1788: Thomas Barrett, the first hanged in Australia

Add comment February 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Thomas Barrett became the first person legally executed in Great Britain’s Australian colonies when he hanged at Sydney Cove for stealing from government stores. It was barely a month after the First Fleet had arrived from England to found the penal colony.

More than just a milestone, Barrett packed an amazing criminal career into the few years he surfaces for us in the documentary record.

Our man was condemned to death in 1782 for stealing a silver watch, the first of three death sentences he would hear. That sentence was reprieved in favor of convict transportation, a system which had ground to a halt with the American Revolution and still awaited the creation of the Australian pipeline.

In 1783, a convict hulk that had been rejected by the now-independent North American colonies, the Swift, mutinied. Barrett would meet survivors of that mutiny who were stashed away with him on the Censor, one of the earliest of the Thames’ frightful stationary convict hulks where reprieved felons awaited their deportation.

In 1784, Barrett and one of the Swift mutineers, Charles Kellan, rebelled once again on their next convict transport ship, the Mercury — earning Barrett his second death sentence, and his second reprieve. Three more years on the fetid hulks ensued while legislators* and cartographers stroked their beards over Britain’s next move in the convict transportation game.

And this is when Australia the prison was invented. That First Fleet Barrett arrived on was a flotilla of eleven ships carrying 700 or so prisoners was it, the literal first European colony Down Under.

Besides being a man of spirit and enterprise, as his mutiny showed, Barrett was a skilled craftsman who enlivened the tiresome trip around the world by fashioning little metallic mementos. The journal of the ship’s surgeon John White narrates with more admiration than censure an escapade off the coast of Brazil that revealed Barret’s talent for counterfeiting.

This morning a boat came alongside, in which were three Portugueze and six slaves; from whom we purchased some oranges, plantains, and bread. In trafficking with these people, we discovered, that one Thomas Barret, a convict, had, with great ingenuity and address, passed some quarter dollars which he, assisted by two others, had coined out of old buckles, buttons belonging to the marines, and pewter spoons, during their passage from Teneriffe. The impression, milling, character, in a word, the whole was so inimitably executed, that had their metal been a little better, the fraud, I am convinced, would have passed undetected. A strict and careful search was made for the apparatus wherewith this was done, but in vain; not the smallest trace or vestige of any thing of the kind was to be found among them. How they managed this business without discovery, or how they could effect it at all, is a matter of inexpressible surprise to me; as they never were suffered to come near a fire; and a centinel was constantly placed over their hatchway, which, one would imagine, rendered it impossible for either fire or fused metal to be conveyed into their apartments. Besides, hardly ten minutes ever elapsed, without an officer of some degree or other going down among them. The adroitness, therefore, with which they must have managed, in order to complete a business that required so complicated a process, gave me a high opinion of their ingenuity, cunning, caution, and address; and I could not help wishing that these qualities had been employed to more laudable purposes.

Duly impressed, White found that more laudable purpose by commissioning Barrett to create a medallion celebrating the arrival of their vessel to Australian soil. This Charlotte Medal from Barrett’s hand is one of the most celebrated artifacts of Australian colonization; it depicts the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay with a narration on the reverse of its long journey from home:

Sailed the Charlotte of London from Spit head the 13 of May 1787. Bound for Botany Bay in th Island of new holland arriv,d at Teneriff th4 of June in Lat 28 13 N Long 16 23 W depart,d it 10 D’, arriv,d at rio janeiro 6 of Aug in Lat 22,54 S Long 42,38 W, depart,d it the 5 of Sep’ arriv,d at the Cape of good hope the 14 Oct’ in Lat 34 29 S Long 18 29 E depart,d it th13 of Nov’ and made the South Cape of New Holland the 8 of Jan 4 1788 in Lat 43,32 S Long 146,56 E arrivd at Botany Bay the 20 of Jun’ the Charlotte in Co in Lat 34.00 South Long 151.00 East distance from great Britan Miles 13106

But Barrett’s legitimate artistic career was as brief as it was scintillating.

The colony had a tight supply situation and its isolation and heavy convict population seemed to Governor Arthur Phillip to demand the strictest discipline, like that of a ship upon the sea: any significant failure of order could imperil the entire project. He assembled the little colony in early February to impress upon all that stealing rations would be harshly punished.

White, again, in his entry of February 27, 1788:

Thomas Barrett, Henry Lovel, and Joseph Hall, were brought before the criminal court, and tried for feloniously and fraudulently taking away from the public store beef and pease, the property of the crown. They were convicted on the clearest evidence; and sentence of death being passed on them, they were, about six o’clock the same evening, taken to the fatal tree; where Barrett was launched into eternity, after having confessed to the Rev. Mr. Johnson who attended him, that he was guilty of the crime, and had long merited the ignominious death which he was about to suffer, and to which he said he had been brought by bad company and evil company. Lovel and Hall were respited until six o’clock the next evening. When that awful hour arrived, they were led to the place of execution, and just as they were on the point of ascending the ladder, the judge advocate arrived with the governor’s pardon, on condition of their being banished to some uninhabited place.

As the infant colony had scarcely prioritized establishing an executioner right off the boat, one of Barrett’s fellows was pressed into the disreputable role. Another narrative underscores the tension this incident must have created among the convicts, half-starved and under the lash on the empire’s most distant moon. “The unhappy wretches were conducted wt. a party of Marines walking before them … with a large party of Marines drawn up opposite the Gallows … in case an insurrection should take place … & all the Convicts were summoned to see the deserved end of their Companions.” Hall and Lovel’s pardons should probably be read in this light; Phillip had a job to enforce obedience without triggering rebellion and once he had established the firmest precedent wisely reflected that the quality of mercy blesseth him that gives and him that takes. Two other thieves (of wine, in their case) named Daniel Gordon and John Williams were likewise condemned on the 29th of February only to be spared for banishment instead.

A small marker at Sydney’s Circular Quay commemorates Barrett’s execution. (cc) image by mazzle278.

Barrett is an important character in the BBC drama Banished.

* The Home Secretary who orchestrated the pivot to Australia was the Viscount Sydney: hence, the Australian city of Sydney.

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1788: John Price Posey, “superlative villain”

Add comment January 25th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1788, John Price Posey was publicly hanged in Richmond, Virginia for arson.

He was 35 years old, with two children.

Posey, born in 1752, didn’t have the kind of background you would expect for an executed felon. His uncle was the Revolutionary War general Thomas Posey. Posey himself was a childhood playmate of John Parke “Jacky” Custis, stepson of Founding Father George Washington.

John Price Posey grew up near the Washingtons’ Mount Vernon plantation and was a frequent guest there. After he completed his education, Washington helped him find a job. When Jacky Custis reached legal age, he appointed Posey as steward of his plantation in New Kent County.

All went well for awhile. Posey even became justice of the peace and served in the house of delegates between 1780 and 1781.

The situation soured, however, after Jacky died in November 1781. George Washington learned that his deceased stepson’s erstwhile friend had been embezzling money from Jacky’s estate. He had sold off some of Jacky’s slaves and pocketed the profits, and later on he was caught stealing a cow from the plantation. For this “abuse and misapplication” of his duties, Posey was fined a total of £225 and removed from his position as justice of the peace. In his correspondence, General Washington referred to him as a “Superlative Villain.”

In June 1787, Posey was arrested for assaulting a sheriff and sentenced to a month in jail. On July 12, he escaped. Three days later, he and an accomplice, Thomas Green, returned to the jail with two slaves called Sawney and Hercules. The four men set fire to the jail, went two miles up the road and then set the county clerk’s office on fire. It burned to the ground and all the county records stored within were destroyed.*

Posey was back in custody within a day of the arson attacks, and after his arrest, Thomas Green confessed to his role in the affair. Posey was brought to Richmond in chains to stand trial for arson, which was a capital crime at the time. Convicted on October 1, he filed an appeal. On January 18, 1788 the Virginia Court of Appeals voted nine to one to reject his petition for clemency, and told him he must die.

Posey then sent a written request to the governor, Edmund Randolph:

The unfortunate and most unhappy John Price Posey begs that a further indulgence of a few days could be allowed him — Hopeful that it would be attended with giving further relief to the peace of mind that your unfortunate petitioner is now in search of.

This bought him a week’s stay. On January 25, he was hanged on Richmond’s gallows alongside James M’Connell Fox, a murderer. His body was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly in the Mount Airy area.

Virginia law allowed the state to confiscate a person’s property in cases of capital convictions, but in this case, unusually, the Virginia legislature returned everything to Posey’s widow, Anne Kidley Posey. She ultimately remarried.

As for his partners-in-crime: Thomas Green was never tried for his role in the arson attacks, and the slaves Sawney and Hercules were ultimately pardoned and given back to their owner, Posey’s brother-in-law.

* New Kent County’s archives also held colonial-era records for several other counties. Posey’s spiteful torch wiped out a trove of invaluable colonial-era records and is still lamented by historians and genealogists whose work touches that period as “the greatest loss”.

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1788: John and Robert Winter, father and son

Add comment August 6th, 2014 Headsman

On August 6, 1788, “John and Robert Winter, the father and son, were executed at Morpeth, pursuant to their sentence, for breaking open the house of William Charlton, esq., of Hesleyside. As they had lived for many years in a course of the most daring and shameless villainy, at their death, they testified the most brutal want of feeling, fear, or compunction.”

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1788: Not Jean Louschart, rescued by the crowd

3 comments August 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1788, France’s last attempt at an execution by breaking-wheel was thwarted by a vast crowd sympathetic to the condemned … which stormed the scaffold in Versailles and liberated the victim.

As neat a parable as one might like to find of the entire revolutionary storm then rising on France’s horizons, Jean Louschart’s tale begins with a conflict at home between the young man Jean — neck-deep in Voltaire, Rousseau, and the rest of Enlightenment thought — and his father, a respected and conservative smith not to keen on the boy’s books. Then add to this, that the Louschart family took on one Madame Verdier as a boarder, and Jean grew smitten with that woman’s daughter Helen, to the chagrin of Madame Verdier … who wanted to marry that girl off to Jean’s own father.

So Mathurin Louschart eventually got into it with his son Jean over the boy’s subversive reading. When Mathurin ordered Jean to be silent, the young man just feeling his oats retorted that this was a novel way of settling the dispute. This jab at the elder’s native prerogatives led Mathurin to drive Jean from the house full stop.

That might have been all there was to it if not for the pull of Helen. The Greeks would have understood.

Jean eventually snuck back intending to elope with the willing Helen and salvage her from her father’s hand, but Helen’s mother sniffed out the plan … and the boy entered his former domicile to find Helen being soundly thrashed by Madame. This led Jean to try to protect her, which led Mathurin to intervene, which led to a dramatic bout of father-son violence in which Mathurin was fatally struck with a smithy hammer. Madame Verdier would accuse the young man of willful murder; Jean’s supporters insisted that he had merely tossed the hammer back into the house as he fled it (having overpowered the father’s own murderous rampage), accidentally causing the father’s death. Jean himself kept mum at trial, certain that he could never convince the judges of this version of events and content to suffer for having shed his father’s blood.

We’ll take it here from the Memoirs of the Sansons. The voice here is the grandson of the venerable French Revolution executioner Charles Henri Sanson, who was before that the venerable executioner of the ancien regime. (The mob addresses him familiarly as “Charlot” here.) Fathers and sons had this much in common at least.

the court sentenced [Jean Louschart] to die on the wheel. The prisoner, however, was not condemned to amende honorable, which included the amputation of the hand; and the judges added a retentum to their sentence by which Jean Louschart was to be secretly strangled before his limbs were crushed.

Now public opinion, in Versailles, had already settled that Jean was innocent, and the news of his forthcoming execution caused general excitement. The execution was appointed to take place on August 3. On the morning of the 2nd, Charles Henri Sanson sent from Paris two carts containing the instruments of torture, and beams and boards for the erection of the scaffold. He himself went to Versailles in the afternoon. The emotion caused by Jean Louschart’s impending fate was limited to Versailles; and my grandfather was so thoroughly convinced that he had to deal with a vulgar criminal that he was greatly surprised when he found the whole town in a fever. The Place Saint-Louis was covered with so great a multitude that the assistants and carpenters could hardly go on with their work. No hostility was manifested, however; the crowd was noisy, but its mood was gay; the name of Jean was scarcely pronounced; and the workmen who were erecting the platform were merely jeered. One of the carpenters having, however, struck an urchin who was throwing stones at him, cries of ‘Death!’ were uttered; in an instant all the mocking faces became dark and threatening ; the assistants and carpenters were attacked, and their lives were in great danger. But a body of a hundred men, who could easily be identified as smiths by their athletic proportions and brawny faces, interfered, and partly by strength, partly by persuasion, they induced the crowd to retreat.

My grandfather had not bestowed much attention on this popular demonstration, but he became more attentive when the interference of the smiths took place. He felt convinced that the crowd was obeying a by-word, and that if it had retreated it was merely because it preferred to wait for a more favourable time for action. He directed his assistants to finish the erection of the scaffold as quickly as possible, and returned to Paris, where he lost no time in acquainting the proper authorities with his apprehensions.

Political emotion had already given rise to many storms in the provinces. Normandy, Bretagne, Bear n had risen on behalf of their parliaments, attacked in their privileges. Dauphine had taken a decisive step; after a long series of riots, the representatives of the three orders, nobility, clergy, and tiers-tiat, had assembled, and proclaimed their provincial independence. Paris, however, had heard with indifference of the arrest of two members of the Parliament d’Espremenil and Monsabert; and the authorities had no idea that a struggle between the Government and the people could take place in the very town inhabited by the King and his Court, so that only a few soldiers were sent to Versailles.

The multitude which had thronged the Place Saint-Louis retired during the night; only a few young men remaining to watch what took place around the scaffold. It was rumoured that Helen Verdier had thrown herself at the Queen’s feet, imploring the reprieve of the culprit, and that Marie Antoinette had prevailed on the King to grant it. The news had doubtless led to the dispersion of the crowd.

Charles Henri Sanson made the most of the circumstance. He caused a strong paling to be erected around the scaffold; and, on their side, the executive magistrates took upon themselves to advance the hour of execution.

It was two o’clock in the morning when my grandfather left the Place Saint-Louis for the prison, and he remarked that the men who were still in the place dispersed in different directions as he went away. Jean Louschart was stretched on his pallet when he entered his cell. The doomed man rose and calmly surveyed him. The clerk of the parliament read aloud the sentence, to which he listened with much attention. He then murmured a few words, among which only those of ‘ Poor father!’ were heard, and he added in a loud voice:

‘In two hours I shall justify myself before him.’ On being told that it was time to depart for the scaffold, he turned to the executioner, saying, ‘You can be in no greater hurry than I am, sir.’

At half-past four o’clock the cart moved in the direction of the Place Saint-Louis. The executive magistrates were in hopes that, owing to the retentum, everything could be finished before the population awoke. But they soon perceived their mistake. The streets were swarming with people. The whole of the population was astir. Deafening clamours burst from the crowd as the cart appeared, and it was with the greatest difficulty that it made its way. The prisoner did not even seem to suspect that all this movement was caused by the sympathy people felt for him. At the corner of the Rue de Satory a piercing cry was heard, and a girl was seen waving her handkerchief. Jean Louschart looked up, and rising to his feet, he tried to smile, and exclaimed, ‘Farewell, Helen, farewell!’ At that moment a smith of high stature and herculean proportions, who was walking near the cart, cried in a thundering voice: ‘It is an revoir you should say, Jean. Are good fellows like you to be broken on the wheel?’

A horseman drove him back, but applause and cheers came from every quarter. It was obvious, by the pale faces of the clerk, the policemen, and the soldiers who surrounded the cart, that the agents of the law were anything but confident. The scaffold, however, was reached without accident. The crowd was thickly packed on the Place Saint-Louis. As the cart stopped Jean Louschart addressed a question to the priest who was sitting near him, and my grandfather heard the latter answer, ‘To save you.’ ‘No, father,’ said the doomed man in a feverish voice and with some impatience; ‘if I am innocent of the intention of committing the crime, my hands are nevertheless stained with blood. I must die, and I wish to die.—Be quick, sir,’ he added, turning to my grandfather.

‘Sir,’ answered Charles Henri, pointing to the infuriated masses that were already breaking through the paling, ‘if there is a man here who is in danger of death it is not you.’

Hardly were the words out of his mouth than a tempest of groans and screams burst forth. The paling was broken and trodden under foot, and hundreds of men rushed on the scaffold. The smith who had already spoken to Louschart was among the foremost. He seized the prisoner in his muscular arms, cut his bonds, and prepared to carry him off in triumph. An extraordinary scene now took place; Jean Louschart struggled violently against his saviours, turned towards the executioner and begged for death with the earnestness usually displayed by other culprits in asking for mercy. But his friends surrounded him, and at length succeeded in carrying him away.

My grandfather’s position was perilous in the extreme. Separated from his assistants, alone amidst a crowd that knew him but too well, he really thought that his last hour was at hand. His countenance probably betrayed his thoughts, for the tall smith came up to him, and seized his arm: ‘Fear nothing, Charlot,’ he cried; ‘we don’t want to harm you, but your tools. Henceforth, Charlot, you must kill your customers without making them suffer.’ And speaking to the crowd: ‘Let him pass, and take care he is not hurt.’

This harangue calmed the crowd, and my grandfather was allowed to withdraw. In less time than it takes to write this account the scaffold and all its accessories were broken into pieces, which were thrown on the pile prepared for the burning of the prisoner’s body; and the terrible wheel was placed on the summit as a kind of crown. Fire was set to the heap, and men and women, holding each other by the hand, formed an immense ring and danced around the crackling pile until it was reduced to ashes.

Louis XVI pardoned the unwillingly liberated Jean Louschart, and abolished the breaking-wheel.

Part of the Themed Set: Scary Escapes.

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1788: Archibald Taylor, but not Joseph Taylor

1 comment May 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1788, two highwaymen were hanged at Boston Neck: Archibald Taylor, and Joseph Taylor.*

According to a letter later published purporting to be from that Joseph Taylor, however, he and a sympathetic doctor actually engineered one of the most amazing scaffold escapes on record. It all got started when Joseph Taylor found his fellow-condemned Archibald in high spirits one day on death row.

I never, even after my condemnation, realized that I was suddenly to die in so awful a manner, until a gentleman, who I afterwards found was a doctor, came and talked privately with the late unhappy sufferer, and my fellow convict, Archibald Taylor, who, when the gentleman was gone, came to me with money in his hand, and so smiling a countenance, that I thought he had received it in charity. But he soon undeceived me, telling me with an air of gaiety, that it was the price of his body.

This doctor dropped was doing the workaday ghoulishness of procuring imminent corpses for medical cadavers.

Such practices were still highly taboo, viscerally shocking in this case to Joseph Taylor:

This was the first time since my condemnation that I thought what it was to die. The shock was terrible, and Taylor increased it, saying that the doctor had desired him to bargain with me for my body also. The thoughts of my bones not being permitted to remain in the grave in peace, and my body, which my poor mother had so oten caressed and dandled on her knee, and wich had been so pampered by my friends in my better days, being slashed and mangled by the doctors, was too much for me. I had been deaf to the pious exhortations of the priests; but now my conscience was awakened, and hell seemed indeed to yawn for me.

What a night of horror was the next night! — When the doctor came in the morning to bargain for my body, I was in a cold sweat; my knees smote together, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth.

According to the letter, the doctor “perceived the agony of my soul” and in the conversation as it unfolded agreed to try to help Joseph Taylor survive the hanging — advising him, in order to “not dislocate the Vertebrae of the Neck,” to “Work the Knot behind your Neck and Press your Throat upon the Halter which will prevent the Necks breaking and likewise the Compression of the Jugular and preserve the circulations in some degree.” (This is actually sound advice in case you ever find yourself about to be hanged in the 18th century.)

And the doctor — remember, he was only there in the first place to get his hands on some raw materials that he could autopsy the day after the hanging — even agreed to receive the “body” in secret from Taylor’s confederates and try to restore it to life.

This bit is essential to the narrative, but the skeptical reader can’t help but doubt. What an enormous and unprofitable risk for the unnamed physician to take on behalf of a slab of meat!

I want to propose (and this is too delicious to be anything better than baseless speculation) a false-flag operation on behalf of the medical profession, which just days before the Taylors’ hanging had suffered an astounding public relations debacle. Obnoxious Manhattan medical students had wantonly displayed severed limbs from one of their subjects to schoolboys, whose frightened reports of it ultimately set off the “Doctors Mob”.

Ordinary people hated and feared anatomization, and resented “resurrection men” who stole corpses (sometimes made corpses) for the industry. The mob smashed up the hospital, thrashed the med students, and made off with the human remains.

This is the idiom for Joseph Taylor’s revulsion at being propositioned with the body trade. Although it nevertheless turned out to be his path to salvation, it is evident in his remarks that even then, something in Taylor himself rebels at the coldly utilitarian use to which he himself must put his flesh and bones, and his consequent “reliance on the doctor”, as inimical to the interests of his soul.

The state of my mind after my conversation with the doctor, until the day of execution, it is impossible for me to describe. This glimpse of hope, this mere chance of escaping the jaws of death, and of avoiding the eyes of an offended Judge, at whose bar I was no ways prepared to appear, semed to render my mind but more distracted. I sometimes indulged myself with the thoughts of being recovered t life; and as I had fortunately concealed my real name, that I might return, like the Prodigal, to my parents, and live a life devoted to God and their comfort. But I oftener feared the means might fail to bring me to life: and then I wished that this scheme had never been mentioned, as the hopes of life seemed to prevent my conversion; and then, to be surprised into another world, totally unprepared, how terrible!

According to the writer, the arrival of execution day wonderfully concentrated the mind on its big plan and put those pesky qualms of conscience to rest.

Walking out to the gallows with a case of stagefright — he was worried that his demeanor as he thought about worldly subterfuge rather than spiritual salvation would give away the game — Taylor nonetheless

preserved my presence of mind; and when the halter was fastened, remembered the doctor’s directions, and while the prayer was making I kept gently turning my head so as to bring the knot on the back of my neck … When the trap fell I had all my senses about me; and though I have no remembrance of hearing any sounds among the people, yet I believe I did not lose my sense until some minutes after. My first feelings after the shock of falling was a violent strangling and oppression for want of breath: this soon gave way to a pain in my eyes, which seemed to be burned by two balls of fire which appeared before them, which seemed to dart on and off like lightning; settling ever and anon upon my shoulders as if they weighed ten hundred tons; and after one terrible flash, in which the two balls seemed to join in one, I sunk away without pain, like one falling to sleep. [compare to this account from a survived hanging. -ed.]

As promised, his buddies got hold of the body and spirited it away to the doctor. After the application of a conveniently unreported treatment, Joseph Taylor quickened back to life two hours and forty-three minutes after he had been “turned off” with the knot at the back of his neck. The reawakening — “I cannot describe the intolerable agony of that moment. Ten thousand stranglings are trifling to it!” — was no more pleasant than the passing had been.

Now … is this account true? In the completely unverifiable and also completely sensational version that circulated (quite widely) in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, Taylor completed his escape by sailing for the Old World, disappearing thence into obscurity.

However, according to another, killjoy newspaper (Western Star, Feb. 2, 1790) some early-American Mythbusters team got wind of this popular fable and went to dig up Joe Taylor’s alleged grave — finding the highwayman securely taking his dirt nap after all.

That may be so, but the reader will kindly observe that two-plus centuries on, nobody’s posting anything about Archibald Taylor.

* No relation between the two Taylors, to judge by the indifferent way Joseph writes about Archibald.

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1788: William “Deacon” Brodie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inspiration

2 comments October 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1788, the real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was hanged at Edinburgh.

The Execution of Deacon Brodie, by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

William Brodie, respectable burgher by day, Deacon of the Guild of Wrights, wasn’t the type for the gallows. Actually, the upright citizen is said to have proposed an improvement in the old Tolbooth gallows, replacing the old-school ladders with a forward-thinking drop mechanism.

“Brodie,” says Traditions of Edinburgh, “was the first who proved the excellence of [the] improvement … He inspected the thing with a professional air, and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction.”*

Insouciance in the face of mortality … but Brodie had plenty of practice in compartmentalization.

With a gambling habit, a couple of mistresses, and five kids, Brodie the oleaginous society man had a double life, or treble, or more. By and by, the well-known tendency of such profligate pastimes to lead a man to venture his neck in order to keep up appearances worked its will upon Brodie, who began using his contracts with Edinburgh’s upper crust to case their houses and copy their keys … returning at night to burgle his employers.

It was taking on partners that did in the budding master thief; inevitably, someone flipped to dodge the gallows himself. Brodie’s cover was blown, and he hanged with his confederate George Smith, keeping up appearances to the very end.

A century later, native Edinburgher Robert Louis Stevenson would tap this extraordinary local history (and maybe some similar predecessors) as inspiration for that classic novelistic exploration of the soul’s duality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In fact, prior to that work’s 1886 publication, Stevenson (who grew up with Brodie furniture in the house) co-wrote a play called Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life.

That earlier composition hasn’t been entrusted to celluloid, to my knowledge (though there is a Deacon Brodie film of recent vintage). But Jekyll and Hyde has been.

Brodie’s striking case does not live on only through his literary doppleganger(s); you can enjoy the company of the hanged criminal to this day on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.

Brodie himself is supposed to have made his own bid to live on by surviving the hanging. William Roughead in Classic Crimes describes these machinations whose generally attested failure is now and again disputed anew.

Of the plans, various and futile, formed for the resuscitation of the Deacon there are two contemporary and competing versions. One is that the hangman was bribed to tamper with the rope, so as to give a short fall and avoid dislocation of the vertebrae. But by an excess of caution that officer first made it too short and then too long. The body, when cut down, was placed in a cart and driven furiously round the back of the Castle to the Deacon’s woodyard at the foot of Brodie’s Close, so that animation might be restored as in the historic case of “half-hangit Maggie Dickson,” a lady whose departed spirit was recalled by similar Jehu methods. In his own workshop his veins were opened by a French surgeon, whose services had been retained to that end; but all the resources of science could not bring the Deacon back to life. According to another account, he had, before leaving his cell for the last time, been supplied with a small silver tube for insertion in his throat at the final ceremony in order to prevent suffocation, and wires were carried down both his sides from head to foot to counteract the jerk of the fall. In spite of these precautions and of subsequent bleeding by a surgeon, his friends had reluctantly to admit that “Brodie was fairly gone.”

* This “tradition” of Edinburgh is kin to a folkloric subgenre and should not at all be presumed dependable. Roughead:

Of the many picturesque legends of old Edinburgh which, in defiance of truth, cling like ivy about her vanished past, one of the most persistent is that Deacon Brodie was the first to suffer upon the new drop which he himself designed. This myth, upon research, I found myself reluctantly compelled to disprove. He may have planned the “moveable platform for the execution of criminals,” which the Town Council caused to be erected in 1786 at the west end of the Tolbooth; but it was certainly not of his construction, nor was he the first to benefit by its ingenuity. The place of execution was the roof of a low building which projected from the west gable of the prison — roughly where the Buccleuch statue now stands. A beam was drawn out from an aperture in the wall above the platform and from this depended the fatal rope.

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