1858: James Seale, on the heath with Thomas Hardy

1 comment August 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1858, an “unusual incident” occurred in the life of then 18-year-old architect’s apprentice Thomas Hardy, as related by Hardy’s second wife, Florence.

He probably could have used a Thomas Hardy’s Ale.

One summer morning at Bockhampton, just before he sat down to breakfast, he remembered that a man was to be hanged at eight o’clock at Dorchester. He took up the big brass telescope that had been handed on in the family, and hastened to a hill on the heath a quarter of a mile from the house, whence he looked towards the town. The sun behind his back shone straight on the white stone facade of the gaol, the gallows upon it, and the form of the murderer in white fustian, the executioner and officials in dark clothing and the crowd below being invisible at this distance of nearly three miles. At the moment of his placing the glass to his eye the white figure dropped downwards, and the faint note of the town clock struck eight.

The whole thing had been so sudden that the glass nearly fell from Hardy’s hands. He seemed alone on the heath with the hanged man, and crept homeward wishing he had not been so curious. It was the second and last execution he witnessed, the first having been that of a woman two or three years earlier, when he stood close to the gallows.


The man in question was James Seale (or Searle), and this was not only to be the last hanging Hardy witnessed — it was the last in Dorset full stop.

The London Times‘ Aug. 11 blurb of the hanging noticed that

the wretched culprit was tried … for the wilful murder of a young woman named Sarah Ann Griffy, at Stoke Abbotts, on the 30th of April last, and also for having set fire to the house in which his victim resided. The prisoner is a very young man, not having reached his 20th year, and had been working as a labourer for some time past in the vicinity … On the day of the murder … when all the parties, who were farm labourers, were at work, excepting the deceased, the prisoner entered the house, and, after maltreating her, inflicted a most fearful gash in her throat, nearly five inches long, with a clasped cheese knife, and other injuries on the hands, arms, and breast, and then set fire to the house.


As implied by Hardy’s ability to remember the hanging at breakfast, find the telescope, and get to his observation point before the trap dropped at 8 a.m., the youth was an early riser. Michael Millgate’s biography of Thomas Hardy notes that

[b]y eight o’clock in the morning, the time when Seale’s execution took place, Hardy would have been up reading for two or three hours before setting off for Dorchester and Hicks’s office: when only candles were available for indoor illumination it was necessary to keep a countryman’s hours and take advantage of all the available daylight. He had now added the study of Greek to his continuing study of Latin: the signature in his first copy of the Iliad is dated 1858, and he seems to have worked persistently through it until some time in 1860, marking the passages that he had read — and that Jude Fawley, much later, would be described as reading in Jude the Obscure.

Part of the Themed Set: Thomas Hardy.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Rape

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1862: Nueces Massacre

August 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1862, German immigrants fleeing Confederate conscription were caught near Texas’ Nueces River and slain to a man.

The nomenclature of the “Nueces Massacre” is controversial since this party of Union loyalists making a leisurely pace* for Mexico got its shots off as it was gunned down in a gully by Texas Partisan Rangers in the predawn hours.

But the incident becomes a clear candidate for these pages with the summary execution of the surviving captured and wounded men later this day. Here’s the account of an obviously upset member of the Confederate party:

[S]ome of the more humane of us did what we could to ease the sufferings of the wounded Germans. They had fought a good fight, and bore themselves so pluckily I felt sorry I had taken my part against them. We bound up their wounds, and gave them water, and laid them as comfortably as we could in the shade. Poor creatures, how grateful they were!

He then pauses for breakfast and helps gather up the scattered German horses; we rejoin the narration after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

I hurried over to where we had left the German wounded to see how they were getting on, and was surprised to find them gone. Asking what had become of them, I was told they had been moved to a better shade a short distance away. With this answer I was quite satisfied, and never dreamed the brutes with whom I served would be guilty of foul play, especially after the gallant fight the enemy had made.

Just then one of our wounded called for water, and I brought him some from the cool spring. As I was giving it to him, the sound of firing was heard a little way off. I thought at first they were burying some of the dead with the honors of war; but it didn’t sound like that either. Then, possibly it might be an attack on the camp; so I seized my rifle and ran in the direction of the firing. Presently I met a man coming from it who, when he saw me running, said, “You needn’t be in a hurry, it’s all done; they shot the poor devils, and finished them off.”

“It can’t possibly be they have murdered the prisoners in cold blood!” I said, not believing that even Luck [a villainous — to the diarist’s mind — lieutenant] would be guilty of such an atrocious crime. “Oh, yes; they’re all dead, sure enough — and a good job too!” Feeling sick at heart, though I hardly even then credited his report, I ran on, and found it only too true.

It seems they were asked if they wouldn’t like to be moved a little way off into better shade. The poor creatures willingly agreed, thanking their murderers for their kindness. They were carried away, but it was to the shade and shadow of death, for a party of cowardly wretches went over and shot them in cold blood.

More summary justice followed in the weeks ahead against members of the party who had escaped** and others, and Confederate Haengerbande would plague Texas Germans of insufficient southern enthusiasm for the remainder of the war.

Fred Shon Powers offers this detailed account of the affair; there’s another here.

This day’s victims are honored by the Treue der Union obelisk, the only Union monument in Confederate territory, a prominent distinction that (as with all things in the Civil War) invites political football. This conservative article throws cold water on the “Germans-as-antislavery-Unionists” trope, and academic papers from a 1990’s conference gathered in this volume treat Nueces among other topics of “disloyalty” in the Confederacy.


The photo is taken by Steve & Marion Daughtry In Comfort, Texas. Image used with permission.

* An escapee recounted decades later by way of explanation for the party’s fatal inattention to either haste or defense, “Having read a proclamation from the Confederate government announcing that all persons not friendly to it might leave the country, we believed we had a right to do so in large or small bodies, as best suited our convenience, to the border and there cross over into Mexico.”

** About half the group had separated from the main body just before the Confederates engaged them. From this number come the “escapees,” many of them later killed in the hills or while crossing into Mexico. Those who stayed put all died this day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Texas,USA,Wartime Executions

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