1776: Neptune, as witnessed by John Gabriel Stedman

2 comments August 13th, 2010 Headsman

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

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

Maroon settlements in Suriname still pesist to this day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this day..

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

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1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

5 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, even this compromised spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

On this day..

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

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1964: Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen, England’s last hangings

7 comments August 13th, 2008 Headsman

At 8 o’clock in the morning this date in 1964, two gallows traps 50 kilometers apart opened simultaneously — dropping the last two men England ever hanged.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen couldn’t have been much smaller fare for a milestone as momentous as the last entry in England’s copious annals of execution.


Evans (left) and Allen.

The two twentysomethings had dropped by Evans’s former coworker’s place in the aptly-named port Workington to borrow money. Since the call was at 3 a.m. and the petitioners were armed, it might appear that they had in mind an offer that John Alan West couldn’t refuse. The reader is invited to fill in the rest: a quarrel, a murder, a stolen watch, a medallion dropped at the crime scene with one of the perps’ own names on it …

Three months later, they were on trial for their lives; a month after that, hanged by the neck until dead. If there is tragedy in these hapless thugs, it may be that either could possibly have saved the other by claiming sole responsibility for the murder; since each blamed the other, the jury ended up finding them equally culpable.

While the last hangings in Canada featured two unconnected men hanged together, the last in England had partners in crime hanged separately. Allen died at Liverpool’s Walton Prison; Evans was dropped at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.*

And unlike the Canadian case, Evans and Allen didn’t die knowing they were likely the last.

Although hangings had slowed to a crawl in Britain — there were just two in 1963, and none in 1964 before this day — death sentences continued to be handed down. But the trend was toward abolition: the British Parliament suspended the death penalty for ordinary crimes late in 1965, and made the suspension permanent in 1969. The handful of exceptional crimes for which the gallows remained nominally available — treason, piracy, espionage — were never enforced as such before those statutes too were removed from the hangman’s jurisdiction by 1998.

* Evans’ executioner, Harry Allen — no relation to Peter Anthony Allen — also conducted the last hanging in Scotland.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder

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