thin text to be instances of the old tradition of bride-stealing — a practice which could straddle the vast distance from elopement ritual and kidnapping/rape.

The implication of these texts is that the men did the former, but got prosecuted for the latter: whether that’s down to an initial misunderstanding between the partners, to a change of heart by the wives Kennedy, to the pressure applied by disapproving in-laws, or some other cause, one can only guess.


The Last Speech, Confession and Dying Declaration of Gerald Byrne and James and Patrick Strange

Good People,

As we have for some time past excited the publick attention, it may be expected in our last moments to say a few words regarding the cause for which we suffer. As to our births; we have come from respectable families near Graigenamana, in the counties of Ki[l]kenny and Carlow; from an early acquaintance with the Miss Kennedy’s, we unfortunately conceived an affection for them, grounded on the most virtuous and honourable terms; they received our addresses and seemed to approve of our passions by the mutual exchange of their love for ours; but alas! how we have been deceived.

Thus encouraged with the many repeated assurances that we were not disagreeable, made us imprudently determine to take them away, which resolution we unhappily put in execution, and immediately after, married them, and during the time of their living with us no woman could be happier, as we used them in the most tender, loving and affectionate manner; however, illnatured people have shamefully propagated, that we treated them ungentleman-like; but such ill-natured reports have been founded and circulated by malice, and, we hope, in the humane and honest mind will have no weight.

We freely forgive our unnatural wives, beseeching the Searcher of all Hearts, when they appear before his awful tribunal, will mitigate the cruelty they have shown to us, and receive them into the mansions of bliss. We die members of the Church of Rome, in peace with the world, in the 23d and 20th years of our age, and may the Lord have mercy on our Souls

Gerald Byrne, James Strange


The last Speech of Patrick Strange, who was executed for aiding and assisting in taking away the Miss Kennedy’s

Good Christians,

As it is usual for persons in my unhappy situation to give some account of their past life, I shall only trespass on the public, to mention, that I was born in the county of Carlow, come from a reputable family, and always preserved an unblemished character, the cause I die for was of assisting Mess Byrne and Strange, in carrying away the Miss Kennedy’s. I forgive my prosecutors, requesting the prayers of all good Christians, and depart in peace with mankind, in the 24th year of my age.

Patrick Strange

ENISCORTHY: Printed by R. JONES

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1784: Richard Barrick and John Sullivan

Add comment November 18th, 2017 Robert Elder

i>(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

For this last crime, I am to suffer death. These are the most capital crimes I have committed, and I sincerely wish that others may avoid the rocks on which I have split.

-John Sullivan, convicted of murder, hanging, Massachusetts executed November 18, 1784

Born in Ireland, he enlisted in the British service but deserted, robbed steadily and finally was an accomplice to the murder of an old man who was beaten to death for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. He was found guilty of many capital crimes such as desertion and robbery.


… I then went to Boston, and got in company with one John Sullivan…we went to Winter’s-Hill, and there robbed one Mr. Baldwin, for which crime Sullivan and myself are to suffer Death, as being the just reward of our demerits.

-Richard Barrick, convicted of highway robbery and murder, hanging, Massacusetts Executed November 18, 1784

Richard Barrick was born in Ireland in February 1763 and brought up in the Foundling Hospital. He was an apprentice to a silk-weaver and lived with him for three years. But during those years, he was treated poorly and so he eventually left the silk-weaver and joined a gang of thieves. When he was caught, the authorities agreed to pardon him if he entered on board one of his Majesty’s ships. After arriving in New York, Barrick and some others robbed many people and [he] became a notorious and wanted man. He was an accomplice to murder of a man they first robbed. He was eventually caught by a British Colonel and convicted.

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1787: Margaret Savage, repeat offender

Add comment November 17th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1787, Margaret Savage was publicly hanged in front of Newgate Prison in Dublin, Ireland for armed robbery.

Savage’s first brush with the law came in 1781, when she was convicted of stealing 18 yards of black calico, the value of which was £2. Three years in prison seems a harsh punishment for what was essentially shoplifting, but Savage was lucky — in those days, even minor thefts were capital offenses.

In August 1782, Savage and 31 other prisoners petitioned George Nugent-Temple Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham, the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, for clemency. The petitioners, 29 of them female and most of them convicted of theft, pointed to their “signs of reformation and contrition,” successfully: the Lord Lieutenant pardoned Savage and released her from custody, less than a year into her sentence. She had been doubly fortunate.

Five years later, however, Savage got into trouble again after she and a fifteen-year-old male accomplice were convicted of robbing a woman at gunpoint, stealing 18 shillings. Aware of her previous record, this time the Dublin Recorder sentenced her to death.

Brian Henry notes in his book Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law Enforcement and Punishment in Late Eighteenth-Century Dublin,

Her hanging conflicted with the state funeral procession of the Duke of Rutland [another Lord Lieutenant of Ireland]. This prompted the Hibernian Journal to report that Savage’s “wretched situation seemed to have less effect upon her than the neglect of the populace, in not gracing her exit with their appearance on so deplorable an occasion.”

The fate of Savage’s young accomplice was not recorded.

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1784: Dirick Grout and Francis Coven, Boston burglars

Add comment October 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1784, American Revolutions veteran Dirick (sometimes Dirich or Derach) Grout and Francis Coven (or Coyen) were hanged in Boston for burglary.

Coven was a Frenchman who had come to North America with the French expeditionary force deployed to support the colonial rebels; Grout was a New Yorker of Dutch extraction who had served in the Continental Army. Both were caught up in the economic collapse that hit the newly independent states upon the revolution’s 1780s conclusion — from which soil emerged a property crime wave around wealthy Boston that led Justice Nathaniel Sargent to fret that “vicious persons” now were “roving about the countryside disturbing peoples rest and preying upon their property.” Small wonder when, as the Massachusetts Centinel noted, “we daily see men speculating with impunity on the most essential articles of life, and grinding the faces of the poor and laborious as if there were no God.”

According to Alan Rogers’s Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts (which is also the source of the preceding paragraph’s quotes), there was not only a “sharp jump in the number of postwar executions” but a shift in the proportion of those executions that underscored the Commonwealth’s alarm at its bold and violent thieves:

In the two decades after 1780 a very different pattern emerged: the rate of executions throughout the commonwealth nearly doubled and the crimes for which men and women were put to death changed dramatically. Of the seventeen men and one woman executed in Boston during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, only four were convicted murderers, but nine burglars and five highway robbers were hanged, almost the reverse of the data for the first seven decades of the century.

Both of our gentlemen today were among its casualties, and both had been repeat offenders; Coven took 30 lashes as punishment for a previous robbery in 1782. Grout went on a burglary spree that hit multiple houses and shops around Boston. Both received death sentence at the August 31 sitting of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.*

* Other sentences handed down “for various thefts” at the same proceedings, according to the Salem Gazette (September 14, 1784):

Cornelius Arie, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Thomas Joice, to be whipt 25 stripes, and branded.

William Scott, to be whipt 25 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

John Goodbread and Edward Cooper, 15 each.

James Campbell, to be whipt 30 stripes, and set one hour on the gallows.

Michael Tool, to be whipt 20 stripes.

Meanwhile, “a villain who was tried for burglary with the above-mentioned Joice, last Friday, but acquitted, was no sooner discharged, than he, with another equally meritorious scoundrel, forced open a window of the store of Mr. Daniel Sears, on Greene’s wharf, and were fleecing it of merchandize to a considerable amount, when, to their praise be it spoken, the night guardians of this city caught them in the very act, before they had time even to return by the way they had feloniously stolen in. They were both committed to jail before Saturday’s rising sun of the next day.”

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