1726: Mary Standford, shunning convict transportation

2 comments August 3rd, 2009 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver of Early American Crime for the guest entry, reposted from a fascinating entry in his series on convict transportation. Vaver is the author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. -ed.)

Mary Standford was convicted of privately stealing a shagreen pocket book, a silk handkerchief, and 4 guineas from William Smith on July 11, 1726. After her conviction, she strongly rejected transportation to the American colonies as an alternative to execution.

Early Years

Standford was raised just outside of London by good parents who sent her to school and educated her in the principles of Christian values. Standford, however, showed more interest in the “Company of Young Men,” so she was sent to London to become a servant, where she lost several positions due to her behavior. In her last position she was seduced by a footman, which subsequently forced her into prostitution.

Standford quickly fell in company with Mary Rawlins, “a Woman of notorious ill fame,” and the two of them walked the streets between Temple Bar and Ludgate-Hill looking to empty the pockets, one way or another, of gullible men. Later, they had considerable success targeting sailors who, after returning from their voyages, had money to spend for their favors. Standford eventually married a man with the last name of Herbert, but after a year and a half she left him or, by her account, he abandoned her. Soon afterward, she had a child out of wedlock from another man, who was a servant.

Standford’s Arrest

With two mouths to feed, Standford set out to practice prostitution on her own, and it was then that she was arrested for theft. William Smith, who brought her to trial and was surprisingly frank in his testimony, related that he was walking along Shoe Lane after one o’clock in the morning when he was approached by Standford, who offered him to “take a Lodging with her.” He spent 2 or 3 three hours with her, all the while ordering drinks to be brought up from downstairs. He soon realized that he was missing money, and when he confronted Standford about it, she bolted from the room.

A constable caught Standford running away from Smith in the street. He picked up one of Smith’s guineas after Standford had dropped it, and he found another in her hand and two in her mouth. He also discovered Smith’s handkerchief and pocket book on her. In his testimony, the constable called Smith a “Country Man” and described him as very drunk at the time.

Standford’s version of the event was quite different. She claimed that Smith was drunk when she met him, and that he forced himself up to her room. There, he placed the four guineas one by one in her bosom and then threw her onto the bed. In the struggle, she speculated that his pocket book must have fallen out of his pocket, and when she discovered it after he left, she ran after him to return it. Not believing her story, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.

A Rejection and a Defense of Transportation

After receiving her sentence, Standford’s friends pleaded with her to ask for a pardon in exchange for transportation. Standford refused, “declaring that she had rather die, not only the most Ignominious, but the most cruel Death that could be invented at home, rather than be sent Abroad to slave for her Living.”

The author of the Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals was baffled by Standford’s position and presents a lengthy defense of the institution of convict transportation:

such strange Apprehensions enter into the Heads of these unhappy Creatures, and hinder them from taking the Advantage of the only possibility they have left of tasting Happiness on this side the Grave, and as this Aversion to the Plantations has so bad Effects, especially in making the Convicts desirous of escaping from the Vessel, or of flying out of the Country whither they were sent, almost before they have seen it. I am surpriz’d that no Care has been taken to print a particular and authentick Account, of the Manner in which they are treated in those Places; I know it may be suggested that the Terrour of such Usage as they are represented to meet with there, has often a good Effect in diverting them from such Facts as they know must bring them to Transportation, yet . . . if instead of magnifying the Miseries of their pretended Slavery, or rather of inventing Stories that make a very easy service, pass on these unhappy Creatures for the severest Bondage. The Convicts were to be told the true state of the Case, and were put in Mind that instead of suffering Death, the Lenity of our Constitution, permitted them to be removed into another Climate, no way inferiour to that in which they were born, where they were to perform no harder tasks, than those who work honestly for their Bread in England do, and this not under Persons of another Nation, who might treat them with less Humanity upon that Account, but to their Countrymen, who are no less English for their living in the New, than if they dwelt in Old England, People famous for their Humanity, Justice and Piety, and amongst whom they are sure of meeting with no variation of Manners, Customs, &c. unless in respect of the Progress of their Vices which are at present, and may they long remain so, far less numerous there than in their Mother-Land. I say if Pains were taken to instill into these unhappy Persons such Notions . . ., they might probably conceive justly of that Clemency which is extended towards them, and instead of shunning Transportation, flying from the Countries where they are landed, as soon as they have set their Foot in them, or neglecting Opportunities they might have on their first coming there, be brought to serve their Masters faithfully, to endure the Time of their Service chearfully, and settle afterwards in the best Manner they are able, so as to pass the Close of their Life in an honest, easy, and reputable Manner; whereas now it too often happens, that their last End is worse than their first, because those who return from Transportation being sure of Death if apprehended, are led thereby to behave themselves worse and more cruelly than any Malefactors whatsoever (Vol. III, pp. 287-289).

The author’s cheery account of life as an indentured servant in the American colonies certainly makes transportation sound like a compelling alternative to execution. The reality of life overseas under such conditions, though, does not match this picture, and some criminals valued their liberty over enforced servitude, even if it meant their own death.


In his account of her execution, James Guthrie, the minister at Newgate Prison, described Standford as “grosly Ignorant of any thing that is good.” He went on to say that “she was neither ingenious nor full in her Confessions, but appeared obstinate and self-conceited.” Standford continued to maintain her innocence in the affair with Smith, and she appeared indifferent about the fate of her child, expressing to Guthrie the hope that the parish would take care of it. Guthrie claimed, however, that “she acknowledg’d herself among the chief of Sinners.”

Mary Standford was executed on Wednesday, August 3, 1726 at Tyburn. She was 36 years old. Executed alongside her were 3 other criminals. Thomas Smith and Edward Reynolds were both sentenced to die for highway robbery. John Claxton, alias Johnson, was put death for returning twice from transportation before his 7-year sentence had run out.

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1916: Sir Roger Casement

7 comments August 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason by the British crown that had knighted him only a few years before.

Casement died for his part in the Easter Rising, but this Irish nationalist hero’s layered story has long made him a very different sort of cultural marker than, say, James Connolly.

Casement came to public prominence for his damning report on Belgium’s atrocious treatment of natives in its Congo colony, e.g.:

[T]he great decrease in population, the dirty and ill-kept towns, and the complete absence of goats, sheep, or fowls — once very plentiful in this country — were to be attributed above all else to the continued effort made during many years to compel the natives to work india-rubber. Large bodies of native troops had formerly been quartered in the district, and the punitive measures undertaken to his end had endured for a considerable period. During the course of these operations there had been much loss of life, accompanied, I fear, by a somewhat general mutilation of the dead, as proof that the soldiers had done their duty.

. . . Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . I both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.

[A sentry in the employ of one of the concessionary private companies] said he had caught and was detaining as prisoners (eleven women) to compel their husbands to bring in the right amount of rubber required of them on the next market day. . . . When I asked what would become of these women if their husbands failed to bring in the right quantity of rubber . . , he said at once that then they would be kept there until their husbands had redeemed them.

Casement’s is an honorable name in the campaign for the Congo, an early human rights and anti-colonial struggle; in this 92-minute BBC documentary on the notorious depredations in the Congo, the Casement report’s creation and impact are treated from about 1:15:15 through the end:

A similar investigation undertaken in Peru — where the lens focused on British employers, rather than strictly the malfeasance of foreign states — earned him knighthood in 1911, but Casement’s personal evolution from loyal Protestant* imperial operative with a sympathy for the Irish cause to revolutionary nationalist was already underway. “This journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality,” he wrote his sister. “I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.”

He resigned from the consular service and began recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.

As World War I opened, Casement identified British aggression as its cause, an extension of the violent imperial hegemony he chronicled in The Crime Against Europe:

The British Empire was not founded in peace; how, then can it be kept by peace, or ensured by peace-treaties? It was born of pillage and blood-shed, and has been maintained by both; and it cannot now be secured by a common language any more than a common Bible. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races, and it is only by the sword and not by the Book of Peace or any pact of peace that those races can be kept from the ownership of their own countries.

While any Irish Republican would have agreed with that sentiment, the resulting moral and tactical calculus for the Irish cause to ally with the German was not universally embraced — and was certainly anathema to the British.

“In the Streets of Catania”
by Roger Casement

All that was beautiful and just,
All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little street and men,
Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
Turn whence it came.

Ætna, all wonderful, whose heart
Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
Ends in pure snows.

Casement spent the first two years of the Great War in Germany itself, and arranged a shipment of guns that would have supported the Easter Rising, but thought the aid too little and too late. He had a German U-boat drop him at Ireland, trying to get word to the Republican leadership to postpone the revolt.** Instead, he was picked up three days before the doomed rising and hanged after a sensational trial.†

His “treason” — and of course, the very crime of which he was convicted imports a British legitimacy in Ireland that Casement explicitly rejected — shocked many old associates, but he still had friends in high places. To dampen the international clemency campaign, England circulated the notorious “Black Diaries,” photographs of supposed Casement diary pages detailing the author’s homosexuality.

This dirty (and successful) trick brings a personal-is-political quality to Casement’s legacy as well as an enduring debate over the diaries’ authenticity. Since Irish nationalism gained mainstream acceptance well before homosexuality, right-thinking folk long held the Black Diaries a forgery, and time was you solicited a black eye by saying otherwise in the wrong company.

The gay rights movement has seen a posthumous redefinition of Casement; although homosexuality was not on the indictment against him, one could argue that it was the reason he hanged. Given recent handwriting forensics that support the diaries’ authenticity, the general‡ consensus about the Black Diaries has inverted with the effect of only heightening sympathy for their alleged author, albeit at the expense of some tension over how to situate that characteristic within the whole of Casement’s life and thought.

And that is only one aspect of the shifting place of Casement in the firmament of Republican martyrs since his death. His hagiography waxed in the interwar years, with Yeats among those calling for the return of Casement’s remains in The Ghost of Roger Casement”.

But the humanitarian’s German ties were an inconvenience as World War II raged, and not until afterward was that cause renewed. When his body was finally returned in 1965, an Irish state funeral elided the matter of the diaries.

Even Casement himself, who would be the last to die for the Easter Rising, had a hand in the myth-making. His last mission’s purpose to avert the Easter Rising fit neither the government’s interest in maximizing his perfidy nor Casement’s own in identifying with the Irish cause; he himself therefore owned the Rising fully in his defense which made him fine fodder for Republican hymns like “Lonely Banna Strand”:

RTE radio’s What If? series recently explored Casement’s complex legacy:


As Casement put it in his voluminous personal writing, “It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding — misapprehending — and to be silent forever.”

* Casement’s father was Protestant and his mother was Catholic; he lived with a somewhat split identity between the two faiths, but formally converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution (which surely did not hurt his memory to the Irish cause) and his last meal was simply the Host.

** The guns themselves were interdicted by the British navy and ended up scuttled to the ocean floor.

† Since Casement’s incitements to rebellion had occurred on foreign soil, there was some fine legal parsing over whether he could be tried for “treason.” The dispute resolved to the placement of a comma in a medieval law — leading to the epigram/-taph that Casement was “hanged by a comma.” In the midst of war and before an English jury, however, punctuation was an even weaker defense than it sounds.

‡ But still not universal.

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