On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.
The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.
Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.
By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.
Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.
One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*
Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.
All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.
On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**
Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:
all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.
Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.
After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.
* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.
** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.
On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.
Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.
Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.
The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.
Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.
L’Ouverture tragically vacillated when the French made their move in 1802 to reverse the revolution’s gains and re-establish slavery, but the tigress rallied General Belair to take the field in resistance — and not only rallied him, but fought alongside him as a regular in his army, attaining the rank of Lieutenant.
It’s said that at her capture, when threatened with beheading, she successfuly asserted the right to an honorable soldier’s death by musketry, and standing before their muzzles cried “Viv libète! Anba esclavaj!” (“Long live freedom! Down with slavery!”)
After maliciously prosecuting a Woman he was executed at Ilchester, at the Summer Assizes, 1806, in Somersetshire, for Forgery
JOHN DOCKE ROUVELETT, a notorious swindler, was well known at Bath, where he passed for a West Indian of considerable fortune and family. He was about forty years of age, and had the appearance of a creole. He lived with a woman of the name of Elizabeth Barnet, who passed for his wife. Having been arrested for debt, he was occasionally visited by this woman in the Fleet Prison, and was afterwards removed, by habeas corpus, into Somersetshire, on a charge of forgery.
Conscious that Elizabeth Barnet was the only witness against him, by whose evidence he could be convicted of the forgery, as well as of perjury, another case also pending — Rouvelett having falsely sworn a debt against Mr Dorant, of the York Hotel, Albemarle Street — he had her taken up for a supposed robbery, and charged her with stealing his purse in the Fleet Prison, containing forty guineas, half-a-guinea, and a valuable diamond.
This case of singular atrocity came on at the Old Bailey, Saturday, 5th of July, 1806. The young woman was fashionably attired, and her appearance excited universal sympathy. Rouvelett was brought up from Ilchester jail, ironed, to prosecute on his indictment. An application was made to put off the trial, on the affidavit of the prosecutor, which stated that some material witnesses at Liverpool had not had sufficient notice to attend. The object of this attempt was to prevent the woman appearing against him on his trial for forgery, and also to prevent her becoming a witness against him in the case of perjury, as already mentioned. The recorder saw through the transactions, which he described as the most foul and audacious that ever were attempted. He ordered the trial to proceed.
Rouvelett, who called himself a gentleman, stated that the prisoner was with him on the 11th of June, 1805, when he drew half-a-guinea from his purse and gave it to a messenger; after which he put the purse containing the property as stated in the indictment into the pocket of a surtout coat, which was hanging up in the room, in which was the ring, worth thirty pounds. There were no other persons in the room but the prisoner and himself, and in twenty minutes after she was gone he missed his property from the greatcoat pocket. He concluded that the money was safe, as the prisoner had gone to Dorant’s hotel, Albemarle Street, and he did not suppose her capable of robbing him. She, however, absconded, and he never saw her again until she was arrested at his suit, jointly with Dorant, in an action of trover for twenty thousand pounds for deeds, mortgages and bonds, bearing interest, for which bail was given. He had no opportunity of bringing her to justice for the alleged robbery, being himself a prisoner. (The recorder here remarked that the prosecutor could find the prisoner for a civil suit, although he could not find her for the criminal act.)
On the cross-examination of the prosecutor he said he was born at St Martin’s, in the West Indies, and had been at most of the islands in that quarter. His uncle was a planter in the West Indies, and he lived on such means, whilst in England, as his family afforded him. He was brought up in Amsterdam, at the house of Mr Hope, banker; after which he became a lieutenant in the British Army (the 87th Regiment). He knew Mr Hope, of Harley Street, Cavendish Square, and Mr Hope knew him to be Mr Rouvelett, of St Martin’s, for the two families had been closely connected for a hundred years. He lived in England on remittances from his uncle, in goods or bills, but he had no property of his own. Messrs Stephens & Boulton used to pay witness his remittances at Liverpool, but he could not tell who paid them in London. The recorder observed that the witness should not be pressed too far to give an account of himself, as he (the prisoner) stood charged with forgery. Being asked if he, the witness, had not said he would be revenged on the prisoner, as she was intimate with Dorant, and charge her with a felony, he answered that he did not recollect having said so; but the question being pressed, he partly acknowledged it. The purse, which was empty, witness acknowledged was found under the pillow, on the 12th of June, the day after the alleged robbery, by his room chum, a man of the name of Cummings. The prisoner was with him in prison after the 12th of June, although he had said she had absconded.
The recorder did not suffer the cause to be further proceeded in, and directed the jury to acquit the prisoner; he also observed this was the most foul charge he had ever heard of.
The disgust of the persons in court as the fellow retired was manifested by hisses and groans in such a manner as baffled the efforts of the officers of justice for some time to suppress.
The trial of this malicious offender, who was thus happily disappointed in his views, came on at Wells, on Tuesday, 12th of August, 1806, before Baron Thompson, and excited uncommon interest throughout the county of Somerset.
The prisoner, John Docke Romney alias Rouvelett, was indicted for having feloniously and knowingly forged a certain bill of exchange, dated Grenada, 10th of November, 1804, for four hundred and twenty pounds sterling, payable at nine months’ sight to the order of George Danley, Esq., and drawn by Willis & Co. on Messrs Child & Co. in London, with the forged acceptance of Messrs Child & Co. on the face thereof, with intent to defraud Mary Simeon.
Mr Burrough entered into the details of the case, which were afterwards substantiated by the evidence.
Mr Philip George, the younger clerk to the Mayor of Bath, stated that the bill in question was delivered to him by the Mayor of Bath, and that he had ever since kept the bill in his own custody.
Mrs Mary Simeon, dealer in laces, at Bath, deposed that in April, 1805, she lived at Bath. The prisoner came to her house on or about the 16th of March 1805; he looked at several articles in which she dealt, bought a fan, paid for it, and said he should bring his wife with him in the afternoon. He accordingly did so, and brought Elizabeth Barnet as his wife, Mrs Romney. He asked whether Mrs Simeon had a Brussels veil of a hundred and fifty guineas’ value. The witness answered she had not. He then bought two yards of lace, at four guineas a yard, and went away. This happened on a Saturday. The following Monday he came again, accompanied by his wife, looked at a lace cloak, at veils worth five and twenty guineas, and other goods, but did not buy any. In the course of the week he called again, and proposed to purchase a quantity of goods from the witness, if she would take a bill of a long date, accepted by Messrs Child & Co., bankers, in London. Witness answered she had no objections to take a bill accepted by such a house. He returned in two or three days and purchased articles to the value of about one hundred and forty pounds, which, with other goods afterwards bought, and with money advanced by her, made the prisoner her debtor to the amount of two hundred and ninety-nine pounds. He bought all the articles himself, unaccompanied by his wife. In the month of April, between the 20th and 24th, the prisoner proposed paying for the different articles, and he brought his wife to the house, when a meeting took place between them and the witness, and her brother, Mr Du Hamel. He said: “I am going to London, and I should like to settle with you. This is the bill I proposed to you to take; it is accepted by Child & Co., bankers, in London”; and, turning over the bill, he added: “The endorser is as good as the acceptors.”
The bill was here produced, and proved by Mrs Simeon to be the same which the prisoner gave to her in April, 1805.
The witness then took the bill, and her brother, Mr Du Hamel, paid to him, for her, thirty-five pounds, which, with the articles previously bought, made the whole of the prisoner’s debt to her two hundred and ninety-nine pounds. In her presence he wrote on the bill the name of John Romney, as his name. He afterwards went to London by the mail. She sent the bill to London the next day.
The conversation which passed between her and the prisoner, in the presence of her brother and Elizabeth Barnet, was entirely in the French language. He left his wife at her house, where she slept. While he was absent the witness received intelligence from London that the bill was a forgery, and she instantly wrote a letter to the prisoner, informing him of it. He came to Bath in consequence of the letter, late on a Sunday night, and a meeting took place then at her house with him, his wife, herself, her brother, and her solicitor, Mr Luke Evill, of Bath. The conversation then passed in English. Several questions were put to the prisoner by herself and by Mr Evill. Mr Evill asked him whether he had any business with W. A. Bailey, the endorser, which induced him to take the bill. He said Mr Bailey had sold some sugar for him. She asked him if Bailey lived in London; he replied at some inn or coffee-house, the name of which she did not recollect. He was then asked in what island or islands Mr Bailey’s property was situated. He mentioned two or three islands in the West Indies, but he did not know in which of them Mr Bailey was at that time. The prisoner then inquired where the bill was. Being informed by the witness that it was in London, he said she must write to get it sent back. She, however, declared that such an application would be unavailing, and the prisoner pressed her to go to London herself. She refused to go alone, and he entreated Mr Evill to accompany her, saying that he would give Mr Evill twenty pounds to defray the expenses of the journey, which he accordingly did. She set out at ten o’clock that night, accompanied by Mr Evill, and obtained the bill from Messrs Sloper & Allen, in whose custody it was, by paying three hundred guineas, which was all the money she then had at her bankers’. She brought the bill back to Bath, having stopped but one day in London; but the prisoner was not at Bath when she returned. He had left some property at her house with his wife, who had removed from Sidney House, with his clothes, etc. The bill remained after this in her custody about a twelvemonth, and was given up to Mr Evill by her brother. Mr Dorant paid the whole of the debt due by the prisoner on the 6th of May, 1805, a few days after the prisoner finally left Bath.
Upon the cross-examination of Mrs Simeon, it appeared that she considered the prisoner and Elizabeth Barnet as man and wife. It was not until May, 1806, that she appeared before the Mayor of Bath against the prisoner, whom she knew to have been in the Fleet Prison. She did not go before the magistrate at the solicitation of Mr Dorant, nor did she at any time, nor on any account, receive any money from Dorant, but what was actually and fairly due to her by the prisoner.
Mr Du Hamel, brother of Mrs Simeon, corroborated all the principal facts stated by his sister.
Mr Whelan deposed that he was a clerk in the house of Messrs Child & Co. He had filled that situation for about nine years, and, from his knowledge of the business, was enabled to state their manner of accepting bills. The house had no correspondence whatever at Grenada by the name of Willis & Co., and the acceptance which appeared on the face of the bill was not the acceptance of Messrs Child & Co.
Elizabeth Barnet was next called. She deposed that she became acquainted with the prisoner in the month of September, 1804, when at Liverpool. About a fortnight after she first saw him she began to live with him, and continued till the 6th of June, 1805; during all that period she passed under the name of Mrs Romney. She left Liverpool in the month of January, 1805, and came to London with the prisoner. They then took lodgings at Mr Dorant’s hotel, in Albemarle Street. The account he gave of himself to her was that he was a West Indian planter, and that he had estates in Martinique and St Kitts. They remained between two and three months at Mr Dorant’s hotel, during which time they were not visited by anybody except a Mr Hope, whom she remembered seeing with the prisoner. This Mr Hope was not represented to her as coming from Holland. She accompanied Mr Romney to Bath, and on their arrival there they lodged at the White Hart Inn for about a fortnight previous to her lodging at Madame Simeon’s. Soon after their arrival at the White Hart she went along with the prisoner to Madame Simeon’s to look at some laces and a black cloak. None of these articles, however, was purchased at that time by the prisoner, they being afterwards bought when she was not present. She heard the prisoner state to Madame Simeon that he would give her a bill of exchange, accepted by Child & Co. of London. She did not then see any bill in his possession, but saw him writing one three days afterwards, when he sent the witness for some red ink. Two or three days after the prisoner gave the bill to Madame Simeon he was much disturbed, and on being asked the reason he said he would be hanged. He asked her to fetch him his writing-desk, which she did. He then took out a large parcel of papers and burned them. She had no opportunity of seeing what those papers were. She said to him: “Were the papers any harm?” He said: “Yes; and there was a paper which must not be seen.” She never lived with the prisoner after the 6th of June, 1805. She, however, remembered visiting him in the Fleet Prison. She was soon afterwards arrested at Bath, at the prisoner’s instance, for the sum of twenty thousand, three hundred and twenty pounds, and carried to Winchester jail, and afterwards removed to the King’s Bench. She saw the prisoner on this occasion, and again at the Old Bailey, when he was examined as a witness against her on her trial. He then charged her with having robbed him on the 11th of June, 1805, of forty guineas and a diamond ring, when he was in the Fleet Prison. This charge was totally without foundation, as was also the alleged debt of twenty thousand, three hundred and twenty pounds. She never had any transactions in her life to which such a charge could refer.
On her cross-examination she deposed that her real name was Elizabeth Barnet. She was the daughter of a farmer in Shropshire, from whom she had had a plain education. She left her father when nineteen years of age and went to Liverpool, where she lodged with a Mrs Barns. She lived in Liverpool about nine or ten months. After she had left off seeing Mr Rouvelett in the Fleet she lodged at a Mr Fox’s, in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, for seven or eight weeks. She afterwards went to Berry Street.
To some additional interrogatories by Mr Burrough this witness further deposed that the prisoner Romney sued out a writ against her for twelve hundred pounds, exclusive of the sum before mentioned. This was after she had ceased to visit him in prison and had gone to reside at her father’s, and it was also previous to the arrest for the twenty thousand, three hundred and twenty pounds already taken notice of. No demand was made against her by the prisoner when she visited him in the jail.
The jury, having consulted for a few minutes, returned a verdict of guilty of forging the acceptance, and of uttering it knowing it to be forged.
The trial lasted nearly twelve hours, and the court was filled in every part. Among the audience were the first characters in the country. This notorious offender was executed at Ilchester, pursuant to his sentence, on the 3rd of September, 1806. He was dressed in a blue coat with metal buttons, striped trousers, green slippers, and a fur cap.
On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.
Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham
inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.
By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.
The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.
“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.
It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:
On this date in 1800, French Canadiens Joseph Baker (anglicized from Joseph Boulanger), Peter Peterson (LeCroix), and Joseph Berouse hanged in Philadelphia for a murderous mutiny.
That trio had seized control of their schooner Eliza, slaying three men in the process. They had a view to selling off the cargo but none of the three knew how to navigate the vessel — so they were obliged to bargain with the deposed captain William Wheland to sail them to Spanish territory. Eventually Wheland was able to get the drop on his mutineers, locking up LaCroix and Berouse in the hold while Baker was at the helm, then surprising the Canadian ringleader to get his ship back.
Norwith Courier, July 30, 1800
Whelan turned the naughty help over to a U.S. Navy ship, and in the consequent trial back at Philadelphia “his narrative alone was sufficient to carry conviction with it. The facts were too strong to admit a doubt of the commitment of the horrid crime with which the prisoners stood charged, and the jury, with very little hesitation, gave in their verdict guilty.” (Maryland Herald, May 1, 1800.)
The men died, penitent, at an execution island in the city harbor, “in the view of an immense concourse of spectators, who crouded the wharfs and the shipping.” A sorrowful confession purportedly taken down from Baker himself survives and can be read in full online.
On this date in 1803, Michael Ely hanged at Newgate Prison for feigning a bit of glory in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.
The crime was no stolen valor stuff, but “personation” — fraudulently presenting oneself as a different person, in this case with a plain pecuniary objective.
After the HMS Audacious returned from campaigning against Napoleon in the Mediterranean, where she had the honor to capture the 74-gun French man-of-war Genereux near Malta, Audacious crew members were entitled to shares of a royal prize bounty for their acquisition. (Genereux thereafter flew the Union Jack until the ship was broken up in 1816.)
Ely presented himself to the crown’s prize agent as the Audacious seaman Murty Ryan to collect Ryan’s jackpot of one pound, 12 shillings.
One problem: Francis Sawyer was actually acquainted with the crook personally and (so he testified later) “I told him I knew his name was not Murty Ryan.” Ely countered by alleging that he had changed his name to avoid punishment after deserting a previous impressment — a phenomenon that Sawyer agreed was “quite common” and a good enough excuse that Sawyer paid him out, albeit suspiciously. But once the real Murty Ryan showed up looking for his share, Audacious crew members were able to verify that whatever his name might be, that first guy had never been aboard their ship.
Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.
LIFE and CONFESSION &c.
In offering to the public the following narrative I feel no other interest than the good of mankind, nor have I any other object in view than to caution the careless and unwary against pursuing that vicious course which has been the means of plunging me at this early period of life into that dreadful dilemma in which I am now involved.
Altho nature had doomed me to a state of obscurity and degradation, I might have remained happy in this unenviable situation, had not the vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier stages of my youth driven me into excesses which have proved my ruin. Pursued by the hand of justice, I have thus early been arrested in my vicious career: drawn from the deep & solitary recesses of obscurity and debasement, to the bar of justice, I am condemned to recieve [sic] the punishment which my guilt has so justly merited, as a warning and example to those I leave behind. It may be somewhat interesting to those I am about to leave to be informed of the causes which have produced those (to me) dreadful effects.
The following pages contain a brief history of my short and wicked life, and such reflections as have been produced in my mind by a retrospective view of my conduct; they are submitted to the public as the last words of a dying sinner.
I am this day seventeen years and five weeks old. I was born of African parents; slaves to Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex county State of New-Jersey, in whose family I lived until about four years ago, previous to which my parents purchased their freedom, and left my master’s family.
My master was a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile scource [sic] of human depravity. Among other things he almost totally neglected his family concerns, the consequence was that I and my brothers and sisters were left to govern ourselves, and form such habits and principles as our inclinations led us to pursue.
We were not only neglected as to our morals and habits, but were badly provided for with the necessaries of life, our table was but illy supplyed [sic], our cloathing [sic] would scarcely cover our nakedness, much less protect us against the inclemency of the seasons. Thus were we permitted to spend our time in idleness and want, which produced in us an inclination, and afforded us liesure [sic] and opportunities to practise almost all kinds of evil.
I was thus in a manner abandoned by my master and only guardian, in a hopeless state of slavery, with no prospect before me to stimulate my ambition, or direct the youthful ardor that glowed in my breast to the pursuit of any laudable object, I sunk even below the degraded station which nature had assigned me.
I formed connection with such as were willing to associate with me, those were of course a motly tribe of the most abandoned of the human race, among whom it was my chief ambition to become famous, and it may readily be conjectured what was the measure of fame in a society where wickedness was the standard of merit, and lewdness and profanity esteemed the higest [sic] accomplishments of its members.
Hence I became extremely wicked, and subject to almost every vice my tender years were susceptable [sic] of, such as cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabath-breaking [sic; he will repeat this word several times more with the same spelling], with a number of other lewd practice, all which I indulged without restraint, and all my vicious habits increased with my age. My master occasionally chastised me, but this was generally so indiscreetly done, that, instead of a reformation it produced the contrary effect, and I became obstinate and headstrong.
In this situation I lived until I was about thirteen years of age, during which time tho’ I indulged in almost all kinds of wickedness which my tender age was capable of, I do not recollect of having committed any thing legally criminal, except, that I once stole a shilling out of a bakers drawer, with which I bought some cake and shared it with my companions, but being detected, I confessed the fact, and was severely chastised for it.
At length my master dying, his estate fell into the hands of his heirs, who found it so involved that they were under the necessity of selling the personal property. Among the rest I was sold to Mr. Elijah Mount, who then lived in New-Jersey, but afterwards moved to Charlestown, Montgomery county, state of New-York.
I now found my situation entirely changed, my new master was quite the reverse from my old one, he was moral, sober, industrious and frugal, paid great attention to the comfortable support and instruction of his family, nor did he neglect to extend his benevolence to me. He soon laid me under such restraints as in a great measure reformed my external deportment. He totally prohibited my profaneness and instructed me in the principles of christianity, [sic] but, alas! the inbred vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier part of my life, had made such a deep impression on my mind that, altho I found myself under the necessity of complying with his regulations in my conduct, they were far from producing a radical reformation in my principles. On the contrary, I found, that, tho I was constrained to abandon the vicious habits of cursing, profane swearing and sabath=breaking at least publicy, the corrupt principles I had imbibed daily acquired strength as I grew up and became capable of carrying them into effect.
I became lewd to that degree that my lasciviousness overleaped all bounds of discretion, and I indulged it in the most wanton and abominable excesses, so that not even the brutal part of the creation escaped the rage of my unruly passions, the innocent lamb and the loathsome swine indiscriminately became its victims.
I also extended my lewd desires, to those whom nature had placed above me, I however found the gratification of those desires so obstructed by my debased situation, that I could not flatter myself with a hope of indulging them as a favour. I was therefore impelled by their impetuosity to endeavour to obtain by violence what I could not effect by solicitation, I was rash and inconsiderate, destitute of fortitude and circumspection by which I was soon led into the error that now terminates my existence.
The first attempt I made to gratify these lewd desires, was on the body of a young woman in the town of Charlestown whose name for her sake I chuse to with-hold from the public. The circumstances of this nefarious attempt were as follows. It was on a sabath day. I together with some young men of the neighbourhood, who I likewise do not chuse to expose at this time, by publishing their names to the world, were together in an orchard, when this young woman came in. She had by some means or other become obnoxious to them, and soon after she appeared they proposed to me to make an attempt on her chastity, they offering me a small pecuniary compensation, and promised to withdraw to afford me an opportunity, which they accordingly did, while I made the attempt, but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.
This transaction was not disclosed, it is probable the young woman who was the subject of it, from motives of modestly declined complaining, or pursuing measures to bring me to justice; and those who were concerned with me and who ought rather to have protected her agianst any violence offered by me, than to have encouraged me in such an abominable attempt,) could have no motive in divulging a crime in which they themselves were so deeply implicated, and by these means I evaded the punishment which I so justly deserved.
Having thus escaped with impunity, I felt encouraged to pursue my wicked inclinations, my obscurity however prevented my having many opportunities of indulging my passions.
At length however, my attention was attracted by that unfortunate victim of my inordinate passion, who fell a sacrifice to my wantoness, [sic] and ferocity, for which I am now to suffer the just punishment of the law.
Her name was Mary Akins, daughter of Mr. Samuel Akins, of Charlestown, in the county of Montgomery. She was a girl of about twelve years of age, her father lived on a part of my master’s farm, she came to my master’s house on the morning of Sunday the thirteenth day of February last, for the purpose of attending public worship, having heard that a minister was to preach there that day, but being disappointed in her object, and the weather stormy, she remained there til the sun about half an hour high in the afternoon, her father lived about half a mile from my master’s, the road leading across the fields, I had formed a design of making an attempt on her chastity and watched an opportunity to follow her undiscovered, which soon offered, and I as readily embraced, I soon overtook her in an obscure place, where we could not be discovered from either house, with a determination of carrying my nefarious purpose into effect, I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying “who wants to keep your company you black devil” I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding “you black son of a bitch” to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity but not effecting it I permitted her to rise, as soon as she found herself disengaged she attempted to escape towards my master’s, threatening to have me brought to justice, upon which my guilt beginning to operate on my mind, and dreading the consequences of a discovery, I determined to prevent it by committing a crime still more heinous, and in an instant determined to deprive her of the power of exposing me, by depriving her of her life I had no sooner come to this resolution than I siezed [sic] a small stone which lay in my way, and I could conveniently hold in one hand, by this time she had advanced about ten or twelve yards from the place where I had made the first attempt upon her towards my master’s, I again assaulted and threw her down, struck her with the stone I held in my hand, on the crown of her head with such force as stunned her and blood issued from her mouth and [obscure], in this situation I again attempted to carry my first design into effect, but was again baffled by her incompetency, I then disengaged from her, blood on my feet and threw the same stone with which I had before struck her on the head, this I repeated twice, and then left her in the agonies of death, and expiring, finding some blood on my hands, I washed them and retired towards home, my conscience had however by this time awakened, and the horrors of my guilt began to agitate my mind, but I endeavoured to sooth my waring [sic] conscience with reflections that I had not been discovered, and that the only one privy to this horrid scene had been deprived of the power of discovering it by the very act that now filled my mind with remorse, under those reflections I had [obscure] some distance, when I began to apprehend, that she might perhaps recover, and have strength enough to reach home, or at least to communicate the transaction and discover its agent, to some one who might pass that way, I therefore returned to the place where I had been engaged in this sanguinary scene, and where its subject lay breathing her last (for she yet breathed.) to remove the apprehensions I had entertained of her revival, I placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovering, I retired a second time.
I now returned home, it being about sunset, and no one having noticed my absence, I went about my work as usual, and in about fifteen minutes her brother came in search of her, I heard him making enquiry for her, and passing by him into the house I familiarly asked him what he would think if he should find her dead? to which he replied that he would be much frightened, little thinking that those words carelessly spoken were to be the means of betraying me, they however made a deeper impression on the mind of the young man than I expected; & in searching for the author of this melancholy event, afforded a clue to discover its author, and fixed the suspicion on me.
Soon after the departure of the young man his mother came to my master’s, and informed him that she feared some misfortune had befallen her daughter as her bonnet had been found and she was missing; this excited great consternation, and my master and others went with her in search of her daughter; whom they soon found & carried home. The next morning Mr. Akins came to my master’s and charged me with the crime, informing my master of the grounds of his suspicion: I denied it, but by threats and promises was prevailed upon to confess it at last.
I was immediately bound and carried before Benjamin Van Veghten Esq. for examination, where I made the like confession; as I also did before the Coroner’s inquest. I was then committed to jail for my trial which I had on the 24th of March last, a conviction was a matter of course, my sentence was pathetically delivered by the presiding judge, during which awful scene I remained insensible.
I have since been benevolently attended by the reverend clergy of different denominations, who merit my warmest acknowledgments for their solicitude for my future happiness, I cannot however flatter myself with a hope of mercy; my approaching dissolution exites dreadful sensations in my mind, which I am unable to suppress; my sentence is just but [obscure] reconcile myself to my fate.
The foregoing narrative contains a faithful history of the chief incidents and material transactions of my life, as far as I recollect them; I have no motives to conceal anything; whatever else has been laid to my charge I deny.
Hence let masters learn the necessity of paying due attention to the instruction of their servants, had I not been neglected in my youth, I might have escaped this tragical end.
Let servants learn obedience and resignation, for had I paid due respect to the admonitions of my late master, and contented myself in my late situation, I might yet have been happy; let them also learn to shun the company of that worthless class of citizens, who being despised by their own society seek that of slaves, these are sure guides to destruction, such were those who offered me a reward to commit a rape.
Hence also let parents who profess christianity, (as the parents of these young men did) learn the danger of letting their children stroll about in idleness in such company, especially on sabbath days; and let profaners of that day remark that my worst crimes have been the effects of that sin.
In short let every description of sinners learn the danger of deferring repentance to the cross, if they have one favourable instance, they have a cloud of melancholy examples. I feel the necessity of a Saviour, but my heart is a rock at the door of the sepulcher which I am not able to remove, and I stand on the brink of eternity under the gloomy apprehensions of everlasting misery and despair.
Johnston Jail, April 22d 1803.
Although it sounds as if Cato (or the confessor who obviously composed his testimonial) was pessimistic about the prospects for his everlasting soul, we have firmer information on the unedifying disposition of the youth’s mortal flesh: a Dr. John Ball of Franklinton, Ohio (a settlement today absorbed into the city of Columbus) secured it and kept it in his closet “in order to keep his personal effects secure from the prying eyes of servants. The skeleton was so suspended that should the closet door be opened by one not acquainted with the secret, Cato’s jaws would gnash together and his head would wag in a manner calculated to strike terror into inquisitive female hearts.”
ASSIZES. — At Surry [sic] assizes, the following capital convicts received sentence of death: — J.A. Davison, J. Mason, J. Wood, and S. Hilton, for burglary; W. Leech, for highway robbery; J. Bartlet, [sic] for an unnatural offence; T. Hall, for extorting money under a threat of charging J. Clarke with an unnatural offence; H. Edwards, for shooting at W. Smith; J. Stenning, for forging a note; C. March, for cattle-stealing; S. Turner, for privately stealing; and Mary Ann Ellis, J. Hopkins, and J. Cobb, for stealing in dwelling-house. The Judges reprieved all except Bartlett, Edwards, Mason, and Wood.
Robert Skinner was indicted for attempting to ravish Mary Ann Hill, on the 16th of February last, at Wandsworth. The prosecutrix, who stated herself to be only 16 years of age, deposed that her father was a market-gardener at Wandsworth, and the prisoner worked in his service. On the 16th of February last they were at work together in a shed. He was binding coleworts, and she was trimming them.
After he had finished, he came to where she was sitting and threw her down. He was, however, interrupted by the coming of a cart, or she believed he would then have committed the offence charged. On cross-examination, she said her father had a cottage in his garden in Garret-lane, and she, her sister, and another girl slept there alone. On the 14th of January the prisoner was there in the evening; they gave him some beef-steaks for his supper, and he would not go home. She gave him the mattress to lie upon without side her chamber door. — In the night she heard a noise, and got up to see what it was; they were both naked. She did not tell her father of this. A few nights afterwards they had him to supper again, and got him some sausages; he would stay all that night, and she then let him lie in the same bed, but she did not let him lie next to her. The Learned Judge here interrupted, and observed it was ridiculous to talk of any attempt at a rape after this. The prisoner was of course acquitted.
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, April 8, 1809:
EXECUTION. — James Bartlett, for an unnatural crime; Henry Edwards, for highway robbery; and John Biggs and Samuel Wood, for burglary, were executed yesterday morning, [April 4, 1809] at the usual hour, on the top of the New Prison, Horsemonger-lane, in pursuance of their sentence. The crowd assembled on the melancholy occasion was excessive. The unfortunate men met their fate with great fortitude, and died acknowledging the justice of their punishment. Biggs sarcastically observed to the Executioneer, [sic] when he was pinioning him in the usual way — “I wish you had a better office.”* — He with the rest died extremely penitent. A hearse conveyed the body of Bartlett to Limehouse, where he is to be interred. — He is stated to have conveyed before his trial upwards of 1500l. to his daughters.
* The hangman so busted upon was William Brunskill, who already had near a quarter-century in his poor office by that time. It’s a bit hard to tell from the printed account, but since Brunskill had some notable ten-thumbed hangings to his credit — like that of Joseph Wall seven years before — the “better office” remark might have been a Monmouth-esque professional rebuke.
(From contemporary newspaper accounts, principally The Bury and Norwich Post, Wednesday, March 09, 1808)
Thomas Simmons was indicted, for that he, at Broxbourn, on the 20th of October last, did make an assault on Sarah Hummerstonne, and wilfully gave her a mortal wound in the neck with a knife, of which she instantly died. [This is the case of the inhuman wretch who murdered the two unfortunate women at Hoddesdon, and the Court was crowded at an early hour in the morning to hear the trial. It did not last long, as the facts lay in a very narrow compass.]
Mr. Pooley, as Counsel for the prosecution, intreated the jury to dismiss from their minds all that they had heard elsewhere, and attend only to the evidence which would be laid before them. He then stated the facts as below detailed, and called the following witnesses:
Samuel James, a surgeon at Hoddesdon, deposed, that on the 20th of October, he went to the house of Mr. Boreham, at Hoddesdon. On going to the house, he saw Mrs. Hummerstone leaning against the paling near the door; she was then alive, but died in three minutes after, of a wound in the neck, near the spine.
Sarah Harris, servant of Mr. Boreham, said she had lived four years with him: Simmons, the prisoner, had lived there three years, and quitted at last Michaelmas: the prisoner wished to marry her, but her mistress disapproved of it; they had quarreled before he quitted the service, on which occasion he beat her; and when he had done he said he did not care if he had killed her. He had often said he would make away with her, because she would not marry him. About half past eight in the evening of the 20th of October, he came to the house; she was in the kitchen, and heard him coming along the yard; he was swearing violently. He came up to the window, and struck at her through the lattice, and swore he would do for them all. She desired him not to make a noise, as they had company: he said he did not care for the company, he would do for them all. Mrs. Hummerstone, hearing the noise, opened the room-door, and came to the yard. She told him to go away. He gave her a blow on the head, which knocked off her bonnet; she ran into the house, and he immediately followed her. The witness immediately heard the shrieks of murder, but did not know from whom. All the family were in the room, viz. the three young ladies; Mr. Boreham’s daughter, Mrs. Warner, the married daughter; Mr. Boreham and his wife, and Mrs. Hummerstone. In a very short time, the prisoner came to the wash-house to her: she shut the door, and cried out murder. The witness ran into the sitting-room. She there saw some one lying under the window — she ran from thence down a passage — the prisoner followed her. She there met her master with the poker in his hand; in running hastily, her master, who is a very old and feeble man, was knocked down. The prisoner caught her, and threw her down, and drew a knife on her. He threw her across Mrs. Warner, who was lying dead, as she believed. He drew a knife across her throat, but she guarded it with her hand, which was cut. He made a second blow, when she wrested the knife out of his hand. He immediately ran away, and she saw no more of him.
Sarah Cakebury said, she lived near Mr. Boreham, and heard the cry of murder. She passed Mrs. Hummerstone, and went into the house; she saw Mrs. Warner lying dead under the window.
Thomas Copperwheat went in search of the murderer. He discovered Simmons concealed under some straw in a crib in the farm-yard; he had on him a smock frock, very bloody; the place where he was found was about 100 yards from the house.
Benjamin Rook, Coroner, said, when the evidence of Harris was read to the prisoner, he said it ws very true, he had murdered them, and no one else. He added, that he did not intend to have murdered Mrs. Hummerstone, but he went with the intention of murdering Mrs. Boreham, Mrs. Warner, and Harris, the maid-servant.
The Constable who carried him to prison, deposed to the same effect. The prisoner also told him, that when he had got Betsy down, he heard something fluttering over his shoulders, which made him get up and run away.
The prisoner being called upon to know if he had any thing to say, answered in a careless tone — No!
Mr. Justice Heath told the Jury, the case was so very clear, that it must be unnecessary for him to address any observations to them; the prisoner, as they had heard, had more than once voluntarily confessed his guilt.
The Jury found him Guilty; and the learned Judge immediately pronounced the sentence of the law — that he should be hanged on Monday next, and his body anatomized.
This unhappy wretch has a very young look, and a good countenance, being rather a well-looking young man than otherwise. He heard the sentence of death with great indifference, and walked very coolly from the bar. The young girl, whom he attempted to murder, was in great agitation, and was obliged to be supported while she ws in Court.
Simmons ws convicted through the exertions of Mr. W. White, Mr. B. Fairfax, of the Bull Inn, Hoddesdon, and Mr. J. Brown, the church warden of that place, the Quakers refusing to come forward as prosecutors.
Execution — Simmons was executed on Mondy, pursuant to his sentence, at half past eleven o’clock in the forenoon, between Hertford and Ware. He behaved with that air of indifference which marked his conduct during his trial. He shook hands with three persons who accompanied him to the scaffold, and whispered a few words to the gaoler beffore he was turned off.